Category Archives: Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo: “The Retreat From Moscow”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.




It snowed. A defeat was our conquest red !

For once the Eagle was hanging its head.

Sad days! the Emperor turned slowly his back

On smoking Moscow, blent orange and black.

The winter burst, avalanche-like, to reign

Over the endless blanched sheet of the plain.


Nor chief, nor banner in order could keep.

The wolves of warfare were ‘wildered like sheep.

The wings from centre could hardly be known

Through snow o’er horses and carts o’erthrown,

Where froze the wounded. In the bivouacs forlorn

Strange sights and gruesome met the breaking morn :


Mute were the bugles, while the men bestrode

Steeds turned to marble, unheeding the goad.

The shells and bullets came down with the snow

As though the heavens hated these poor troops below.

Surprised at trembling, though it was with cold.

Who ne’er had trembled out of fear, the veterans bold

Marched stern ; to grizzled moustache hoar-frost clung

‘Neath banners that in leaden masses hung.

It snowed, went snowing still. And chill the breeze

Whistled upon the glassy, endless seas,

Where naked feet on, on for ever went,

With naught to eat, and not a sheltering tent.



They were not living troops as seen in war,

But merely phantoms of a dream, afar

In darkness wandering, amid the vapour dim—

A mystery ; of shadows a procession grim,

Nearing a blackening sky, into its rim.

Frightful, since boundless, solitude behold

Where only Nemesis wove, mute and cold,

A net all snowy with its soft meshes dense,

A shroud of magnitude for host immense ;


Till every one felt as if left alone

In a wide wilderness where no light shone,

To die, with pity none, and none to see

That from this mournful realm none should get free.

Their foes the frozen North and Czar—That, worse.

Cannons were broken up in haste accurst

To burn the frames and make the pale fire high,

Where those lay down who never woke, or woke to die.


Sad and commingled, groups that blindly fled

Were swallowed smoothly by the desert dread.

‘Neath folds of blankness, monuments were raised

O’er regiments. And History, amazed,

Could not record the ruin of this retreat,

Unlike a downfall known before the defeat

Of Hannibal—reversed and wrapped in gloom!

Of Attila, when nations met their doom !


Perished an army—fled French glory then.

Though there the Emperor ! he stood and gazed

At the wild havoc, like a monarch dazed

In woodland hoar, who felt the shrieking saw

He, living oak, beheld his branches fall, with awe.

Chiefs, soldiers, comrades died. But still warm love

Kept those that rose all dastard fear above.


As on his tent they saw his shadow pass—

Backwards and forwards, for they credited, alas !

His fortune’s star! it could not, could not be

That he had not his work to do—a destiny ?

To hurl him headlong from his high estate,

Would be high treason in his bondman. Fate,

But all the while he felt himself alone,

Stunned with disasters few have ever known.


Sudden, a fear came o’er his troubled soul.

What more was written on the Future’s scroll ?

Was this an expiation ? It must be, yea !

Returned to God for one enlightening ray.

” Is this the vengeance, Lord of Hosts? ” he sighed,

But the first murmur on his parched lips died.

” Is this the vengeance ? Must my glory set”

A pause : his name was called ; of flame a jet

Sprang in the darkness—a Voice

answered: “No! Not yet.”

Outside still fell the smothering snow.

Was it a voice indeed ? or but a dream !

It was the vulture’s, but how like the sea-bird’s scream.

Victor Hugo: “The Grande Armée”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

While the Revolution went on and its effect were being felt from one end of France to the other; while the guillotine ran red with blood, and brother condemned brother to suffer beneath its awful knife; while it was a question of extreme doubt what precise form the government would assume, the soldiers of France, fighting her battles on the frontiers, held firm for the honour of their country. Barefooted, without arms and without food, they fought against combined Europe. Victory after victory they won; until, driven beyond the Rhine, the invaders were glad to sue for peace. These were the men who were to make possible the name of Napoleon, and well did they merit better than they then received. The glory, the honour, the future of France were in their keeping, and never once did they betray the trust.





Soldiers of our Year Two! O wars! O epic songs!

Drawing at once their swords against all Crowned Wrongs,

In Prussian, Austrian bounds,

And against all the Tyres and Sodoms of the earth,

And him the man-hunter, the Tzar o’ the icy North,

Follow’d by all his hounds.


And against Europe all, with all its captains proud,

With all its foot-soldiers whose might the plains did crowd,

With all its horsemen fleet,

All risen against France, with many a hydra head—

They sang as on they march’d, their spirits without dread,

And without shoes their feet.


At early dawn, at eve, South, North, and everywhere,

With their old muskets on their shoulders, rattling there,

Passing both rock and flood,

Without sleep or rest, foodless, and ragged too,

Joyous and proud they went, and their shrill trumpets blew.

As only demons could.


Sublimest Liberty fill’d evermore their thought;

Fleets taken sword in hand, and frontiers set at nought—

So sovereignly they go;

O France! On every day some prodigy they dare—

Encounters, combats, shocks—on Adige’ side Joubert,

And on the Rhine Marceau.


The vanguard they o’ercame, the centre thy o’erthrew;

In the snow, and in the rain, water their middles to,

On went they, ever on:

And one sued them for peace, and one flung wide his gate;

And thrones were scattered like dead leaves, here of late,

Now at the wind’s breath gone.


O soldiers! You were grand, in the midst of battle-shocks,

With your lightning-flashing eyes and wild dishevel’d locks

In the wild whirlwind black;

Impetuous, ardent, radiant, tossing back your heads,

Like lions snuffing up the North-wind when he treads

Upon his tempest track!


Drunken and madly rapt in their great epic deeds,

They savour’d all the mirth of most heroic needs—

Steel clashing here and there,

The winged Marseillaise flying amid the balls,

The grenades and the drums, the bomb-shells and cymbals,

And thy clear laugh, Kleber!


The Revolution cried—Die, O my volunteers!

Die to deliver all the people from their fears!

Their answering hands they raised.

Go, my old soldiers! Go, my beardless generals!

And Victory proudly march’d to the sound of bare foot falls

Over the world amazed.


Disheartening and fear to them were all unknown;

They had without a doubt over the high clouds gone,

If their audacity

In its Olympic race one moment had look’d back,

And seen the Republic point over their glorious track

Her finger to the sky.






Victor Hugo: “Ode To The Column of Napoleon”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

Soon after the victory of Austerlitz, peace was declared and Napoleon was at liberty once more to return to his beloved Paris.  There, he devoted himself, with all the force of his mighty genius, to the creation of those magnificent works of art and of public utility which stamp his name on the history of France even to this day.

Out of the cannon taken from his enemies, he constructed that noble monument in the Place Vendome, which told so vividly the exploits of the Grand Army, to whose fidelity and courage it was consecrated.



On the foundation that his glory laid,
With indestructible materials made,
Alike secure from ruin and from rust,
Before whose might all monuments are dust,
The eternal Column, towering far on high,
Presents Napoleon’s throne unto the sky.

Well deemed the hero, when his sovereign hand,
Fatigued with war, the lasting trophy planned,
That civil discord would retire in shame
Before the vast memorial of his name;
And that the nation would forget to praise
The deeds of those who shone in ancient days..

Around the earth his veterans he had led,
O’er smoking fields encumbered with the dead,
And from the presence of that host so true
Armies and kings in wild confusion flew,
Leaving their ponderous cannon on the plain,
A prey to him and his victorious train!

Then, when the fields of France again were trod,
By him who came triumphant as a god,
Bearing the spoils of the defeated world,
He came mid joyous cries and flags unfurled,
Welcome as eagle to her infant brood
That waits on mountain-top its daily food!

But he, intent on his stupendous aims,
Straightway proceeds to where the furnace flames;
And while his troops, with haste and zealous glow,
The massive ordinance in the caldron throw,
He to the meanest artisan unfolds
His plans to form the fashion of the moulds.

Then to the war he led his troops once more,
And from the foe the palm of conquest bore,
He drove the opponent armies from the plain,
And seized their dread artillery again,
As good material for the Column high,
Built to perpetuate his memory!

Such was his task!  The roaring culverin,
The spur, the sabre, and the mortar’s din,
These were his earliest sports till Egypt gave
Her ancient pyramids his smile to save;
Then, when the imperial crown adorned his brow,
He raised the monument we reverence now!

He raised that monument!  The grandest age
Which e’er the historian’s annals might engage
Furnished the subject, and the end of time
Shall boast that emblem of his course sublime;
Where Rhine and Tiber rolled in crimson flood,
And the tall snow-capped Alps all trembling stood!

For even as the giant race of old
Ossa on Pelion, mount on mountain, rolled,
To scale high heaven’s towers, so he has made
His battles serve to help his escalade;
And thus to gratify his fancy wild,
Wagram, Arcole, on Austerlitz were piled!

The sun unveiled himself in beauty bright,
The eyes of all beamed gladness and delight,
When, with unruffled visage, thou did’st come,
Here of France!  Unto the Place Vendome,
To mark thy Column towering from the ground,
And the four eagles ranged the base around.

‘T was then, environed by thy warriors tried,
As erst the Romans flocked to Aemilius’ side,
“T was then each child – each infant, on whose head
Six summers scarcely had their radiance shed –
Murmured applause, and clapped their little hands,
And spied their fathers midst thy serried bands.

Oh, when thou stood’st there, godlike, proud, and great,
Pondering on conquest, majesty, and state,
Who would have thought that e’er the time could be
When a base senate should dishonour thee,
And cavil o’er thine ashes, for Vendome
At least is worthy to become thy tomb!