Britain’s great enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte, was feared by so many but admired by so many others. Lord Byron’s admiration for Napoleon was more like an extreme attachment to a man who had a mythical zeal about him. Byron’s Prometheus written in 1816, the year following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and his exile to St Helena, clearly emphasises Byron’s disappointment that Napoleon had failed. More importantly, however, the poem raises Napoleon to semi-divine status, just as how Augustus had raised Julius Caesar to the same status. Byron writes:
Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
A mighty lesson we inherit,
Thou art a symbol and a sign,
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source
Byron’s obsession with Napoleon is evident in this passage. By comparing Napoleon to Prometheus, Byron clearly perceived Napoleon to be a force of good who was wrongly punished. As Prometheus gave humanity fire by going against the gods, Napoleon in Byron’s eyes was helping in Europe’s liberal progression. Prometheus is probably the best mythological comparison for Napoleon from Byron’s perspective. Napoleon was like the fire for Byron’s writing and intrigue.
His From the French written from the perspective of a French officer is perhaps the most convincing piece of writing in emphasising the extent to which Byron was obsessed with the ethos of Napoleon. In writing:
Must thou go, my glorious Chief,
Severed from thy faithful few?
Who can tell thy warrior’s grief
Maddening o’er that long adieu?
Woman’s love, and friendship’s zeal,
Dear as both have been to me–
What are they to all I feel,
With a soldier’s faith for thee?
And finishing with:
My chief, my king, my friend, adieu
Never did I droop before,
Never to my sovereign sue,
As his foes I now implore,
All I ask is to divide,
Every peril he must be brave;
Sharing by the hero’s side
His fall, his exile, his grave.
His pain with the exile of Napoleon is evident. It is almost as if the pain that Byron suffered in knowing of Napoleon’s exile was worse than death. Byron’s devotion to a man he had not met is astounding, but it is understandable when one thinks to the liberté, égalité, fraternité ideology that shaped the period and progressed Europe. Byron and others who had the view that Napoleon was a liberating man in Europe acknowledged the genius that was a cause of Napoleon’s success for much of his time as emperor.
In many ways, the values that Napoleon stood for, spanning from enlightenment thought are identical to those in Byron’s romantic style of writing and political ideologies. Andrew Roberts writes ‘The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon.’ Byron’s support in the House of Lords for secular education and religious toleration for the long-persecuted Catholic population of Britain has been noted by many historians. It could be said that Napoleon’s reforms influenced these views.
Romantic writing is unmistakeably a result from enlightened thought, of which Napoleon, in his educational reforms, pushed and almost indoctrinated French children. Is this why Byron was obsessed with Napoleon? Because he was the leading force in pushing through the ideologies that Byron believed in.
Byron was often the enemy of conservative factions in the Lords as he pushed for progression on the basis on liberty. I would argue that Byron’s obsession with Napoleon is a result of this, rather than Napoleon’s success. Byron adored Napoleon as they shared the same values, whether it be the promotion of liberalism or even hatred for Russia and sympathy for the Polish people.
Byron’s condition supposedly deteriorated in his final few years with him putting on weight and his hair growing long and grey. Maybe this is due to his sadness of Napoleon’s exile. Will we ever know? Probably not but given his obsession with one of Europe’s most influential figures, I would say that it could be argued.
By T Nurcombe