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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
France: Vols. IX–X. 1876–79.

Château d’If

The Château d’If

By Julia Pardoe (1806–1862)

I LAY upon a dungeon floor,

On my damp and scanty bed;

And many a wretch had lain there before,

For the walls were scrawled and scribbled o’er

On high above my head.

There were rude initials, strangely blent,

The pastime of imprisonment;

There were holy signs of faith and trust,

Sketched with the foul corroding rust

Of some iron instrument;

There were ribald couplets, deeply writ,

Where coarseness marred the effect of wit,

And negatived the intent;

There were outlines, which appeared to trace

The features of some cherished face,

The work of time and care,

Begun, perhaps, when hope was high,

In the first months of captivity,

But finished in despair!

And all this had been wrought by hands

Fettered, like mine, in iron bands;

The task, perchance, of many years,

Produced mid misery and tears;

The pastime which had tried its power

To cheat pale Sorrow of an hour.

And, still more sad! there was a row

Of notches in the cell,

Which seemed to have been made to show

How many days could come and go

Mid fate so terrible!

Alas! it was a weary line,

At once a symbol and a sign,

To those who followed there;—

Weeks, months, and years were counted o’er,

And set apart, a saddening store

Of anguish and despair!

I tried to guess what hand had wrought

These promptings to soul-maddening thought;

I tried to picture forth the gaze

Of the stern and steadfast eye,

Which numbered there the noted days

Of a dread captivity!

At first each notch was straight and long;

The captive’s nerves were firm and strong,

Or thus the line could not have gone

So deeply through the jagged stone;

Long wore the marks this trace of force,

But soon they ceased to be

So firm and even in their course,

And I almost seemed to see

The throbbings of the unsteady hand

Which shook within its iron band,—

The bounding pulse that beat, and spurned

The fetter beneath which it burned,

And fevered to be free!

This was the first sad change; but more

Upon the next I wept:

He who once smote even to the core

Of the rude stone, which darkly bore

The record that he kept,

Now left a lighter trace of woe,

As if his strength were waning low.

Faint, and more faintly, every line

Bore proof of manhood’s swift decline,

Mid famine, grief, and thrall.

At last there was one notch, so light

It scarcely had been finished quite,—

Life’s last sad effort, half in vain,

To follow up the list of pain,—

And I could almost feel and see

That death had set the prisoner free

Ere he had time for all!

But, saddest still! full many a trace

Remained in that unhappy place

Of the wild madness which despair

Had wrought upon the brain,

And which had been eternized there

In agony and pain,—

The madness of demoniac glee,

Vented in curse and blasphemy;

Dark images of frenzied mirth,

In the heart’s misery poured forth;

Clingings to base, unholy things;

Unbridled, vain imaginings;

Murmurs, where prayers had more availed,

Curses, where orisons had failed,

Blood, where there needed tears;

And still each base impress remained

By which the rough-hewn walls were stained

Of erst, in long-passed years.

Others had been less dark of mood

In their ungenial solitude;

And it was strange to mark how thought

Was with bright gleams of freedom fraught:

How it had fondly loved to rest

On each unfettered thing,—

A ship upon the billow’s crest,

A bird upon the wing,

A tall steed riderless and free,—

All symbols of that liberty

For which each hour they sighed;

And it was maddening to know

That they who strove to cheat their woe,

By leaving this mute registry

Of their heart-sickness thus to me,

Had striven till they died!