Posts Tagged ‘‘Bushes and Briars – Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams’’

Radical Balladry: A Dream of Napoleon

May 16, 2014

Napoleon Pic

The Napoleonic Wars are one of the quintessential episodes of the British patriotic interpretation of history, when Britain and her allies faced down and defeated Napoleon. And long before Hitler, Napoleon was – and to a certain extent, still remains – the archetypal foreign dictator intent on world domination. Yet in his early days Napoleon was a hero to many British radicals, the champion of democracy and freedom against a corrupt, aristocratic order. It can come as a surprise that there were ballads written in Britain celebrating ‘Boney’ and his exploits. One of them, A Dream of Napoleon, was collected by Vaughn Williams. It appears to have been first printed in the late 1830s, though it may have been composed perhaps thirty years earlier, as the only battle it mentions is that of Marengo in Italy in 1800. It runs

One night sad and languid I went to my bed, but I
Scarce had reclined on my pillow, when a vision surprising came
into my head; methought I was traversing the
Billow, one night as my vessel dashed over the deep I
beheld a rude rock that was craggy and steep, The rock [where]
the willows now seemed to weep o’er the grave of the once famed Napoleon.

Methought that my vessel drew near to the land, I beheld clad in green this
bod figure.
With the trumpet of fame clasped firm in his hand, on his brow there was
Valour and vigour.
‘O stranger’, he cried, has thou ventured to me from the land of thy fathers
who boast they are free?
If so a tale I’ll tell unto thee concerning the once famed Napoleon.

‘Remember that year so immortal’, he cried, ‘when I crossed the rude Alps
famed in story
With the legions of France, for her sons were my pride, and I led them to
honour and glory.
On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled and wherever my banner the eagle
unfurled,
‘Twas the standard of freedom all over the world and the signal for fame’,
cried Napoleon.

‘Like a soldier I’ve been in the heat and the cold, as I marched to the trumpet
and cymbal,
But by dark deeds of treachery I have been sold, while monarchs before me
have trembled.
Now rules and princes their station demean, and like scorpions spit forth
their venom and spleen,
But liberty soon o’er the world shall be seen’, as I woke from dream, cried
Napoleon.

Source: Roy Palmer, ed., Bushes and Briars: Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Llanerch 1999) 100-1.

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