The following poem appeared in Victor Hugo’s Chants des Crepuscules (1835) and was translated by G.W.M. Reynolds. It celebrates Napoleon’s son, Napoleon, who died too young and had no contact with father after the emperor was exiled to St Helena.
A quarter of a century has gone,
Since Gallia welcom’d her Napoleon’s son:
The heav’n was low’ring on th’expectant earth,
Before th’imperial consort gave him birth;
And kingdoms trembled at the frolics wild,
Which nature did to welcome valour’s child.
Tam’d as the steed which marks his master nigh,
A prostrate empire waits that progeny—
The progeny of one whose lasting name
Transcendant shines above proud Cæsar’s fame,
Whose lips gave laws to Europe’s proudest thrones,
And cover’d half the earth with bleaching bones.
Anon that mighty conqu’ror stood before
The host which knelt not there but to adore
And to the prostratę empire show’d his son,
The glorious offspring of Napoleon,
While joy and pleasure flash’d in ev’ry eye,
And shouts redoubling echo’d to the sky.
Then, as by magic influence, the breath
Of that young child made all as still as death;
And Paris quak’d—and steeple, church, and tow’r
Shook to the base to rev’rence infant pow’r;
And the long cannon, at the palace gate,
Bounded and leapt, as they were animate!
Elate with pride paternal-holy fire!
Before his subjects stood th’enraptur’d sire:
His arms, so lately join’d across his breast,
Now form’d a cradle for the infant’s rest—
And that fair infant’s eyeballs caught the blaze
Which lit the father’s in those glorious days .
When to a kneeling host he thus had shown
The newborn heir of his imperial throne,
The ravish’d father mentally review’d;
All Europe’s kingdoms by himself subdu’d;
And, proud as eagle soaring to the sky,
“They wait,” he said, “for this—my progeny!”
But who may tell what mystries lie
Conceald in thee, Futurity?
Each morning marks some victim’s doom;
Each night frowns o’er a new-made tomb!—
Futurity! in thee appears
Th’uncertain glimpse of unborn years—
And monarchs’ misery:
Puff’d up with pride, ambition’s son
To ruin rushes blindly on,
Unstable as the bird upon
The forest’s tallest tree!
From year to year we wind our toilsome way,
While myst’ry still enshrouds the future day:
No human might—no sage’s magic spell
Can bid that future day, its secrets tell;
But still the spectre, form’d of doubt and dread,
Attends our steps, and haunts us in our bed.
Tomorrow! what may bring to light
Thy dawn upon the present night?
Wilt thou not perfect that which man
Today in confidence began?
Tomorrow! like a shadow cast
Along the ocean’s bosom vast—
Or as a mist upon the blast—
A cloud that veils yon star—
Art thou, Tomorrow! curious name,
To which belong disgrace or fame,
Monarch’s renown, and nation’s shame,
Peace, or revolt and war!
Tomorrow—foaming steeds to battle wend,
Tomorrow—Moscow’s flames to heav’n ascend,
Tomorrow—martial hosts flock o’er the plain,
Tomorrow—Waterloo is fought in vain,
Tomorrow—exile marks the hero’s doom,
Tomorrow—see! they bear him to the tomb!
Napoleon! thou in pomp may’st go
Through conquer’d cities, to and fro;
Thou, with thy myriads, may’st decide,
In dismal strife, the battletide;
Before thee rivers may retreat,
Victory humble at thy feet,
And Conquest come thy steps to greet,
With music in her train;
Renown may publish thy return
From battle—and the trophi’d urn
With incense fragrantly may burn
To welcome thee again:—
Oh! thou may’st rule each kingdom and each state,
Thou canst not change the destiny of fate;
And all thy might—thy glory—and thy pow’r
In vain essay to stop thy dying hour:—
Though thou may’st blast whole armies with thy breath,
Thou wilt not triumph o’er the shafts of Death!
Such is the will of heav’n!—When Fortune smil’d
In all her bounty on that infant child—
When Roman pride was humbled to the boy,
And Cæsar’s diadem became his toy;
When Gallia’s multitudes around him came
To rev’rence one who bore a hero’s name;
And when his father, in the ranks of war,
Pursu’d his endless victories afar—
Then, round the cradle where the infant lay,
The slaughtered foes were heap’d in grim array—
When all the world unto its centre shook,
And empires trembled at Napoleon’s look—
When the glad sire this heritage had won,
Sceptres and crowns—all destin’d for his son—
When marble palaces, in grandeur high,
Were rais’d to lodge the hero’s progeny—
And when delusive Hope unto his ear
Whisper’d bright promises of grandeur near—
When she stretched forth the honi’d bowl, his lip
Essay’d in vain the pois’nous sweets to sip,
For Austria’s angry Genius came between,
And bore him trembling from the joyous scene!
‘Twas sunset! Perch’d upon the loftiest tree,
An eagle rul’d the forest’s destiny:
But suddenly he fell—for from behind
Came with o’er-whelming force the rushing wind;
And England seized the eagle—and his brood
For vengeful Austria’s maw became the food.
Reader! dost seek to know the warrior’s fate?
Go, ask those Kings, whose prudence and whose hate
Consign’d the hero to a wetched isle,
Where joy was heard not—bliss ne’er seen to smile,
And where—O cursëd doom!—six years were spent,
Ling’ring and sad, in changeless banishment!
And had he not one single tender tie
Have lionhearts no soft’ning sympathy?
Oh! yes—his child—the infant that he lov’d,
From him so far across the seas remov’d:
And all he had to soothe what few endure,
In exile, was that infant’s miniature!
By night, when all the bitterness of thought
His faded greatness to his mem’ry brought—
What did he seek, that thus he turn’d his eye
Around—about—while sentries, pacing nigh,
Guarded the actions of the fallen man,
As though his very sentiments they’d scan:
What did he seek?—Twas not a sad review
Of all that he had compass’d or pass’d through;—
Moscow, Marengo, Austerlitz, Arcole,
The Pyramids, no longer fir’d his soul;
He scarce remember’d how th’Egyptian fled
When Cairo’s streets were cumber’d with the dead.
What did he seek?—Full twenty years of war—
Conquest—pursuit—retreat—and mortal jar
The banner waving in the roaring strife—
The rush of armies—and the waste of life
And all that once his fev’rish soul might please—
Oh! no—his wand’ring eye sought not for these!
That anxious glance hop’d not in exile’s hour
To witness aught of his departed pow’r:
Madrid, Aboukir, Kremlin, and the sound
Of martial music echoing far around;
The gallant warrior, dauntless in the fight—
Parade at morn—and bivouac at night—
All this he reck’d not for. His eye alone
Sought him that erst was destin’d for a throne,
The little infant who, in frolic mild,
Beauteous as blushing morn, had look’d and smild,
When first his father caught him to his breast,
And felt—let sire’s themselves suppose the rest!
But vainly sought his eye! St. Helen’s shore
Reecho’d to his sighs—heard him deplore—
And mark’d his misery.—Oh! thou sweet boy,
Whose mem’ry gave an exild parent joy,
And sooth’d th’acutest sorrows of his breast,
May’st thou live on in peace—may’st thou be blest!
But both are gone!—Great God! that speedy doom
Fed with no common food the craving tomb!
First fell the chieftain, who the world o’er came:
Ten years elaps’d—the relict of his name
Was call’d to join his parent—and the grave
Conquer’d the child whose sire thou would’st not save!
Pride—glory—youth—the tomb has taken them—
Nought left behind—no state—no diadem:
Death, unrelenting, hurri’d all away—
The mighty and the fair return’d to clay;
And dumb oblivion from the rolls of fame
Sought to efface an everlasting name!
Say, Lord! for thou alone canst tell,
Where lurks the good invisible
Among the waves of discord’s sea
That ocean all so dark to me!
Oppressive to a mighty state,
Contention’s feuds the people hate—
But who dare question that which fate
Has order’d to have been?
Haply the earthquake, and the roar
Of whrilpools, and the dang’rous shore—
Haply the foaming deep rolls o’er
Fair pearls that lie unseen!
Worse than a thousand tempests’ force,
Quicker than burning levin’s course,
Internal feuds spread, far and near,
Ruin to commoner and peer.—
Then wherefore chaunt thy song in vain,
Untimely bard!—In peace remain,
Nor waste unto the reckless main
A verse with ardour warm!
Thy voice is echo’d by the blast
Thy music to the wind has past;
And thou art lonely on the mast,
A bird amidst the storm!
That storm redoubles. In the sky
No spot is of an azure dye;
Threat’ning and dark the heav’n appears—
On earth are sorrows, wounds, and tears.
The seas of civil discord roll—
Trembles the globe from pole to pole—
Heroes and monarchs are undone,
With them Napoleon and his son!
As yet each wise essay is vain
To stop the inroads of the main;
Billows on foaming billows press—
And all is horror and distress!
Categories: 19th Century, Chants des Crepuscules, g w m reynolds, Napoleon, poem, Poetry, Songs of Twilight