"But Yesterday a King!"

June 24: Napoleon crossed into Russia on this day in 1812, beginning the disastrous six-month invasion that became a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, and his own fortunes. In Russia, said Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, the invasion spawned “such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.” Trying to fathom an event “opposed to human reason and to human nature,” Tolstoy throws up his hands at the stupidity on all sides:

It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178.

Napoleon fired Byron’s imagination in the direction of praise and despair (and humor, given his tongue-in-cheek self-description as one “reckon’d, a considerable time, / The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme”). His “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” was written in April 1814, just after learning that Napoleon had surrendered to the Allies and accepted exile on Elba: 

 ‘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,

Nor man nor fiend hath fall’n so far….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.