Reading Lord Byron in Frackville, PA
by Quincy Saul
Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon has opened the minds and hearts of thousands to the plight of a prisoner, and posed profound and unanswered questions about the meaning of security and society, of fraternity and freedom. He helped us to consider, in the deep way which only poetry can, “the fate of those / To whom the goodly earth and air / Are bann’d, and barr’d – forbidden fare.”
Today, reading Byron's poem in the waiting room at the Frackville penitentiary, we must reconsider these questions. If the early European dungeons have marked our collective consciousness and imagination with indelible dread, then today’s penitentiaries have not yet been understood.
Our society still does not understand where its prisons come from, does not understand their lineage from the time “Since men first pent his fellow men / Like brutes within an iron den.”
The difference and distance between this society and its prisons is smooth, seamless, spotless. One arrives at a prison just like one arrives at a shopping center or a school. They are neither hidden as some dungeons were, or on display like the Bastille, or Chillon. Prisons are simply another ubiquitous institution, and its aids and ministers attend to and comport themselves with no greater sense of purpose or sanctity than any other modern employee. To visit a prison reveals this seamlessness of freedom and captivity. Muzak plays in the waiting room. The staff joke about the working day, sports, and pop culture.
There is, I think, a new kind of terror in this arrangement. The seamless aesthetic distance between prison and the outside world places us all in an ambiguous precariousness to our own freedoms, of movement, of thought, and of spirit.
As long as you are on one side of the counter you are free to go, but also suspect and suspicious; safe but insecure. The difference between one side of the counter and the other is not the arbitrary decree of a monarch of course. Today it is a massive institutional system, based on hundreds of years of legal precedent. But the relation of your average prisoner or prison guard to this judicial system is equally distant as the king was to his subjects. Your average citizen can't dream of representing themselves in court, whether this be a court of the kings and generals, or of judges and lawyers. The appearance of a secular democratic process conceals a relationship of captive and captor which is no different in the essentials from the castle of Chillon and its famous prisoner.
Make no mistake that it is society and not just the prisoner, that is the target. The authorities are open about this. “The purpose of the Marion control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in prison and in the society at large,” said Marion prison warden Ralph Aarons, one of the architects of modern solitary confinement. If medieval prisons tortured individuals, today’s prisons torture society. It is done slowly, surely, on present, past and future generations, with an air of normality which would terrify a 19th century executioner. With 1 in 3 black men going to prison, and with 7.5 million under carceral custody, and everyone under close surveillance, the scope of this prison system, since man first pent his fellow man, has widened to include and contain all of society. What Byron told of a group of brothers, we may now say about our wider brotherhood in this society:
Our voices took a dreary tone
An echo of the dungeon stone,
A grating sound, not full and free,
As they of yore were wont to be:
It might be fancy – but to me
They never sounded like our own.
We, born and raised in a prison society with few poets heir to the conscience and craft of Byron to awaken and ask more of us, do we recognize our own voices? To the extent that we identify ourselves and our accomplishments as part of this society, do we identify with our prisons as well?
The visiting room and entrance are decorated with certificates of accreditation, photos of volunteer dinners (!?) and award ceremonies. Portraits of the state secretary of prisons and staff have replaced the monarch’s regalia. We are reminded of our own complicity, as a poster reminds us “Homeland Security is Everyone’s Responsibility: Get Involved!”(Also on the walls: the employee recreation association1, employee of the quarter, and the mission statement, gilt framed above the desk.)
On the other side of the bars, prisoners no longer contend with the damp moldy dungeons full of rats; with the organic qualities of being buried alive which tortured the prisoner of Chillon. Now it is all spotless and hygienic. But they are buried alive no less, not with manacles, but with 24/7 fluorescent lights and cable TV. Is society buried along with them?
The brothers of the prisoner of Chillon die in confinement, and are buried in the dungeon with him. Byron describes the horror of his brother's eternal captivity, and his restless soul, as his captors would not even bury him above ground, “even in death his freeborn breast / In such a dungeon could not rest.”
While we have no team of Byrons equipped to tell the tale, this is not an obscure story but the common fate of thousands in our own times who have died in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Like the brothers of the prisoner of Chillon, they are kept captive even in death, buried on the prison grounds. (Read “From the Bottom of the Heap” by Robert Hillary King for details.) Our pleas for justice or even simple dignity have gotten us no further against today’s dungeon masters than in Chillon:
I might have spared my idle prayer
They coldly laughed – and laid him there
The flat and turfless earth above
The being we so much did love;
His empty chain above it leant
Such Murder’s fitting monument!
Who has been murdered? Whose chain has become a monument?
Or in our most efficient of societies, is the chain already in use elsewhere, the second skin of another captive? Or is it being prepared for us, who dare tread this uncomfortable and heavily guarded ground of thought and feeling?
Do not look to the age of reason, it has not dawned among those captors. Now as much as in Byron’s times, they are “inured to sights of woe.” Only now this conditioning is not the crude mix of punitive retribution, pure brutality, and vague notions of God, King and Country. Today there is an entire culture industry, including an all-pervasive mass media matrix, to lend the veneer of legitimacy and the common good to this ancient sadism.
5. Solitary Confinement
Byron taught us about the torture that is solitary confinement. He recounts the relief and succour that the brothers of Chillon found in each other;
Twas still some solace in the dearth
Of the pure elements of earth
To hearken to each other’s speech
And each turn comforter to each…
But when only one brother remains the dungeon takes on another, utterly more terrifying character…
There were no stars, no earth, no time
No check, no change, no good, no crime
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life or death;
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!
Today in the USA according to official Bureau of Justice statistics, on any given day there are 81,000 prisoners of Chillon, neither alive or dead, in solitary confinement.
How can we comprehend this? How are we, and how can we be moved by the poetry of Byron in a society that has turned what was once an peculiar epic legend into a mass produced banality of daily life?
Byron, as many prison poets before him, made us question the difference between inside and outside. When the prisoner of Chillon had been confined long enough, the dungeon had become a part of him, to the extent that the outside world was already lost to the prisoner’s imagination. He finally concludes,
And the whole earth would henceforth be
A wider prison unto me. . . .
It was at length the same to me
Fetter’d or fetterless to be. . . .
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.
What was a subtle and chilling riddle for the times of Byron has become an apocalyptic ultimatum for a society which contemplates with calm and taxes the daily devouring of the lives of 10s of 1000s of prisoners of Chillon.
What has our long communion with this society made of us? This question is not metaphorical. Recidivism rates are at steadily high levels and prison populations are growing. Prisons have become a structural outlet and containment mechanism for a surplus population whose labor the political economy does not require, and whose desires and expectations it cannot provide for.
Ours is a society in which incarceration has become so ubiquitous, seamless and normal, that we may not even recognize freedom, given opportunities to regain it.
We therefore reach the unavoidable conclusion that freedom is no longer outside the walls of the prison, but outside of society itself. Does this awaken an anxiety in you? Do you disbelieve it? Do you believe in the possibility of real freedom in a society that keeps 1% of its population locked down and 100% under surveillance?
7. A Frantic Feeling, When we Know? Or Rusted with a Vile Repose?
Even if our immediate consciousness does not reveal and condemn and indict the brutality and horror of this prison nation, freedom survives. It survives in ways we don’t always recognize, but which we must learn to recognize and weave together, if we are to answer Byron’s modern ultimatum.
When you get locked up, or when someone you know gets locked up, or when you let yourself really feel and contemplate the confinement of another, when you find no reason or justice in this, when you work to make a difference, and encounter a bureaucratic edifice every bit as impenetrable as Chillon, you encounter what the prisoner of Chillon did: “A frantic feeling, when we know / That what we love will ne’er be so.” Hold onto that feeling. Explore it. Embody it.
Love alone cannot bring us freedom, but the struggle to find it can. This struggle can only begin and proceed in earnest, when we realize how much we have already lost.
And haven’t we? Like the prisoner of Chillon, don’t we feel free as we pace our dungeons, at the inscrutable will of nameless captors? “It was liberty to stride / Along my cell from side to side.”
Georg Hegel in his famous essay about Masters and Servants, talked about “a type of freedom which does not get beyond the attitude of bondage.” Like the prisoner of Chillon, don’t we look out the window into the wild and beautiful world beyond (a world of danger and unpredictability), only to retreat from the window, in need of rest for our eyes?
Yet our plight is much more profound, as we find ourselves on the outside, looking in, looking all around, no more sure of the meaning of freedom or our purpose on this planet than the one who has dreamed of nothing but freedom for unnumbered years only to finally fear it and lose its meaning. We can’t lose its meaning.
This is the dangerous and urgent lesson of reading Byron in Frackville. Because we are losing it. In muzak and vending machines, in control units and mission statements, in Homeland Security and employees of the quarter; we are losing the meaning of freedom in the dull aching anxiety and ambiguity that this system has elevated into a way of life. We are losing the meaning of freedom on the outside, perhaps even more than on the inside. Our “limbs are bowed, though not with toil, / But rusted with a vile repose.”
8. For Tenets they would not Forsake
Some on the inside know all this better than we do. Like Byron’s prisoner, the 15-16th century libertine monk Francois Bonivard, they are there not by simple accident, but indeed because they have refused to forsake the principles of real freedom.
These political prisoners – about 100 of them in the USA by the most conservative count – are all heirs to the prisoner of Chillon, all deserving of another Byron. They have suffered and suffer still in an anonymity which is perhaps the cruelest punishment for those who sacrifice all for others. Why are they locked up?
But this was for my father’s faith
I suffer’d chains and courted death;
That father perish’d at the stake
For tenets he would not forsake
And for the same his lineal race
In darkness found a dwelling place.
While there is no shortage of freedom loving martyred fathers from whom we can trace lineages, perhaps the most obvious referent is Jesus of Nazareth. Also a several-time fugitive political prisoner, Jesus and his followers' role as an anti-imperialist political prisoners, as prisoners of war and prisoners of love, is all but forgotten between Christmas and the collection plate. But from empire to empire, the lineal race of those willing to perish for tenets they refuse to forsake, holds strong.
Today darkness has been replaced with electric light. Byron's Prisoner of Chillon has met with Orwell's Winston Smith in 1984 – in the place with no darkness.
Our society has scrapped crucifixion in favor of more quiet and more total control, replacing torture of the body (for the most part) with torture of the mind. But there is an unbroken line from the crucifix to the control unit. It is a line drawn by kings and CEOs, and a line we are all walking, inside and out.
The message and the questions are too deep to be measured with any specific contemporary call to action. On the contrary our answers must be total, embodied, existential.
We now contemplate what must be done on tiptoe, glimpsed through the bars of a dungeon we may be only beginning to recognize. Most of us, like the prisoner of Chillon will return to the comforting darkness, the communion of chains, in which we now all sit, “rusted with a vile repose.” Will you?
If we really want freedom for society and ourselves, we must suffer chains and court death, and find solidarity and honor in the lineal race of heroes who today still deserve your permanent mobilization and heartfelt support.
1 One of the guards was out “hunting bambi” that morning, I overheard. Incidentally, we saw over 10 dead deer, and dozens of other road kills in the 2 hour drive on the highway from New Jersey to Pennsylvania on the way there.