The Forced Recruit: Solferino, 1859

Table of contents

1. The Forced Recruita

In the ranks of the Austrian you found him,
He died with his face to you all;
Yet bury him here where around him
You honor your bravest that fall.
Venetian5, fair-featured 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,10
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 that smile!
As orphans yearn on to their mothers,
He yearned to your patriot bands;—
“Let me die for our 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.
Ay, but easy for men to die scorning
The death-stroke, who fought side by side—
One tricolor29 floating above them;
Struck down ‘mid triumphant acclaims
Of an Italy rescued to love them
And blazon the brass with their names.
But he,—without witness or honor,
Mixed, shamed in his country’s regard,
With the tyrants who march in upon her,
Died faithful and passive: ‘twas hard.
‘Twas sublime. In a cruel restriction
Cut off from the guerdon38 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.

2. Note on the text

EBB wrote that the incident she describes in this poem occurred repeatedly in the war of 1859, which began the final phase of Italian revolt against Austrian domination: “The fact was no invention of mine, & my only merit is telling it simply & clearly. It was not a solitary fact…. Many ‘forced recruits’ having been found on those fields of battle, . . Italians, forced to stand in the Austrian ranks . . dead with their faces towards their brothers, . . and guns which never had been loaded in their hands! They could die for Italy—& they died.” She insisted that her treatment was not responsible for the emotional power of the poem: “it is so entirely the fact which makes the poetry—…. The pathos of that situation had only to be told” (LTA 2:499-500). Perhaps it was the appealing pathos that prompted EBB to submit this poem to the English periodical The Cornhill Magazine, where it was first published in October, 1860; she sent the other “Italian poems” of this period to American publications, “where both sympathy & pay come double” (LTA 2:490). Though an 1869 reviewer, judging that Last Poems contained her best work, noted this poem particularly (Donaldson [1993], 1862.4), it has received scant comment among recent critics.

3. Explanatory Notes

The title in the Cornhill Magazine was “A Forced Recruit at Solferino.” Without identifying their source, Porter and Clarke (CW 6:379) quote from a newspaper account of the battle of Magenta, which occurred twenty days before the battle at Solferino: “Among the Austrian dead a youth was found whose musket had never been loaded, and on him were papers declaring that he, a Venetian, had been forced to serve, but he never would fire on his countrymen, and only desired to be killed by them. The Italians took off the hated white uniform of Austria and buried him with their own dead, that his spirit might have rest.” On 24 June 1859, the battle of Solferino, a village in Lombardy, involved some 250,000 troops. It was a victory for Italian and French forces, largely because of their better tactics and immense bravery, but casualties were especially heavy—“in the tens of thousands on both sides” (LTA 2:420 n8). Although Solferino seemed to promise an early end to the war and achievement of Italian independence, Napoleon III soon signed the Treaty of Villafranca with the Austrians, in large part resuming the previous territorial arrangements. Only Lombardy had been liberated; Venetia remained under Austrian control, Tuscany and other regions returned to their autocratic dukes, and the Pope retained control of Romagna. Fervor for independence ran especially high in Venetia, the northeastern region including Venice, but its proximity to Austria kept it sorely oppressed.

Venetian Fervor for independence ran especially high in Venetia, the northeastern region including Venice, but its proximity to Austria kept it sorely oppressed.

alien the cloth the foreign uniform of the Austrian troops.

One tricolor the green, white, and red flag of a unified Italy.

guerdon reward.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 08-Mar-2009
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