Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



Napoleon in Russian Poetry of the 19th Century

By Alexander Mikaberidze

“What a novel my life has been,” Napoleon often exclaimed during his exile at St. Helena. These words, as no others, express a genuine appraisal of his life. Yet at the same time they are filled with the bitterness born of the incompatibility of life as British prisoner at St. Helena with the sudden, meteoric brilliance and glory of the past. Napoleon was observed by millions of contemporaries. More than 300,000 books have been written about his life and military campaigns, and who knows how many more will be added in the future. The most amazing aspect of this personality is that nobody, none of the dictators and rulers of the past was surrounded with a such powerful aura of the romantic charm. This romantic image has been a constant companion to the Napoleonic epoch, transforming it into a mythical era. “There is nothing which I can compare to the feelings experienced by me in the presence of this titanic being,” recalled one of his contemporaries. Such was the impression created by him on all who approached him - friends and foes alike. Perhaps it was not even the greatness of his soul that caused it, but its undoubted magnitude which dwarfed the souls of all his fellow men. Two great men stood during that period facing each other at the threshold of the history - Goethe and Napoleon. What Napoleon was in action, Goethe was in contemplation; and Goethe praised Napoleon, saying, ”His life was a stride of the demigod. He was in a state of continual enlightenment. His destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him or would see after him. The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that of the Revelations of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.”

The admiration of Napoleon was an important part of the Russian spiritual life in the first half of the 19th Century. Some echoes of this admiration continued until a much later time, but after Alexander Pushkin, Feodor Tyutchev and Mikhail Lermontov it lost all social significance and Leo Tolstoy had nothing but contempt for the French Emperor. The first half of the 19th Century was an incredible period in Russian literature which found the luminaries of Russian poetry creating their greatest masterpieces. But why did they, great patriots of Russia, praise Napoleon? Why, did they, remembering Moscow’s ashes, thousands of Russian dead and a devastated country, ponder on his personality? Despite subjective reasons to reprimand Napoleon, the poetic genius of these Russian poets rose above patriotism, personal feelings and found an objective historical and philosophical thread that they transformed into incredible artistic image of Napoleon. This portrayal varies with the characteristic features and vision of each of the poets, but the admiration for his character and a sense of his greatness unites them. In the creativity of each of them, Napoleon appears surrounded by a specific romantic aura. However, this charm is deprived of any servility. Each poet tries to perceive the internal essence of Napoleon and the genuine proportion of his greatness.

In his poem, “Napoleon,” Alexander Pushkin offers not only an image of the French Emperor, but also a depiction of that age, filled with a rich diversity of events. But the review of past deeds is difficult without predilection or hatred. Consequently, Pushkin creates conditions of objectivity around the hero by bowing in front of the emperor’s tomb to utter:

“A wondrous fate is now fulfilled,
Forever extinguished this grand man.
In somber prison night was stilled
Napoleon’s grim, tumultuous span.
The outlawed monarch has vanished,
Bright Nike’s mighty, pampered son;
For him, from all Creation banished,
Posterity has now began…”

Napoleon’s name is always associated with military campaigns, bloody battles and thousands of perished soldiers. But Pushkin does not reproach him for this, but restrains himself before the supreme will of a Providence who pacified her mutinous hero.

“O hero, with whose bloodied story
Long, long the earth will still resound,
Sleep in the shadow of your story,
The desert ocean all around”

To Pushkin, Napoleon’s illustrious personality appears as a natural necessity of time;  Napoleon’s enterprise is of a such enormous proportions, that Pushkin praises him even while discussing Napoleon’s attitude to Russia and does not belittle his glory and greatness:

“Vainglorious man ! Where were you faring,
Who blinded that astounding mind?
How came it in designs of daring
The Russian’s heart was not divined?
At fiery sacrifice not guessing,
You idly fancied, tempting fate,
We would seek peace and count blessing;
You came to fathom us too late…”

To Pushkin, Napoleon is mythical hero; the last of the Atlantes, great sons of the Titan Ocean. Atlantes were islanders, so was Napoleon. Born on the island of Corsica, he died on the island of St. Helena; his first fall brought him to the island of Elba, and his whole life was spent in waging war against an island - Great Britain. Therefore, Pushkin writes:

“Ocean, your image was stamped upon him;
He was created by your spirit;
He is fathomless and potent like you,
Like you by naught to be tamed.”

But if Pushkin depicts Napoleon’s greatness as epic, heroic, the same image has induced Mikhail Lermontov to create mystical, enigmatic portrayal of the great man. Lermontov, the author of such patriotic lyrics as “Two Giants” and “Borodino,” was also bewitched by Napoleon’s fate. One of his first poems dates back to 1829, when the young bard was only 15 years old. “Napoleon - He was a stranger in this world. All in him was a mystery,” wrote Lermontov. He depicts Napoleon as a great individual, who rose high above his contemporaries and endeavored to oppose Fate, but perished in the struggle. For Lermontov and his peers, Napoleon was a colossus, a demigod, who fought against ignorant Europe, but was betrayed and captured, but not conquered. Napoleon’s death among his jailers, a picture of the Giant overpowered by the dwarfs, eclipsed his vanity and his crimes. In Lermontov’s poetry, mysterious grandeur surrounds Napoleon, found even the waves washing the shores of St. Helen.

“Where the waves wash the seashore
Where the wild monuments lies careless
In damp soil and small grave
There sleeps our great hero - Napoleon !”

The hero’s greatness is increased by the mystery of his character. The degree of Lermontov’s admiration for Napoleon is enormous and the poet uses all his refinement and ability to depict it. Lermontov sees Napoleon as he was seen by those at the Arc de triomphe during victorious parades; or at Austerlitz after glorious victory; or at small village of Laffrey in 1815, where, on the return from Elba, Napoleon addressed the Royal troops with open breast, “Is there one among you who would fire on his Emperor?”

This image reflects an indelible trace left in consciousness of mankind by the so-called “Napoleonic legend.”  Napoleon always appears radiant in the memories of the people representing the glorious past days. But Lermontov gives to this image also the sense of mystery and sadness:

“Whose shadow, whose image did appear
On that alone seashore, gazing at the swell
He is not alive, but not a dream as well:
These piercing glance and hands across the breast”

In another poem, he considers Napoleon as questing to escape the imprisonment of death, still on a voyage to something perhaps greater:

“The Emperor quietly awakens
And rises alone from the dead
His gray colored tunic is on him
and three cornered hat on the head
He crosses his arms with an effort,
and, walking as if in a dream
He noiselessly reaches the vessel
And pushes it into the stream”

The figure of Napoleon became legendary and he is always remembered only in a peculiar, symbolical way, immortalizing his dress and other attributes. Lermontov paid particular attention to this aspect of the great personality.

“His gray colored tunic is on him
and three cornered hat on the head”

Unlike Pushkin with his epic reality and Lermontov with mysterious image, Feodor Tyutchev beholds Napoleon and his greatness as though in a distance. He neither appeals to an image nor endeavors to revive it. For him, Napoleon is a great phenomenon, but it is forever lost in the past:

“Inspired is nature with the advent of spring,
And everything glitters in this splendid season:
The azure sky, the deep blue sea…
Men’s minds are filled with his great shade
While his shade, alone on this savage shore,
An Alien, heeds the roar of the wave
and rejoices in the sea-birds crying”

Moreover, Tyutchev sees in Napoleon a merger of the most opposite talents:

“Two demons served him
Two powers - wondrously merged:
The eagles soared in his head
the Vipers writhed in his breast”

These verses of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tuytchev express austere, fair estimations of Napoleon. Though depicting the cool, ruthless thrift by which the great statesman carried out his designs, they were unable to belittle his omnipotent genius and tremendous scale of his enterprises. Who, of all men, was raised to such heights or fell as he?  These poets believed: the farther the fall, the greater the man who fell!

But the Russian poets saw Napoleon not only in an abstract greatness. An astonishing Napoleonic epic induced them to comprehend such important historical-philosophical questions as a individual’s role in history and his or her place in the whirlpool of these events. They believed that the rise and fall of the hero is predestined by an objective course of events; but these events are also closely bound to the subjective factor, the personality of the hero himself.

The hero acts in Pushkin’s verse as initial result of world-wide and historical predetermination, as if an absolute spirit has come down to the earth.

“That was this miraculous man, the envoy of the providence,
The fateful executive of an unknown ordinance”

But at the same time the poet realizes, that a personality like Napoleon’s cannot be comprehended through the ordinary human perception; that it carries inside a tremendous change, and its nature, in a character thirsting for great exploits, would inevitably disregard human suffering:

“This rider, to whom the sovereigns cowered
Tumultuous freedom’s heir and slayer
This pitiless bloodsucker
This sovereign is vanished as a dream, a shade of dawn”

But Pushkin is far from considering Napoleon only as the blind instrument of Destiny, an objective course of the world-historical process. Exclusive vitality is given to the image of the hero by its connection with the revolution which gave him birth. He is the nursling of the Revolution as once Romulus was that of the she-wolf. Though some still argue that Napoleon turned back to the Revolution or tried to suppress it, yet he always returned to it: the blood flowing in his veins was that of the Revolution. The rise of Napoleon is a result of the French revolution, when the society aspired to the ideas of freedom, equality and brotherhoods. Pushkin describes this time as a moment … 

“When first from ancient serfdom’s languor
The world awoke to hope new-grown,
And Gaul hauled down with hands of anger
the Idol for its brittle throne
When on the milling square in gory
Collapsed the royal carcass lay
And brought the fated day of glory
All-conquering freedom’s shining day

Society was intoxicated by newly-born freedom. But the intoxication soon reeled out of bounds and grew into chaos and the bloody “Terror.” And at this moment the Providence sent the ingenious hero, who:

“Then in the storm and strife of nations
An awesome lot you soon divined,
And noble-minded aspirations
You came to scorn in humankind.”

Napoleon’s self-confidence and belief in the future were distinctive features of his bright individualism. He used to say that, “I am husband of the destiny, and the power is my mistress.” This boundless self-confidence and ambition Pushkin depicted in the following lines:

“The baneful augury of fortune
Would beckon to your lawless bent
To self-rule unrestrained importune
The lure of disillusionment.

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2001

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