A Cautionary Tale...
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
‘Oh there he may sit and tell the scenes he has seen ah! While forlorn he may morn on the Isle of St. Helena.’
This anonymous ballad, ‘Napoleon on the Isle of St. Helena’, was written after Napoleon’s death in 1821. It offers a sympathetic and more favourable view on the former Emperor's plight, particularly when juxtaposed with earlier songs about ‘the Corsican pest'.
Particularly in 1803-1805, at a time when Napoleon was threatening to invade, British ballads portraying ‘little Boney' in a negative light were used as part of a patriotic propaganda
campaign. The descriptions of Napoleon and his wife, Marie-Louise as ‘forlorn’ and ‘broken-hearted’ help to give this later ballad a very different tone. The third stanza, in which the anonymous author notes that Napoleon has ‘changed’, is also significant in this respect:
‘Come all you that have got wealth beware of ambition, For it is a decree in fate that might change your condition, Be ye steadfast in time for what is to come you know not, For fear ye might be changed like he on the Isle of St. Helena.’
The direct address – or ‘call’ – to the audience transforms this narrative about Napoleon on
St. Helena into a cautionary tale. The ballad as a whole stands as a moral warning of what can
happen to the wealthy, powerful, and ambitious. The description of the island as an unhappy punishment is no doubt coloured by this message. The phrases ‘rude rushing waves’, ‘great billows heave’, and ‘wild rocks dashing’, combined with the description of Napoleon as ‘brave’ in the fourth stanza underline the ‘harsh’ environment of the island.
Sympathy with the crushing of a man through this ordeal of exile is evident in the final two
lines of the ballad, which have a sharp, accusatory tone:
‘For your base intrigues and your base misdemeanours, Have caused him to die on the Isle of St. Helena.’.
As Oskar Cox Jensen notes in his book Napoleon and British Song, 1797-1822 (London,
2015, p.133), such criticism of Napoleon’s treatment was far from unusual:
‘[B]y envisaging a noble husband permanently separated from his family, people could
articulate and indeed ennoble their own grief for lost servicemen, or – more happily –
valorise the less permanent sacrifices and hardships endured whilst husbands or lovers served on foreign stations. In these songs, Napoleon is always the individual, his opponents the state apparatus, this in itself securing him sympathy among much of the populace."
This blog post was produced by Aoife Miralles, who took part in our September Micro-Internship Programme (MIP) with the University of Oxford Careers Service.