Napoleon at Isola Bella

Edward Lytton

In the Isola Bella, upon the Lago Maggiore, where the richest vegetation of the tropics grows in the vicinity of the Alps, there is a lofty laurel-tree (the bay), tall as the tallest oak, on which, a few days before the battle of Marengo, Napoleon carved the word "battaglia." The bark has fallen away from the inscription, most of the letters are gone, and the few left are nearly effaced.

O fairy island of a fairy sea,
Wherein Calypso might have spelled the Greek,
Or Flora piled her fragrant treasury,
Culled from each shore her Zephyr's wings could seek. —
From rocks where aloes blow,

Tier upon tier, Hesperian fruits arise;
The hanging bowers of this soft Babylon;
An India mellows in the Lombard skies,
And changelings, stolen from the Lybian sun,
Smile to yon Alps of snow.

Amid this gentlest dream-land of the wave,
Arrested, stood the wondrous Corsican;
As if one glimpse the better angel gave
Of the bright garden-life vouchsafed to man
Ere blood defiled the world.

He stood — that grand Sesostris of the North —
While paused the car to which were harnessed kings;
And in the airs, that lovingly sighed forth
The balms of Araby, his eagle-wings
Their sullen thunder furled.

And o'er the marble hush of those large brows,
Dread with the awe of the Olympian nod,
A giant laurel spread its breathless boughs,
The prophet-tree of the dark Pythian god,
Shadowing the doom of thrones!

What, in such hour of rest and scene of joy,
Stirs in the cells of that unfathomed brain?
Comes back one memory of the musing boy,
Lone gazing o'er the yet unmeasured main,
Whose waifs are human bones?

To those deep eyes doth one soft dream return?
Soft with the bloom of youth's unrifled spring,
When Hope first fills from founts divine the urn,
And rapt Ambition, on the angel's wing,
Floats first through golden air?

Or doth that smile recall the midnight street,
When thine own star the solemn ray denied,
And to a stage-mime,* for obscure retreat
From hungry Want, the destined Caesar sighed ?—
Still Fate, as then, asks prayer.

Under that prophet-tree thou standest now;
Inscribe thy wish upon the mystic rind;
Hath the warm human heart no tender vow
Linked with sweet household names? — no hope enshrined
Where thoughts are priests of Peace.

Or, if dire Hannibal thy model be,
Dread lest, like him, thou bear the thunder home!
Perchance ev'n now a Scipio dawns for thee,
Thou doomest Carthage while thou smitest Rome—
Write, write, " Let carnage cease!"

Whispers from heaven have strife itself informed; —
"Peace" was our dauntless Falkland's latest sigh,
Navarre's frank Henry fed the forts he stormed,
Wild Xerxes wept the hosts he doomed to die!
Ev'n War pays dues to Love!

Note how harmoniously the art of Man
Blends with the Beautiful of Nature! see
How the true Laurel of the Delian
Shelters the Grace! — Apollo's peaceful tree
Blunts ev'n the bolt of Jove.

Write on the sacred bark such votive prayer,
As the mild Power may grant in coming years,
Some word to make thy memory gentle there;
More than renown, kind thought for men endears
A Hero to Mankind.

Slow moved the mighty hand — a tremor shook
The leaves, and hoarse winds groaned along the wood;
The Pythian tree the damning sentence took,
And to the sun the battle-word of blood
Glared from the gashing rind.

So thou hast writ the word, and signed thy doom:
Farewell, and pass upon thy gory way,
The direful skein the pausing Fates resume!
Let not the Elysian grove thy steps delay
From thy Promethean goal.

The fatal tree the abhorrent word retained,
Till the last Battle on its bloody strand
Flung what were nobler had no life remained, —
The crownless front and the disarmed hand
And the foiled Titan Soul;

Now, year by year, the warrior's iron mark
Crumbles away from the majestic tree,
The indignant life-sap ebbing from the bark
Where the grim death-word to Humanity
Profaned the Lord of Day.

High o'er the pomp of blooms, as greenly still,
Aspires that tree — the Archetype of Fame,
The stem rejects all chronicle of ill;
The bark shrinks back — the tree survives the same —
The record rots away.

Batino, Oct. 8, 1845.

Lake Maggiore in Italy is famous for its beauty. Isola Bella is one of its jewels. The oak, and the writing upon it, have long disappeared.

Dsepite his life of despotism and bloodshed, the romantic vision of Napoleon remains. Many poets have been inspired to write about Napoleon and places associated with him. For instance there are many poems about the battle of Waterloo. There are also poems about St Helena, where he ended his life in lonely exile.

The island of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, Italy