"Whose Dice Were Human Bones"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Byron's hatred of tyrants was expressed by him on many occasions, but his attitude towards Napoleon was ambivalent. On the occasion of that emperor's defeat and abdication in 1814 to a brief retirement at Elba, Byron wrote an ode to Napoleon; in it he characterizes the latter as a monster who has ravaged Europe and is unfit to live. Napoleon is compared unfavorably to George Washington who, unlike the emperor, was content to ensure his country's greatness and step aside. When Napoleon returned to France in 1815 and raised another army, he was defeated at Waterloo; this time the defeat was final, and the great shadow that had lain across Europe was lifted. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, an island in a lonely spot west of Africa, and was guarded there by the British until his death in 1821. Much of Europe felt a vast relief at his passing. In 1823 Byron wrote a lengthy satire in verse entitled The Age of Bronze; in it he resurrects the emperor from a very different point-of-view. The poem's theme is that greatness does not endure, that mortality is a force to which all, even the most powerful, must succumb. He points to Alexander, who knew little of the world he tried to conquer and whose empire lies in ruins; then he turns to the present and to the spectacle of the once great Napoleon, now insignificant on St. Helena. The emperor, in his last years, is reduced to bickering over trifles:

Yes! where is he, the champion and the child
Of all that's great or little, wise or wild?
Whose game was empires and whose stakes were thrones?
Whose table earth–whose dice were human bones?
Behold the grand result in yon lone isle,
And, as thy nature urges, weep or smile.
Sigh to behold the eagle's lofty rage
Reduced to nibble at his narrow cage;
Smile to survey the queller of the nations
Now daily squabbling o'er disputed rations;
Weep to perceive him mourning, as he dines,
O'er curtail'd dishes and o'er stinted wines,
O'er petty quarrels upon petty things,–
Is this the man who scourged or feasted kings?
Behold the scales in which his fortune hangs,
A surgeon's statement and an earl's harangues!
A bust delay'd, a book refused, can shake
The sleep of him who kept the world awake.