The Prisoner of Chillon: A Fable
George Gordon, Lord Byron was an English poet writing in the early nineteenth century. He's one of the central figures in the literary movement called Romanticism, which began around the turn of the nineteenth century (critics still love to argue about when, exactly, to date the beginning of the movement – start dates range from the 1760s to 1800). The Romantic-era writers and poets thought that literature needed to be less about rationality and scientific precision, and more about human feelings and real, everyday human experience. For some poets (like William Wordsworth), this meant focusing on nature and common people. You'll notice this obsession with nature and human emotions to some extent in pretty much any Romantic-era poem.
Byron was part of the younger generation of poets to take part in this movement, and he was the rock star of the Romantic-period poets. He was wildly popular, although some of his poetry (like his long narrative poem Don Juan) was considered too scandalous for respectable people to read. Byron's lavish, decadent lifestyle and loose morals made Lady Caroline Lamb famously describe him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." He shocked contemporary London with his love affairs and rumors both of bisexuality and even of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. The final nail in the coffin of his reputation was the legal separation from his wife (divorces were hard to come by in those days). His wife's family wasn't pleased, so they helped to spread more scandalous gossip about Byron. Eventually, he moved out of Britain to continental Europe to escape the nasty rumors that were flying around at home.
After Byron's separation from his wife in 1816, he ended up settling down near Geneva, in Switzerland. That's where he met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's soon-to-be wife, Mary Godwin (a.k.a. Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame). Byron's love affairs didn't end when he left England – he ended up having an affair with Mary Shelley's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and had an illegitimate daughter with her.
But Byron wasn't just busy with Claire Clairmont in Switzerland. Inspired, perhaps, by the history and landscape around Lake Geneva, he wrote one of his most famous narrative poems, "The Prisoner of Chillon." It's based on the experiences of a real-life prisoner, François Bonnivard. The historical Bonnivard was thrown in prison a couple of times for stirring up the citizens of Geneva against the rule of Duke Charles III of Savoy, but never for as long a period as the character in Byron's poem. And the historical Bonnivard had a reputation for being a bit of a jerk, while Byron's character is almost saintly. But Byron wasn't the only person who wanted to remember the historical Bonnivard as a martyr for justice and liberty – he was something of a local folk hero around Geneva, in spite of his personality defects.
Byron tips us off that we shouldn't read "The Prisoner of Chillon" as factual history in the sub-title of the poem – he calls it "A Fable" (see the "What's Up with the Title?" section for more on that). But the actual history of the poem isn't as important as the ideas behind it. At the time Byron was writing this poem in 1816, only twenty years had passed since the French Revolution had created such a stir in Europe. Even though most people agreed that the French Revolution had spun out of control (an awful lot of innocent people got their heads lopped off during the Terror), many progressive-minded people, like Byron, still thought the ideas behind the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood – were pretty great. In the opinion of many (Byron included), those were ideals worth dying for. The prisoner of Chillon spends his life in prison and watches his brothers die right next to him for those same basic ideals.
Byron never returned to Britain, but he continued to produce poetry until the end of his life in 1824. He was only 36 when he died – he caught a fever when he was in Greece, helping to fight for Greek independence against Turkey. Although his name was mud in England for a while after he died (those rumors about his half sister and his other affairs were hard to squelch), he was eventually celebrated as a freedom fighter as well as one of the Romantic period's greatest poets.
Why Should I Care?
"The Prisoner of Chillon" isn't just a romanticized story about a guy who spent most of his adult life in prison. It's about how we adjust to our surroundings: the prisoner is able to survive, even while watching his brothers die alongside him, because he believes in something greater than himself. No, we're not talking about religion or spirituality – we're talking about the prisoner's political beliefs. He's been thrown in prison for sharing his father's belief in personal freedom and liberty.
Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do? Or for something you did do, but that you really and truly believed to be the right thing? Sure, your experiences might be on a smaller scale (unless, of course, you've led a patriotic revolution against tyranny and injustice), but the idea is the same: humans are able to survive almost anything, so long as they really and truly believe in the justice of their cause.