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Napoleon’s Library, Fontainbleau

One of the first literary glimpses into the United States’ interest in French diplomacy, specifically Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign, can be seen in Joel Barlow’s poem Advice to a Raven in Russia.  As a tenacious student of French language and history, I have taught about Napoleon Bonaparte’s role in French civilisation in my university courses  and most recently published a blog post about his role as Emperor in France from 1804-1814.  I also just returned from Paris where I had the opportunity to visit Chateau Fontainbleau where Napoleon briefly lived and viewed his library, weaponry, famous black jacket and bicome, and his Abdication Room; therefore, I was greatly interested to read this American Patriot’s view of Napoloeon’s campaigns and leadership through Barlow’s poem.

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Napoleon’s Throne Room, Fontainbleau

Upon further reading in the Thematic Guide to American Poetry, I discovered that Barlow had a personal connection to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia as President James Madison sent Barlow to persuade Napoleon to sign a peace treaty with the United States (urns, 236).  However, Barlow never had a chance to meet with Napoleon and after arriving in Russia, Barlow witnessed the “catastrophic carnage of the war” and wrote Advice to a Raven as his anti-war statement instead.

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Advice to a Raven in Russia is written in heroic couplets and the apostrophe to a raven is introduced in the first phrase, “Black fool, why winter here?”  Barlow takes the raven on an aerial adventure through the defeated countries of Napoleon’s campaigns. He initially refers to the ancient names of European countries such as Germania (Germany), Neustria (Austria), Belgia (Belgium), Gaul (France) centuries before Napoleon’s conquests, possibly evoking the pilgrimage by Alexander the Great.  However, starting with the fourth stanza, Barlow refers to the modern names of countries conquered by Napoleon’s Army such as Spain, Greece, Egypt and Syria, .

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Napoleon’s coat and nicome, Fontainbleau


Barlow contrarily mixes some humor and irony into his advice.  As the raven is having trouble eating “frozen orbs” of the dead, the poet advises him to choose a warmer climate, such as Spain or India, where the carnage is not “marbled through with frost” . In addition, calling for his “ravenous brood”, Barlow uses this common adjective (from French origin!) as a pun for the raven.

Barlow observes in conclusion that this quest is futile as “No Raven’s wing can stretch the flight so far” as Napoleon’s “bandrols” have stretched across a continent.  He  ends the poem inciting the Earth to take “total vengeance on the monster’s head”, referring to Napoleon, in order to “let the world repose”.  Unfortunately, Barlow did not get to experience this repose as he  died of pneumonia before his poem was published and was not able to see Napoleon’s defeat and exile which led to his own harrowing, premature death.

Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812)

Black fool, why winter here? These frozen skies,
Worn by your wings and deafen’d by your cries,
Should warn you hence, where milder suns invite,
And day alternates with his mother night.
You fear perhaps your food will fail you there,
Your human carnage, that delicious fare
That lured you hither, following still your friend
The great Napoleon to the world’s bleak end.
You fear, because the southern climes pour’d forth
Their clustering nations to infest the north,
Barvarians, Austrians, those who Drink the Po
And those who skirt the Tuscan seas below,
With all Germania, Neustria, Belgia, Gaul,
Doom’d here to wade thro slaughter to their fall,
You fear he left behind no wars, to feed
His feather’d canibals and nurse the breed.
Fear not, my screamer, call your greedy train,
Sweep over Europe, hurry back to Spain,

You’ll find his legions there; the valliant crew
Please best their master when they toil for you.
Abundant there they spread the country o’er
And taint the breeze with every nation’s gore,
Iberian, Lussian, British widely strown,
But still more wide and copious flows their own.
Go where you will; Calabria, Malta, Greece,
Egypt and Syria still his fame increase,
Domingo’s fatten’d isle and India’s plains
Glow deep with purple drawn from Gallic veins.
No Raven’s wing can stretch the flight so far
As the torn bandrols of Napoleon’s war.
Choose then your climate, fix your best abode,
He’ll make you deserts and he’ll bring you blood.
How could you fear a dearth? have not mankind,
Tho slain by millions, millions left behind?
Has not CONSCRIPTION still the power to weild
Her annual faulchion o’er the human field?
A faithful harvester! or if a man
Escape that gleaner, shall he scape the BAN?

The triple BAN, that like the hound of hell
Gripes with three joles, to hold his victim well.
Fear nothing then, hatch fast your ravenous brood,
Teach them to cry to Bonaparte for food;
They’ll be like you, of all his suppliant train,
The only class that never cries in vain.
For see what mutual benefits you lend!
(The surest way to fix the mutual friend)
While on his slaughter’d troops your tribes are fed,
You cleanse his camp and carry off his dead.
Imperial Scavenger! but now you know
Your work is vain amid these hills of snow.
His tentless troops are marbled thro with frost
And change to crystal when the breath is lost.
Mere trunks of ice, tho limb’d like human frames
And lately warm’d with life’s endearing flames,
They cannot taint the air, the world impest,
Nor can you tear one fiber from their breast.
No! from their visual sockets, as they lie,
With beak and claws you cannot pluck an eye.
The frozen orb, preserving still its form,
Defies your talons as it braves the storm,
But stands and stares to God, as if to know
In what curst hands he leaves his world below.
Fly then, or starve; tho all the dreadful road
From Minsk to Moskow with their bodies strow’d
May count some Myriads, yet they can’t suffice
To feed you more beneath these dreary skies.
Go back, and winter in the wilds of Spain;
Feast there awhile, and in the next campaign
Rejoin your master; for you’ll find him then,
With his new million of the race of men,
Clothed in his thunders, all his flags unfurl’d,
Raging and storming o’er the prostrate world.
War after war his hungry soul requires,
State after State shall sink beneath his fires,
Yet other Spains in victim smoke shall rise
And other Moskows suffocate the skies,
Each land lie reeking with its people’s slain
And not a stream run bloodless to the main.
Till men resume their souls, and dare to shed
Earth’s total vengeance on the monster’s head,
Hurl from his blood-built throne this king of woes,
Dash him to dust, and let the world repose.


Burns, Alan Douglas.  Thematic Guide to American Poetry.  Greenwood Publishing . 2002. Print

Further Reading:

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (