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

December 10

The Retreat from Moscow

By George Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

  • As it appeared to a certain Abbé, at Warsaw, Dec. 10, 1812.

  • THE YELLOW snow-fog curdled thick,

    Dark, brooding, dull, and brown,

    About the ramparts, hiding all

    The steeples of the town;

    The icicles, as thick as beams,

    Hung down from every roof,

    When all at once we heard a sound

    As of a muffled hoof.

    ’Twas nothing but a soldier’s horse,

    All riderless and torn

    With bullets; scarce his bleeding legs

    Could reach the gate. A morn

    Of horror broke upon us then;

    We listened, but no drum—

    Only a sullen, distant roar,

    Telling us that they come.

    Next, slowly staggering through the fog,

    A grenadier reeled past,

    A bloody turban round his head,

    His pallid face aghast.

    Behind him, with an arm bound up

    With half a Russian flag,

    Came one—then three—the last one sopped

    His breast with crimson rag.

    All day the frozen, bleeding men

    Came pouring through the place;

    Drums broken, colours torn to shreds,

    Foul wounds on every face.

    Black powder-wagons, scorched and split,

    Broad wheels caked thick with snow,

    Red bayonets bent, and swords that still

    Were reeking from the blow.

    The ground was strewn with epaulettes,

    Letters, and cards, and songs;

    The barrels, leaking drops of gold,

    Were trampled by the throngs.

    A brutal, selfish, goring mob,

    Yet here and there a trace

    Of the divine shone out, and lit

    A gashed and suffering face.

    Here came a youth, who on his back,

    His dying father bore;

    With bandaged feet the brave youth limped,

    Slow, shuddering, dripping gore.

    And even ’mid the trampling crowd,

    Maimed, crippled by the frost,

    I found that every spark of good

    Was not extinct and lost.

    Deep in the ranks of savage men

    I saw two grenadiers

    Leading their corporal, his breast

    Stabbed by the Cossack spears.

    He saved that boy, whose tearful eyes

    Were fixed upon the three—

    Although too weak to beat his drum

    Still for his company.

    Half-stripped, or wrapped in furs and gowns,

    The broken ranks went on;

    They ran if any one called out

    “The Cossacks of the Don!”

    The whispered rumour, like a fire,

    Spreads fast from street to street,

    With boding look and shaking head

    The staring gossips meet.

    “Ten thousand horses every night

    Were smitten by the frost;

    Full thirty thousand rank and file

    In Beresina lost.

    The Cossacks fill their caps with gold

    The Frenchmen fling away.

    Napoleon was shot the first,

    And only lived a day—

    “They say that Caulaincourt is lost—

    The guns are left behind;

    God’s curse has fallen on these thieves—

    He sent the snow and wind.”

    Tired of the clatter and the noise,

    I sought an inner room,

    Where twenty wax-lights, starry clear,

    Drove off the fog and gloom.

    I took my wanton Ovid down,

    And soon forgot the scene,

    As through my dreams I saw arise

    The rosy-bosomed queen.

    My wine stood mantling in the glass

    (The goblet of Voltaire),

    I sipped and dozed, and dozed and sipped,

    Slow rocking in my chair,

    When open flew the bursting door,

    And Coulaincourt stalked in—

    Tall, gaunt, and wrapped in frozen fun

    Hard frozen to his skin.

    The wretched hag of the low inn

    Puffed at the sullen fire

    Of spitting wood, that hissed and smoked;

    There stood the Jove whose ire

    But lately set the world aflame,

    Wrapped in a green pelisse,

    Fur-lined, and stiff with half-burnt lace,

    Trying to seem at ease.

    “Bah! Du sublime au ridicule

    Il n’y a qu’un pas,”

    He said. “The rascals think they’ve made

    A comet of my star.

    The army broken?—dangers?—pish!

    I did not bring the frost.

    Levy ten thousand Poles, Duroc—

    Who tells me we have lost?

    “I beat them everywhere, Murat—

    It is a costly game;

    But nothing venture, nothing win—

    I’m sorry now we came.

    That burning Moscow was a deed

    Worthy of ancient Rome—

    Mind that I gild the Invalides

    To match the Kremlin dome.

    “Well? well as Beelzebub himself!”

    He leaped into the sleigh

    Sent for to bear the Cæsar off

    Upon his ruthless way.

    A flash of fire!—the court-yard stones

    Snapped out—the landlord cheered—

    In a hell-gulf of pitchy dark

    The carriage disappeared.