Napoleon’s Image in Russian and Georgian Romantic Poetry
by J. David Markham
While Napoleon was alive, and in the years immediately following his death, his image was the subject of work by Romantic Poets from England to Russia This paper will look at Napoleon’s image in poetry from Russia and Georgia that is not widely available to most readers.
Napoleon had a love-hate relationship with Russia, and this is sometimes reflected in Russian poetry about the great man. One might expect that Russian poets would be rather harsh on the man who invaded their country and created so much destruction, but this is not always the case. There are strains of patriotism and criticism of Napoleon, to be sure, but there are also elements of praise, even hero-worship to be found as well. This is not entirely surprising, as many of them are responding to the image of Napoleon that was promoted either by his public relations efforts during his reign, or the “legend” of Napoleon that developed while he was in exile and after his death.
This uprising, a movement for a constitutional government upon the death of Alexander I, was brutally crushed by Tsar Nicholas I. Beginning his writing career in the tradition of the Romantics of his period, Pushkin was exiled by Tsar Alexander I for his political liberalism as expressed in his poem Ode to Liberty. He eventually found favor with Tsar Nicholas I. Living a life that recalled both that of Byron and Stendhal, he held various government jobs and experienced war by observing the fighting between Russia and Turkey in 1829. His literary efforts, however, soon moved to realism and prose, an effort to win favor with a newly emerging reading public. (2) Pushkin’s writing may have been of the school of realism, but his life continued to reflect a Romanticism more appropriate to Byron. When he was twenty-eight, he married a beautiful young woman of seventeen. She was eventually rumored to be having an affair with the dashing young Baron D’Anthès. Though there was nothing to this rumor, Pushkin provoked a duel over the matter, and was subsequently shot by D’Anthes. (3) Pushkin died two days after the duel, on January 29, 1837. He was 38 years old. (4)
Pushkin’s primary literary effort regarding Napoleon was his poem of the same name, written in 1821, the year of Napoleon’s death. Not surprisingly, Napoleon’s image is less that completely positive. His career is described as a “grim, tumultuous span” of “lawless bent” and he is an “outlawed potentate,” a “Vainglorious man,” a “fleeing tyrant,” and a “forsaken exile.” Pushkin acknowledges Napoleon’s power and his dominance over Russia at Austerlitz and Tilsit, only to be crushed in 1812. Napoleon is not the only person who comes in for criticism by Pushkin. Indeed, in his 1825 On Alexander I, he criticizes Tsar Alexander who at Austerlitz “ran out of breath,” and in 1812 “was scared to death.” In an ironic twist, the last stanza of Napoleon credits Napoleon for creating the new Russian nation and renewing man’s desire for freedom. Part of the irony, of course, is that it is the restoration of the old order, especially in Russia, that crushes the very freedom so desired by the people of Europe.
Pushkin himself did not think very highly of this poem. In an 1823 letter (5) to his brother, he described it as “not very good,” and his “last liberalistic delirium.” By 1825, Pushkin’s attitude toward Napoleon had evolved into an interesting dichotomy. He seems to still admire the Napoleon of old, but dismisses Napoleon in exile as irrelevant. Exile has made Napoleon “stupid,” and his memoirs are “trash” as “he tells lies like a child.” He even goes so far as to suggest that Bertrand and Montholon were bribed. (6)
In Napoleon (7) , Pushkin begins by setting the stage of Napoleon defeated and in exile. Much of the rest of the poem deals with Napoleon’s relationship with Russia, but these stanzas were not among Pushkin’s favorites.
A wondrous fate is now fulfilled,
Three stanzas summarize the beginning of the French Revolution, ending with the disillusionment of the Terror. Along with the last, were the ones Pushkin told his brother were the best of the poem. In other stanzas, Pushkin wonders who blinded the admittedly brilliant mind of Napoleon who then idly chose to attack Russia, not understanding the nature of her people. It is the mighty Russian people who cause the sun of Austerlitz to set, and who avenge the disgrace of Tilsit.
Pushkin cannot, however, completely write off Russia’s greatest adversary. To Pushkin, the debts were cleared at Waterloo, and Napoleon should have been allowed to retire in peace. Indeed, he suggests that someday a “northern sail,” a metaphor for Europe, will arrive at St. Helena “And words of reconciliation a hand will carve upon that rock.” Pushkin goes even further in the next to last stanza, as he appears to sharply criticize Sir Hudson Lowe (“Such petty-minded men”) and the British for their shabby treatment of their imperial prisoner.
Let us hold up to reprobation
Pushkin’s attitude toward fate and the course of history reflected the attitude of many Russian writers of the period. They believed in the “great man” theory, that one person could change the destinies of nations and indeed, of the world itself. To Pushkin and many of his contemporaries in Russia and elsewhere, Napoleon was virtually a mythical hero who dwarfed all others of his time. Thus, like him or hate him, they were awed by Napoleon, who, not surprisingly, was the subject of much of their writing. (8) The love–hate attitudes toward Napoleon are reflected in both poetry and prose.
His writing straddled the line between naturalism and realism in Russian writing. It also captured the spirit of this obsession with Napoleon. In his masterpiece, Dead Souls, which Gogol himself described as both a novel and a poem, he addresses Russia’s fascination and fear of Napoleon. A mysterious character named Chichikov appears, and no one is sure just who he is. One of the most serious possibilities is that he is Napoleon, returned from St. Helena determined to once again bring ruin to Russia. (10)
Out of the many, in their own way, keen suppositions there was, indeed, one, rather odd when you come right down to it, that maybe Chichikov was Napoleon in disguise, that the Englishman had had his eye on Russia for a long time, Russia’s so big and mighty, he says, and there had even been several political cartoons showing the Russian talking to the Englishman. The Englishman’s standing and holding a dog on a leash behind him, and of course the dog stands for Napoleon. Just look, now, he says, and if you don’t think its so, I’ll set this dog on you! And so now, maybe, they’ve let him out of St. Helena and here he is, making his way into Russia, as if he were Chichikov, but actually its not Chichikov at all.
Of course, the officials were not about to believe this, but then they gave it some thought, and, each man having thought it over for himself, they found that Chichikov’s face, when he would turn and stand sideways in profile, was very much like Napoleon’s portrait. The Police Chief, who had been in the Campaign of ’12 and had personally seen Napoleon, couldn’t help admitting that he wouldn’t be any taller than Chichikov at all, certainly, and then, too, you couldn’t say that Napoleon was especially fat, thought not actually so thin, either. Perhaps some readers will call all this improbable; to please them, the author, too, is ready to call it all improbable; but, as ill-luck would have it, it all happened exactly as told here, and it’s the more amazing because the town wasn’t in some remote place but, on the contrary, not far from the two capitals. (11)
Here, Gogol presents an image of Napoleon that is almost contradictory. On the one hand, he is used in an almost humorous way; the chances of the stranger being Napoleon are obviously quite remote, and the passage is intended to draw at least a wry smile. But the smile cannot be too broad, for behind the humor is the real fear held by the Russians, the French and, indeed, the rest of continental Europe, that Napoleon might either escape or, as in the case of Gogol’s writing, be “unleashed” on Europe by an England determined to restore some balance of power to the continent. Of course, the work was written long after Napoleon’s death, but his readers would likely understand well the fear that Napoleon evoked even after his exile to the remote reaches of the South Atlantic. Gogol, like many other writers of this period, had difficulties with the Tsar’s censors, and this work and others were often published with titles changed, and with sections missing.
Russian literature never had a Romantic period to match those elsewhere in Europe, but did have Romantic writers. The Romantic period largely coincided with the reign of Tsar Alexander II (1855–1881), which is generally considered the Golden Age of Russian Poetry. (12) By then most Russian writers had ceased writing in French and were working almost exclusively in the Russian language. The 1812 campaign is the most obvious cause for this change, as it began a period of great nationalism and helped create a sense of national unity that greatly influenced the literary efforts of the time. Russian Romanticism “meant a rejection of neoclassicism, an escape from French hegemony, and an encouragement to search for their own cultural roots and national destiny. (13) The last stanza of Pushkin’s poem discussed above can be seen in this context, hailing Napoleon for launching the Russian nation.
The writers of the period understood this change well. One of them, A. A. Bestuzhev, wrote “when Napoleon invaded Russia the Russian people felt its own strength for the first time. That was the beginning of free thinking in Russia.” (14) A beginning perhaps, but free thinking was a long way from being accepted in Tsarist Russia. Indeed, spies were common even among the intellectual and literary circles that were popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a lengthy trip to Siberia was not unknown.
Of course, the switch to writing in Russian had another important effect, as now the work of the great Russian writers was far more accessible to the Russian public. This helps explain the great popularity of many of these writers with the people of their time.
. . . standing in a greedy crowd around the throne,
The Tsar was not amused, and Lermontov was sent into exile. He would never really regain the favor of Tsar Nicholas, and when Lermontov died in a duel over nothing, Nicholas is reported to have said “A dog’s death for a dog.” (16)
To Lermontov and his contemporaries, Napoleon represented not only greatness, but the struggle against repression, ignorance, and the old social order. Like Byron and others, they saw Napoleon as much in terms of betrayal as in terms of defeat. While they took pride in Russia’s success in 1812, they seem to take little comfort in his ultimate defeat and the return of the old order.
In The Last Flitting, Lermontov writes of the return of Napoleon’s body to France. His image of Napoleon is surprising, for he suggests that the French, who now, warm with intoxication, cheer the return of the Emperor, were not so kind to him at the time of Waterloo.
Even as the world, with thin officious praise,
There, Lermontov suggests the French, who had adored Napoleon in his glory, deserted and betrayed him at the end. Indeed, Lermontov decries the pompous tomb in Paris, and makes clear that spirit itself would have preferred to have his bones left in peace on St. Helena.
And should the Conqueror's spirit come in haste
Lermontov almost echoes Byron, who in Ode From the French decries Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and refuses to credit Wellington with the victory. Both writers feel that in the end, Napoleon was mistreated but that his glory will prevail over smaller people. Lermontov’s tone is strong, almost angry. Interestingly, his anger is almost on behalf of the Emperor himself, suggesting that Napoleon would be displeased at his move to Paris. Yet, as Lermontov also points out, this move is in keeping with Napoleon’s last wish. This contradiction is explained by Lermontov’s repeated complaints of the nature of the move, for it is that which outrages him more than the move itself. Napoleon deserved to have his last wish followed, but quietly, without the hypocritical fanfare that he decries.
The Ghost Ship is an even stronger expression of Lermontov’s sympathy for Napoleon’s ultimate fate. The theme of betrayal runs strong in both poems. Here, Lermontov has Napoleon’s ghost returning to France only to find that all have deserted and betrayed him, some by dying and others by working for the king. Even his son has betrayed him by dying at the peak of his potential.
The Ghost Ship
When darkness descends on the ocean
Its vanes do not turn in the tempest,
The ship is disowned by the captain,
An island there is in that ocean,
He sleeps by his enemies buried,
But once every May, just at midnight,
The Emperor quietly awakens
He crosses his arms with an effort,
To France, his beloved, he hurries,
And when through the vaporous darkness
He is quick and courageous, he marches,
But over his former companions
And deaf to his call are the marshals:
Bewildered and hurt by the treason,
He waits for a last consolation
But robbed of his kingdom and glory
He stands, and he sighs, and he watches,
In silence he turns to the ocean,
Lermontov, of course, was greatly influenced by the campaign of 1812, and not surprisingly dedicated two poems to the topic. In Two Giants, his image of Napoleon is quite different than what we have seen in the first two works. Here he credits Napoleon with being a giant, and one to be feared. But he is no match for the Russian giant, who vanquished Napoleon with a mere shake of his head.
But the Russian giant, undaunted,
No effort is made to portray the Russians as wanting peace; each giant is eager for the fight, eager for the glory that will come with victory. Naturally, in true nationalistic spirit, Napoleon goes to St. Helena as a direct result of the Russian giant’s victory, rather than by way of Waterloo. This poem, as well as Borodino, represents Russian patriotic writing at its best.
Battle of Borodino
In Borodino, it is the Russian soldiers’ turn to be betrayed, this time by those who insisted that they retreat in the face of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. When they stand and fight at Borodino, Lermontov shows them to be invincible. But in the end, they retreat, leaving Moscow to the French. Lermontov, of course, knows the reason for the retreat, but rather than question the decision of the Tsar or of Kutusov, he declares that it was God’s will that Moscow should be lost. This was, of course, a far safer contention, given the ever-present censor. Thus, his last stanza both glorifies the Russian soldier and explains the humiliation of the loss of Moscow.
Yes, they were men who lived amongst us,
He was stationed in Turin and Munich, where he met German poets including Friedrich von Schelling and Heinrich Heine. Generally conservative and very patriotic, he wrote powerful defenses of Russia and suspicious criticism of what he saw as threats in the west. Even so, he was moved by the Decembrist rebellion, and his poem on the subject is not overwhelming supportive of the Tsar’s policies. Russia was engaged in numerous wars during Tyutchev’s life, and this fact had a great effect on his poetry. Wars lead to nationalism and distrust of foreigners, both attitudes that can be found reflected in Tyutchev’s poetry. Like Byron and other Romantic Poets, Tyutchev also had a torrid love affair that effected both his poetry and his reputation.
Tyutchev’s writing on Napoleon contains classic Romantic elements of Nature and heroism. In Napoleon, Tyutchev portrays Napoleon in the familiar combination of genius and tyrant who has gone too far. Napoleon’s invasion of Holy Russia, in his own words, was to determine Russia’s fate. Tyutchev agrees, but that fate was not what was intended by the man for whom eagles soared in his head, and vipers in his breast.
Two powers that wondrously merged:
Those contradictory metaphors, eagles and vipers, show yet again the duality of imagery Napoleon is given by poets from all nations. As we saw earlier with Lermontov, it is Napoleon’s defeat in Russia that leads directly to his exile. In another echo of Lermontov, Napoleon’s spirit returns to France, with the last line of the poem alluding to Napoleon’s will, and his wish to rest on the banks of the Seine.
Many historians have suggested that Napoleon was blind to reality when he moved against Russia in 1812. Russian poets often reflected that belief, and Tyutchev does so in his poem The Niemen. The Niemen River marked the border of Russia and it was over that river and border that Napoleon so proudly crossed on June 24, 1812 with an army of some 600,000. It must have been a splendid sight, and Tyutchev describes it, but with the ominous warning that Napoleon was blind to what awaited him. By the end of the poem, Napoleon once again crosses the Niemen, this time with but ten percent of his army.
Images of nature are characteristic of the Romantic Poets, and in Napoleon’s Tomb, Tyutchev brings out nature in full force. Here, the image of Napoleon is once again positive, as his memory fills men’s minds. As before, however, there is sadness as Napoleon’s spirit is again alone, again without the friends or glory that so enlivened his life. In this last stanza, Tyutchev echoes the sympathy for Napoleon expressed by Lermontov in The Ghost Ship.
Men's minds are filled by his great shade,
While the works of Russian Romantic Poets are somewhat known outside their own country and language, the same cannot be said for those of Georgia. Lying on the edge of Europe and Asia, this small country has long been the subject of invasion and conquest, most recently on the part of both Tsarist and Communist Russia. Like others in Europe, the Georgians saw Napoleon as a possible force for their independence. Indeed, In October of 1810 and again in April of 1811 Solomon II, king of western Georgia, wrote Napoleon offering him territory in return for protection from the Russians. Even so, it was Russia’s occupation of much of Georgia in 1801 that actually increased western literary influence in that nation.
Unlike some of his poetical contemporaries, Baratashvili did not have much money and had to work in the provinces to earn a meager living. He died of malaria at the age of twenty-eight. Before then, however, he wrote some of Georgia’s finest poetry, often in a lyrical style that recalled that of Byron. Many of his poems reflect the historical fate of his country, as well as his own hard life. His signature poem, Merani, which is the Georgian equivalent of the winged horse Pegasus, is a reflection of his belief that people and countries can go beyond the confines of their fate. (19)
Napoleon looked upon France and said:
"But my soul can not rest in my body!
"But, what if Fate turns her back to me,
Despite the might and wit of others sway,
[Here are two lines that defy translation. Napoleon
“says” that the grave itself is too small for him,
Russia , Georgia and France had a complex relationship during the Napoleonic epoch. This complexity is reflected in the poems of the Russian and Georgian Romantic Poets. The Romantics could not simply condemn Napoleon as an enemy, or hold him up as a hero. His life, image, and relationships with countries were far more complex, even contradictory. Their poetry reflects Napoleon’s complex and changing image; an image that remains in flux even today.
J. David Markham, INS President