A St Helena Lullaby

(notes by Donald Mackenzie)



Published in Rewards and Fairies (1910) where it precedes “A Priest in Spite of Himself”

There is a sung version by Peter Bellamy here.

The poem

In the tale, we have briefly encountered Napoleon through Talleyrand, who was befriended by Pharaoh Lee, who has been telling his story to the children. The poem follows the trajectory of Napoleon’s career: the shooting down (II. 5-8) of the rebels marching against the National Convention (5 Oct 1795) – the `whiff of grapeshot’ which launched his political career; his greatest victory, over the combined Austrian and Russian armies, at Austerlitz on 2 Dec. 1805 (II. 9-12).

Then Nelson’s defeat (Il. 17-20) of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar (21 Oct 1805), which ruled out a Napoleonic invasion of England; the disastrous retreat from the 1812 Russian campaign when some 13,000 troops are said to have perished in the crossing (26-9 Nov) of the river Beresina in western Russia (I. 21); through to his final exile, after Waterloo, to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.

The nursery rhyme ‘How many miles to Babylon’ seems a possible inspiration. [D.H.]



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