War and the Muses - “The Forced Recruit”
During the mid-nineteenth century, the Italian struggle for liberation and unification attracted widespread support in the liberal states of the Western world, notably Britain, France, the U.S. One of many caught up in the fervor of the Risorgimento was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet-partner of Robert Browning, both long resident in Italy. On June 17, 1859, occurred the stunning Franco-Piedmontese victories over the Austrians at Solferino and San Martino, the former noted for carnage so great that it inspired Henri Dunant, a Swiss tourist, to form the Red Cross.
One of the ironies of the war was that many Italians were serving in the Austrian ranks, drafted into Imperial service to fight against their brethren and national interest. This paradox caused Elizabeth Browning to pen, “The Forced Recruit.”
The Forced Recruit|
In the ranks of the Austrians you found him,
He died with his face to you all;
Yet bury him here where around him
You honour your bravest that fall.
Venetian, fair haired and slender,
He lies shot to death in his youth,
With a smile on his lips over-tender
For any mere soldier's dead mouth.
No stranger, and yet not a traitor,
Though alien the cloth on his breast,
Underneath it how seldom a greater
Young heart, has a shot sent to rest!
By your enemy tortured and goaded
To march with them, stand in their file,
His musket (see) never was loaded,
He facing your guns with a smile!
As orphans yearn on their mothers,
He yearned to your patriot bands;-
'Let me die for my Italy, brothers,
If not in your ranks, by your hands!
'Aim straightly, fire steadily! spare me
A ball in the body which may
Deliver my heart here, and tear me
This badge of the Austrian away!
So thought he, so died he this morning.
What then? many others have died.
Aye, but easy for men to die scorning
The death-stroke, who fought side by side -
One tricolour floating above them;
Struck down 'mid triumphant acclaims
Of Italy rescued to love them
And blazon the brass with their names.
But he, - without witness or honour,
Mixed shame in his country's regard,
With tyrants who march in upon her,
Died faithful and passive: 'twas hard.
'Twas sublime. In cruel restriction
Cut off from the guerdon of sons,
With most filial obedience, conviction,
His soul kissed the lips of her guns.
That moves you? Nay, grudge not to show it,
While digging a grave for him here;
The others who died, says your poet,
Have glory, - let him have a tear.