Death of Napoleon

Winner of The Cambridge University Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse in 1921.

The Chancellor’s Gold Medal is a prestigious annual award at Cambridge University for an English poem of substantial length. (See Wikipedia for a list of recipients since 1813.) Until recent decades, the topic for the poem was set each year and a classical style expected.

Napoleon was the topic for 1921, that year being the 100th anniversary of Napoleon’s death in exile on the island of St Helena. The final defeat of Napoleon by the English also had parallels with the defeat of another European enemy in the Great War only three years previously, and it gave scope for the expression of pride and love of country that were understandably current during the period.

Roy Falcy’s poem won the award, which consisted of a large solid gold medallion. Falcy later sold his gold medal to pay for an operation to save his brother Louis Falcy, who had a brain tumour.

The Death of Napoleon

“What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole World and lose his soul?”

Darkness is falling, and daylight dies;
Now, at long last, the long day’s done:
Back to the branches the fire-bird flies,
And stars flash out in tropic skies
One by one.
This is the end of a day that seemed
So golden of promise, so rich to spend:
This is the death of bright Hope that gleamed
And never of fall of darkness dreamed –
This is the end.

This is the island of St Helene,
The island of passion, and shame, and spite:
These blue waters have the warders been
Of one in a faded tunic green
Until tonight.
There, in the hollow, a low house stands
In an alien piece, with a curse upon;
‘Tis guarded and girdled with iron bands,
For this is the Palace, these are the lands,
Of Napoleon.

Now, at the end of six long years,
He shall escape, go free tonight;
He shall escape from sorrow, from tears,
Be troubled no more of hopes, of fears,
Shame, or spite:
There, in the corner, a low bed bears
Wreckage of all that this man has been;
Deaf is he now to the Priest’s low prayers,
And over the Past his memory fares,
Scene by scene.

And now, in the gloom, by some strange chance,
Some freak of fancy, his musings stay,
And he stands in a dungeon-cell in France
Where one with an English countenance
Has pined away.
He sees five verses upon the wall,
Writ by the dying English lad;
Calls for a clerk, and hears the scrawl
Melt into poetry’s rise and fall,
Sweetly sad.

They call it the Song of the Galloper,
(“’Tis an Ode to Fancy,” had whispered he),
But Napoleon jests and says, “You err;
“’Tis neither an Ode nor a Song, parbleu!
“’Tis an Elegy!”
nd now, in the midst of pangs and pains,
Now, in his weakness, who was so strong,
Now, when life to its last ebb drains,
Napoleon harks to the sad refrains
Of the Galloper’s song.

Go quickly, Fancy! Dawn is here –
One more day of bondage breaks –
Hie thee to meadow and marsh and mere,
And back to thy homestead hasten ere
Memory wakes:
Then take me beneath thy magic sway;
Tell me the tales I long to hear;
Sit by my side the livelong day;
Cheer my woe, and charm away
Sigh and tear!

Go quickly, Fancy! beat thy wing
To the lanes I love but may not see;
Colour and song and scented thing
Read with a lightning glance and bring
Back to me:
Paint me the peace of gnat-hung pond,
The stir of the village school at play;
Bring lovely vision and fancy fond,
Till every fetter that makes me bond
Falls away!

Go quickly, Fancy! seek the stream
Which in days gone by I call’d my own;
Sit on its banks awhile, and dream;
Watch, as it glides, each glint and gleam;
Hear its tone:
Then tell me what sang the rustling sedge,
And how the wet vole, with glist’ning train,
Cross’d and climb’d to his miry ledge,
Till down along by the water’s edge
I roam again!

Go quickly, Fancy! find some field
Where poppies hide in the golden corn,
And sickles ring which the reapers wield,
And the covey starts up which lay conceal’d
Since the dawn:
Shew me the waggons laden high;
Sing me the song of the lark that rose
Higher and higher into the sky,
Till thou be tired at last, and I
Forget my woes!

Go quickly, Fancy! Darkness falls –
One more journey make for me –
Thou that dissolvest dungeon walls,
Spirit whose whisper’d word forestalls
Go fetch me the hues behind the hill
Where the weary shepherd folds his sheep;
Sigh me the sound of the ceasing mill;
Tinkle the ewe-bell softly till
I fall asleep! …

The music is ended; Napoleon stirs:
He hears not the Priest, nor the prayer’s intent,
But he ponders those lines of the English verse,
And he thinks of that Song of the Galloper’s
And all that it meant …
And e’en as he trembled on Styx’s bank,
Hearing its horrible waters roll,
Something of England his spirit drank,
And the elegy’s strange wild beauty sank
Into his soul.

And he looked in the English mind at last,
And the source of her stubborn strength he knew –
Of the sailor hammering flag to mast –
Of Wellington’s soldiers standing fast
At Waterloo.
For now, as from Earth he slipped away,
From all that ambition had held most dear,
Now, in the dusk of his dying Day,
When the glittering Past in ruins lay,
His mind was clear.

“I know not the flowers of Corsica,
“The blossoms of France are nought to me;
“Nothing to me her waters are:
“I have not loved one stick, one star,
“One stem, one tree.
“I have been bondsman: the English free.
“I am the slave of power, of pelf.
“The thoughts of the English, where’er they be,
“Are ‘England, England across the sea!’
“Mine, ‘Myself!’”

His mind was clear, his heart was clean,
And, as memory swept the Past,
He glimpsed the glory that migh have been. …
And tears to the faded tunic green
Came rolling fast.
And he that had never wept before,
He that had neither laughed nor smiled,
He that had slaughtered and wished them more,
He that was hard to the very core,
Wept like a child.

Not with Defeat, with fled Renown,
Not with Despair, his grief condoles:
He weepeth not for a stolen Crown.
At last, at last, the tears flow down
For other souls.
“I was the man, the power was mine,
“To succour the wretched, cast chains away;
“And I, who might order the sun to shine,
“I, whom men hallowed as half-divine,
“Was common clay.”

*     *     *

This was the end of a Day that seemed
So golden of promise, so rich to spend:
This was the death of bright Hope that gleamed,
And of dreams by Europe’s millions dreamed –
This was the end.
For now heart ceases, now fais breath:
The Soldier has drunk of his bitter glass –
And “Who goes there?” God’s sentry saith:
“God’s enemy once,” he answereth –
“Napoleon, pass!”


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