Expiation


1

It was snowing. For the first time, conquered
By his conquest, the eagle bowed his head.
Dark days! Slowly the emperor returned,
Leaving behind a Moscow that smoked and burned.
It was snowing. At the end of the white plain
Another stretched, as white and vast again.
The leaders and the flags were swept away . . .
An army yesterday, a herd today.
No longer could one see the wings and center.
It was snowing. Wounded men sought shelter
In the belly of dead horses. Where they camped
One saw buglers frozen, stone mouths clamped
To copper trumpets, silent, white with frost,
Still upright in the saddle at their post.
Ball, grape, and shell were falling with the snow.
The grenadiers, surprised that they shook so,
Marched pensively, ice on the gray moustache.
It was snowing, always snowing! The cold lash
Whistled. These warriors had no bread to eat,
They walked across the ice with naked feet.
No longer living hearts, they seemed to be
A dream lost in a fog, a mystery.
A march of shadows under a black sky.
Vast solitudes, appalling to the eye,
Stretched out, mute and revengeful, everywhere.
The sky was weaving silently, of air,
A shroud for the Grand Army. And each one
Could feel that he was dying, and alone.
"Shall we ever leave this empire of the Czar?
The Czar and the North . . .The North is worse by far."
They jettisoned the guns to burn the wood.
To lie down was to die. Confused, they fled
And were devoured in the fields of snow.
One saw by mounds and ridges that below
Whole regiments were sleeping. Oh the falls
Of Hannibal! The days after Attila!
Fugitives, wounded, caissons, shafts, the mass
Crushed at the bridges as it strove to pass . . .
A hundred woke, then thousand were left sleeping.
Ney, who had led an army, was escaping,
Fighting to save his watch from three cossacks,
Every night "Qui vive!" Alerts, alarms, attacks!
These phantoms grasped their rifles . . . terrifying
Shadows were rushing towards them, crying
Like vultures. Squadrons of savage men
Struck like a whirlwind and were gone again.
So a whole army would be lost by night.
The emperor was there, he watched, upright
As a tree that must endure the woodsman's blow.
On this giant, a greatness spared till now,
Misfortune the grim woodsman climbed. Each stroke
Of the axe insulted the man, the living oak.
He trembled at the vengeances, each blow
Saw a branch falling to the earth below.
Leaders and soldiers, each in his turn fell.
While love around his tent stood sentinel,
Watching his shadow on the canvas wall,
And those to his bright star remaining loyal
Accused the heavens of lese-majeste,
Suddenly his inmost soul gave way.
Stunned by disaster, reft of all belief,
The emperor turned to God; the glorious chief
Trembled; he thought that he was expiating
Something perhaps, and contemplating
His legions of the dying and the dead,
"God of the armies," Napoleon said,
"Is this my punishment?" And from the snow
And darkness all around, a voice said, "No."


                              --Part 1
                              French; trans. Louis Simpson


Victor Hugo, French, trans. Louis Simpson.