Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte
(Byron and Schoenberg)
Acrylic and ink on paper, 55.4 x 38 cm. 2020.
A painting inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's musical setting of Lord Byron's satirical attack on the pretensions of would-be autocrats, the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte. Thinking that 1942 was a fitting time to revive the poem, Schoenberg intended his music to convey "one hundred and seventy kinds of derision, sarcasm, hatred, ridicule, contempt, condemnation, etc." The central theme of the text—and, I think, the strident music—is the ridiculous position into which tyrants place themselves, attempting to control the uncontrollable chaos of the world; they are bound, like Napoleon, to fail and be disgraced. Today, when tyrants are quite happy to dispense with the dignity coveted by their forebears, the poem is somewhat less consoling.
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And Earth hath spilt her blood for him,
Who thus can hoard his own!
And Monarchs bow’d the trembling limb,
And thank’d him for a throne!
Fair Freedom! we may hold thee dear,
When thus thy mightiest foes their fear
In humblest guise have shown.
Oh, ne’er may tyrant leave behind
A brighter name to lure mankind!
Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
Nor written thus in vain—
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
Or deepen every stain:
If thou hadst died as honour dies,
Some new Napoleon might arise,
To shame the world again—
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?
Weigh’d in the balance, hero dust
Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
To all that pass away;
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
To dazzle and dismay:
Nor deem’d Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.
An excerpt of the poem: