"The Silent Cities Of The Dead"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The printed copy of this poem contains as explanatory title "From the French." There is no indication whether or not it is a translation, but certainly the rhymed couplets seem like the original work of Byron, with their combination of admiration and irony, and the fervent praise of the search for Freedom. The Legion of Honour was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, with the Consul of France as the Grand Master of the order. Below him came holders of the Grand Cross, Grand Officers, Commanders, a limited number of officers, and an unlimited number of knights decorated for bravery and service to France. Its purpose was to encourage and reward bravery in battle and sacrifices for the country. For that reason, Byron refers to the decoration as "adored deceit." Many of Napoleon's soldiers died trying to win the decoration. Now they are in the cemeteries, the silent cities of the dead. Napoleon designed the decoration, a cross hanging from a red ribbon of watered silk, and a rosette. However, instead of the usual cross with four arms, it has five, resembling somewhat the Christmas star whose five points are supposed to symbolize the five wounds of Christ on the cross. But there is a difference. Each of the bars is notched, making a total of ten points. This most unusual form does not seem to appear elsewhere, though the heraldry books illustrate nearly 500 variants of crosses and stars. In describing the badge as a symbol of France, Byron thinks of the tricolors, which he refers to as a rainbow of the free. He was always full of admiration for France and Napoleon. Unfortunately for the dream of the world, in 1815, following the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated and went into exile. And those who had died for his glory had wasted their lives. The poet longs for liberty or death. The poem begins:

Star of the brave! whose beam hath shed
Such glories o 'er the quick and dead–
Thou radiant and adored deceit!
Which millions rush'd in arms to greet!
Wild meteor of immortal birth!
Why rise in Heaven to set on Earth?
. . .
Star of the brave! thy ray is pale,
And darkness must again prevail!
But, oh thou Rainbow of the free!
Our tears and blood must flow for thee.
When thy bright promise fades away,
Our life is but a load of clay.
And Freedom hallows with her tread
The silent cities of the dead;
For beautiful in death are they
Who proudly fall in her array;
And soon, Oh Goddess! may we be
For evermore with them or thee!