Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow

Victor Hugo

Translated by Timothy Adès

Snow fell. By his own conquest overpowered,
For the first time the eagle's head was lowered.
In slow retreat the emperor (dark days!)
Left in his wake charred Moscow still ablaze.
Snow fell. Harsh winter loosed her avalanche,
And white expanse led on to white expanse.
Rank went unrecognised, the colours blurred,
The once Grand Army had become a herd.
The flanks and centre could not be descried.
Snow fell. The wounded huddled up inside
Dead horses' bellies; buglers, white with frost,
Stiff in the saddle, frozen at their post,
Manned windswept bivouacs, erect, alone,
The brass clamped silent to their lips of stone.
Shells, bullets, grapeshot rained, with every flake.
Guardsmen, surprised to learn their limbs could shake,
Trudged, pensive; ice on grey moustaches bristled.
Snow fell unceasingly; the cold wind whistled;
Onward across uncharted wastes they trod,
Starving and barefoot on the frozen mud,
No longer living hearts, nor soldiery,
A dream that strayed in fog, a mystery,
A string of shadows on funereal sky.
The fearsome wasteland stretched out endlessly,
A mute avenging presence all around.
The sky and thick-massed snow without a sound
Made a great shroud round the great army lying;
Each was alone; each knew that he was dying.
Could they escape this vast and sombre power?
Two foes! the czar, the north: the north, more dour.
Who lay down, died. Confused, dejected, solemn,
They fled: the barren waste devoured the column.
Gun-carriages were burned, the guns were ditched.

The snow all puckered over drapes rough-pitched
Marked where his regiments in slumber lay.
Hannibal routed! Attila's reckoning-day!
Barrows, kegs, stretchers, fugitives, wounded, slain,
Crammed bridges till they trod dry ground again.
Ten thousand slept, a hundred woke next day.
Late leader of an army, Marshal Ney
Fought for his pocket-watch with three Cossacks.
Each night brought skirmishes, alerts, attacks!
Each night these phantoms grasped their guns; they heard
Yelps of the bald marauding carrion-bird:
Saw hurtling at them monstrous looming forms,
Horrible squadrons, men in bestial swarms.
Thus a whole army perished in the night.
The emperor stood at hand, took in the sight;
He was a tree to whom the axe was laid:
Upon this giant there climbed with deadly blade
Misfortune, the grim woodman; long intact
And proud the tree had stood; now rudely hacked,
The living oak shook at the vengeful blast
Of doom, and saw his branches fall at last.
All ranks were dying. Remnants round his tent,
Loving him as his shadow came and went
Across the canvas, trusting in his star,
Charged fate with treason! Now the emperor,
Suddenly, deeply stricken by the rout,
His spirit overcome and full of doubt,
Turned towards God: the man of glory quailed:
Such was his due for having somehow failed:
His expiation. This he seemed to know;
Before his legions scattered on the snow,
Thus said Napoleon, pale and wondering:
`O Lord of hosts, is this the chastening?'
He listened; and his name was called, and lo,
One in the shadow spoke, who told him: No!

Main Location:

Moscow, Russia