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


The Retreat from Moscow

By Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

THE YELLOW snow-fog curdled thick,

Dark, brooding, dull, and brown,

About the ramparts hiding all

The steeples of the town;

The icicles, as thick as beams,

Hung down from every roof,

When all at once we heard a sound

As of a muffled hoof.

’T was nothing but a soldier’s horse,

All riderless and torn

With bullets; scarce his bleeding legs

Could reach the gate. A morn

Of horror broke upon us then;

We listened, but no drum,—

Only a sullen, distant roar

Telling us that they come.

Next, slowly staggering through the fog,

A grenadier reeled past,

A bloody turban round his head,

His pallid face aghast.

Behind him, with an arm bound up

With half a Russian flag,

Came one, then three, the last one sopped

His breast with crimson rag.

Quick all at once a sullen bell

Upon the gateway tower

Broke out, to warn our citizens

Napoleon’s savage power

Had gone to wreck, and these the waifs

Were making fast to land.

It bade us look to see the hulk

Sucked hellward by the sand.

All day the frozen, bleeding men

Came pouring through the place;

Drums broken, colors torn to shreds,

Foul wounds on every face.

Black powder-wagons, scorched and split,

Broad wheels caked thick with snow,

Red bayonets bent, and swords that still

Were reeking from the blow.

A drunken rabble, pale and wan,

With cursing faces turned

To where, still threatening in the rear,

The port-fires lurid burned.

The ground was strewn with epaulettes,

Letters, and cards, and songs:

The barrels, leaking drops of gold,

Were trampled by the throngs.

A brutal, selfish, goring mob,

Yet here and there a trace

Of the divine shone out, and lit

A gashed and suffering face.

Here came a youth, who on his back

His dying father bore;

With bandaged feet the brave youth limped,

Slow, shuddering, dripping gore.

And even mid the trampling crowd,

Maimed, crippled by the frost,

I found that every spark of good

Was not extinct and lost.

Deep in the ranks of savage men

I saw two grenadiers

Leading their corporal, his breast

Stabbed by the Cossack spears.

He saved that boy whose tearful eyes

Were fixed upon the three,—

Although too weak to beat his drum

Still for his company.

Half stripped, or wrapped in furs and gowns,

The broken ranks went on;

They ran if any one called out

“The Cossacks of the Don!”

The whispered rumor, like a fire,

Spreads fast from street to street;

With boding look and shaking head

The staring gossips meet:

“Ten thousand horses every night

Were smitten by the frost;

Full thirty thousand rank and file

In Beresina lost.

“The Cossacks fill their caps with gold

The Frenchmen fling away.

Napoleon was shot the first,

And only lived a day,—

They say that Caulaincourt is lost,—

The guns are left behind;

God’s curse has fallen on these thieves,—

He sent the snow and wind.”

Tired of the clatter and the noise,

I sought an inner room,

Where twenty waxlights, starry clear,

Drove off the fog and gloom.

I took my wanton Ovid down,

And soon forgot the scene,

As through my dreams I saw arise

The rosy-bosomed queen.

My wine stood mantling in the glass,

(The goblet of Voltaire),

I sipped and dozed, and dozed and sipped,

Slow rocking in my chair,

When open flew the bursting door,

And Caulaincourt stalked in,

Tall, gaunt, and wrapped in frozen furs,

Hard frozen to his skin.


The wretched hag of the low inn

Puffed at the sullen fire

Of spitting wood, that hissed and smoked;

There stood the Jove whose ire

But lately set the world aflame,

Wrapped in a green pelisse,

Fur-lined, and stiff with half-burnt lace,

Trying to seem at ease.

“Bah! du sublime au ridicule

Il n’y a qu’un pas,”

He said. “The rascals think they ’ve made

A comet of my star.

The army broken,—dangers?—pish!—

I did not bring the frost.

Levy ten thousand Poles, Duroc,—

Who tells me we have lost?

“I beat them everywhere, Murat,—

It is a costly game;

But nothing venture, nothing win,—

I ’m sorry now we came.

That burning Moscow was a deed

Worthy of ancient Rome,—

Mind that I gild the Invalides

To match the Kremlin dome.

“Well? well as Beelzebub himself!”

He leaped into the sleigh

Sent forth to bear this Cæsar off

Upon his ruthless way.

A flash of fire!—the courtyard stones

Snapped out,—the landlord cheered,—

In a hell-gulf of pitchy dark

The carriage disappeared.