Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Prisoner of Chillon is a dramatic monologue written after Byron and Shelley visited the Castle of Chillon in Switzerland, where a priest, François Bonivard, was imprisoned for six years for expressing democratic ideals rooted in his religious doctrine. Impressed by Bonivard’s courageous and principled struggle against the cruelty and tyranny of his captors, Byron used the story to comment further on his already characteristic themes of isolation, liberty, oppression, and conviction.
The poem opens with the “Sonnet on Chillon,” which reveals, both in content and in style, the influence of Shelley on Byron’s work and thought at this time in his career. Byron celebrates the site of Bonivard’s imprisonment as consecrated ground, and he praises in exalted and idealistic tones the futility of attempts to constrict the true and free spirit.
The remainder of the poem is told from the first-person perspective of Bonivard himself. Although Byron deviates somewhat from the historical record, this poem represents the first example of Byron using a real person as his protagonist. Bonivard’s father and five of his brothers have already perished as a result of this persecution of their faith. Two of them were imprisoned with Bonivard: the youngest brother, sweet of disposition, with tears only for the pain of others; the older brother an active man, strong and courageous. Both of the brothers died while the three of them were...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
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