Belisarius by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Belisarius is Longfellow’s timeless poem based on the historic figure of the same name that weaves together the mythology of the soldier and the reality for many figures throughout history and into the present day. The historical Belisarius was, in his lifetime, a general for the Byzantine Empire. He lived in the first half of the sixth century, and worked closely with Emperor Justinian I in campaigns designed to reclaim Mediterranean territories for the Empire. According to a popular Medieval legend, Justinian stripped Belisarius of his rank and title towards the end of his life, and had him blinded, to live out his life as a beggar. The historic accuracy of this legend is widely disputed, but Longfellow uses it as the basis for his poem, making it something of a historic fiction in his catalogue of poetry.

 

Belisarius Analysis

First Stanza

I am poor and old and blind;

The sun burns me, and the wind

Blows through the city gate

And covers me with dust

From the wheels of the august

Justinian the Great. 

The introduction to Belisarius, appropriately, is largely used to introduce Belisarius, presumably the narrative character, who is self-described as being poor, old, and blind, three powerful words used to invoke an unpleasant atmosphere immediately. He describes his sunburns and dusty appearance, and the reader is presented with a striking image: that of Justinian the Great passing by on a chariot (presumably, given the historic context of the story, the “wheels” could not be many other vehicles), which covers Belisarius in dust. The notable differences between the beggar and the “august” emperor (a safe assumption — not many others get to call themselves “Great,” with or without historic context) are emphasized heavily through this image. The amount of context and detail in that one event is much more telling than any verse could describe, and Longfellow certainly chose the event well to convey the differences in rank between the two individuals.

 

Second and Third Stanza

It was for him I chased

The Persians o’er wild and waste,

As General of the East;

Night after night I lay

In their camps of yesterday;

Their forage was my feast. 

For him, with sails of red,

And torches at mast-head,

Piloting the great fleet,

I swept the Afric coasts

And scattered the Vandal hosts,

Like dust in a windy street. 

As the beggar feels Justinian rides by, he remembers a time when he served under the Emperor as a General, sailing as far away as Africa to reclaim lost Roman territories. He recalls plundering the foraged foods of his enemies, a natural thing to recall first for someone who is likely starving. The Persians and Vandals (referring to the Vandalic Kingdom of Carthage) were enemies of the Byzantine Empire for their roles in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a historic struggle in which Belisarius was a highly influential general. Here, he recalls glorious battle, chasing Persian forces as they retreat from him, and scattering Vandal hosts for his country and empire.

 

Fourth and Fifth Stanza

For him I won again

The Ausonian realm and reign,

Rome and Parthenope;

And all the land was mine

From the summits of Apennine

To the shores of either sea. 

For him, in my feeble age,

I dared the battle’s rage,

To save Byzantium’s state,

When the tents of Zabergan,

Like snow-drifts overran

The road to the Golden Gate. 

There is a notable disconnect in the content of each verse and the stories Belisarius tells to the reader. The second through fifth verses describe him as a war hero, a patriot, and a powerful, influential man, who once controlled much of the Western Roman Empire, having won them by right of conquest. For that man to now be a blind and starving beggar begs an important question — how did it happen? He describes his victories won in the name of the man who now passes him by without apparent recognition, and can do nothing but recall a time when he was as powerful as the emperor who now passes him by. To establish the atmosphere of these verses, Longfellow uses phrases like “dared,” “save,” “won,” “reign,” and “Golden Gate” to emphasize the former glory — just as previously, he opened his poem with “poor and old and blind” to emphasize how far gone that glory is now.

 

Sixth and Seventh Stanza

And for this, for this, behold!

Infirm and blind and old,

With gray, uncovered head,

Beneath the very arch

Of my triumphal march,

I stand and beg my bread! 

Methinks I still can hear,

Sounding distinct and near,

The Vandal monarch’s cry,

As, captive and disgraced,

With majestic step he paced,–

“All, all is Vanity!” 

The disconnect between the beggar’s past and present lifestyle is, naturally, not lost on him. He recognizes the gate he begs at as being a place where he once rode to cheers and gratitude, a war hero returning home. He imagines that he can still hear the words of the Vandal king he captured in Africa, commenting on how prevalent vanity was in the world. He recalls the king as being majestic, despite being captured and overthrown from his kingdom. Belisarius’s observations are unusual ones, but it makes sense for him to be contemplating vanity — evidently, he has lost a great deal of social status, and can hardly afford to be arrogant or vain in his present state.

 

Eighth and Ninth Stanza

Ah! vainest of all things

Is the gratitude of kings;

The plaudits of the crowd

Are but the clatter of feet

At midnight in the street,

Hollow and restless and loud. 

But the bitterest disgrace

Is to see forever the face

Of the Monk of Ephesus!

The unconquerable will

This, too, can bear;–I still

Am Belisarius! 

As a beggar and former general both, Belisarius has a perspective on events that likely would have been a fairly radical idea at the time of the Byzantine Empire. He suggests that vanity is more important to leaders than any other quality, because at the end of the day, cheering crowds are meaningless for a person’s actual quality of life. As a beggar, Belisarius would not suddenly have his old life back if people were simply happy to see him — he needs food and a place to live first. The things that are truly important to his life are only made real to him after they are cruelly taken away.

Despite all of his, however, Longfellow shows the reader in the final verse that Belisarius is unable to completely discard his own vanities, though he is channelling them for better purposes. He reminds himself that even though he is no longer in a position to reconquer lost Roman territories, he is still the same man who once led those battles, and as such, as more willpower than any other man of his time. While he is certainly building up his own image in his own head, this time it is a means for survival, rather than a means for egocentrism. The importance of believing in oneself, even to the point of vanity, is a difficult theme for Longfellow to express, because it’s easy to misinterpret, and easy to take too far. Without his unconquerable will though, how long could the downcast Belisarius last? It is not at all easy to push aside pride, especially in a situation such as this one, but the importance of that action cannot be understated, and this seems to be a fair note for Longfellow to conclude Belisarius on, pondering ideas such as social status, vanity, and position in a way that is both suited to the time period of the poem, and still relevant today.

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