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retreat, then that Waterloo, then that St. Helena, is the destined punishment, but on each occasion he hears a voice which says No; and it is only when he has slept some twelve years in the Invalides in peace and glory, that he is awakened to know the real horror which is to be his true penalty : the unutterable shame of finding his name and fame degraded into being the accomplices of Napoleon III. And there is Le Retour de l'Empereur, to speak of nothing else, in the vast Légende des Siècles. This is the bringing back of the body from St. Helena, and contains some fine verses on the theme of
mais, ô mon capitaine, Vous ne l'entendrez point,
and some lovely stanzas on the grave at St. Helena lying solitary and silent under the stars of a tropical night. These last show Hugo on the heights where only the greatest can follow him : but the poem is not improved by the ridiculous flatteries of France which it contains : and on the whole this funeral of Napoleon is a long way from being able to bear the comparisons which an Englishman cannot avoid making, whether with Tennyson's Wellington or Whitman's Lincoln.
But it is time to turn to English poetry. Of course none of the contemporary poets, or perhaps none except Keats, can altogether escape Napoleon. He filled too large a space in their world for that, whether as man of destiny, man of genius, hero, tyrant, or nursery bogy. But somehow they failed to make very much of him. There is Campbell's Napoleon and the British Sailor which children used to be made to learn by heart. But it is a mere pretty story. Campbell has done no more for it than could have been done by the unknown Englishman long resident at Boulogne from whom he heard it. It is the Whig tradition of Napoleon, employing the method of the picturesque and pathetic. So Southey gives us nothing but the Tory tradition of him, employing the rhetoric of the pulpit :
But Evil was his Good,
Bold man and bad, Remorseless, godless, full of fraud and lies, – and so on through a good many stanzas of assertions which may or may not be all true but certainly contain a good deal more truth than poetry.
Scott, who wrote Napoleon's Life, has little to say of him in his verse. He appears in The Vision of Don Roderick as the destined scourge of Spain, treacherous and heartless. But the only striking lines about him are those which say of his attitude towards his brother Joseph :
Not that he loved him-No-in no man's weal,
Then, of course, one turns to The Field of Waterloo expecting something. But that poem is one of Scott's poorest performances and has little in it about Napoleon except reproaches that he did not die on the field or even risk his life as Wellington did.
It is surprising that Wordsworth, the spiritual antipodes of Napoleon, has so little to say about his great enemy. What there is comes rather from the prophet than the poet. The profoundest of all Wordsworth’s beliefs was that this world is the battlefield of moral forces, and that behind the apparently impassive face of Nature was concealed a sympathy with Truth and Right. That faith forbade him ever for a moment to doubt the ultimate downfall of Napoleon. Again and again in his sonnets he insists on the reasonableness, necessity, and duty of hope : of hope
the paramount duty that Heaven lays, For its own honour, on man's suffering heart.
Do we believe, he asks, that there is a Godhead in Nature and in the soul of man? Then, if we do,
Winds blow, and waters roll, Strength to the brave, and Power and Deity. A man of this sort could feel nothing but contempt when he saw Napoleon's English worshippers hurrying to France during the Peace of Amiens :
Lords, lawyers, statesmen, squires of low degree,
In his eyes such men were born slaves 'men of prostrate mind’; justly to be scorned by one
who, caring not for Pope,
The destiny of Man, and live in hope.
Internal darkness and unquiet breath :
By violent and ignominious death. Yet faith and hope are never easy virtues, and not even Wordsworth found them so. They must be mingled with fear, purified by humility, and taught to look for their only absolutely certain victory not on this visible scene at all, but in a world of spiritual and immortal realities. This is really the theme of the most Napoleonic of his sonnets :
When, looking on the present face of things,
So that a doubt almost within me springs
I tremble at the sorrow of the time. Faith and hope are to work in this world and try to realize themselves in this world. But when this visible earth and mortal flesh fail them they have their own assurance that that failure is only part of the truth. And so when Napoleon's victory seems most complete and, indeed, almost universal, they can still say
That an accursèd thing it is to gaze
On prosperous tyrants with a dazzled eye; as even defeat and death had not been able to prevent their still crying to Toussaint l'Ouverture ;
thou hast great allies : Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind. When we turn from Wordsworth to Byron we find ourselves of course in a totally different atmosphere. Byron looks on Napoleon with European, not with merely English, eyes as Wordsworth sometimes does ; and he cares nothing at heart for moral issues, everything for political. He is as willing as Wordsworth to call Napoleon a tyrant and he has something of Wordsworth's conviction that when freedom is true to itself it is invincible. But with him the belief is much more intellectual than moral or spiritual. The stupidity of the old system, and of the kings, priests and politicians whom it fostered, fills him full of intellectual scorn, and sends him to sympathy with anybody, even a new kind of tyrant, who will break it to pieces. Then he was an aristocrat, and made rather vulgarly aware of his rank and wealth by the fact that his childhood had neither been very dignified nor very comfortable. And he was an exiled aristocrat. After a few years of intoxicating success his own world had cast him out : after which it was with him as it is with most ostracized members of aristocracies : one does not know which he had most of, hatred of his order or pride in belonging to it. The result of this jumble of feelings—liberal sympathies, hatred of hypocrisy, intellectual contempt, aristocratic insolence, and a desire to pay back old scores—could not be a very coherent poetic handling of the Revolution or Napoleon. And it is not. Byron has not very much to say about Napoleon and what he says is not very remarkable. The Ode to Napoleon Buona parte is full of telling rhetoric, but not of much else. It is full of scorn for the man who could survive his fall ; and the scorn has a moral judgement in it :
All Evil Spirit as thou art,
To see thine own unstrung ;
The footstool of a thing so mean. As a whole the ode is rather schoolboyish, at once careless and declamatory. And no schoolboy would need a master to keep him from such a lapse as that like he of Babylon' into which Byron presently falls.
Much more memorable than this is the famous Waterloo passage in the third canto of Childe Harold. The character of Napoleon with which it ends is neither commonplace nor unjust. It is too long to quote, but the essence of it lies in stanza xxxvi:
There sunk the greatest nor the worst of men,
And shake again the world, the Thunderer of the scene ! And stanza xli shows that Byron had noticed that characteristic of Napoleon which Scott, calling it his great error,