American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 8

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From Poems of Places, vol. 9, France 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In honor of the new school year, “The School-Boy King” by Walter Thornbury, a poem that also appears in A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by William J. Hillis (1896). There the poem is given the following introduction:

Of Napoleon’s early childhood little is positively known. Accepting the corroborated record, as it stands, it would appear that he was a child with a disposition and a manner peculiarly his own. Not a loving or a companionable boy, but rather of a sullen, retiring nature; melancholy and irritable in his temperament and impatient of restraint. While his companions were enjoying themselves at play, natural to their age, he would wander off by himself and spend hours, with no other company than his own thoughts. There is still to be seen in Corsica the isolated rock, known as “Napoleon’s Grotto.” Tradition tells us that this was the favourite resort of the child, destined to become the conqueror of the world. He, himself, has said: “In my infancy I was extremely headstrong; nothing ever awed me; nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, mischievous; I was afraid of nobody; I beat one; I scratched another; I made myself formidable to the whole family.”

At the age of ten Napoleon entered the Military School at Brienne, near Paris, where he remained upwards of five years. His career while at that school is very aptly and concisely told in the following verses.

Thornbury’s poem is written from the teacher’s point of view, which folds in a very stupid prejudice against Corsica. A more hagiographic assessment of the brilliant, raging boy opens Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), viewable at Dailymotion (here). A beautiful stretch of film, with music by Arthur Honegger. In the film, the teacher’s anti-Corsican prejudice makes us sympathize with Napoleon. Here are some screen captures of the classroom sequence:


And here is the poem:

The School-Boy King

A scene at Brienne.

Le Père Petrault shut Virgil up
Just as the clock struck ten:
“This little Bonaparte,” he said,
“Is one of Plutarch’s men.
To see him with his massive head,
Gripped mouth, and swelling brow,
Wrestle with Euclid,—there he sat
Not half an hour from now.”

The good old pedagogue his book
Put slowly in its place;
“That Corsican,” he said, “has eyes
Like burning-glasses; race
Italian, as his mother said;
Barred up from friend and foe,
He toils all night, inflexible,
Forging it blow by blow.

“I know his trick of thought, the way
He covers up his mouth:
One hand like this, the other clenched,—
Those eyes of the hot South.
The little Caesar, how he strides,
Sleep-walking in the sun,
Only awaking at the roar
Of the meridian gun.

“I watched him underneath my book
That day he sprung the mine,
For when the earth-wall rocked and reeled,
His eyes were all a-shine ;
And when it slowly toppled down,
He leaped up on the heap
With fiery haste,—just as a wolf
Would spring upon a sheep.

“Pichegru, Napoleon’s monitor,
Tells me he’s dull and calm,
Tenacious, firm, submissive,—yes,
Our chain is on his arm.
Volcanic natures, such as his,
I dread;—may God direct
This boy to good, the evil quell,
His better will direct.

“Here is his Euclid book,—the ink
Still wet upon the rings;
These are the talismans some day
He’ll use to fetter kings.
To train a genius like this lad
I’ve prayed for years,—for years;
But now I know not whether hopes
Are not half-choked by fears.

“Last Monday, when they built that fort
With bastions of snow,
The ditch and spur and ravelin,
And terraced row on row,
‘Twas Bonaparte who cut the trench,
Who shaped the line of sap,—
A year or two, and he will be
First in war’s bloody gap.

“I see him now upon the hill,
His hands behind his back,
Waving the tricolour that led
The vanguard of attack;
And there, upon the trampled earth,
The ruins of the fort,
This Bonaparte, the school-boy king.
Held his victorious court.

“To see him give the shouting crowd
His little hand to kiss,
You’d think him never meant by God
For any lot but this.
And then with loud exulting cheers,
Upon their shoulders borne,
He rode with buried Caesar’s pride
And Alexander’s scorn.

“Ah! I remember, too, the day
The fire-balloon went up;
It burnt away into a star
Ere I went off to sup;
But he stood weeping there alone
Until the dark night came,
To think he had not wings to fly
And catch the passing flame.

“O, he is meant for mighty things,
This leader of my class;—
But there’s the bell that rings for me,
So let the matter pass.
You see that third-floor window lit,
The blind drawn half-way down;
That’s Bonaparte’s,—he ‘s at it now,—
It makes the dunces frown.”

Walter Thornbury.

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm

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