The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna
by Charles Wolfe, 1791-1823
This fine martial poem is based on an incident in the Peninsular War, which was part of the generation-long war between France, under Napoleon Buonaparte, and pretty much everyone else in Europe. The peninsula was Iberia, which is to say, Spain and Portugal. Napoleon engineered a coup d'etat in Spain in early 1808, but the Spanish were unhappy about it, a popular insurrection began, and the British tried to join in with the Spanish against the French.
The Spanish proved to be difficult allies, though, and a British army under Sir John Moore was forced to retreat to the port of Corunna, on Spain's northwestern tip, from where they were to be evacuated back to Britain. The retreat had all the problems of discipline and morale that every retreat has, with the additional hardships of bad terrain and appalling weather. Worse yet: when they got to Corunna on January 11, 1809, the British troopships that were to evacuate them had not yet arrived, so Sir John had to organize defenses and fight a battle against the French. In the battle he was mortally wounded.
The poet Robert Southey wrote an account of these events. His account was read by Charles Wolfe, a young country parson at a place named Donaghmore, in Ireland. Wolfe then wrote this poem, in 1814, when he was 22 years old. The poem was published in a provincial Irish newspaper three years later. Lord Byron discovered it five years after that, admired it tremendously, but did not know who had written it. Wolfe was not conclusively identified as the author until after his death from TB in 1823, at age 31.
There is an amusing parody of the poem here.
"corse" — corpse.
"lanthorn" — lantern.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.
No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.
Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.
We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!
Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him —
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.
But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.