The Prisoner of Chillon

APRIL 01, 1956


The Prisoner of Chillon

Published in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty – April 1956


Francois Bonnivard was held a political prisoner for four years in the underground dungeon of the Chateau de Chillon, an ancient castle on the eastern end of Lake Geneva. He was finally released on March 29, 1536.

The English poet, Lord Byron, though he did not have access to all the facts, wrote a stirring description of Bonnivard’s captivity, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” After a detailed portrayal of the prisoner’s abhorrence of his confinement—during which he was kept in chains and denied even the privilege of seeing daylight—Byron describes Bonnivard’s release in the final stanzas of the poem, thus:

It might be months, or years, or days,
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 ask’d not why, and reck’d not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be,
I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
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,
And watch’d 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,
Had power to kill—yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn’d to dwell;
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:—even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

NOTE: What I thought to be original, in “Why Is Slavery Possible?” in last November’s IDEAS ON LIBERTY, looks more and more like plagiarism, however innocent. First, my good friend, Ralph Bradford, called attention to a passage from his book Heritage, published in 1950, and reprinted as “Contented Slavery” in the January FREEMAN. Now, Tom Shelly recalls how the idea had been expressed by Lord Byron in 1816. And, no doubt, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other writings of antiquity also may yield the thought that slavery can become a habit. It isn’t easy to produce an “original”; still, it is stimulating to grasp for one’s own an idea that others may have known long before.

Leonard E. Read


April 1956


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