In Stanza VIII of “The Prisoner of Chillon,” the prisoner Bonnivard describes his youngest brother’s despair and death. He describes his brother again in natural terms as a “flower” (line 1) and as connected to his mother (bearing “his mother’s image in fair face,” line 3), and it is this brother’s welfare which gives the prisoner the strength to hold onto life at this time. However, this brother is not immune to the despair of imprisonment, and he eventually wastes away and dies. When the brother’s weeping goes silent, the prisoner goes into a frenzy and breaks his chain, only to find his brother’s dead body lying chained to the other pillar. Weakened from his exertion, the prisoner is unable to do anything for his brother but weep. He anguishes in the knowledge that he alone lives and is companion to two corpses. He also feels frustrated that he cannot die, and that the faith for which he has been imprisoned forbids suicide.
In Stanza IX the prisoner becomes more introspective, describing his oppressive circumstances. He feels that air and light are fading, then becomes insensible and falls into darkness. He finds himself in some strange twilight world of emptiness: “It was not night—it was not day” (line 10). He is lost in a starless, sunless, motionless void.
In Stanza X, the prisoner awakens from his oblivion to the sound of a bird singing. The song ceases, then starts up again, and for a moment the prisoner feels joy at this surprise companion. His senses return, giving him full apprehension of the dungeon; it is the same as before, but in the crack through which the sunlight sometimes shone there is a bird perched and singing. The prisoner sees sympathy in the bird, itself alone and singing for a companion. He ponders whether the bird is wild or has escaped its own prison—a cage—but hopes that the bird has never known imprisonment such as he is experiencing. He wonders if the bird is a natural creature or a “visitant from Paradise” (line 34), even going so far as to entertain the unorthodox thought that the bird might be his brother’s soul come to comfort him. When the bird flies away, the prisoner concludes it was just a mortal bird; having had this companionship briefly and lost it, he feels twice as lonely as before.
Stanza XI turns to the prisoner’s very limited freedom. He senses his captors have become compassionate because they do not mend his broken chain. He now has free movement throughout the cell and takes advantage of it by walking throughout every square foot of the prison, save for the places where his brothers lie dead. Despite his slightly improved circumstances, the constant awareness of his brothers’ corpses plunges the prisoner more deeply into despair.
In Stanza XII, the prisoner comes to the conclusion that, now that he has lost his entire family to persecution and death, even were he to be free “the whole earth would henceforth be / A wider prison unto me” (lines 5-6). This revelation brings him a degree of peace. He scales his prison wall far enough to reach the barred window above so as to catch sight of the outside world again.
Stanza XIII is the prisoner’s reaction to reaching the window and beholding the scenery without. He sees the mountains, unchanged from his last view of them prior to imprisonment, and the Rhone River below. Upon this river sail boats near a town, and in the river is a small green island roughly the same size as his prison. He contrasts the island, with its “three tall trees” (line 15) and access to the mountain breeze, with his own dingy, cloying cell. He sees fish swimming and an eagle flying, then begins crying as he wishes he never could have seen this glimpse of freedom outside. Now that he has seen the outside world, his imprisonment is much more oppressive.
In Stanza XIV, the prisoner is at last set free. He does not know how long it has been, but he has become so accustomed to his confinement that “It was at length the same to me, / Fetter’d or fetterless to be” lines 8-9). He has grown so accustomed to his captivity that he has “learn’d to love despair” (line 10), turning his cell into a “hermitage—and all my own!” (line 13). He sees himself a friend to the spiders and mice in the dungeon, and also the ruler of his pitiful kingdom. He even claims to have become friends with his “very chains” (line 24). He has grown so accustomed to the dungeon as his whole world that he welcomes his freedom, not with joy, but “with a sigh” (line 27).
Following the middle brother’s death, the youngest brother falls into deep depression. In Stanza VIII we are reminded of this brother’s favored status (lines 1-4) and the speaker’s resulting desire to preserve his brother’s innocence. Again compared to nature itself, the youngest brother “wither’d on the stalk away,” continuing the image of the brother as a “flower” in line 1. This flower dries up and dies, however, due to his growing despair over those loved ones “he left behind” (line 26). His strongest virtue—selfless consideration of others—becomes the instrument of his destruction. This brother dies of depression, losing his cheek’s “bloom” (line 27) as a flower wilts without sunlight.
This brother’s suffering and expiration pushes Bonnivard to his limits; in a feat of superhuman strength, he manages to break his chain and reach his despairing brother. However, the prisoner’s torture is further compounded by a failure of timing; he reaches his brother too late: “I only stirr’d in this black spot, / I only lived” (lines 49-50). His brothers were his “link” that kept him away from death, “the eternal brink,” but now the last family link is broken and Bonnivard is alone (lines 52-53). The prisoner loses most of his remaining hope with the death of the favored brother. Yet despite this plunge into spiritual darkness, the prisoner maintains, “I had no earthly hope—but faith, / And that forbade a selfish death” (lines 66-67). All that remains for Bonnivard is his religious conviction, although it has become an instrument of torture to him since he cannot morally take his own life and thus be free of the charnel house into which he has been cast.
Following the suffering and deaths of his two brothers, the prisoner becomes senseless. Stanza IX describes this state wherein he loses everything: “First came the loss of light, and air, / And then of darkness too (lines 3-4). With each stanza comes more loss and despair. Especially interesting is the loss of darkness, which ostensibly points to an insensate state that barely can be called consciousness, but it also foreshadows his later acclimation to the shadowy prison cell. Even its heretofore negative gloom is something he can lose: it was “vacancy absorbing space, / and fixedness—without a place” (lines 13-14). In a scene reminiscent of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the prisoner describes his bodiless existence as “silence, and a stirless breath / Which neither was of life nor death; / A sea of stagnant idleness, / Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!” (lines 17-20). The alliteration in the final line (“blind “ and “boundless,” “mute” and “motionless”) accentuates the monotony of the prisoner’s current state of semi-consciousness.
Stanza X begins with a light breaking into the prisoner’s mind—but the light is in fact a sound: “It was the carol of a bird” (line 2). The prisoner’s senses have become so confounded that they cross into one another momentarily. Byron recreates the feeling of awakening from a stupor or state of unconsciousness quite realistically, as the senses gradually realign; the prisoner hears rather than sees the song in line 4. Byron thus emphasizes the importance of this moment in the prisoner’s inner world. For a moment, Bonnivard is lost in reverie and enjoyment brought on by the bird’s song; so greatly is he moved that he weeps from the “glad surprise” (line 6). Eventually his senses “by dull degrees came back” (line 9), and he again becomes aware of his cell and, by extension, his ongoing misery.
Accordingly, as one might expect, the bird becomes a symbol of freedom to the prisoner, so much so that he is willing to imagine it to be the soul of his lost brother—probably referring to the youngest, who was twice compared to a free-flying bird earlier—come to give him some comfort in his anguish. Only when the bird leaves does he reconsider that his brother would not desert him as this happy accident of nature does. Joyful though the bird’s presence is, its reminder of the outside world and the beauty of nature leaves the prisoner even more desolate than before, for now he has regained a memory of the world and independence he has lost. Byron taps into the Romantic theme of melancholy to point out the double-edged nature of fragments of beauty found amid scenes of despair. Through the prisoner, Byron repeats the word “lone” three times (lines 42-44) to emphasize the depth of Bonnivard’s isolation.
In Stanza XI the prisoner notices an apparent change in his keepers’ demeanor: they seem to have grown “compassionate” (line 2), for they have not restored his broken chain and with it his limited range of motion. The prisoner has become so desperate that he welcomes the ability to move about his cell as an indication of his captors’ softening toward him. It may well be that his keepers have become as acclimated to the prisoner as he has to his prison, and no longer wish him further suffering; however, as the next stanza demonstrates, the prisoner’s greater movement only heightens his suffering. Even in this stanza, he makes the circuit of the room only to feel his “crush’d heart” fall “blind and sick” (line 18) at the sight of his brothers’ bodies. His new freedom is a reminder of how much he has lost.
Freed from his chain, the prisoner attempts to scale the wall of his prison to reach the barred window above. He explains that he does so “not therefrom to escape” (line 2) because he has already lost practically everything. Reflecting that his state of loss is so great that “the whole earth would henceforth be / A wider prison unto me” (lines 5-6) in a world ruled by his captors and without his family to share his life, he has given up on ever being happy and free. Nevertheless, he climbs the wall for the ability to glance at the outside world.
In stanza XII the prisoner gets his glance at the world outside and is overwhelmed by its beauty. The mountains—the most ancient and ageless of natural wonders on the planet—first draw his attention, but he eventually discerns the Rhone and the sails of boats near a town. He draws a parallel between his own situation and the small island in the river, “Scarce broader than my dungeon floor” (line 14), noting that on that island are “three tall trees” (line 15), obviously symbolizing the the three brothers. Yet, unlike those trees, there are two dead brothers, and one spiritually broken—“planted” by the Gothic columns and shrinking rather than growing. His cell is further contrasted to the island in that the small piece of land feels the mountain breeze and is covered in life (in the form of the “young flowers” of line 18). Whereas the prisoner dwells amid desolation and death, this island across the water sustains life and freedom.
The prisoner’s contrast between his world in the cell and the world without continues with his assessment that the fish which swim “by the castle wall” (line 20)—in the very water which both threatened and encouraged the prisoner in stanza VI—seem “joyous each and all” (line 21). He sees an eagle—yet another reminder of his younger brother—which seems to fly faster than ever a bird had flown before. All of this points to the prisoner’s increasing distance from the freedom of the world outside, especially the natural world, as those things which once formed an integral part of his life take on alien qualities to his confinement-eroded mind.
As with the single bird in stanza X, the prisoner’s glimpse of the countryside outside Chillon only drives him further into despair; using a simile, he writes that his cell became like “a new-dug grave, / Closing o’er one we sought to save” (lines 31-32). The glimpse of freedom only made him more alert to his confinement and the failure of his family’s advocacy. He wishes that “I had not left my recent chain” (line 27). His unbearable incarceration has led him to the point that he actually wishes he had not had the freedom to further madden himself with this climb to the window.
The final stanza begins with the prisoner stating just how lost his sense of time has become. He does not know whether he has spent “months, or years, or days” (line 1) in the prison. What is clear is that he has been broken; he has “no hope” to look forward to (line 3) and has accepted this prison as his entire world for the rest of his life. Ironically, it is only now that “men came to set me free” (line 5)—but it is too late—he has grown accustomed to confinement and no longer seeks freedom of either body or soul. He does not even ask who frees him or why; they could be his captors, having succeeded in breaking him or finding their own humanity and with it mercy, or they could be rescuers favorable to the very politics which had resulted in his captivity. At this point in his existence, the prisoner does not concern himself with either patriotism or religious fervor; even if others have won, he has lost.
In fact, Bonnivard’s spirit’s quest for independence has turned in on itself, making his prison a “hermitage” (line 13). What once confined him has become a “second home” (line 15). He even goes so far as to declare himself a “monarch” (line 21) over the spiders and mice that inhabit the cell with him. He adds, “My very chains and I grew friends, / So much a long communion tends / To make us what we are” (lines 24-26). The long period of confinement has finally accustomed him to the tiny world of the cell. By the fourteenth stanza, the man who had once proudly stood for religious and political freedom for Geneva has become so inured to confinement and restrictions that he regains his freedom “with a sigh” (line 27), not of contentment, but of sorrow.
This last sentiment contains a double-edged meaning. On the one hand, the eventual breaking of the human spirit is clearly displayed in Bonnivard’s attitude toward his bodily freedom at the end of “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Constant suffering can destroy one’s ideals. However, Bonnivard’s independent mind managed to restructure his world so that he could survive. He believed he would never regain the mountains, rivers, and breezes of the outside world, and knew for certain that he had lost his entire family, but he was nonetheless able to create a world in which he could live and—in a strange, limited way—thrive.
From the outside, however, we can only feel sorry for someone who has redefined reality in such a small way. We are far from the intellectual freedom of the man in chains whom one finds in, for example, Shakespeare’s Dane, when Hamlet states, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet Act II, Scene ii). Bonnivard is no longer interested in the space beyond the cell. We realize that, unless there is a sequel in which Bonnivard regains his concern for the outside world, Bonnivard cannot really be telling his own story, and that this retelling is extrapolated from what Byron knew.