Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Russia
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Russia: Vol. XX.  1876–79.
The Retreat from Moscow
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,        5
  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        10
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        15
  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.        20
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        25
  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.        30
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,        35
  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.        40
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,        45
  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        50
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,        55
  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.        60
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        65
  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;        70
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        75
  The staring gossips meet:
“Ten thousand horses every night
  Were smitten by the frost;
Full thirty thousand rank and file
  In Beresina lost.        80
“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,—        85
  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,        90
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        95
  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,        100
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        105
  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,        110
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        115
  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?        120
“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        125
  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        130
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        135
  The carriage disappeared.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.