Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Retreat from Moscow"


The poem "The Retreat from Moscow" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Victor Hugo poem. The poem describes the aftermath of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, in which many of his soldiers were killed by the harsh winter, while others were killed by the Russian army or starved to death after the capital city, Moscow, was burned by retreating Russians. Each of these elements is highlighted in the poem, from the early refrain of "It snowed,"—meant to emphasize the effects of the harsh weather—to the French troops who have "No bread to eat, and not a sheltering tent," to the "Cossacks wild" that attack commander Ney and his men.

After the desolation of this winter war scene is described at length, the poem turns our attention to "The Emperor" Napoleon, who is not himself slain but watches as countless men of his fall in military service. Upon witnessing this desolation and pondering what the future holds, Napoleon turns to God and asks repeatedly if "this [is] the vengeance" that he must face for having conquered so extensively. In response, Napoleon imagines that God says "'No, / Not yet," but in reality, Napoleon realizes that the noise he heard is no more than the "vulture's scream." This image of disillusionment and desolation is where the poem ends.


In terms of its form, the poem is 103 lines long and written in rhyming couplets, with the exception of one rhyming tercet (a section of three lines that rhymes). This tercet serves as a thematic turn that transitions from the poem's opening description of dead and frozen soldiers to larger reflections on the strategic and historical implications of the French defeat. The section preceding the tercet, which describes the bodies of soldiers as "dead," "mute," "fixed," and covered with frost, emphasizes the static and motionless quality of the soldiers. Just before the tercet, this is made explicit by a couplet which uses anaphora to begin both lines with "they" (referring to the soldiers): "They were no more hearts living, troops of war, / They were mere phantoms of a dream, afar." The repeated emphasis on "they" underscores the devastating nature of the losses to Napoleon's army, since the shared beginning of the lines makes the movement from "hearts living" to "mere phantoms" all the more noticeable. The tercet then concludes this section of gloomy mediation on the soldiers' deaths, stating that they are phantoms "in darkness wandering, amid vapours dim; / A mystery; of shadows a procession grim / Upon a black sky, to its very rim." The prevalent darkness in these three lines, combined with a triple rhyme akin to a death knell, underscores the finality and brutality of the soldiers' loss.

After this discussion of the human cost of the war, the poem shifts slightly to discuss how the war is implicated in systems larger than the scale of the human, including weather patterns and history. The line "Two foes—the Czar, the North. The North is worst" links politics and weather substantively, aligning the poem with the popular conception that the Russian winter—even more so than the Russian army—was the cause of the French Army's defeat. After a brief interlude continuing to describe the effects of the winter weather, the poem goes on to reference major figures of military history: "History amazed / Beheld the ruin. What to this retreat, / Was any former downfall or defeat! / What Hannibal's reverses wrapped in gloom! / What Attila's, when whole hordes received their doom!" These lines suggest that the scenes of desolation witnessed in France's invasion of Russia are unparalleled, even in the most spectacular scenes of military history like those involving Hannibal and Attila the Hun. The next proper name of a historical figure given in the poem is commander Ney, "whom an army followed late." The routing of his men continues the brutal French defeat that is discussed so extensively throughout the poem.

Finally, our attention turns to Napoleon's experience of the war: "The Emperor was there." Napoleon is described as mighty and powerful, as a "living oak" whose "branches [have] fall[en], with awe." This investment of Napoleon with divine power continues, as he is described as a "star" from which his men refuse to turn and flee. Further, it is suggested that Napoleon is of an important "destiny," a "high estate," and has even subjugated "Fate" to the status of "bondsman."

The end of the poem then draws out the various ways in which Napoleon has fallen from greatness, and he turns to God for an explanation of why he is being tested so harshly by this defeat. When he thinks he hears God speaking to him, however, the poem ends on the image of the "vulture's scream," which reminds us of the omnipresence of death in the poem and reminds us that, despite Napoleon's earthly power, he still cannot conquer the natural elements, and he still cannot speak with the divine.

Dutt's choice to translate this poem reflects her interest in the state of continental European politics. Moreover, both the central message that Napoleon's army was defeated in large part by nature and the confusion of the vulture with the divine at the poem's end reflect Dutt's deep fascination with the relationship of nature to the human and the sublime. There is also a kind of subversive beauty to many of the desolate images in the poem, such as the frozen men playing their trumpets on horseback indefinitely, which calls to mind the question of poetry's relationship to loss, death, and pain—another question that interested Dutt throughout her life.