The Prisoner of Chillon

Original Text: 
Byron, Works, 17 vols. (London: John Murray, 1832-33). PR 4351 M6 1832 ROBA. George Gordon, lord Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems (1816). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1969. PR 4367 A1 1816A ROBA
1  My hair is grey, but not with years,
2       Nor grew it white
3       In a single night,
4As men's have grown from sudden fears:
5My limbs are bow'd, though not with toil,
6     But rusted with a vile repose,
7For they have been a dungeon's spoil,
8     And mine has been the fate of those
9To whom the goodly earth and air
10Are bann'd, and barr'd--forbidden fare;
11But this was for my father's faith
12I suffer'd chains and courted death;
13That father perish'd at the stake
14For tenets he would not forsake;
15And for the same his lineal race
16In darkness found a dwelling place;
17We were seven--who now are one,
18     Six in youth, and one in age,
19Finish'd as they had begun,
20     Proud of Persecution's rage;
21One in fire, and two in field,
22Their belief with blood have seal'd,
23Dying as their father died,
24For the God their foes denied;--
25Three were in a dungeon cast,
26Of whom this wreck is left the last.
27  There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
28In Chillon's dungeons deep and old,
29There are seven columns, massy and grey,
30Dim with a dull imprison'd ray,
31A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
32And through the crevice and the cleft
33Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
34Creeping o'er the floor so damp,
35Like a marsh's meteor lamp:
36And in each pillar there is a ring,
37     And in each ring there is a chain;
38That iron is a cankering thing,
39     For in these limbs its teeth remain,
40With marks that will not wear away,
41Till I have done with this new day,
42Which now is painful to these eyes,
43Which have not seen the sun so rise
44For years--I cannot count them o'er,
45I lost their long and heavy score
46When my last brother droop'd and died,
47And I lay living by his side.
48  They chain'd us each to a column stone,
49And we were three--yet, each alone;
50We could not move a single pace,
51We could not see each other's face,
52But with that pale and livid light
53That made us strangers in our sight:
54And thus together--yet apart,
55Fetter'd in hand, but join'd in heart,
56'Twas still some solace in the dearth
57Of the pure elements of earth,
58To hearken to each other's speech,
59And each turn comforter to each
60With some new hope, or legend old,
61Or song heroically bold;
62But even these at length grew cold.
63Our voices took a dreary tone,
64An echo of the dungeon stone,
65        A grating sound, not full and free,
66        As they of yore were wont to be:
67        It might be fancy--but to me
68They never sounded like our own.
69  I was the eldest of the three
70     And to uphold and cheer the rest
71     I ought to do--and did my best--
72And each did well in his degree.
73     The youngest, whom my father loved,
74Because our mother's brow was given
75To him, with eyes as blue as heaven--
76     For him my soul was sorely moved:
77And truly might it be distress'd
78To see such bird in such a nest;
79For he was beautiful as day--
80     (When day was beautiful to me
81     As to young eagles, being free)--
82     A polar day, which will not see
83A sunset till its summer's gone,
84     Its sleepless summer of long light,
85The snow-clad offspring of the sun:
86     And thus he was as pure and bright,
87And in his natural spirit gay,
88With tears for nought but others' ills,
89And then they flow'd like mountain rills,
90Unless he could assuage the woe
91Which he abhorr'd to view below.
92  The other was as pure of mind,
93But form'd to combat with his kind;
94Strong in his frame, and of a mood
95Which 'gainst the world in war had stood,
96And perish'd in the foremost rank
97     With joy:--but not in chains to pine:
98His spirit wither'd with their clank,
99     I saw it silently decline--
100     And so perchance in sooth did mine:
101But yet I forced it on to cheer
102Those relics of a home so dear.
103He was a hunter of the hills,
104     Had followed there the deer and wolf;
105     To him this dungeon was a gulf,
106And fetter'd feet the worst of ills.
107       Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls:
108A thousand feet in depth below
109Its massy waters meet and flow;
110Thus much the fathom-line was sent
111From Chillon's snow-white battlement,
112     Which round about the wave inthralls:
113A double dungeon wall and wave
114Have made--and like a living grave
115Below the surface of the lake
116The dark vault lies wherein we lay:
117We heard it ripple night and day;
118     Sounding o'er our heads it knock'd;
119And I have felt the winter's spray
120Wash through the bars when winds were high
121And wanton in the happy sky;
122     And then the very rock hath rock'd,
123     And I have felt it shake, unshock'd,
124Because I could have smiled to see
125The death that would have set me free.
126  I said my nearer brother pined,
127I said his mighty heart declined,
128He loathed and put away his food;
129It was not that 'twas coarse and rude,
130For we were used to hunter's fare,
131And for the like had little care:
132The milk drawn from the mountain goat
133Was changed for water from the moat,
134Our bread was such as captives' tears
135Have moisten'd many a thousand years,
136Since man first pent his fellow men
137Like brutes within an iron den;
138But what were these to us or him?
139These wasted not his heart or limb;
140My brother's soul was of that mould
141Which in a palace had grown cold,
142Had his free breathing been denied
143The range of the steep mountain's side;
144But why delay the truth?--he died.
145I saw, and could not hold his head,
146Nor reach his dying hand--nor dead,--
147Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,
148To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.
149He died--and they unlock'd his chain,
150And scoop'd for him a shallow grave
151Even from the cold earth of our cave.
152I begg'd them, as a boon, to lay
153His corse in dust whereon the day
154Might shine--it was a foolish thought,
155But then within my brain it wrought,
156That even in death his freeborn breast
157In such a dungeon could not rest.
158I might have spared my idle prayer--
159They coldly laugh'd--and laid him there:
160The flat and turfless earth above
161The being we so much did love;
162His empty chain above it leant,
163Such Murder's fitting monument!
164  But he, the favourite and the flower,
165Most cherish'd since his natal hour,
166His mother's image in fair face
167The infant love of all his race
168His martyr'd father's dearest thought,
169My latest care, for whom I sought
170To hoard my life, that his might be
171Less wretched now, and one day free;
172He, too, who yet had held untired
173A spirit natural or inspired--
174He, too, was struck, and day by day
175Was wither'd on the stalk away.
176Oh, God! it is a fearful thing
177To see the human soul take wing
178In any shape, in any mood:
179I've seen it rushing forth in blood,
180I've seen it on the breaking ocean
181Strive with a swoln convulsive motion,
182I've seen the sick and ghastly bed
183Of Sin delirious with its dread:
184But these were horrors--this was woe
185Unmix'd with such--but sure and slow:
186He faded, and so calm and meek,
187So softly worn, so sweetly weak,
188So tearless, yet so tender--kind,
189And grieved for those he left behind;
190With all the while a cheek whose bloom
191Was as a mockery of the tomb
192Whose tints as gently sunk away
193As a departing rainbow's ray;
194An eye of most transparent light,
195That almost made the dungeon bright;
196And not a word of murmur--not
197A groan o'er his untimely lot,--
198A little talk of better days,
199A little hope my own to raise,
200For I was sunk in silence--lost
201In this last loss, of all the most;
202And then the sighs he would suppress
203Of fainting Nature's feebleness,
204More slowly drawn, grew less and less:
205I listen'd, but I could not hear;
206I call'd, for I was wild with fear;
207I knew 'twas hopeless, but my dread
208Would not be thus admonishèd;
209I call'd, and thought I heard a sound--
210I burst my chain with one strong bound,
211And rushed to him:--I found him not,
212I only stirred in this black spot,
213I only lived, I only drew
214The accursed breath of dungeon-dew;
215The last, the sole, the dearest link
216Between me and the eternal brink,
217Which bound me to my failing race
218Was broken in this fatal place.
219One on the earth, and one beneath--
220My brothers--both had ceased to breathe:
221I took that hand which lay so still,
222Alas! my own was full as chill;
223I had not strength to stir, or strive,
224But felt that I was still alive--
225A frantic feeling, when we know
226That what we love shall ne'er be so.
227        I know not why
228        I could not die,
229I had no earthly hope--but faith,
230And that forbade a selfish death.
231  What next befell me then and there
232     I know not well--I never knew--
233First came the loss of light, and air,
234     And then of darkness too:
235I had no thought, no feeling--none--
236Among the stones I stood a stone,
237And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
238As shrubless crags within the mist;
239For all was blank, and bleak, and grey;
240It was not night--it was not day;
241It was not even the dungeon-light,
242So hateful to my heavy sight,
243But vacancy absorbing space,
244And fixedness--without a place;
245There were no stars, no earth, no time,
246No check, no change, no good, no crime
247But silence, and a stirless breath
248Which neither was of life nor death;
249A sea of stagnant idleness,
250Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!
251A light broke in upon my brain,--
252     It was the carol of a bird;
253It ceased, and then it came again,
254     The sweetest song ear ever heard,
255And mine was thankful till my eyes
256Ran over with the glad surprise,
257And they that moment could not see
258I was the mate of misery;
259But then by dull degrees came back
260My senses to their wonted track;
261I saw the dungeon walls and floor
262Close slowly round me as before,
263I saw the glimmer of the sun
264Creeping as it before had done,
265But through the crevice where it came
266That bird was perch'd, as fond and tame,
267     And tamer than upon the tree;
268A lovely bird, with azure wings,
269And song that said a thousand things,
270     And seemed to say them all for me!
271I never saw its like before,
272I ne'er shall see its likeness more:
273It seem'd like me to want a mate,
274But was not half so desolate,
275And it was come to love me when
276None lived to love me so again,
277And cheering from my dungeon's brink,
278Had brought me back to feel and think.
279I know not if it late were free,
280     Or broke its cage to perch on mine,
281But knowing well captivity,
282     Sweet bird! I could not wish for thine!
283Or if it were, in wingèd guise,
284A visitant from Paradise;
285For--Heaven forgive that thought! the while
286Which made me both to weep and smile--
287I sometimes deem'd that it might be
288My brother's soul come down to me;
289But then at last away it flew,
290And then 'twas mortal well I knew,
291For he would never thus have flown--
292And left me twice so doubly lone,--
293Lone as the corse within its shroud,
294Lone as a solitary cloud,
295     A single cloud on a sunny day,
296While all the rest of heaven is clear,
297A frown upon the atmosphere,
298That hath no business to appear
299     When skies are blue, and earth is gay.
300  A kind of change came in my fate,
301My keepers grew compassionate;
302I know not what had made them so,
303They were inured to sights of woe,
304But so it was:--my broken chain
305With links unfasten'd did remain,
306And it was liberty to stride
307Along my cell from side to side,
308And up and down, and then athwart,
309And tread it over every part;
310And round the pillars one by one,
311Returning where my walk begun,
312Avoiding only, as I trod,
313My brothers' graves without a sod;
314For if I thought with heedless tread
315My step profaned their lowly bed,
316My breath came gaspingly and thick,
317And my crush'd heart felt blind and sick.
318I made a footing in the wall,
319     It was not therefrom to escape,
320For I had buried one and all,
321     Who loved me in a human shape;
322And the whole earth would henceforth be
323A wider prison unto me:
324No child, no sire, no kin had I,
325No partner in my misery;
326I thought of this, and I was glad,
327For thought of them had made me mad;
328But I was curious to ascend
329To my barr'd windows, and to bend
330Once more, upon the mountains high,
331The quiet of a loving eye.
332  I saw them--and they were the same,
333They were not changed like me in frame;
334I saw their thousand years of snow
335On high--their wide long lake below,
336And the blue Rhone in fullest flow;
337I heard the torrents leap and gush
338O'er channell'd rock and broken bush;
339I saw the white-wall'd distant town,
340And whiter sails go skimming down;
341And then there was a little isle,
342Which in my very face did smile,
343     The only one in view;
344A small green isle, it seem'd no more,
345Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
346But in it there were three tall trees,
347And o'er it blew the mountain breeze,
348And by it there were waters flowing,
349And on it there were young flowers growing,
350     Of gentle breath and hue.
351The fish swam by the castle wall,
352And they seem'd joyous each and all;
353The eagle rode the rising blast,
354Methought he never flew so fast
355As then to me he seem'd to fly;
356And then new tears came in my eye,
357And I felt troubled--and would fain
358I had not left my recent chain;
359And when I did descend again,
360The darkness of my dim abode
361Fell on me as a heavy load;
362It was as is a new-dug grave,
363Closing o'er one we sought to save,--
364And yet my glance, too much opprest,
365Had almost need of such a rest.
366  It might be months, or years, or days--
367     I kept no count, I took no note--
368I had no hope my eyes to raise,
369     And clear them of their dreary mote;
370At last men came to set me free;
371     I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where;
372It was at length the same to me,
373Fetter'd or fetterless to be,
374     I learn'd to love despair.
375And thus when they appear'd at last,
376And all my bonds aside were cast,
377These heavy walls to me had grown
378A hermitage--and all my own!
379And half I felt as they were come
380To tear me from a second home:
381With spiders I had friendship made
382And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
383Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
384And why should I feel less than they?
385We were all inmates of one place,
386And I, the monarch of each race,
387Had power to kill--yet, strange to tell!
388In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;
389My very chains and I grew friends,
390So much a long communion tends
391To make us what we are:--even I
392Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.
Publication Start Year: 
1816
RPO poem Editors: 
J. D. Robins
RPO Edition: 
2RP 2.195.
Form: