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And clear them of their dreary mote;
I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where,
I learn'd to love despair.
And thus when they appear'd at last,
NOTES TO THE PRISONER OF CHILLON.
(The numbers refer to lines.)
THIS poem was written in Switzerland in 1816, after Byron's final departure from his native land. It belongs to the group of poems to which we may give the name of romantic tales. There is no resemblance between the hero of the poem and the historic prisoner of Chillon, of whom Byron knew little or nothing at the time he wrote. "When the foregoing poem was composed," he frankly confesses, "I was not sufficiently aware of the history of Bonnivard, or I should have endeavored to dignify the subject by an attempt to celebrate his courage and his virtues." The Bonnivard of history, on whom the poet afterwards wrote a sonnet, was imprisoned for six years from 1530 to 1536- for political reasons. He was a man of extensive knowledge, upright aims, and heroic will. No brothers shared his imprisonment. After his liberation he lived in honor in Geneva, for the liberties of which he had suffered. A sight of the dungeon, without an extended acquaintance with the history of the illustrious prisoner of Chillon, was sufficient material for the poet's powerful imagination to work upon. The story of the prisoner of Chillon, as here given, is almost pure fiction. 3. In a single night, etc. - Byron has this note: "Ludovico Sforza, and others. The same is asserted of Marie Antoinette's, the wife of Louis XVI., though not in quite so short a period. Grief is said to have the same effect: to such, and not to fear, this change in hers was to be attributed." 6. Rusted made weak and sluggish.
forbidden, interdicted. From A. S. bannan, to proclaim. The word appears in its original sense in the phrase the banns of marriage. II. This should be it; or else line 12 should be omitted. The construction here may be taken as an illustration of Byron's occasional carelessness of style.
13. That father, etc. He is represented as a Protestant.
22. Seal'd confirmed, ratified. O. Fr. seel, Lat. sigillum, a seal. 28. Chillon = a celebrated castle and fortress in Switzerland. It is situated at the east end of Lake Geneva, on an isolated rock, almost entirely surrounded by deep water, and connected with the shore by a wooden bridge. The castle dates from the year 1238.
30. Dim with a dull, etc. - The poet has here taken some liberties with
"The dungeon of Bonnivard," says Murray, in his "Handbook of Switzerland," "is airy and spacious, consisting of two aisles, almost like the crypt of a church. It is lighted by several windows, through which the sun's light passes by reflection from the surface of the lake up to the roof, transmitting partly also the blue color of the waters."
41. This new day. - The prisoner, as we learn from stanza 14, had been released after years of imprisonment; and the light of the open sky seemed new to him.
account or reckoning. From. A. S. scerán, to cut. Accounts were once kept by cutting notches on a stick.
55. Fettered in hand. - Fetters were originally shackles for the feet, as manacles were shackles for the hands.
63. Our voices, etc.· Privations and suffering sometimes materially change the voice. On one occasion, when two Arctic exploring parties were reunited after a protracted separation, "the doctor," says Franklin, "particularly remarked the sepulchral tone of our voices, which he requested us to make more cheerful if possible, not aware that his own partook of the same key."
71. Ought =was under obligation. Here a past tense, though commonly used in the present.
95. Had stood: would have stood.
97. To pine depends on was formed in line 93.
101. I forced it on. He speaks of his spirit as of a weary, fainting
102. Those relics = relinquere, to leave.
his two brothers. Literally, that which is left. Lat.
= Lake of Geneva.
107. Lake Leman 108. A thousand feet, etc. — Byron says in a note: "Below the castle, washing its walls, the lake has been fathomed to the depth of eight hundred feet. The château is large, and seen along the lake for a great distance. The walls are white."
II2. Wave is the subject of enthralls. See line 28.
122. Rock hath rocked. The noun rock and the verb
We cannot consider this word-play as felicitous. rock are of different origin.
if his free breathing had been denied.
142. Had his free, etc.
From Fr. bon, Lat. bonus, good.
155. Compare the following lines in Coleridge's "Christabel":
"And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain,"
172. Yet hitherto, thus far.
189. And grieved for those, etc.
"There is much delicacy," says
Hales, "in this plural. By such a fanciful multiplying of the survivors, the
elder brother prevents self-intrusion; were, kept out of sight and forgotten.
himself and his loneliness are, as it There is a not unlike sensitiveness in
the Scotch phrase, 'them that's awa',' of some single lost one. The grief is softened by vagueness."
230. Selfish death: self-inflicted death.
231. What next befell, etc.. - The following description of the prisoner's deadly stupor is graphic and powerful. It has been much admired.
237. Wist knew; past tense of A. S. witan, to know.
252. It was the carol, etc. — The sympathies of his nature were awakened again. In a similar manner the spell of the Ancient Mariner was broken by the sight of iris-hued serpents disporting in the water:
"A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware."
In Goethe's great work, Faust is recalled from despair by a chime of bells and a choral song. Dashing the cup of poison from his lips, he exclaims:
"Sound on, ye hymns of Heaven, so sweet and mild!
327. Had made:
would have made.
335. The blue Rhone. - This statement is not strictly correct. At its entrance into the lake, the Rhone is of the common color of glacier streams; it does not become blue till it leaves the lake at Geneva.
339. White-walled, distant town = Villeneuve.
341. Little isle. In a note to this passage Byron says: "Between the entrances of the Rhone and Villeneuve, not far from Chillon, is a very small island; the only one I could perceive, in my voyage round and over the lake, within its circumference. It contains a few trees (I think not above three), and from its singleness and diminutive size has a peculiar effect upon the view."