The zeal for freedom goes very close to love for humanity, a cardinal feature in romantic poetry. Almost all eminent romantic poets, perhaps, with the sole exclusion of Keats, are found to champion the spirit of liberty against the desperate onslaughts of the ruthless despotic powers. William Wordsworth and S.T.Coleridge, in their poetic themes on France, have unequivocally expressed their deep concern for the ominous, all-devouring political powers to dominate and tread down the right and freedom of the weaker peoples. The celebration of the human craving for liberty and the right of self-determination and the denunciation of tyranny and subjugation form much of the impulsive humanitarian and rebellious poetry of P.B.Shelley and Lord Byron. Indeed, the echoes of the call for the fight for freedom and against despotism and exploitation well ring in a good many romantic poems. Of such romantic poems on the noble instinct of love for freedom and aversion to tyrannical oppression, Byron’s sonnet On the Castle of Chillon, along with Wordsworth’s On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, stands out prominently. Of course, both the poems are short, rather sonnets, but the spirit they breathe is highly inspired and ennobled. The sonnets are truly intense in sympathy for the oppressed and fallen and in utter resentment against the mighty and cruel.
Lord Byron (in the poem ‘On the Castle of Chillon‘) looks upon this spirit of liberty as imperishable, inviolable, rather eternal in its grace and glory. Nothing can kill this spirit, no oppression can bind it in chains. Indeed, no force can imprison the spirit of liberty or keep it in confinement under strict restraint. After all, the spirit of liberty dwells in the very heart of those who stand and fall in the cause of the free and freedom.
To Byron’s impulsive feeling, the spirit of liberty is best realized and grasped by the true lovers of liberty, the great patriots of land, who suffer for the cause of the freedom of their mother country. When the brave patriots and uncompromising lovers of liberty are enchained and brutally treated in a dark, damp, dungeon, the spirit of liberty asserts its right in a forceful voice. The fire of freedom then spreads from one corner of a country to another, from one heart of the country to another. The sufferings of the great patriots—their martyrdom-touch the country and the countrymen and stir them to action to win back their freedom, their long-cherished birthright, so ruthlessly taken away by their cruel conquerors. In the castle of Chillon was once kept imprisoned Bonnivard, a Genevase patriot. To Byron, this has become a holy place because of the presence there of that great patriot as an enchained and oppressed prisoner under the foreign exploiters. The floor and the pavement of the castle were turned hallowed by the footsteps of Bonnivard, the imprisoned patriot, who paced up and down in his lonely cell.
Byron’s theme is, no doubt, the spirit of liberty. He finds this patent in the prison of Chillon, where the spirited, patriotic Bonnivard was kept confined by the Duke of Savoy. That heroic prison of Chillon fully echoed the spirit of liberty with which Byron’s sonnet is concerned. The concluding portion of the poem is a clarion call to the prison of Chillon as a holy place that defies God to defy the ruthless tyrannical persecutors and conquerors.
“…May none those marks efface !
For they appeal from tyranny to God.”
Finally, as already stated, the poem is a sonnet-a short poem of fourteen lines. The conventional sonnet, as imported from Italy, by Sir Thomas Wyatt, has the theme of sex-love. This is an impulsive address by the lover, full of the passion and pang of love, to his ladylove, fair and honest, but unresponsive to his earnest exhortation and entreaty. This conventional sex-love theme, so successfully dropped by Shakespeare, is also not treated always by the romantic poets. Byron’s present sonnet has a distinctly deviated theme. This is on the spirit of liberty. He is found to follow here the tradition, set up by John Milton in his sonnets, and to use fully the possibility of sonnet-writing in the treatment of such inspired themes as love for freedom and hate for tyranny.