Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, NAPOLEON AT GOTHA, by BAYARD TAYLOR

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NAPOLEON AT GOTHA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: We walk amid the currents of actions left undone
Last Line: "god's purposes were grander: he thrust me from his way!"
Alternate Author Name(s): Taylor, James Bayard
Subject(s): Napoleon I (1769-1821)


WE walk amid the currents of actions left undone,
The germs of deeds that wither, before they see the sun.
For every sentence uttered, a million more are dumb:
Men's lives are chains of chances, and History their sum.


Not he, the Syracusan, but each impurpled lord
Must eat his banquet under the hair-suspended sword;
And one swift breath of silence may fix or change the fate
Of him whose force is building the fabric of a state.


Where o'er the windy uplands the slated turrets shine,
Duke August ruled at Gotha, in Castle Friedenstein, --
A handsome prince and courtly, of light and shallow heart,
No better than he should be, but with a taste for Art.


The fight was fought at Jena, eclipsed was Prussia's sun,
And by the French invaders the land was overrun;
But while the German people were silent in despair,
Duke August painted pictures, and curled his yellow hair.


Now, when at Erfurt gathered the ruling royal clan,
Themselves the humble subjects, their lord the Corsican,
Each bade to ball and banquet the sparer of his line:
Duke August with the others, to Castle Friedenstein.


Then were the larders rummaged, the forest-stags were slain,
The tuns of oldest vintage showered out their golden rain;
The towers were bright with banners, -- but all the people said:
"We, slaves, must feed our master, -- would God that he were dead!"


They drilled the ducal guardsmen, men young and straight and tall,
To form a double column, from gate to castle-wall;
And as there were but fifty, the first must wheel away,
Fall in beyond the others, and lengthen the array.


"Parbleu!" Napoleon muttered: "Your Highness' guards I prize,
So young and strong and handsome, and all of equal size!"
"You, Sire," replied Duke August, "may have as fine, if you
Will twice or thrice repeat them, as I am forced to do!"


Now, in the Castle household, of all the folk, was one
Whose heart was hot within him, the Ducal Huntsman's son;
A proud and bright-eyed stripling; scarce fifteen years he had,
But free of hall and chamber: Duke August loved the lad.


He saw the forceful homage; he heard the shouts that came
From base throats, or unwilling, but equally of shame:
He thought: "One man has done it, -- one life would free the land,
But all are slaves and cowards, and none will lift a hand!


"My grandsire hugged a bear to death, when broke his hunting-spear,
And has this little Frenchman a muzzle I should fear?
If kings are cowed, and princes, and all the land is scared,
Perhaps a boy can show them the thing they might have dared!"


Napoleon on the morrow was coming once again,
(And all the castle knew it) without his courtly train;
And, when the stairs were mounted, there was no other road
But one long, lonely passage, to where the Duke abode.


None guessed the secret purpose the silent stripling kept:
Deep in the night he waited, and, when his father slept,
Took from the rack of weapons a musket old and tried,
And cleaned the lock and barrel, and laid it at his side.


He held it fast in slumber, he lifted it in dreams
Of sunlit mountain-forests and stainless mountain-streams;
And in the morn he loaded -- the load was bullets three:
"For Deutschland -- for Duke August -- and now the third for me!"


"What! ever wilt be hunting?" the stately Marshal cried;
"I'll fetch a stag of twenty!" the pale-faced boy replied,
As, clad in forest color, he sauntered through the court,
And said, when none could hear him: "Now, may the time be short!"


The corridor was vacant, the windows full of sun;
He stole within the midmost, and primed afresh his gun;
Then stood, with all his senses alert in ear and eye
To catch the lightest signal that showed the Emperor nigh.


A sound of wheels: a silence: the muffled sudden jar
Of guards their arms presenting: a footstep mounting far,
Then nearer, briskly nearer, -- a footstep, and alone!
And at the farther portal appeared Napoleon!


Alone, his hands behind him, his firm and massive head
With brooded plans uplifted, he came with measured tread:
And yet, those feet had shaken the nations from their poise,
And yet, that will to shake them depended on the boy's!


With finger on the trigger, the gun held hunter-wise,
His rapid heart-beats sending the blood to brain and eyes,
The boy stood, firm and deadly, -- another moment's space,
And then the Emperor saw him, and halted, face to face.


A mouth as cut in marble, an eye that pierced and stung
As might a god's, all-seeing, the soul of one so young:
A look that read his secret, that lamed his callow will,
That inly smiled, and dared him his purpose to fulfil!


As one a serpent trances, the boy, forgetting all,
Felt but that face, nor noted the harmless musket's fall;
Nor breathed, nor thought, nor trembled; but, pale and cold as stone
Saw pass, nor look behind him, the calm Napoleon.


And these two kept their secret; but from that day began
The sense of fate and duty that made the boy a man;
And long he lived to tell it, -- and, better, lived to say:
"God's purposes were grander: He thrust me from His way!"

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