"The Prisoner Of Chillon"
by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

1       My hair is grey, but not with years,
2           Nor grew it white
3           In a single night,
4     As men's have grown from sudden fears:
5     My limbs are bow'd, though not with toil,
6         But rusted with a vile repose,
7     For they have been a dungeon's spoil,
8         And mine has been the fate of those
9     To whom the goodly earth and air
10   Are bann'd, and barr'd--forbidden fare;
11   But this was for my father's faith
12   I suffer'd chains and courted death;
13   That father perish'd at the stake
14   For tenets he would not forsake;
15   And for the same his lineal race
16   In darkness found a dwelling place;
17   We were seven--who now are one,
18       Six in youth, and one in age,
19   Finish'd as they had begun,
20       Proud of Persecution's rage;
21   One in fire, and two in field,
22   Their belief with blood have seal'd,
23   Dying as their father died,
24   For the God their foes denied;--
25   Three were in a dungeon cast,
26   Of whom this wreck is left the last.

27     There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
28   In Chillon's dungeons deep and old,
29   There are seven columns, massy and grey,
30   Dim with a dull imprison'd ray,
31   A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
32   And through the crevice and the cleft
33   Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
34   Creeping o'er the floor so damp,
35   Like a marsh's meteor lamp:
36   And in each pillar there is a ring,
37       And in each ring there is a chain;
38   That iron is a cankering thing,
39       For in these limbs its teeth remain,
40   With marks that will not wear away,
41   Till I have done with this new day,
42   Which now is painful to these eyes,
43   Which have not seen the sun so rise
44   For years--I cannot count them o'er,
45   I lost their long and heavy score
46   When my last brother droop'd and died,
47   And I lay living by his side.

48     They chain'd us each to a column stone,
49   And we were three--yet, each alone;
50   We could not move a single pace,
51   We could not see each other's face,
52   But with that pale and livid light
53   That made us strangers in our sight:
54   And thus together--yet apart,
55   Fetter'd in hand, but join'd in heart,
56   'Twas still some solace in the dearth
57   Of the pure elements of earth,
58   To hearken to each other's speech,
59   And each turn comforter to each
60   With some new hope, or legend old,
61   Or song heroically bold;
62   But even these at length grew cold.
63   Our voices took a dreary tone,
64   An 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
68   They 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--
72   And each did well in his degree.
73       The youngest, whom my father loved,
74   Because our mother's brow was given
75   To him, with eyes as blue as heaven--
76       For him my soul was sorely moved:
77   And truly might it be distress'd
78   To see such bird in such a nest;
79   For 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
83   A sunset till its summer's gone,
84       Its sleepless summer of long light,
85   The snow-clad offspring of the sun:
86       And thus he was as pure and bright,
87   And in his natural spirit gay,
88   With tears for nought but others' ills,
89   And then they flow'd like mountain rills,
90   Unless he could assuage the woe
91   Which he abhorr'd to view below.

92     The other was as pure of mind,
93   But form'd to combat with his kind;
94   Strong in his frame, and of a mood
95   Which 'gainst the world in war had stood,
96   And perish'd in the foremost rank
97       With joy:--but not in chains to pine:
98   His spirit wither'd with their clank,
99       I saw it silently decline--
100       And so perchance in sooth did mine:
101   But yet I forced it on to cheer
102   Those relics of a home so dear.
103   He was a hunter of the hills,
104       Had followed there the deer and wolf;
105       To him this dungeon was a gulf,
106   And fetter'd feet the worst of ills.

107         Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls:
108   A thousand feet in depth below
109   Its massy waters meet and flow;
110   Thus much the fathom-line was sent
111   From Chillon's snow-white battlement,
112       Which round about the wave inthralls:
113   A double dungeon wall and wave
114   Have made--and like a living grave
115   Below the surface of the lake
116   The dark vault lies wherein we lay:
117   We heard it ripple night and day;
118       Sounding o'er our heads it knock'd;
119   And I have felt the winter's spray
120   Wash through the bars when winds were high
121   And wanton in the happy sky;
122       And then the very rock hath rock'd,
123       And I have felt it shake, unshock'd,
124   Because I could have smiled to see
125   The death that would have set me free.

126     I said my nearer brother pined,
127   I said his mighty heart declined,
128   He loathed and put away his food;
129   It was not that 'twas coarse and rude,
130   For we were used to hunter's fare,
131   And for the like had little care:
132   The milk drawn from the mountain goat
133   Was changed for water from the moat,
134   Our bread was such as captives' tears
135   Have moisten'd many a thousand years,
136   Since man first pent his fellow men
137   Like brutes within an iron den;
138   But what were these to us or him?
139   These wasted not his heart or limb;
140   My brother's soul was of that mould
141   Which in a palace had grown cold,
142   Had his free breathing been denied
143   The range of the steep mountain's side;
144   But why delay the truth?--he died.
145   I saw, and could not hold his head,
146   Nor reach his dying hand--nor dead,--
147   Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,
148   To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.
149   He died--and they unlock'd his chain,
150   And scoop'd for him a shallow grave
151   Even from the cold earth of our cave.
152   I begg'd them, as a boon, to lay
153   His corse in dust whereon the day
154   Might shine--it was a foolish thought,
155   But then within my brain it wrought,
156   That even in death his freeborn breast
157   In such a dungeon could not rest.
158   I might have spared my idle prayer--
159   They coldly laugh'd--and laid him there:
160   The flat and turfless earth above
161   The being we so much did love;
162   His empty chain above it leant,
163   Such Murder's fitting monument!

164     But he, the favourite and the flower,
165   Most cherish'd since his natal hour,
166   His mother's image in fair face
167   The infant love of all his race
168   His martyr'd father's dearest thought,
169   My latest care, for whom I sought
170   To hoard my life, that his might be
171   Less wretched now, and one day free;
172   He, too, who yet had held untired
173   A spirit natural or inspired--
174   He, too, was struck, and day by day
175   Was wither'd on the stalk away.
176   Oh, God! it is a fearful thing
177   To see the human soul take wing
178   In any shape, in any mood:
179   I've seen it rushing forth in blood,
180   I've seen it on the breaking ocean
181   Strive with a swoln convulsive motion,
182   I've seen the sick and ghastly bed
183   Of Sin delirious with its dread:
184   But these were horrors--this was woe
185   Unmix'd with such--but sure and slow:
186   He faded, and so calm and meek,
187   So softly worn, so sweetly weak,
188   So tearless, yet so tender--kind,
189   And grieved for those he left behind;
190   With all the while a cheek whose bloom
191   Was as a mockery of the tomb
192   Whose tints as gently sunk away
193   As a departing rainbow's ray;
194   An eye of most transparent light,
195   That almost made the dungeon bright;
196   And not a word of murmur--not
197   A groan o'er his untimely lot,--
198   A little talk of better days,
199   A little hope my own to raise,
200   For I was sunk in silence--lost
201   In this last loss, of all the most;
202   And then the sighs he would suppress
203   Of fainting Nature's feebleness,
204   More slowly drawn, grew less and less:
205   I listen'd, but I could not hear;
206   I call'd, for I was wild with fear;
207   I knew 'twas hopeless, but my dread
208   Would not be thus admonishèd;
209   I call'd, and thought I heard a sound--
210   I burst my chain with one strong bound,
211   And rushed to him:--I found him not,
212   I only stirred in this black spot,
213   I only lived, I only drew
214   The accursed breath of dungeon-dew;
215   The last, the sole, the dearest link
216   Between me and the eternal brink,
217   Which bound me to my failing race
218   Was broken in this fatal place.
219   One on the earth, and one beneath--
220   My brothers--both had ceased to breathe:
221   I took that hand which lay so still,
222   Alas! my own was full as chill;
223   I had not strength to stir, or strive,
224   But felt that I was still alive--
225   A frantic feeling, when we know
226   That what we love shall ne'er be so.
227         I know not why
228         I could not die,
229   I had no earthly hope--but faith,
230   And that forbade a selfish death.

231     What next befell me then and there
232       I know not well--I never knew--
233   First came the loss of light, and air,
234       And then of darkness too:
235   I had no thought, no feeling--none--
236   Among the stones I stood a stone,
237   And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
238   As shrubless crags within the mist;
239   For all was blank, and bleak, and grey;
240   It was not night--it was not day;
241   It was not even the dungeon-light,
242   So hateful to my heavy sight,
243   But vacancy absorbing space,
244   And fixedness--without a place;
245   There were no stars, no earth, no time,
246   No check, no change, no good, no crime
247   But silence, and a stirless breath
248   Which neither was of life nor death;
249   A sea of stagnant idleness,
250   Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!
251   A light broke in upon my brain,--
252       It was the carol of a bird;
253   It ceased, and then it came again,
254       The sweetest song ear ever heard,
255   And mine was thankful till my eyes
256   Ran over with the glad surprise,
257   And they that moment could not see
258   I was the mate of misery;
259   But then by dull degrees came back
260   My senses to their wonted track;
261   I saw the dungeon walls and floor
262   Close slowly round me as before,
263   I saw the glimmer of the sun
264   Creeping as it before had done,
265   But through the crevice where it came
266   That bird was perch'd, as fond and tame,
267       And tamer than upon the tree;
268   A lovely bird, with azure wings,
269   And song that said a thousand things,
270       And seemed to say them all for me!
271   I never saw its like before,
272   I ne'er shall see its likeness more:
273   It seem'd like me to want a mate,
274   But was not half so desolate,
275   And it was come to love me when
276   None lived to love me so again,
277   And cheering from my dungeon's brink,
278   Had brought me back to feel and think.
279   I know not if it late were free,
280       Or broke its cage to perch on mine,
281   But knowing well captivity,
282       Sweet bird! I could not wish for thine!
283   Or if it were, in wingèd guise,
284   A visitant from Paradise;
285   For--Heaven forgive that thought! the while
286   Which made me both to weep and smile--
287   I sometimes deem'd that it might be
288   My brother's soul come down to me;
289   But then at last away it flew,
290   And then 'twas mortal well I knew,
291   For he would never thus have flown--
292   And left me twice so doubly lone,--
293   Lone as the corse within its shroud,
294   Lone as a solitary cloud,
295       A single cloud on a sunny day,
296   While all the rest of heaven is clear,
297   A frown upon the atmosphere,
298   That hath no business to appear
299       When skies are blue, and earth is gay.

300     A kind of change came in my fate,
301   My keepers grew compassionate;
302   I know not what had made them so,
303   They were inured to sights of woe,
304   But so it was:--my broken chain
305   With links unfasten'd did remain,
306   And it was liberty to stride
307   Along my cell from side to side,
308   And up and down, and then athwart,
309   And tread it over every part;
310   And round the pillars one by one,
311   Returning where my walk begun,
312   Avoiding only, as I trod,
313   My brothers' graves without a sod;
314   For if I thought with heedless tread
315   My step profaned their lowly bed,
316   My breath came gaspingly and thick,
317   And my crush'd heart felt blind and sick.
318   I made a footing in the wall,
319       It was not therefrom to escape,
320   For I had buried one and all,
321       Who loved me in a human shape;
322   And the whole earth would henceforth be
323   A wider prison unto me:
324   No child, no sire, no kin had I,
325   No partner in my misery;
326   I thought of this, and I was glad,
327   For thought of them had made me mad;
328   But I was curious to ascend
329   To my barr'd windows, and to bend
330   Once more, upon the mountains high,
331   The quiet of a loving eye.

332     I saw them--and they were the same,
333   They were not changed like me in frame;
334   I saw their thousand years of snow
335   On high--their wide long lake below,
336   And the blue Rhone in fullest flow;
337   I heard the torrents leap and gush
338   O'er channell'd rock and broken bush;
339   I saw the white-wall'd distant town,
340   And whiter sails go skimming down;
341   And then there was a little isle,
342   Which in my very face did smile,
343       The only one in view;
344   A small green isle, it seem'd no more,
345   Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
346   But in it there were three tall trees,
347   And o'er it blew the mountain breeze,
348   And by it there were waters flowing,
349   And on it there were young flowers growing,
350       Of gentle breath and hue.
351   The fish swam by the castle wall,
352   And they seem'd joyous each and all;
353   The eagle rode the rising blast,
354   Methought he never flew so fast
355   As then to me he seem'd to fly;
356   And then new tears came in my eye,
357   And I felt troubled--and would fain
358   I had not left my recent chain;
359   And when I did descend again,
360   The darkness of my dim abode
361   Fell on me as a heavy load;
362   It was as is a new-dug grave,
363   Closing o'er one we sought to save,--
364   And yet my glance, too much opprest,
365   Had almost need of such a rest.

366     It might be months, or years, or days--
367       I kept no count, I took no note--
368   I had no hope my eyes to raise,
369       And clear them of their dreary mote;
370   At last men came to set me free;
371       I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where;
372   It was at length the same to me,
373   Fetter'd or fetterless to be,
374       I learn'd to love despair.
375   And thus when they appear'd at last,
376   And all my bonds aside were cast,
377   These heavy walls to me had grown
378   A hermitage--and all my own!
379   And half I felt as they were come
380   To tear me from a second home:
381   With spiders I had friendship made
382   And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
383   Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
384   And why should I feel less than they?
385   We were all inmates of one place,
386   And I, the monarch of each race,
387   Had power to kill--yet, strange to tell!
388   In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;
389   My very chains and I grew friends,
390   So much a long communion tends
391   To make us what we are:--even I

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. "The Prisoner Of Chillon." Literary Selections. Compiled by J. Massengill. 18 June 2005. http://coastalbend.home.att.net/lit