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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, first prize

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John Richmond

‘The Retreat from Moscow’
by Victor Hugo

It snowed. Their very victory had brought on their defeat.
For once, the eagle bowed its head. Dark days! In slow retreat
from smoking Moscow, emperor and men recrossed terrain
whose only feature now was snow: white plain, then more white plain.

A brief thaw, and an avalanche of water. In the spate
none knew his leader nor his flag; no-one could separate
the army’s centre from its flanks. How had it come to pass
that yesterday’s proud columns were today’s disordered mass?

The opened bellies of dead horses sheltered wounded men:
the only refuge on the road. The snow set in again.
Beside deserted bivouacs, the silent, frozen ghosts
of buglers, upright in the saddle, occupied their posts,
their copper instruments glued fast to mouths of stone. The sky
dropped cannon-ball and shell, mixed with its own artillery
of snowflakes, deathly white, which settled on the grenadiers,
who trembled as they marched, absorbed in private thoughts and fears,
their grey moustaches trimmed with ice.

                                                                        Across the unknown lands
the north wind and the driving snow chased barefoot, starving bands
of former warriors, and broke their hearts. They were a dream
they’d wandered into, in the mist; a mystery, a stream
of shadows under leaden sky. The utter loneliness!
The sky’s revenge: a mighty army in a wilderness,
enwrapped in snow – a silent shroud the elements have sewn.
Each man imagined he was dying; knew he was alone.
Here, in a fateful realm, two enemies pronounced their curse.
The Czar was one; the North another, which was worse.

Gun-carriages chopped up for firewood; cannon thrown away;
men lying down to die; this was a mob, confused, astray,
in headlong flight, their bleak processions swallowed in the waste.
The folds and bulges where the snow had seemed to drift embraced
whole regiments. The fall of Hannibal was on this scale.
Attila left behind such dreadful scenes: the wholesale
rout of wounded, dying men, on stretchers, barrows, carts; the rush
to cross the bridges; death by suffocation in the crush.
Ten thousand closed their eyes to sleep; a hundred saw the day.

Great Marshal Ney, whom once an army followed, ran away.
He haggled with three Cossacks for his watch.

                                                                        And every night
the French imagined Russian soldiers harrying their flight.
They grabbed their weapons. ‘Who goes there?’ In nightmare fantasies
came squadrons, whirlwinds of wild men, whose terrifying cries
were like the calls of bald-head vultures, harbingers of doom.
In panic one whole army fled, and vanished in the gloom.


The emperor surveyed the scene, as if he were a tree,
a giant oak, about to taste the axe. Catastrophe,
the fatal axe man, who had spared his greatness until now,
had climbed up on him. Now he shuddered as each severed bough,
his officers and men, crashed round him one by one. He watched them die.

He paced inside his tent. A remnant of his company,
who’d loved him, trusting in his destiny, stood by outside.
Fate had betrayed him, surely. To and fro they saw his shadow stride.

Within, Napoleon was dazed and pale. Perhaps this was not fate?
Perhaps – he knew not what to think – he had some sin to expiate?
The man of glory trembled as a sudden unaccustomed dread
assailed his soul. He turned to God in anguish. ‘Lord of Hosts,’ he said,
‘is this my punishment, to see my legions scattered on the snow?’

He heard his name called in the dark. A voice said, ‘No.’

Translated from the French by John Richmond

L’Expiation, Section 1

Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.
Pour la première fois l’aigle baissait la tête.
Sombres jours ! l’empereur revenait lentement,
Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.
Il neigeait. L’âpre hiver fondait en avalanche.
Après la plaine blanche une autre plaine blanche.
On ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau.
Hier la grande armée, et maintenant troupeau.
On ne distinguait plus les ailes ni le centre :
Il neigeait. Les blessés s’abritaient dans le ventre
Des chevaux morts ; au seuil des bivouacs désolés
On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés
Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,
Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.
Boulets, mitraille, obus, mêlés aux flocons blancs,
Pleuvaient ; les grenadiers, surpris d’être tremblants,
Marchaient pensifs, la glace à leur moustache grise.
Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours ! la froide bise
Sifflait ; sur le verglas, dans des lieux inconnus,
On n’avait pas de pain et l’on allait pieds nus.
Ce n’étaient plus des cœurs vivants, des gens de guerre ;
C’était un rêve errant dans la brume, un mystère,
Une procession d’ombres sous le ciel noir.
La solitude vaste, épouvantable à voir,
Partout apparaissait, muette vengeresse.
Le ciel faisait sans bruit avec la neige épaisse
Pour cette immense armée un immense linceul.
Et, chacun se sentant mourir, on était seul.
– Sortira-t-on jamais de ce funeste empire ?
Deux ennemis ! Le Czar, le Nord. Le Nord est pire.
On jetait les canons pour brûler les affûts.
Qui se couchait, mourait. Groupe morne et confus,
Ils fuyaient ; le désert dévorait le cortège.
On pouvait, à des plis qui soulevaient la neige,
Voir que des régiments s’étaient endormis là.
O chutes d’Annibal ! lendemains d’Attila !
Fuyards, blessés, mourants, caissons, brancards, civières,
On s’écrasait aux ponts pour passer les rivières.
On s’endormait dix mille, on se réveillait cent.
Ney, que suivait naguère une armée, à present
S’évadait, disputant sa montre à trois cosaques.
Toutes les nuits, qui vive ! alerte, assauts ! attaques !
Ces fantômes prenaient leur fusil, et sur eux
Ils voyaient se ruer, effrayants, ténébreux,
Avec des cris pareils aux voix des vautours chauves,
D’horribles escadrons, tourbillons d’hommes fauves.
Toute une armée ainsi dans la nuit se perdait.
L’empereur était là, debout, qui regardait.
Il était comme un arbre en proie à la cognée.
Sur ce géant, grandeur jusqu’alors épargnée,
Le malheur, bûcheron sinistre, était monté ;
Et lui, ce chêne vivant, par la hache insulté,
Tressaillant sous le spectre aux lugubres revanches,
Il regardait tomber autour de lui ses branches.
Chefs, soldats, tous mouraient. Chacun avait son tour.
Tandis qu’environnant sa tente avec amour,
Voyant son ombre aller et venir sur la toile,
Ceux qui restaient, croyant toujours à son étoile,
Accusaient le destin de lèse-majesté,
Lui se sentit soudain dans l’âme épouvanté.
Stupéfait du désastre et ne sachant que croire,
L’empereur se tourna vers Dieu ; l’homme de gloire
Trembla ; Napoléon comprit qu’il expiait
Quelque chose peut-être, et, livide, inquiet,
Devant ses légions sur la neige semées :
- Est-ce le châtiment, dit-il, Dieu des armées ? -
Alors il s’entendit appeler par son nom
Et quelqu’un qui parlait dans l’ombre lui dit : Non.

Victor Hugo

Translation commentary

Victor Hugo wrote this poem while living in the Channel Islands, in exile from Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire, whose most famous critic he had become. 'L’Expiation' is long; I have translated only its first section. The poem describes the disasters of the late period of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign. At the end of each of the first three sections – while retreating from Moscow, after Waterloo and on Saint Helena – Bonaparte asks God whether these are his punishments for some imagined sin. God mysteriously replies, respectively, ‘No,’ ‘No,’ and ‘Not yet.’ There then follow satirical sections in which Hugo castigates the corruption and banality of the Second Empire. In the final section, Bonaparte’s ghost (his corpse having been restored to Paris) surveys the wreckage of his grand designs which the Second Empire represents. God gives him the cruel truth in the last words of the poem. His punishment is for ‘DIX-HUIT BRUMAIRE’, the date (9 November 1799) on which Bonaparte declared himself emperor. Hugo the republican has his revenge.

My skill is not up to mirroring Hugo’s alexandrines. I have made room for myself by using fourteeners, occasionally extending a line to sixteen syllables or shortening it to twelve, for effect. But I have stuck with rhyming couplets. Once or twice, for example in my line 10, I have invented words to fill out a line. But on the whole, this is a pretty close translation.

Hugo is a master of atmospheric narrative. I have nowhere read such an account of the desolation of defeat in a Russian winter, unless it be Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. Hugo never let facts get in the way of a good story; so far as my researches have gone, Marshal Ney was never guilty of the act of dishonourable betrayal of which he is here accused.

John Richmond