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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Russia: Vol. XX. 1876–79.

Beresina, the River

Passage of the Beresina

By Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791–1865)

ON with the cohorts,—on! A darkening cloud

Of Cossack lances hovers o’er the heights;

And hark!—the Russian thunder on the rear

Thins the retreating ranks.
The haggard French,

Like summoned spectres, facing toward their foes,

And goading on the lean and dying steeds

That totter ’neath their huge artillery,

Give desperate battle. Wrapt in volumed smoke

A dense and motley mass of hurried forms

Rush toward the Beresina. Soldiers mix

Undisciplined amid the feebler throng,

While from the rough ravines the rumbling cars

That bear the sick and wounded, with the spoils,

Torn rashly from red Moscow’s sea of flame,

Line the steep banks. Chilled with the endless shade

Of black pine-forests, where unslumbering winds

Make bitter music,—every heart is sick

For the warm breath of its far, native vales,

Vine-clad and beautiful. Pale, meagre hands

Stretched forth in eager misery, implore

Quick passage o’er the flood. But there it rolls,

’Neath its ice-curtain, horrible and hoarse,

A fatal barrier ’gainst its country’s foes.

The combat deepens. Lo! in one broad flash

The Russian sabre gleams, and the wild hoof

Treads out despairing life.
With maniac haste

They throng the bridge, those fugitives of France,

Reckless of all, save that last, desperate chance,—

Rush, struggle, strive, the powerful thrust the weak,

And crush the dying.
Hark! a thundering crash,

A cry of horror! Down the broken bridge

Sinks, and the wretched multitude plunge deep

’Neath the devouring tide. That piercing shriek

With which they took their farewell of the sky,

Did haunt the living, as some doleful ghost

Troubleth the fever-dream. Some for a while,

With ice and death contending, sink and rise,

While some in wilder agony essay

To hold their footing on that tossing mass

Of miserable life, making their path

O’er palpitating bosoms. ’T is in vain!

The keen pang passes and the satiate flood

Shuts silent o’er its prey.
The severed host

Stand gazing on each shore. The gulf,—the dead

Forbid their union. One sad throng is warned

To Russia’s dungeons, one with shivering haste

Spread o’er the wild, through toil and pain to hew

Their many roads to death. From desert plains,

From sacked and solitary villages

Gaunt Famine springs to seize them; Winter’s wrath,

Unresting day or night, with blast and storm,

And one eternal magazine of frost,

Smites the astonished victims.
God of Heaven!

Warrest thou with France, that thus thine elements

Do fight against her sons? Yet on they press,

Stern, rigid, silent,—every bosom steeled

By the strong might of its own misery

Against all sympathy of kindred ties.

The brother on his fainting brother treads;

Friend tears from friend the garment and the bread,—

That last, scant morsel, which his quivering lip

Hoards in its death-pang. Round the midnight fires,

That fiercely through the startled forest blaze,

The dreaming shadows gather, madly pleased

To bask and scorch and perish,—with their limbs

Crisped like the martyr’s, and their heads fast sealed

To the frost-pillow of their fearful rest.

Turn back, turn back, thou fur-clad emperor,

Thus toward the palace of the Tuileries

Flying with breathless speed. Yon meagre forms,

Yon breathing skeletons, with tattered robes,

And bare and bleeding feet, and matted locks,

Are these the high and haughty troops of France,

The buoyant conscripts, who from their blest homes

Went gayly at thy bidding? When the cry

Of weeping Love demands her cherished ones,

The nursed upon her breast,—the idol-gods

Of her deep worship,—wilt thou coldly point

The Beresina,—the drear hospital,

The frequent snow-mound on the unsheltered march,

Where the lost soldier sleeps!
O War! War! War!

Thou false baptized, who by thy vaunted name

Of glory stealest o’er the ear of man

To rive his bosom with thy thousand darts,

Disrobed of pomp and circumstance, stand forth,

And show thy written league with sin and death.

Yes, ere ambition’s heart is seared and sold

And desolated, bid him mark thine end

And count thy wages.
The proud victor’s plume,

The hero’s trophied fame, the warrior’s wreath

Of blood-dashed laurel,—what will these avail

The spirit parting from material things?

One slender leaflet from the tree of peace,

Borne, dove-like, o’er the waste and warring earth,

Is better passport at the gate of Heaven.