St Helena

Timothy Adés

Victor Hugo translated by Timothy Adès
 
He fell; and God changed Europe's iron bands.
 
Far in the fog-bound seas a vile rock stands,
Belched up by old volcanoes. Destiny
Took nails and clamps and neck-irons, gleefully,
Seized him who stole the thunder, living, pale,
And dragged him to the grizzled peak, to nail
Him down, and with a mocking laugh to start
The vulture England gnawing at his heart.
 
                          *
 
Immeasurable splendour, passed away!
From earliest sunrise till the end of day
Ever alone, abandoned, caged in prison;
A redcoat near; beyond, the sea’s horizon.
Bare rocks, grim woods, depression, emptiness:
Sails passing, fleeing into hopelessness.
The sound of winds and waves for evermore!
Farewell, white horse that Caesar spurs to war,
Farewell the pounding drums, the stratagem,
The purple tent, the plumes, the diadem!
No quaking prostrate kings inferior;
No robe trailed over them; no emperor.
Napoleon was reduced to Bonaparte.
He thought of Moscow burning, sick at heart
As Roman bleeding from the Parthian bolt:
An English corporal, to bid him Halt!
Kings held his son; his wife was spoken for;
Worse than a pig that wallows in a sewer,
His senate cursed him, worshipping no more.
When ocean winds fall still, he walked the shore
On cliffs that crumbled in black heaps of stone,

The dark waves’ captive, dreaming and alone.
As bygone battles still amazed his eye,
With rueful pride on hill and sea and sky
He cast his thoughts, to stray on high adventure.
Grandeur and glory, void! the calm of nature!
Eagles pass by, not knowing who he is.
The kings, his jailers, took their compasses
And closed him in a ring inflexible.
He sickened. Death more and more visible
Rose in the night and grew before his eyes,
Like the cold breaking of a strange sunrise.
His soul, that fluttered still, was almost fled.
At last he laid his sword upon his bed,
And took his place, and said ‘This is the day.’
Wrapped in his old Marengo cloak he lay.
Nile, Danube, Tiber: battles on his brow
Gathered. Said he: ‘I am unfettered now!
I am victorious! Come, my eagles, fly!’
And as he turned his head aside to die,
Intruding in the empty house he saw
Hudson Lowe watching through the half-closed door.
The kings beneath their heel had trampled him!
‘Full measure!’ cried the giant; ‘to the brim!
Now it is finished! God whom I implore,
Thy chastening’s done!’ The voice said, ‘There is More!’

The 'He' of course, is Napoleon, who was exiled to this remote island after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon is the real inspiration behind many poems about St Helena.

Hudson Lowe was the British governor of St Helena, effectively Napoleon's jailor.


Main Location:

Longwood House, St Helena, Saint Helena


Other locations:

View of Longwood House and the peak of St Helena, 1817