It is the middle of June 1816. Thanks to a slight improvement in the weather, Byron and Shelley make plans to sail around Lake Geneva, stopping off at points of interest.
It isn’t entirely a pleasure-cruise, since Shelley seizes the chance to break the news of Byron’s impending fatherhood: Claire – with whom Byron can no longer bear to be in the same room, since her silly attention-seeking grates on his nerves – is pregnant. In what is probably a reflection of Byron’s state of mind after hearing this news, the weather breaks again, and the boat is caught in a severe storm. Byron, always a strong swimmer who enjoys a challenge, prepares to dive overboard. Not so Shelley, who calmly awaits whatever is in store, “feeling a multitude of sensations, among which terror entered… though but subordinately.”
Fortunately – on this occasion – the boat comes safely into harbour and the pair continue their tour, visiting the Castle of Chillon.
Guided tours are available, and Shelley takes a keen interest, noting the height of the roof and the depth of the lake. Byron, like a bored child on a school visit, wanders moodily off and carves his name into a pillar. Yet the castle strikes a chord, especially the story of its most famous prisoner, Francois de Bonivard, a Protestant reformer imprisoned for heresy in the sixteenth century.
A few days later, stuck in a hotel due to more heavy rain on 27th and 28th June, Byron writes a meditative and beautiful poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, narrated by Bonivard himself. Imprisoned with his two brothers, each chained to a pillar, he is forced to witness their steady decline and death:
My brothers – both had ceased to breath:
I took the hand which lay so still,
Alas! My own was full as chill;
I had not strength to stir, or strive,
But felt that I was still alive –
A frantic feeling, when we know
That what we love shall ne’er be so.
I know not why
I could not die,
I had no earthly hope but faith,
And that forbade a selfish death.
Byron captures the prisoner’s isolation, passing from loneliness to acceptance; his feeling of sensory overload when he finally catches a glimpse of the outside world again,
And even, when he is finally released, a sense of regret, being torn from a “second home,” where “my very chains and I grew friends,” Byron thus describes sensations which have been confirmed by modern psychiatric studies of prisoners and hostages kept in solitary confinement.
A small green isle, it seemed no more,
Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
But in it there were three tall trees,
And o’er it blew the mountain breeze,
And by it there were waters flowing,
And on it there were young flowers growing…
Freed from their brief hotel imprisonment by better weather, Byron and Shelley are now able to sail back around the Lake to Diodati where Byron can now begin to ponder on Claire’s news and wonder whether he can ever be truly free.