Lord Byron's Poems

Lord Byron's Poems Summary and Analysis of "The Prisoner of Chillon," stanzas I-VII

“Sonnet on Chillon” begins this lengthy poem. By way of introduction to the larger work, the sonnet describes the “chainless Mind” (line 1) and how it cannot be imprisoned even if the body is shackled. The prison itself is set up as a “holy place” (line 9) because of what transpired there—the imprisonment of Bonnivard. The sonnet concludes with an interpretation of Bonnivard’s imprisonment as an “appeal from tyranny to God” (line 14).

Stanza I describes the prisoner’s unhappy state. His hair is grey and his arms and legs “bow’d” (line 5) from his long imprisonment. The prisoner states that he has been imprisoned for his “father’s faith” (line 11). The speaker’s family was once made up of seven people, the father and his six children, but now only the prisoner himself remains alive. Their deaths were not natural: due to persecution, one was burned to death and two others were killed “in field” (line 21) for the same reasons as their father. The remaining three sons have been imprisoned together in the dungeon from which the prisoner relates his tale.

In Stanza II the prisoner describes his cell. Seven Gothic pillars hold up the heavy roof of this dark prison. A single sunbeam comes in through a crack in the wall. Each pillar has an iron ring, through which is attached a chain that binds the prisoner to the pillar. The prisoner notes that he has been here for years, long enough to be the last survivor among the three brothers.

Stanza III describes the isolation of the prisoner. Although chained to a pillar in the same room as his two brothers, the prisoner is unable to see them or move so as to draw any nearer to either brother. Only their voices are able to share comfort, but even those give out eventually, and their raw throats are no longer capable of uttering sounds that sound like their familiar voices.

In Stanza IV the prisoner describes himself as the eldest of the three brothers and then describes his youngest brother. This brother was beloved by their father for his resemblance to his mother; he is beautiful and like a bird. The prisoner mourns his brother’s confinement as a particularly wretched state for one so free of spirit. This brother, who normally wept only for the pain of others, wept constantly in his terrible cell.

Stanza V gives the reader details about the second (middle) brother. He was pure-minded but also a strong fighter and skilled hunter. His place was in the wilderness, so this confinement underground was that much worse for him.

The prisoner shifts from within the cell to just outside it in Stanza VI, wherein he describes Lake Leman. The lake abuts Chillon, making the prison a “double dungeon” (line 7). The prisoner’s cell is situated partially below the lake’s surface, so that sometimes water sprays through the high, barred windows. Sometimes the waves are so violent as to shake the prison walls, giving the prisoner faint hope that he might die when the water breaks through and floods the cell.

In Stanza VII, the prisoner turns again to his middle brother, who stopped eating as his spirits fell prey to the crushing despair of imprisonment. Either through depression or starvation, the brother dies, and the prisoner is frustrated that he could not move himself to hold his brother as he died. Bonnivard’s agony is further compounded when the jailors unchain the dead brother and bury him in a shallow grave within sight of the prisoner. He begs his captors to at least bury his brother in a spot where the sun sometimes shines, but the men only laugh and lay him at the foot of the pillar to which he had spent so much time chained.


Byron published “The Prisoner of Chillon” in 1816 in the volume The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems . He was inspired to write the poem by his visit, with Percy Shelley, to the Chateau de Chillon on Lake Lemand in Switzerland. There Byron learned the story of Francois de Bonnivard, a sixteenth-century patriot imprisoned for his defense of the freedom of Geneva. This poem marks the first time Byron chooses to tell the story of a real historical figure with attention given to historical, rather than fantastic, detail.

The poem is a “dramatic monologue in form and in octosyllabic couplets, with some variation in rhyme scheme” (Trueblood). Much of the poem is made up of rhyming couplets, with the main variation being couplets arranged to complement each other (i.e., AB followed by BA rhyme schemes). The recurrence of rhymed couplets intermingled with oppositely rhymed couplets emphasizes the dichotomies between an imprisoned body and a free mind, between nature and human constructions, and between life and death.

The opening sonnet is told in third person, whereas the remaining verses make up a dramatic monologue with the prisoner speaking in first person. The “Sonnet on Chillon” thus serves as introduction and chorus, helping the reader see where the poem is going. Indeed, the poem is subtitled “A Fable” by Byron, seemingly contradicting his following, realistically detailed verses. “The Prisoner of Chillon” is intended to be a fable in the sense that there is a moral to the story of Bonnivard’s imprisonment. Accordingly, Byron immediately presents the fable’s moral in the opening sonnet: “Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!/Brightest in dungeons, Libery! thou art” (lines 1-2). The man whose body is imprisoned is nonetheless free to exercise his mind, while the cause of his imprisonment is his belief in freedom for all men. While he may be in chains as an individual, his ideals cannot be so easily restrained.

Bonnivard’s imprisonment only strengthens his country’s resolve to be free: “when thy sons to fetters are consign’d-- / To fetters … / Their country conquers with their martyrdom” (lines 5-7). Furthermore, far from crushing Bonnivard’s political spirit, his captors’ efforts made him a martyr, and his prison “a holy place” (line 9) where people like Byron still visit. In fact, the very steps Bonnivard walked within his cell are described as an “appeal from tyranny to God” (line 14). The contrast between the imprisonment of a person and the freedom of an ideal is thus brought to the forefront of the poem before the narrative proper begins.

In the first stanza, the prisoner describes the unhappy circumstances which he and his family have had to endure for his “father’s faith” (line 11). His father having already “perished at the stake” for his beliefs, it was only fitting that his sons follow him in his martyrdom. Bonnivard’s father and five brothers all stood against tyranny, and each (so far) has lost his life in that cause. Each brother has been imprisoned or died “as their father died,/For the God their foes denied” (lines 23-24), thus making this a religious as well as political persecution. Stanza I thereby establishes the prisoner as a man carrying on a tradition of opposition to political and religious oppression, unremarkable in his martyrdom (since he comes from a family of martyrs) yet remarkable in his unflagging pursuit of freedom and liberty.

In Stanza II, Byron succinctly describes the details of the cell. The seven pillars “of Gothic mould” (line 1) serve as strong anchors for the chains which bind the three brothers. Gothic pillars lend a heavy, dark mood to the prison, which Byron emphasizes when he describes the only light source as “A sunbeam which hath lost its way” (line 5). No light or beauty would enter this dungeon on purpose, so dismal is the chamber. That there are seven pillars symbolically suggests the completeness of the prisoners’ isolation. As the prisoner describes his cell, however, he already places himself chronologically later in his imprisonment: he has been here for years he cannot count, and his brothers are already dead.

The prisoner moves back in time in Stanza III, describing the psychological torture of being imprisoned in the same room as his brothers but fettered in such a way as to be unable to see either of them. The men are forced to rely on their voices for communication and comfort, sharing “some new hope or legend old/Or song heroically bold” (lines 13-14). Yet, intellectual conversation is not enough for such men, and eventually even their voices are denied to one another as their environment and their spirits lend their voices “a dreary tone” (line 16). The acoustics of the dungeon are such that the prisoner speculates their voices “never sounded like our own” (line 21). Their sole means of connection has been denied them through the alien sound of one another’s voices. In contrast to this dismal scene, nevertheless, the prisoner—already established as telling his tale from a point much later in his interment—can use his mind to travel through time to the past and recount the events leading up to his eventual freedom. While his body is bound, his mind is still free to roam through memory and imagination, which is far better than nothing and probably what keeps him alert and alive.

The description of the youngest brother in Stanza IV attaches natural and familial imagery to the young man. He is “beautiful as day” (line 11), a contrast to the perpetual darkness of the cell. He also looks much like his mother, giving him a special place in his father’s heart (line 5). The prisoner compares him to a bird, particularly a young eagle naturally free to fly where it will. The youngest brother is “pure and bright” (line 18) like a “sleepless summer of long light” (line 16). Clearly this young man’s world is sunshine and open air, not confinement in a dank dungeon. His “natural spirit” (line 19) was happy, and his tears were reserved for sympathy at the pain of others, feeling that everyone should be free from oppression. He is innocent and, of all the prisoners, least deserving of a death in chains and darkness.

The middle brother is described in Stanza V. He too is “pure of mind” (line 1) but also is known for his strength in combat. He has stood against “the world in war” (line 4) and is happiest when hunting “the deer and wolf” (line 13). He enjoys moving about the countryside, walking where his younger brother seems to fly. A man of the wilderness, “To him this dungeon was a gulf, / And fetter’d feet the worst of ills” (lines 14-15). Like his brother, he belongs outdoors, not closed up inside these thick walls; he is a man of action.

Stanza VI turns to a description of the surrounding lake, Lake Leman, but this is no romantic paean to nature’s beauty. The lake’s proximity makes Chillon a “double dungeon” (line 7), and since the prison is below ground, the choppy waves can spray cold water through the single barred window, making the prison’s rocky walls “rock,” threatening to breach the dungeon wall and flood the chamber. To Bonnivard, this would be a welcome “death that would have set me free” (line 19). The prisoners’ torture is further magnified by the reminder that there is an outside world full of powerful natural phenomena that they are forbidden to experience firsthand except as a threat of death by immersion.

In Stanza VII, the monologue returns to the second brother. His despair crushes him, leading him to refuse his food and starve himself. The speaker contrasts his brother’s ability to survive on “hunters’ fare” (line 5) with his refusal to eat the food prepared for him by his captors. If he cannot act upon his world and provide himself with food, this man will not live at all. This brother is defined by his actions; inaction is the cruelest form of torture for him. Thus, he dies because his “soul was of that mould / Which in a palace had grown cold” (lines 15-16); the denial of his active, self-sufficient spirit, not merely his body, finally kills him.

The brother’s death also creates another form of torture for the speaker. Because of his chains, he is unable to reach out and comfort his suffering brother. When the captors unlock his brother’s chains—too late for the man who would roam free—the prisoner is forced to listen and watch as his brother’s shallow grave is dug and the corpse laid in it. The speaker is forcibly reminded each moment that his brother is dead, and the only marker for his grave is “His empty chain above it” (line 37), emphasizing the harrowing loneliness and threatening a similar fate for Bonnivard himself.