Poem of the Week: Advice to a Raven in Russia by Joel Barlow

I'm meeting to defend my dissertation prospectus tomorrow, so I thought it'd be appropriate to share a poem from the guy that the whole thing will be about, Joel Barlow.

The week's poem, "Advice to a Raven in Russia", wasn't widely known until almost fifty years after Barlow's death, when a relative republished it in a small paper in Erie PA. In 1812, Barlow -- who had been a successful diplomat earlier in his life -- was called to France by President Madison, an old friend, to negotiate a treaty with Napoleon. (In 1797 Barlow negotiated the release of American hostages being held by the so-called Barbary Pirates, and authored the Treaty of Tripoli, one of the first international treaties entered into by the Republic.) Barlow wasn't particularly a fan of Napoleon, but he'd lived in France in the 1790s, spoke French fluently, and had a number of contacts and friends there (as part of Paine's circle he'd also been made an honorary citizen, and ran for office in the French Assembly).

Barlow never made it to Napoleon, who by the winter of 1812 was retreating from his nightmarish campaign into Russia. Travelling in a horse-drawn carriage across Europe, the frigid temperatures eventually gave Barlow pneumonia, and shortly thereafter he died. Sometime during the trip, disgusted with the suffering and chaos he saw (French soldiers were basically left to retreat back to France on their own) he composed his last poem, which was carried back to Paris by his nephew, who survived. It was totally unlike anything else he had ever wrote:

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'll 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.



Barlow was a veteran of the American Revolution (which broke out when he was in college at Yale) and throughout his life he'd remained a hopeful revolutionary republican. In every one of his published poems, he essentially told the same story: a new age of freedom, prosperity and peace was dawning in the world, with the first steps taken in the U.S. and France.

Instead, freezing to death in Poland, Barlow was overcome with bitter anger at how Europe had been ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars. "Advice to a Raven in Russia" tells the birds that the entire continent, from Russia to Portugal, is now covered in bodies, and that they might as well fly south to warmer climes to enjoy their feast.

There is a Polish legend that Barlow's carriage, during their last days, took in a Polish man they saw freezing on the side of the road, saving his life. Supposedly, this man erected a tablet honoring Barlow in Zarnowiec, where Barlow died. In the 19th century there was a tablet in Zarnowiec, but when American diplomats returned in the early 20th century to look for it, all traces had been lost. Despite periodic (like, every 75 years) efforts to find Barlow's remains and return them to the U.S., the location of them remains unknown.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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