The Retreat from Moscow

Original Text: 

Toru Dutt, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (London: C. Kegan Paul, 1880): 108-11. Internet Archive

1It snowed. A defeat was our conquest red:
2For the first time the eagle hung down its head.
3Sombre days! The Emperor slowly came back,
4Leaving behind him Moscow smoking and black.
5Like an avalanche winter burst amain,
6One white plain past, spread another white plain.
7Nor banner nor chief any order could keep,
8Late the grand army, now bewildered sheep.
9The wings from the centre could hardly be known.
10It snowed. Dead horses and carts overthrown
11Sheltered the wounded. Bivouacs forlorn
12Displayed strange sights, sometimes, as broke the mom
13Trumpeters were seen, upright at their post,
14Mute, on the saddle, and covered with frost;
15Trumpets of copper that gave out no tone,
16Fixed, as for ever, unto lips of stone.
17Bullets, grape-shot and shells, mixed with the snow,
18Rained as from heaven upon the troops below.
19Surprised to find themselves trembling with cold,
20Who ne'er trembled from fear, these veterans bold
21Marched pensive; on their grey moustaches clung
22The hoar-frost; torn above the banners hung.
23It snowed, -- it snowed continuous. The chill breeze
24Whistled upon the glazed frost's endless seas;
25With naked feet, on, on they ever went,
26No bread to eat, and not a sheltering tent.
27They were no more hearts living, troops of war,
28They were mere phantoms of a dream, afar
29In darkness wandering, amid vapours dim;
30A mystery; of shadows a procession grim
31Upon a black sky, to its very rim.
32Solitude, vast and frightful to behold.
33Was everywhere, -- a Nemesis mute and cold.
34The snow silently as it fell dense,
35A shroud immense for this army immense;
36And every soul felt as if left alone
37In a wide wilderness, where no light shone.
38To die, with none to pity or to see.
39From this sad empire shall we e'er get free?
40Two foes -- the Czar, the North. The North is worst.
41Cannon were thrown away in haste accurst
42To burn the frames and make the scant fire high;
43Those who lay down woke not, or woke to die.
44Sad and confused, the groups that wildly fled,
45Devoured them all the desert still and dread.
46'Neath the white folds the blinding snow had raised
47Whole regiments slept. History amazed
48Beheld the ruin. What to this retreat,
49Was any former downfall or defeat!
50What Hannibal's reverses wrapped in gloom!
51What Attila's, when whole hordes received their doom!
52Fugitives, men wounded, guns, horses, carts.
53Tumbrils and waggons, hurried from all parts
54In wild confusion; at the bridges oft
55The crush was frightful. Vultures wheeled aloft!
56Ten thousand men lay down fatigued to sleep.
57And then perhaps a hundred woke; a heap
58Of corpses had the rest become. One night,
59Ney, whom an army followed late, in flight
60His watch disputed with three Cossacks wild.
61"Who goes! Alert! To arms!" And then defiled
62These phantoms with their guns, and o'er and o'er,
63Came the same scenes of tumult and of gore.
64Our troops beheld upon them headlong fall
65Time after time, at some strange trumpet-call,
66Frightful, enwrapt with gloom, with cries like those
67Of the bald vultures 'mid the boundless snows,
68Horrible squadrons, whirlwinds of wild men.
69Perished our army, fled our glory then.
70The Emperor was there. He stood and gazed
71At the wild havoc all around, amazed.
72As on a giant tree for ages spared
73Falls the rude axe, misfortune now first dared
74To strike upon him, and he trembling saw.
75He, living oak, his branches fall, with awe.
76Chiefs, soldiers, followers died. But with love,
77Those that remained, all dastard fear above.
78Still watched his tent to see his shadow pass
79Backwards and forwards. They believed, alas!
80Yet in his star; it could not, could not be;
81He had a work to do, a destiny!
82To hurl him headlong from his high estate.
83Would be high treason in his bondsman Fate.
84And all the while he felt himself alone.
85Stunned with disasters few have ever known.
86Sudden, a fear came o'er his troubled soul.
87What more was written in the Future's scroll?
88Was this an expiation ? It must be so.
89For what? From whom could he the meaning know:
90The man of glory trembled, weak and pale,
91Like some frail reed beneath an autumn gale.
92Where were his legions? Scattered on the plains,
93Or buried in the snow. What now remains?
94What hides the future still? Ah, who can say?
95He turned to God, for one enlightening ray.
96"Is this the vengeance, God of Hosts?" he cried,
97And his faint murmur on his pale lips died.
98"Is this the vengeance? Must my glory set?"
99A pause; his name was called; of flame a jet
100Sprang in the darkness; a voice answered, "No,
101Not yet." Outside still lay the dazzling snow.
102Was it a voice indeed, or but a dream?
103Hush! hark! No, now, 'tis but the vulture's scream.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
Data entry: Sharine Leung
RPO Edition: 
2012