Category Archives: Walter de la Mare

‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

This was a favourite poem of mine as a child. It was probably the rhymes and the mystery of the story that first attracted me. I think it is a poem that really sets the imagination reeling. I love how the Listeners never do answer the Traveller. Sometimes, there are no answers to our questions; sometimes, we are not meant to know.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh