War, War, and More War

In 1812, President Madison sent the diplomat Joel Barlow with a treaty for consideration by Napoleon in Russia, where Bonaparte was leading his disastrous campaign against the Tsar. Barlow is known today mainly for the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that he negotiated, that says, famously:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Barlow never reached Napoleon and never returned, dying in Poland in the last month of the year.

He saw enough of war on that trip. It seemed to be everywhere. Not only was his own United States battling England, but the French were fighting (and now losing) in eastern Europe—as well as trying to stop the relentless Wellington in Spain.

We like to call the Great War of 1914-1918 ‘the First World War,’ but those wars a century earlier were just as broad, though not quite so focused.

Before he died, Barlow, who was also a poet (not really a very good one), penned his best poem, a bleak, anti-Napoleon lament called “Advice to a Raven in Russia,” telling the bird to leave the frozen carrion it picked on in the north for warmer climates, for there was certain to be fighting there, too.

Given the number of wars going on in the world right now (a number that seems to grow daily), I would like to offer that poem as one for our time, too:

Advice to a Raven in Russia
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 may 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 sourthern climes pour’d forth
Their clustering nations to infest the north,
Bavarians, Austirans, 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 cannibals and nurse the breed.
Fear not, my screamer, call your greedy train,
Sweep over Europe, hurry back to Spain,
You’’ find his legions there; the valiant 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, Lusian, 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 wield
Her annual faulchion o’er the human field?
A faithful harvester! Or if a man
Escape that gleaner, shall he scape the BAN?
The tripe BAN, that like the hound of hell
Gripes with joles, to hold his victim well.
Fear nothing then, hatch fast your ravenous brood,
Teach them to cry to Buonaparte for food;
They’ll be like you, of all his suppliant train,
The only class that never cries in vain.
For see what natural benefits you lend!
(The surest way to fix the mutual friend)
While on this slaughter’d troops your tribes are fed,
You cleanse his camp and carry of his dead.
Imperial scavenger! But now you know,
Your work is vain amid these hills of snow.
His tentless troops are marbled through with frost
And change to crystal when the breath is lost.
Mere trunks of ice, tho limb’d with 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 peoples slain
And not a stream num 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.

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