Canto 23: When Tyrants Fall

‘A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ says Alice


House of Bonaparte

As up he mounts, and each with wonder sees
His speed and godlike grace. He seems to them
No more an Angel but a flying fire
Joost van den Vonde

As Josephine the Childless weeps for life,
Tempestuous stormslash Vallombrosan
Erupts, her husband took another wife,
Some chubby, buck-faced, princess Austrian;
For seven years
Her table reign’d supreme;
Drying her noble tears she toasts the dying dream.

From Holland to Etruria
Via stately Germany,
The zenith of an emperor,
March’d in brazen majesty,
Valencia, Westphalia,
Frankfurt & Tuscany
Pray for his new-born heir, the King of Rome,
But… looking at these hairs upon his comb,

He knew that he might conquer kings
But never conquer time,
The flutterings of eagles’ wings
Drown out the churchy chime –
Bells welcoming the evening like a Languedoccan rhyme.


A New Frontier

After them came the soldiers
With rifle & bomb & gun,
Looking for the enemies of the state
Charles Causley

Scarlet redcoats rampage thro’ Portugal,
Safeguarding Lusitania’s treasures,
Alas, events unfolded typical,
The sorry state of British half-measures;
’Send Wellington,’
Rising reputation
Blows into old Lisbon… without hesitation

He wedges French forces between
His hammer & his anvil,
The first, fighting for King & Queen
Galway, Glasgow, Leeds & Rhyl,
The second patter forth unseen
Darting from kill to kill;
Dashing & daring Spanish guerrillas
With Portugal’s intrepid militias.

From storming Badojozan walls
To wild Vimeiro,
The Duke controls the hapless Gauls,
Iberian hero,
Securing Salamanca’s ridge & bridges wide Ebro.


A New War

When I remember with what buoyant heart,
Midst war’s alarms and woes of civil strife,
In youthful eagerness, thou didst depart
Amos Bronson Alcott

Napoleon’s embargo at full strain,
Belittled by those Peninsular ports,
While England gains good victories in Spain,
The Bourgeoisie crave tea & petticoats;
Opens the door to trade,
His fellow emperor launches a hot tirade.

How dare this peasant Muscovite
Deny my sacred orders,
The time has come for France to fight,
Men move up to the borders!
We must avenge this selfish sleight,
Satisfaction owed us!”
Two purple brothers, friendly once, with wine,
Hurtle to war like Guelf & Ghibelline.

“To arms!” six hundred thousand sons
March up thro’ the Empire,
The vista stuns, so many guns,
Some vasty field of fire,
Arrives an aide-de-camp, “Thy Grand Armee awaits thee, sire.”


Battle of the Moskva

They were our comrades
Crowned with their youth;
See what they gave!
Tancred Agius

As bayonets bounce buoyant to the east,
& mile-on-mile enemies defeated,
Gone step-by-step their numbers are decreas’d,
Diseases & desertion depleted;
Even Smolensk
Holds back, hardly, the flow,
The mood grows daily tense until Borodino.

Muscovy’s aristocracy
Combine for Alexander
With all their stalwart peasantry,
The miracle of Russia,
Scouts shouting out, “The Enemy!”
Whose feverish leader
No stomach shows for such desperate fight,
Day terrible ‘til tolstoyan twilight.

As Kutuzov sounds the retreat
Fatigue flounds pandemic,
“Let us not treat this as defeat,
Deem us victors Phyrric,”
The Tsar declares, “their armour wears, their prowess growing sick.”


Turning Tide

But her children are in a marsh
Bogged, they have gone wild.
Yet, no one should worry
Susan Griffin

The path to Russia’s heart hack’d Cossack clear,
It’s conqueror trots thro’ the old city,
But Roman triumph does not wait him here
Just ghostly streets salute his ‘victory;’
What is that smell?”
Flames flicker candlesque,
Soon burning, fright’ning Hell surrounds his writing desk.

A score of letters reach the Tsar,
None in reply forthcoming,
His wily foeman’s rising star
Is from the ring retreating,
“This is no way to conduct war!
What will this madness bring?”
On every side his ‘far-from-grand’ Army
Live days like dying men – desperately!

Rapine & riot ransack wild,
Short autumn swiftly spann’d,
One meek & mild abandon’d child
Holds out her little hand;
A pretty snowflake melted there (as Alexander plann’d).


Retreat from Moscow

Their shoulders held the sky suspended ;
They stood & earth’s foundations stay ;
What God abandon’d, these defended
AE Housman

At rumours of gross treachery at home
By dog-drawn sledge the Emperor winds west,
His soldiers wilting in the wintry gloam,
New Bonnie Ruthven Prince; “Men, do your best!”
Namore the French
Dictate, shall, Europe’s show –
Thro’ thick unburied stench back, by Borodino,

The remnants of the legions track
The ruts of that royal sleigh,
Assaulted by vengant Cossack,
When only brave Marshall Ney
With one thousand fends off attacks,
Full fighting night & day,
Winning the Grand Armee a single chance –
To save themselves before the fall of France.

Ordeals only ten thousand last,
As silent in the street,
Crowds look aghast on phantoms pass’d,
Frost-bitten black the feet,
Those kings that conquer’d Moscow humbl’d cripples in defeat.


Eternal War

We shall go along roads beneath the stars,
so that Plotsk straightens its shoulders,
so that Poznan shall know freedom
Sergei Narovchatov

To North America these wars are spread,
Great Britain drawn into a needless trial,
Granting the French a chance to count their dead
& find more fools to fill the rank & file;
& not too soon,
For Russian recompense
Sens’d moment opportune, throws all into offence,

As tricolors from masts far torn,
Bourbon banners form a band
Bids Muscovy ‘ride not alone,’
Together these nations stand,
Ready to claim revenges sworn,
Men from many a land,
Determin’d on Europa’s liberty
Advance against this latest Grand Armee.

As tough, old grognards drown beneath
The weight of countless foes,
From sheath to sheath is pass’d a wreath
Of ivy & black rose,
Disaster’s bouquet’d imminence haunting the night’s repose.


Swan Song

shall it be so again?
call not upon the glorious dead
to be your witnesses then
Day Lewis

Napoleonic necroambience
Besieges each Departmente of the French,
Enthralling gall pervades his arrogance,
The whiff of grapeshot now some rapist stench;
Still cannons pound,
Still men in lines advance,
Still blood spills on the ground, the mortal wound of France.

But flair is flair, elan, elan!
Fronting seventy thousand
Protects the vasty border span
In his noble swansung stand
Blucher is met in Prussia’s van
& beaten out of hand –
From Champaulert to Chateaux-Thiery
The Gods of War still toast his victory!

“Bring me more men!” for him, alas,
The well of conscripts dry,
Front fragile glass, thro’ Alpine pass
Fresh Austrians shall fly,
To march on Paris, “All is lost!” the old romantics sigh.

February 1814

Crossing the Pyrenees

All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
With swords sharp from the grinding
Egil Skallagrimsson

The age of the Corsican is fading,
The cage he built ripp’d steadily apart,
The stage grown sick of his masquerading,
The page pick’d clean of ev’ry Bounaparte;
His parting shot,
“Without Napoleon
You certainly would not have Dukes of Wellington!”

The name of this aristocrat
Dours his days as does disease,
Both Marshall Soult, Monseuir Murat,
Bundl’d oer the Pyrynees,
Across the Bidasuan Ghat,
Unstoppable, his breeze
Pierces soft underbelly of empire –
Thro’ modernist manouvres, shock & fire.

Puff’d-up beside the fierce flocks
Of Spanish falconry
& Lisbon’s rocks, the fighting cocks
Of England’s king’s army
Brings battle onto Gallic soil, how soon the victory?


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