"The Cincinnatus Of The West"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Napoleon, in his years of glory, seemed to the British and to many others a supremely dangerous man, and his empire a great shadow into which all Europe would shortly disappear. By the beginning of 1814, however, the tide had turned; and Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign was the turning point. He invaded Russia with an army of 640,000 men; the Russians retreated, laying waste the countryside as they retired. When Napoleon entered Moscow it was set afire and burned for five days; his troops had to take refuge in the open, devastated countryside and could not live off the land. It was October, and Napoleon had to retreat. His men, continually harassed by mounted Cossacks, died of hunger, cold, disease, and exhaustion. When the army entered its own territory at last there were but 25,000 men left. No longer thought invincible, Napoleon found all Europe ready to fight him. He still had an army in Germany, and undertook another campaign. A series of victories was followed by utter defeat in the "Battle of the Nations," and his retreat from the Rhine was almost as disastrous as that from Moscow. From Paris he sallied forth once more, but the defeat this time was decisive; Napoleon abdicated on April 6, 1814, and retired to the Island of Elba. Byron was editing a paper called The Corsair at the time and had announced his intention to give up the writing of poetry. However, when word was received concerning Napoleon's abdication, Byron broke his resolution and wrote an ode to Bonaparte. In it he excoriates the emperor, who has strewn all Europe with blood and bones and whose only work has been destruction. If Napoleon had been truly great, says Byron, he would have stepped down as soon as France's greatness had been restored. The last portion of the poem is given below; in the final stanza Byron makes an interesting comparison between a leader he deplores and one he admires.

There was a day–there was an hour–
While earth was Gaul's–Gaul thine–
When that immeasurable power
Unsated to resign,
Had been an act of purer fame
Than gathers round Marengo's name,
And gilded thy decline
Through the long twilight of all time,
Despite some passing clouds of crime.
But thou forsooth must be a king . . .
Vain forward child of empire! say,
Are all thy playthings snatch'd away?
Where may the wearied eye repose,
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes–one–the first–the last–the best–
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath'd the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!