‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.



9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rhchatlien
    Oct 21, 2013 @ 13:52:26

    Interesting. From the title, I expected a long poem. This is so evocative and captures so much with so little. I had to describe the Russia campaign in my forthcoming novel (which is about Napoleon’s American sister-in-law). Such colossal arrogance and stupidity leading to so much death. The Russia campaign, not my novel. 🙂


    • emilyardagh
      Oct 21, 2013 @ 13:58:04

      Thanks for commenting. How interesting that you wrote about the Russian campaign in your novel — you must be a lot more knowledgable about it than me! I agree, though, that what strikes about it most is the stupidity of such arrogance leading to so much death. I think this poem captures that so well. Your novel sounds very intriguing 🙂


      • rhchatlien
        Oct 21, 2013 @ 14:15:14

        It wasn’t in depth. Just a summary of the news as it filtered back to America. My main character’s life (she was a real person) was very intriguing. Lots of twists and turns, which is what drew me to the story.

  2. kainzow06
    Oct 21, 2013 @ 15:46:32

    Napoleon Bonaparte was called ‘the most competent person on Earth’.
    He was the epitome of courage and determination:even after being exiled on a faraway island,he managed to build an army by rallying some villagers to his side,and escaped!
    Yep: I hold a fascination for Napoleon,have books about him,and once put his picture as my wallpaper.He is one of the historical figures whom I most look up to!

    I think from now on,de La Mare’s ‘Napoleon’ is going to be my favourite poem!It really is beautiful! But without your analysing this poem,I wouldn’t have been able to decipher its beauty,let alone discover it!
    So thanks a lot for sharing! It was great post! 🙂


  3. theopposablecat
    Oct 21, 2013 @ 19:24:43

    This is incredible, I’m always amazed by how much you see in a poem and your ability to convey that. Love this analysis, I almost feel sorry for Napoleon…but not quite. 🙂


  4. Tim
    Oct 21, 2013 @ 22:10:30

    Napoleon has a reputation of never lacking for confidence, and this poem captures that perfectly. Thanks for sharing it, Emily.



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