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