How Napoleon took Scottish poetry into battle revealed on 200-year anniversary of his death

October 1815. HMS Northumberland has just delivered Napoleon to his final exile on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.

English Heritage of Keeper of the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte on display at Apsley House, London. Picture: Christopher Ison/English Heritage/PA Wire
English Heritage of Keeper of the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte on display at Apsley House, London. Picture: Christopher Ison/English Heritage/PA Wire

On day two, he called for music.

The daughter of his hosts, Betty Balcombe, played and sang “Ye banks and braes”. “When I finished, he said it was the prettiest English air he had ever heard,” she wrote.

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"I replied it was a Scottish ballad, not English; and he remarked, he thought it too pretty to be English.”

Napoleon's hat is on display during the exhibition 'Napoleon: From Waterloo to Saint Helena, birth of the legend', at the Waterloo 1815 memorial in Braine-L'Alleud. Picture: Benoit Doppagne/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the death, at 51, of the ‘petit caporal’, military genius and scourge of Europe, who changed the continent for ever and whose influence lives on, especially in French institutions today.

Like the liquorice he seemed addicted to, Napoleon divides opinion vehemently both for and against.

His influence, however, is not normally associated with Scotland or Scottish culture, notwithstanding the recent revelation that Scottish actor Tom Conti is a distant kinsman of Napoleon. There was, however, another, perhaps more surprising connection.

A voracious reader from his early days at the military academy, Napoleon later employed a personal librarian to manage his 3,370 volumes.

English Heritage of Keeper of the Wellington Collection Josephine Oxley preparing the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte for display at Apsley House, London. Picture: Christopher Ison/English Heritage/PA Wire

Never without books, his wide-ranging, bespoke portable library was indispensable on his military campaigns.

Classical literature, philosophy, histories, and endless novels abounded. A child of his time, he was an enthusiast for the romantic iconoclasms of Rousseau, but also had life-long favourites, including Plutarch and Homer.

But above all, bizarrely, it was the epic poetry of James MacPherson’s Ossian that aroused his strongest passions.

On his final voyage to St Helena, Napoleon reportedly urged his listeners to “Devour Ossian”. He was one of those poets “who lift up the soul, and give to man a colossal greatness”.

English Heritage of Historic Property steward Viktoria Szalay positioning a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte at Apsley House, London, ahead of reopening to the public. Picture: Christopher Ison/English Heritage/PA Wire

Who was Ossian? The 1760 publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry, by Scot James Macpherson, absolutely electrified European cultural life.

It is difficult today to grasp the extraordinary impact these purported translations of the blind third century Caledonian bard, Ossian, and his epic tales of Fingal and Temora, had across mainland Europe, including France.

Rejecting the sophistication of ‘civilised’ society, poets, artists, musicians, even figures as diverse as Napoleon and Jefferson, embraced this cult of the natural, the wild and primitive, seeking heroic meaning in the culture of past peoples.

Napoleon was convinced, not unjustifiably, that his personal enthusiasm for Ossian ensured the wild popularity of MacPherson’s bard.

“It was I,” he claimed energetically, to a Scottish hostess on St Helena. “I made [Ossian] the fashion. I have been even accused of having my head filled with Ossian’s clouds.”

This was a life-long passion. He acquired his first copy of Ossian aged 17 in 1786, albeit in the first full translation into Italian, by Melchiore Cesarotti.

An erstwhile Corsican patriot, Napoleon spoke fluent Italian. Almost incredibly, Napoleon’s French copy is preserved in the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Eleven years later, French academic, de Fontanes, wrote to the young general, saying: “It is said that you always have a copy of Ossian in your pocket – even in the midst of battles”.

In fact, Napoleon even claimed Ossian as his own personal poet laureate.

Alexander the Great had Homer, he claimed, Augustus Caesar had Virgil, so he was to have Ossian. So, thanks to Napoleon, this was “the time when Ossian […] ruled the imagination of France”.

Napoleon’s patronage was crucial in this Ossianomania, stretching to visual arts – his summer palace Malmaison was adorned with a medallion portrait of the bard and Ossianic paintings by Gérard and Girodet – and music, inspiring the hugely popular French composer Lesueur to write his 1803 opera Ossian, ou les Bardes,(Ossian, or the Bards) dedicated to Napoleon.

He and Josephine attended the premiere in 1804 – after which Napoleon is said to have pinned his own Légion d’Honneur on the composer’s chest.

The most dramatic example in art is Ossian’s Dream (Le Songe d’Ossian) by Ingres, another fervent admirer of Ossian.

While at the French Academy in Rome, Ingres was commissioned to create two large paintings for Napoleon’s use in the Quirinale, the former papal palace, one for the Empress’ sitting room, the other for the ceiling above Napoleon's bed.

Ingres completed The Dream of Ossian in 1813 and it was fixed to the bedroom ceiling. The thought of Emperor and Empress of France gazing up at this romanticised vision of a third century Celt is rather arresting.

Napoleon’s love of Ossian continued until his last months.

A copy of Ossian was spotted amongst his books on HMS Bellerophon, the ship on which he surrendered to the British in 1815. He was never dissuaded by the ongoing debate as to the Ossian poems’ authenticity.

Given Napoleon’s vast legacy – wildly controversial, hotly disputed even now – his passion for Ossian may seem little more than a quirky footnote.

However, it sheds light on a complex individual who was infinitely more nuanced than is usually thought.

Self-obsessed, yes, but also serious and often introverted, with both a sense of his own destiny and yet ultimate failure.

Why else was this quintessential man of action so obsessed with these supposedly ancient, melancholic epics of wild nature, heroic battles, death and loss?

He said: “I like Ossian for the same reason that I like to hear the whisper of the wind and the waves of the sea.”

And perhaps the fact that, 200 years on, a French-speaking Emperor whose mother tongue was Corsican dialect, was besotted with the Italian translation of poetry in English, allegedly derived from Celtic/Gaelic sources, reminds us that whatever political boundaries may separate us, we are united in the appreciation of the universal values of a shared culture.

- Dr John Halliday is an educationalist, researcher and translator, and a former rector of Dundee High School.

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