Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



Napoleon in Russian Poetry of the 19th Century

Part II

By Alexander Mikaberidze

The history of Napoleon shows that the society is inclined to admire heroes and that from adherents to freedom, people sometimes can turn into the crowd of slaves. The eminence of Napoleon is the another side of these metamorphoses. Revolutionaries might threaten to become a collective Brutus to any would-be Caesars enticed by the laurels of tyranny, swearing to assassinate oppressors and tyrants. But suddenly they were seduced by swaying victorious banners and embraced the hero of Arcole, the Pyramids, Austerlitz, and Pushkin reproaches them for this:

Among the slaves, you poured, to slake the lust of chattel,
The drug of conquest in their veins,!
You sped their musters into battle
And laurels wound about their chains. 

But Napoleon acted not only because of his impetuous ambition, but also by the command of the Destiny. The winner is always right and each hero creates the truth of his time. Tyutchev expressed this notion by saying:

“And he emerged: two eras
Fighting one another
Behold him and suddenly submitted
As if in sight of mighty Fate”

Napoleon’s triumph appears as a phenomenon unfeasible for one person. This is an original pinnacle of aspirations and opportunities for a personality. Therefore, the poets often compared Napoleon to the great heroes of the past. For them, Napoleon is two-thirds demigod, and one-third mortal man. But the bards also questioned whether one person, even the most ingenious could achieve the world supremacy. They responded to this immemorial question with an interesting artistic and philosophical solution. Napoleon’s fall - his Russian campaign, destruction of the Great Army and fall of empire - is depicted in radiance of his greatness and opposition to the Destiny:

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?
And so you stood, with Russia before you.
Prophetic magus, foretelling battle,
You uttered the fatal words yourself:
“Now let her destiny be fulfilled!”
Your incantation was not in vain :
Your voice had destiny’s response.

In these lines Napoleon embodies the pinnacle of the human greatness, possibility and determination. Can one person reach beyond this boundary; can he oppose Fate? Eminence and certain illusoriness of this goal inevitably causes a shattering collapse. Napoleon is defeated but not conquered, though the idea of world supremacy is doomed. The “husband of destiny” - as Napoleon is called by the poets - was defeated by his own spouse. The brilliance and rapidity of his rise was eclipsed by the downfall. The Europe has prevailed over the military genius of victorious emperor, but Napoleonic epic endured. Napoleon continues to excite the mankind as a phenomenon, perhaps as the most evident example of creation of history by a single person, as the symbol of a challenge to Destiny. His greatness became more radiant after his downfall and exile, combining military glory, genius and personal tragedy. The grandeur of Napoleon’s personality, his charm and overwhelming power made a miracle - his downfall became a symbol of one’s determination, rise and fall.

But this bizarre downfall also undermined Napoleon’s soul. The sovereign of almost the whole Europe was doomed to spend his last days on a remote island, observing a routine the life. Lermontov ponders this grief in the following lines:

“And thus, unknown ghost beholds
Eastward, at the at dawn
France is there ! The native land
And glory, hidden in the haze
There, among the wars her day were passed
o, why did they pass so fast ?

Deposed and banished Napoleon did not lose his grandeur. Moreover, his image acquired even greater eminence and mystery. The image of the imprisoned and deceased emperor, like a mysterious phantom, stepped out in all greatness and radiance, untouchable by any reproach.

“Redeemed are now the blights and horrors
He spread with fabled victories
By the forsaken exile's sorrows
Amidst the gloom of alien seas.

The thousands of perished and vast devastation are forgotten. The shadow of the once mighty conqueror forces people to reconsider his life. Therefore, Tyutchev observes not the destruction and bloody wars, but depicts an extraordinary spectrum of events experienced by Napoleon. The Emperor is portrayed as an omnipotent person. It is as if by his imprisonment, Napoleon proves that world domination was not perplexing for him, that he was engaged only to reveal the real possibilities of the human being.

“He experienced all in life:
Fortune, victory and bondage
The passion of the Fate and rage
Two times he vanquished and
Twice regained the throne”

To Lermontov, Napoleon became more enigmatic after his death for his passing is comprehended only in connection with Destiny.

The man of Fate ! You deal with men like Destiny with you
Only Fortune that raised you could destroy you !
But your greatness remains luminous !

His enormous figure causes only the mightiest passions. He was surrounded with by enmity of all the monarchs of Europe, envied by the closest kinsmen, brothers, and sisters. And those whom he spared least, the common people of France, were the most loyal to him. The army stood up for him until the end, unlike his marshals and grandees. And most marvelous of all, when in 1815, France was asked whether she would prefer to have Napoleon as her frenzied ruler, her answer was, “Yes!” And therein lies the greatness of France. 

Napoleon’s glorious past is a source of grief, because compared to the years of captivity and inactivity, it causes immeasurable pity. Therefore, in the creative imagination of Lermontov, Napoleon’s ghost hastens every year to its native coast to restore a sense of life, former authority and glory:

To France, his beloved, he hurries,
Again to his glory and throne,
Again to his son and his comrades,
Back home to the land of his own.

But the deposed emperor becomes also a symbol of loneliness. He is confined to an island, far from his family, friends and native land. He is lonesome, for he is deprived of opportunities to accomplish the remarkable feats that nurtured his life. He is alone, for

“Over his former companions
The Elbe imperturbably flows,
The desert unleashes its sandstorms,
And Russia, her pitiless snows.
And deaf to his call are the marshals:
Some perished in battles, deplored,
While others are serving new masters
And selling their saber and sword.
Then, having burdened him with shameful chains,
They led the hero away from weeping troops
And on an alien cliff, beyond the blue seas,
Forgotten, he died alone
Alone - tormented by the vain revenge.”

The tragedy of Napoleon is depicted also from the personal aspect. The Emperor is separated from his cherished little son. Therefore, Lermontov describes St. Helena as a place:

Where in the wilderness, forgetting
War and posterity and throne,
On his dear son he brooded, fretting,
In grievous thought, alone, alone.

And boarding the Ghost ship and hastening to France, Napoleon:

Waits for a last consolation
And loudly addresses his son;
He'll give him the world for the asking,
Yet, France he can promise to none.

But soon history had put an end to these torments of the great prisoner and the wanderings of his shadow. In 1841, by request, Napoleon’s remains were transferred from St. Helena to Paris, in the Dome of Invalids. This event once again gave the Russian poets an opportunity to assess Napoleon in view of the mutual relations between the hero and the crowd. And again the hero appears blessed by Providence for the salvation of the country. Thus, Lermontov addresses French people, reminding them of the role Napoleon played in the history:

Perishing you were, until with stern demeanor 
He rose, chosen by the Lord, 
Acclaimed by all as leader and a king  -
And merging your life with his soul. 

For the poets, Napoleon’s eminence is inseparable with greatness of his country. With the rise of Napoleon, the French themselves experienced ultimate attainment of greatness. The glory became an integral part of the French consciousness. Revolution filled their hearts with pride, and the triumph of Napoleon supported and strengthened this feeling.

“Your strength revived in the shadow of his glory;
The trembling world in silence gaped to see 
The wondrous chasuble of fame and story
He brought to clothe you in the days to be. “

But the sovereign is adored while destiny is kind to him. The fallen hero is often forgotten, reproached or cursed. The hero can be abandoned at any time since the crowd admires success and cherishes the victors. That is why Lermontov reproaches the French:

He was alone, changeless and cold of manner,
Father of the gray phalanxes, well-loved son of fame; 
In Egyptian deserts, or the walls of Submissive Vienna, 
Or the steppe-land snows, where Moscow rose in flame.
And tell me, what did you do for worth or pardon,
While in far fields he bled in proud aloofness ?
You cast your chosen leader like a burden;
You ground a coward's dagger in the darkness!
In the last battles, when desperate odds assailed him,
In fear, oblivious of your own black shame,
Like a false woman, shameless you betrayed him,
Like coward slaves you spat upon his name.

But what awaits the hero after his death? Glory, disgrace? Who will judge him? The poets also believed that greatness is not subject to the trend of times, and eventually the people would remember a great man of the past. Lermontov witnessed this revival of Napoleon’s memory when in 1841 his remains were met in France with the same delight and admiration as the emperor found during his lifetime.

So rides, the Conqueror homeward to his own,
And, as before, the mad mob throngs and moils,
While in a pompous cask, in the noisy town,
His cold remains are laid in Gaelic soil.

Napoleon’s life proved that despite his downfall, that genuine greatness endures. Napoleon is above the idle talk of the crowd. He was great on the battlefield, on the imperial throne and on a remote, rocky island.  It was, and still is, a universal greatness. And Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev and other Russian poets saw his greatness in its unity with the Creation. To the mighty spirit of Napoleon, even the most regal and magnificent tomb is cramped, since his destiny is the Universe.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2001

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