Lord Byron: From “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”

Byron wrote his Ode in April 1814, only days after learning that Napoleon had surrendered his empire to the Allies and agreed unconditionally to exile on the island of Elba.  Byron’s view of this turn in the fortunes of the man who had once been his hero is suggested by his choice of an epigraph, a quotation from the historian Edward Gibbon’s description in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of the fate of the Emperor Nepos: “By this shameful abdication, he protracted his life a few years, in a very ambiguous state, between an Emperor and an Exile, till —”

‘Tis done – but yesterday a King!
      And arm’d with Kings to strive –
And now thou art a nameless thing
      So abject – yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our Earth with hostile bones,
      And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscall’d the Morning Star, >> note
Nor man nor fiend hath fall’n so far.

                     * * *

Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
      Nor written thus in vain –
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
      Or deepen every stain –
If thou hadst died as honour dies,
Some new Napoleon might arise,
      To shame the world again –
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?

Weigh’d in the balance, hero dust
      Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
      To all that pass away;
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
      To dazzle and dismay;
Nor deem’d Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.

                       * * *

—From “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” (1814)

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