Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: VII. Switzerland
The Prisoner of Chillon
Lord Byron (1788–1824)
 
ETERNAL spirit of the chainless mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art,
For there thy habitation is the heart,—
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consigned,—        5
To fetters, and the damp vault’s dayless gloom,—
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar,—for ’t was trod,        10
Until his very steps have left a trace
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard!—May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.
 
My hair is gray, but not with years,        15
    Nor grew it white
    In a single night,
As men’s have grown from sudden fears:
My limbs are bowed, though not with toil,
  But rusted with a vile repose,        20
For they have been a dungeon spoil,
  And mine has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are banned, and barred,—forbidden fare;
But this was for my father’s faith        25
I suffered chains and courted death;
That father perished at the stake
For tenets he would not forsake;
And for the same his lineal race
In darkness found a dwelling-place;        30
We were seven,—who now are one,
  Six in youth, and one in age,
Finished as they had begun,
  Proud of Persecution’s rage;
One in fire, and two in field,        35
Their belief with blood have sealed!
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;
Three were in a dungeon cast,
Of whom this wreck is left the last.        40
 
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and gray,
Dim with a dull imprisoned ray,—
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,        45
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left,
Creeping o’er the floor so damp,
Like a marsh’s meteor lamp,—
And in each pillar there is a ring,        50
  And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
  For in these limbs its teeth remain
With marks that will not wear away,
Till I have done with this new day,        55
Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun to rise
For years,—I cannot count them o’er,
I lost their long and heavy score
When my last brother drooped and died,        60
And I lay living by his side.
 
They chained us each to a column stone,
And we were three, yet each alone;
We could not move a single pace,
We could not see each other’s face,        65
But with that pale and livid light
That made us strangers in our sight;
And thus together, yet apart,
Fettered in hand, but pined in heart;
’T was still some solace, in the dearth        70
Of the pure elements of earth,
To hearken to each other’s speech,
And each turn comforter to each
With some new hope, or legend old,
Or song heroically bold;        75
But even these at length grew cold.
Our voices took a dreary tone,
An echo of the dungeon-stone,
  A grating sound,—not full and free
  As they of yore were wont to be;        80
  It might be fancy,—but to me
They never sounded like our own.
 
I was the eldest of the three,
  And to uphold and cheer the rest
  I ought to do—and did—my best,        85
And each did well in his degree.
  The youngest, whom my father loved,
Because our mother’s brow was given
To him, with eyes as blue as heaven,—
  For him my soul was sorely moved;        90
And truly might it be distrest
To see such bird in such a nest;
For he was beautiful as day
  (When day was beautiful to me
  As to young eagles, being free),—        95
  A polar day, which will not see
A sunset till its summer’s gone,
  Its sleepless summer of long light,
The snow-clad offspring of the sun;
  And thus he was as pure and bright,        100
And in his natural spirit gay,
With tears for naught but others’ ills,
And then they flowed like mountain rills,
Unless he could assuage the woe
Which he abhorred to view below.        105
 
The other was as pure of mind,
But formed to combat with his kind;
Strong in his frame, and of a mood
Which ’gainst the world in war had stood,
And perished in the foremost rank        110
  With joy;—but not in chains to pine;
His spirit withered with their clank,
  I saw it silently decline,—
  And so perchance in sooth did mine;
But yet I forced it on to cheer        115
Those relics of a home so dear.
He was a hunter of the hills,
  Had followed there the deer and wolf;
  To him this dungeon was a gulf
And fettered feet the worst of ills.        120
 
  Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow;
Thus much the fathom-line was sent
From Chillon’s snow-white battlement,        125
  Which round about the wave inthralls;
And double dungeon wall and wave
Have made,—and like a living grave.
Below the surface of the lake
The dark vault lies wherein we lay,        130
We heard it ripple night and day;
  Sounding o’er our heads it knocked;
And I have felt the winter’s spray
Wash through the bars when winds were high
And wanton in the happy sky;        135
  And then the very rock hath rocked,
  And I have felt it shake, unshocked,
Because I could have smiled to see
The death that would have set me free.
 
I said my nearer brother pined,        140
I said his mighty heart declined,
He loathed and put away his food;
It was not that ’t was coarse and rude,
For we were used to hunter’s fare,
And for the like had little care;        145
The milk drawn from the mountain goat
Was changed for water from the moat.
Our bread was such as captives’ tears
Have moistened many a thousand years,
Since man first pent his fellow-men        150
Like brutes within an iron den;
But what were these to us or him?
These wasted not his heart or limb;
My brother’s soul was of that mould
Which in a palace had grown cold,        155
Had his free breathing been denied
The range of the steep mountain’s side;
But why delay the truth?—he died.
I saw, and could not hold his head,
Nor reach his dying hand—nor dead—        160
Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,
To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.
He died,—and they unlocked his chain,
And scooped for him a shallow grave
Even from the cold earth of our cave.        165
I begged them, as a boon, to lay
His corse in dust whereon the day
Might shine,—it was a foolish thought,
But then within my brain it wrought,
That even in death his free-born breast        170
In such a dungeon could not rest.
I might have spared my idle prayer,—
They coldly laughed, and laid him there.
The flat and turfless earth above
The being we so much did love;        175
His empty chain above it leant,
Such murder’s fitting monument!
 
But he, the favorite and the flower,
Most cherished since his natal hour,
His mother’s image in fair face,        180
The infant love of all his race,
His martyred father’s dearest thought,
My latest care, for whom I sought
To hoard my life, that his might be
Less wretched now, and one day free;        185
He, too, who yet had held untired
A spirit natural or inspired,—
He, too, was struck, and day by day
Was withered on the stalk away.
O God! it is a fearful thing        190
To see the human soul take wing
In any shape, in any mood:—
I ’ve seen it rushing forth in blood,
I ’ve seen it on the breaking ocean
Strive with a swoln convulsive motion,        195
I ’ve seen the sick and ghastly bed
Of Sin delirious with its dread:
But these were horrors,—this was woe
Unmixed with such,—but sure and slow:
He faded, and so calm and meek,        200
So softly worn, so sweetly weak,
So tearless, yet so tender—kind,
And grieved for those he left behind;
With all the while a cheek whose bloom
Was as a mockery of the tomb,        205
Whose tints as gently sunk away
As a departing rainbow’s ray,—
An eye of most transparent light,
That almost made the dungeon bright,
And not a word of murmur,—not        210
A groan o’er his untimely lot,—
A little talk of better days,
A little hope my own to raise,
For I was sunk in silence,—lost
In this last loss, of all the most;        215
And then the sighs he would suppress
Of fainting nature’s feebleness,
More slowly drawn, grew less and less:
I listened, but I could not hear,—
I called, for I was wild with fear;        220
I knew ’t was hopeless, but my dread
Would not be thus admonishèd;
I called, and thought I heard a sound,—
I burst my chain with one strong bound,
And rushed to him:—I found him not,        225
I only stirred in this black spot,
I only lived,—I only drew
The accursed breath of dungeon-dew;
The last—the sole—the dearest link
Between me and the eternal brink,        230
Which bound me to my failing race,
Was broken in this fatal place.
One on the earth, and one beneath—
My brothers—both had ceased to breathe.
I took that hand which lay so still,        235
Alas! my own was full as chill;
I had not strength to stir or strive,
But felt that I was still alive,—
A frantic feeling when we know
That what we love shall ne’er be so.        240
    I know not why
    I could not die,
I had no earthly hope—but faith,
And that forbade a selfish death.
 
What next befell me then and there        245
  I know not well—I never knew.
First came the loss of light and air,
  And then of darkness too;
I had no thought, no feeling—none:
Among the stones I stood a stone,        250
And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank and bleak and gray;
It was not night,—it was not day;
It was not even the dungeon-light,        255
So hateful to my heavy sight;
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness, without a place:
There were no stars—no earth—no time—
No check—no change—no good—no crime:        260
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life nor death:—
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!
 
A light broke in upon my brain,—        265
  It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased, and then it came again,—
  The sweetest song ear ever heard,
And mine was thankful till my eyes
Ran over with the glad surprise,        270
And they that moment could not see
I was the mate of misery;
But then by dull degrees came back
My senses to their wonted track,
I saw the dungeon walls and floor        275
Close slowly round me as before,
I saw the glimmer of the sun
Creeping as it before had done,
But through the crevice where it came
That bird was perched, as fond and tame,        280
  And tamer than upon the tree;
A lovely bird, with azure wings,
And song that said a thousand things,
  And seemed to say them all for me!
I never saw its like before,        285
I ne’er shall see its likeness more.
It seemed, like me, to want a mate,
But was not half so desolate,
And it was come to love me when
None lived to love me so again,        290
And cheering from my dungeon’s brink,
Had brought me back to feel and think.
I know not if it late were free,
  Or broke its cage to perch on mine,
But knowing well captivity,        295
  Sweet bird! I could not wish for thine!
Or if it were, in wingèd guise,
A visitant from Paradise:
For—Heaven forgive that thought! the while
Which made me both to weep and smile—        300
I sometimes deemed that it might be
My brother’s soul come down to me;
But then at last away it flew,
And then ’t was mortal,—well I knew,
For he would never thus have flown,        305
And left me twice so doubly lone,—
Lone—as the corse within its shroud,
Lone—as a solitary cloud,
  A single cloud on a sunny day,
While all the rest of heaven is clear,        310
A frown upon the atmosphere
That hath no business to appear
  When skies are blue and earth is gay.
 
A kind of change came in my fate,
My keepers grew compassionate;        315
I know not what had made them so,
They were inured to sights of woe,
But so it was:—my broken chain
With links unfastened did remain,
And it was liberty to stride        320
Along my cell from side to side,
And up and down, and then athwart,
And tread it over every part;
And round the pillars one by one,
Returning where my walk begun,        325
Avoiding only, as I trod,
My brothers’ graves without a sod;
For if I thought with heedless tread
My step profaned their lowly bed,
My breath came gaspingly and thick,        330
And my crushed heart fell blind and sick.
 
I made a footing in the wall,
  It was not therefrom to escape,
For I had buried one and all
  Who loved me in a human shape:        335
And the whole earth would henceforth be
A wider prison unto me:
No child,—no sire,—no kin had I,
No partner in my misery;
I thought of this and I was glad,        340
For thought of them had made me mad;
But I was curious to ascend
To my barred windows, and to bend
Once more, upon the mountains high,
The quiet of a loving eye.        345
 
I saw them,—and they were the same,
They were not changed like me in frame;
I saw their thousand years of snow
On high,—their wide long lake below,
And the blue Rhone in fullest flow;        350
I heard the torrents leap and gush
O’er channelled rock and broken bush;
I saw the white-walled distant town,
And whiter sails go skimming down;
And then there was a little isle,        355
Which in my very face did smile,
  The only one in view;
A small green isle, it seemed no more,
Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
But in it there were three tall trees,        360
And o’er it blew the mountain breeze,
And by it there were waters flowing,
And on it there were young flowers growing,
  Of gentle breath and hue.
The fish swam by the castle wall,        365
And they seemed joyous each and all;
The eagle rode the rising blast,—
Methought he never flew so fast
As then to me he seemed to fly,
And then new tears came in my eye,        370
And I felt troubled,—and would fain
I had not left my recent chain;
And when I did descend again,
The darkness of my dim abode
Fell on me as a heavy load;        375
It was as in a new-dug grave
Closing o’er one we sought to save,
And yet my glance, too much oppressed,
Had almost need of such a rest.
 
It might be months, or years, or days,        380
  I kept no count,—I took no note,
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
  And clear them of their dreary mote;
At last men came to set me free,
  I asked not why and recked not where,        385
It was at length the same to me,
Fettered or fetterless to be,
  I learned to love despair.
And thus when they appeared at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,        390
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage, and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home;
With spiders I had friendship made,        395
And watched them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,        400
Had power to kill,—yet, strange to tell;
In quiet we had learned to dwell,—
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:—even I        405
Regained my freedom with a sigh.
 
 
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