James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

June 24

The Forced Recruit

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

  • Solferino is a village in northern Italy where, on June 24th, 1859, the French and Sardinian armies, under Napoleon III. and Victor Emmanuel, defeated the Austrians under Francis Joseph.

  • I.
    IN the ranks of the Austrian you found him,

    He died with his face to you all;

    Yet bury him here where around him

    You honor your bravest that fall.

    Venetian, fair-featured and slender,

    He lies shot to death in his youth,

    With a smile on his lips over-tender

    For any mere soldier’s dead mouth.

    No stranger, and yet not a traitor,

    Though alien the cloth on his breast,

    Underneath it how seldom a greater

    Young heart, has a shot sent to rest!

    By your enemy tortured and goaded

    To march with them, stand in their file,

    His musket (see) never was loaded,

    He facing your guns with that smile!

    As orphans yearn on to their mothers,

    He yearned to your patriot bands;—

    ‘Let me die for our Italy, brothers,

    If not in your ranks, by your hands!

    ‘Aim straightly, fire steadily! spare me

    A ball in the body which may

    Deliver my heart here, and tear me

    This badge of the Austrian away!’

    So thought he, so died he this morning.

    What then? many others have died.

    Ay, but easy for men to die scorning

    The death-stroke, who fought side by side—

    One tricolor floating above them;

    Struck down ’mid triumphant acclaims

    Of an Italy rescued to love them

    And blazon the brass with their names.

    But he,—without witness or honor,

    Mixed, shamed in his country’s regard,

    With the tyrants who march in upon her

    Died faithful and passive: ’twas hard.

    ’Twas sublime. In a cruel restriction

    Cut off from the guerdon of sons,

    With most filial obedience, conviction,

    His soul kissed the lips of her guns.

    That moves you? Nay, grudge not to show it,

    While digging a grave for him here:

    The others who died, says your poet,

    Have glory,—let him have a tear.