CROWNED AND BURIED
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
First printed in the Athenoeum for
July 4, 1840, as "Napoleon's Return." On
the 8th of the same month, Miss Barrett
wrote from Beacon Terrace, Torquay, to
H. S. Boyd: "The subject of the removal
of Napoleon's ashes is a fitter subject
for you than for me. Napoleon is no idol
of mine. I never made a 'setting sun'
of him. But my physician suggested the
subject as a noble one, and then there
was something suggestive in the consideration
that the Bellerophon lay on those very
bay-waters opposite my bed."
Napoleon! -- years ago, and that great word
Compact of human breath in hate and dread
And exultation, skied us overhead --
An atmosphere whose lightning was the sword
Scathing the cedars of the world, -- drawn down
In burnings, by the metal of a crown.
Napoleon! -- nations, while they cursed that name,
Shook at their own curse; and while others bore
Its sound, as of a trumpet, on before,
Brass-fronted legions justified its fame;
And dying men on trampled battle-sods
Near their last silence, uttered it for God's.
Napoleon! -- sages, with high foreheads drooped,
Did use it for a problem; children small
Leapt up to greet it, as at manhood's call;
Priests blessed it from their altars overstooped
By meek-eyed Christs; -- and widows with a moan
Spake it, when questioned why they sat alone.
That name consumed the silence of the snows
In Alpine keeping, holy and cloud-hid;
The mimic eagles dared what Nature's did,
And over-rushed her mountainous repose
In search of eyries; and the Egyptian river
Mingled the same word with its grand 'For ever.'
That name was shouted near the pyramidal
Nilotic tombs, whose mummied habitants,
Packed to humanity's significance,
Motioned it back with stillness, -- shouts as idle
As hireling artists' work of myrrh and spice
Which swathed last glories round the Ptolemies.
The world's face changed to hear it; kingly men
Came down in chidden babes' bewilderment
From autocratic places, each content
With sprinkled ashes for anointing: -- then
The people laughed, or wondered for the nonce,
To see one throne a composite of thrones.
Napoleon! -- even the torrid vastitude
Of India felt in throbbings of the air
That name which scattered by disastrous blare
All Europe's bound-lines, -- drawn afresh in blood.
Napoleon! -- from the Russias, west to Spain:
And Austria trembled till ye heard her chain.
And Germany was 'ware; and Italy
Oblivious of old fames -- her laurel-locked,
High-ghosted Caesars passing uninvoked --
Did crumble her own ruins with her knee,
To serve a newer: Ay! but Frenchmen cast
A future from them nobler than her past:
For verily though France augustly rose
With that raised NAME, and did assume by such
The purple of the world, none gave so much
As she in purchase -- to speak plain, in loss --
Whose hands, toward freedom stretched, dropped paralyzed
To wield a sword or fit an undersized
King's crown to a great man's head. And though along
Her Paris' streets, did float on frequent streams
Of triumph, pictured or emmarbled dreams
Dreamt right by genius in a world gone wrong, --
No dream of all so won, was fair to see
As the lost vision of her liberty.
Napoleon! -- 'twas a high name lifted high:
It met at last God's thunder sent to clear
Our compassing and covering atmosphere
And open a clear sight beyond the sky
Of supreme empire; this of earth's was done --
And kings crept out again to feel the sun.
The kings crept out -- the peoples sat at home,
And finding the long-invocated peace
(A pall embroidered with worn images
Of rights divine) too scant to cover doom
Such as they suffered, cursed the corn that grew
Rankly, to bitter bread, on Waterloo.
A deep gloom centred in the deep repose;
The nations stood up mute to count their dead:
And he who owned the NAME which vibrated
Through silence, -- trusting to his noblest foes
When earth was all too gray for chivalry,
Died of their mercies 'mid the desert sea.
O wild Saint Helen! very still she kept him,
With a green willow for all pyramid,
Which stirred a little if the low wind did,
A little more, if pilgrims overwept him,
Disparting the lithe boughs to see the clay
Which seemed to cover his for judgement-day.
Nay, not so long! France kept her old affection
As deeply as the sepulchre the corse;
Until, dilated by such love's remorse
To a new angel of the resurrection,
She cried, 'Behold, thou England! I would have
The dead, whereof thou wottest, from that grave.'
And England answered in the courtesy
Which, ancient foes turned lovers, may befit:
'Take back thy dead! and when thou buriest it,
Throw in all former strifes 'twixt thee and me.'
Amen, mine England! 'tis a courteous claim:
But ask a little room too -- for thy shame!
Because it was not well, it was not well,
Nor tuneful with thy lofty-chanted part
Among the Oceanides, -- that Heart
To bind and bare and vex with vulture fell.
I would, my noble England, men might seek
All crimson stains upon thy breast -- not cheek!
I would that hostile fleets had scarred Torbay,
Instead of the lone ship which waited moored
Until thy princely purpose was assured,
Then left a shadow, not to pass away --
Not for to-night's moon, nor to-morrow's sun:
Green watching hills, ye witnessed what was done!
But since it was done, -- in sepulchral dust
We fain would pay back something of our debt
To France, if not to honor, and forget,
How through much fear we falsified the trust
Of a fallen foe and exile. We return
Orestes to Electra -- in his urn.
A little urn -- a little dust inside,
Which once outbalanced the large earth, albeit
To-day a four-years child might carry it
Sleek-browed and smiling, 'Let the burden 'bide!'
Orestes to Electra! -- O fair town
Of Paris, how the wild tears will run down
And run back in the chariot-marks of time,
When all the people shall come forth to meet
The passive victor, death-still in the street
He rode through 'mid the shouting and bell-chime
And martial music, under eagles which
Dyed their rapacious beaks at Austerlitz!
Napoleon! -- he hath come again, borne home
Upon the popular ebbing heart, -- a sea
Which gathers its own wrecks perpetually,
Majestically moaning. Give him room!
Room for the dead in Paris! welcome solemn
And grave-deep, 'neath the cannon-moulded column!
There, weapon spent and warrior spent may rest
From roar of fields, -- provided Jupiter
Dare trust Saturnus to lie down so near
His bolts! -- and this he may: for, dispossessed
Of any godship lies the godlike arm --
The goat, Jove sucked, as likely to do harm.
And yet . . . Napoleon! -- the recovered name
Shakes the old casements of the world; and we
Look out upon the passing pageantry,
Attesting that the Dead makes good his claim
To a French grave, -- another kingdom won,
The last, of few spans -- by Napoleon.
Blood fell like dew beneath his sunrise -- sooth;
But glittered dew-like in the covenanted
Meridian light. He was a despot -- granted!
But the avros of his autocratic mouth
Said yea i' the people's French; he magnified
The image of the freedom he denied:
And if they asked for rights, he made reply
'Ye have my glory!' -- and so, drawing round them
His ample purple, glorified and bound them
In an embrace that seemed identity.
He ruled them like a tyrant -- true! but none
Were ruled like slaves: each felt Napoleon.
I do not praise this man: the man was flawed
For Adam -- much more, Christ! -- his knee unbent,
His hand unclean, his aspiration pent
Within a sword-sweep -- pshaw! -- but since he had
The genius to be loved, why, let him have
The justice to be honored in his grave.
I think this nations tears thus poured together,
Better than shouts. I think this funeral
Grander than crownings, though a Pope bless all.
I think this grave stronger than thrones. But whether
The crowned Napoleon or the buried clay
Be worthier, I discern not: Angels may.