Home  »  Every Day in the Year A Poetical Epitome of the World’s History  »  The Last Cæsar, 1851–1870

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

December 2

The Last Cæsar, 1851–1870

By Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907)

  • On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon, then President of the French Republic, seized the government by force of arms. This “coup d’etat,” as it was called, led to the plebiscite by which he became Emperor of the French.

  • I.
    NOW there was one who came in later days

    To play at Emperor; in the dead of night

    Stole crown and sceptre, and stood forth to light

    In sudden purple. The dawn’s straggling rays

    Showed Paris fettered, murmuring in amaze,

    With red hands at her throat—a piteous sight.

    Then the new Cæsar, stricken with affright

    At his own daring, shrank from public gaze.

    In the Elysée, and had lost the day

    But that around him flocked his birds of prey,

    Sharp-beaked, voracious, hungry for the deed.

    ’Twixt hope and fear behold great Cæsar hang;

    Meanwhile, methinks, a ghostly laughter rang

    Through the rotunda of the Invalides.

    What if the boulevards, at the set of sun,

    Reddened, but not with sunset’s kindly glow?

    What if from quai and square the murmured woe

    Swept heavenward, pleadingly? The prize was won,

    A kingling made and Liberty undone.

    No Emperor, this, like him a while ago,

    But his Name’s shadow; that one struck the blow

    Himself, and sighted the street-sweeping gun!

    I see him as men saw him once—a face

    Of true Napoleon pallor; round the eyes

    The wrinkled care; moustache spread pinion-wise,

    Pointing his smile with odd sardonic grace

    As wearily he turns him in his place,

    And bends before the hoarse Parisian cries—

    Then vanishes, with glitter of gold-lace

    And trumpets blaring to the patient skies.

    Not thus he vanished later! On his path

    The Furies waited for the hour and man,

    Foreknowing that they waited not in vain.

    Then fell the day, O day of dreadful wrath!

    Bow down in shame, O crimson-girt Sedan!

    Weep, fair Alsace! weep loveliest Lorraine!

    So mused I, sitting underneath the trees

    In that old garden of the Tuileries,

    Watching the dust of twilight sifting down

    Through chestnut boughs just touched with autumn’s brown—

    Not twilight yet, but that illusive bloom

    Which holds before the deep-etched shadows come;

    For still the garden stood in golden mist,

    Still, like a river of molten amethyst,

    The Seine slipped through its spans of fretted stone,

    And near the grille that once fenced in a throne,

    The fountains still unbraided to the day

    The unsubstantial silver of their spray.

    A spot to dream in, love in, waste one’s hours!

    Temples and palaces, and gilded towers,

    And fairy terraces!—and yet, and yet

    Here in her woe came Marie Antoinette,

    Came sweet Corday, Du Barry with shrill cry,

    Not learning from her betters how to die!

    Here, while the nations watched with bated breath,

    Was held the saturnalia of Red Death!

    For where that slim Egyptian shaft uplifts

    Its point to catch the dawn’s and sunset’s drifts

    Of various gold, the busy Headsman stood….

    Place de la Concorde—no, the Place of Blood!

    And all so peaceful now! One cannot bring

    Imagination to accept the thing.

    Lies, all of it! some dreamer’s wild romance—

    High-hearted, witty, laughter-loving France!

    In whose brain was it that the legend grew

    Of Maenads shrieking in this avenue,

    Of watch-fires burning, Famine standing guard,

    Of long-speared Uhlans in that palace-yard!

    What ruder sound this soft air ever smote

    Than a bird’s twitter or a bugle’s note?

    What darker crimson ever splashed these walks

    Than that of rose-leaves dropping from the stalks?

    And yet—what means that charred and broken wall,

    That sculptured marble, splintered, like to fall,

    Looming among the trees there?… And you say

    This happened, as it were, but yesterday?

    And here the Commune stretched a barricade,

    And here the final desperate stand was made?

    Such things have been? How all things change and fade!

    How little lasts in this brave world below!

    Love dies; hate cools; the Cæsars come and go;

    Gaunt Hunger fattens, and the weak grow strong.

    Even Republics are not here for long!

    Ah, who can tell what hour may bring the doom,

    The lighted torch, the tocsin’s heavy boom!