In Robert Browning's poem "Incident of the French Camp," what makes the boy's actions heroic?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Robert Browning’s poem titled “Incident of the French Camp,” the speaker describes a boy serving in the army of Napoleon as that army attempts to capture a city known as “Ratisbon.” As Napoleon stands “On a little mound” a “mile or so away,” he waits anxiously to know the outcome of the battle. Just then, a badly wounded young boy rides toward the emperor, jumps down from his horse, reveals that the French have taken the city, and then falls dead at Napoleon’s feet. The boy’s actions can be regarded as heroic for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • He serves in the army, even though he is only a boy.
  • He participates in a dangerous battle.
  • Even though he is mortally wounded, he rides his horse at a fast gallop back to the emperor to report that the battle has been won.
  • He seems happier about the outcome of the battle than he is concerned about his own wounds.
  • Even though his wounds are horrible, he behaves with great physical energy:

Then off there flung in smiling joy,

And held himself erect

By just his horse's mane, a boy . . . (17-19)

  • He keeps his lips tightly compressed so that blood will not be visible in his mouth.
  • He calls no attention to his wounds and asks for no help.
  • He gives credit to God for victory in the battle.
  • He doesn’t call overdue attention to his own role in the victory.
  • He mentions that he raised the French flag in the conquered city, but he doesn’t boast at any great length about this deed.
  • He takes pride in the fact that his wounds are mortal, and he dies smiling. Apparently he feels that he has served his emperor, nation, and God worthily, and so he expresses no regrets about his death.