Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Anonymous stars

French soldier near Verdun, 1916
Napoleon Bonaparte is viewed as one of the greatest military commanders in French history.  Rising to power as an artillery officer during the French Revolution, he was promoted to general at the age of 24.  When crowned Emperor of France in 1804, he was only 35 years old.

Napoleon's sarcophagus, photo by Livioandronico2013 
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840, his remains were moved to Les Invalides in Paris, where a lavish sarcophagus was prepared beneath the grand Dome of the royal military chapel. The Emperor’s body lies inside six nested caskets: tin, mahogany, two of lead, ebony, and oak.  

During the First World War, American poet Dana Burnet wrote of visiting Bonaparte’s memorial in Paris. Contrasting Napoleon’s grandiose tomb with the unburied bodies of soldiers on the Western Front, Burnet challenges us to consider the nature of war and who bears its costs.  

Napoleon’s Tomb*

Through the great doors, where Paris flowed incessant,
Fell certain dimness….
A calm, immortal twilight mantling up
To the great dome, where painted triumph rides
High o’er the dust that once bestrode it all—
Nor ever fame had fairer firmament!
Then I went in, with Paris pressing slow,
And saw the long blue shadows folding down
Upon the casket of the Emperor.
A soldier in faded uniform
Stood close beside me. He was one of those
Who die and leave no lament on the wind…
And straightway gazing on him I beheld
Not death’s magnificence; not fame’s hushed tomb—
But grim Oblivion, and the fields of France!
And on some nameless hillside, where the night
Sets out wild flaming candles for the dead,
Innumerable corpses palely sprawled
Beneath the silent, cold, anonymous stars.
                        —Dana Burnet 

Amidst the glittering gold, granite, and marble of Napoleon’s tomb, the observer’s eye is drawn to the man standing near him: a poilu, the informal name given to infantry soldiers in the French Army. The soldier’s uniform is worn and faded from the years he has spent in battle, sleeping in uncovered trenches and slogging through mud.

The observer considers that when this man dies, none will mourn his passing; his death will “leave no lament on the wind.” The sight of the poilu gives way to a profound realization that is in stark contrast to the scene of Napoleon’s tomb: death is not magnificent, the battle is not glorious, but rather war leads only to grim Oblivion. 

Dome over Napoleon's Tomb,  photo by Livioandronico2013
The hillsides where men fought and died will remain nameless, and the common soldiers who earned the victory will be forgotten. The only homage given them will be the “wild flaming candles” – the lights of the anonymous stars that shine on the countless, nameless corpses. 

Following the Great War, in 1929 another French general was honored with burial under the Dome of Les Invalides.  The body of General Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander of the First World War, was buried near the tomb of Napoleon. 

*The version included here omits early sections of the original poem that describe the tomb in further detail.  The poem can be read in its entirety at this link, the online edition of Clarke’s A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American poems of the World War, 1914-1919.

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