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The Retreat from Moscow by Victor Hugo

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The Retreat from Moscow by Victor Hugo
« on: August 03, 2020, 09:13:38 PM »
     ("Il neigeait.")

     {Bk. V. xiii., Nov. 25-30, 1852.}
     It snowed. A defeat was our conquest red!
     For once the eagle was hanging its head.
     Sad days! the Emperor turned slowly his back
     On smoking Moscow, blent orange and black.
     The winter burst, avalanche-like, to reign
     Over the endless blanched sheet of the plain.
     Nor chief nor banner in order could keep,
     The wolves of warfare were 'wildered like sheep.
     The wings from centre could hardly be known
     Through snow o'er horses and carts o'erthrown,
     Where froze the wounded. In the bivouacs forlorn
     Strange sights and gruesome met the breaking morn:
     Mute were the bugles, while the men bestrode
     Steeds turned to marble, unheeding the goad.
     The shells and bullets came down with the snow
     As though the heavens hated these poor troops below.
     Surprised at trembling, though it was with cold,
     Who ne'er had trembled out of fear, the veterans bold
     Marched stern; to grizzled moustache hoarfrost clung
     'Neath banners that in leaden masses hung.

     It snowed, went snowing still. And chill the breeze
     Whistled upon the glassy endless seas,
     Where naked feet on, on for ever went,
     With naught to eat, and not a sheltering tent.
     They were not living troops as seen in war,
     But merely phantoms of a dream, afar
     In darkness wandering, amid the vapor dim,—
     A mystery; of shadows a procession grim,
     Nearing a blackening sky, unto its rim.
     Frightful, since boundless, solitude behold
     Where only Nemesis wove, mute and cold,
     A net all snowy with its soft meshes dense,
     A shroud of magnitude for host immense;
     Till every one felt as if left alone
     In a wide wilderness where no light shone,
     To die, with pity none, and none to see
     That from this mournful realm none should get free.
     Their foes the frozen North and Czar—That, worst.
     Cannon were broken up in haste accurst
     To burn the frames and make the pale fire high,
     Where those lay down who never woke or woke to die.
     Sad and commingled, groups that blindly fled
     Were swallowed smoothly by the desert dread.

     'Neath folds of blankness, monuments were raised
     O'er regiments. And History, amazed,
     Could not record the ruin of this retreat,
     Unlike a downfall known before or the defeat
     Of Hannibal—reversed and wrapped in gloom!
     Of Attila, when nations met their doom!
     Perished an army—fled French glory then,
     Though there the Emperor! he stood and gazed
     At the wild havoc, like a monarch dazed
     In woodland hoar, who felt the shrieking saw—
     He, living oak, beheld his branches fall, with awe.
     Chiefs, soldiers, comrades died. But still warm love
     Kept those that rose all dastard fear above,
     As on his tent they saw his shadow pass—
     Backwards and forwards, for they credited, alas!
     His fortune's star! it could not, could not be
     That he had not his work to do—a destiny?
     To hurl him headlong from his high estate,
     Would be high treason in his bondman, Fate.
     But all the while he felt himself alone,
     Stunned with disasters few have ever known.
     Sudden, a fear came o'er his troubled soul,
     What more was written on the Future's scroll?
     Was this an expiation? It must be, yea!
     He turned to God for one enlightening ray.
     "Is this the vengeance, Lord of Hosts?" he sighed,
     But the first murmur on his parched lips died.
     "Is this the vengeance? Must my glory set?"
     A pause: his name was called; of flame a jet
     Sprang in the darkness;—a Voice answered; "No!
     Not yet."

                 Outside still fell the smothering snow.
     Was it a voice indeed? or but a dream?
     It was the vulture's, but how like the sea-bird's scream.


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