Just as perhaps he mused “My plans
“That soar, to earth may fall,
“Let once my army-leader Lannes
“Waver at yonder wall,”—
Out ‘twixt the battery-smokes there flew
A rider, bound on bound
Full-galloping; nor bridle drew
Until he reached the mound.
The second stanza breaks up into two even sections of four lines each. The first four lines concern Napoleon’s apparent dialogue with himself. But this is where Browning’s subtly comes in:
“Just as perhaps he mused.”
The poem works with two different frames of reference. It is in fact a second person account in which you personally addressed by a French soldier a short way from the battle. The whole is being explained to you by him (I guess it is possible that Browning has in mind a female camp follower of some sort, but the closeness to the battle makes that unlikely; hence a male soldier – there were not female fighters in Napoleon’s ranks.
Now this soldier reporter speaks in a tone similar to a third person narrator and it would be easy to think this so. But pay attention: He does not know what is actually in the Emperor’s mind. So our narrator gives us a supposition. You are being invited to follow in his supposition. While told a story with an almost objectivity, you are being asked to see the event through the understanding of an unnamed soldier.
Here, just like the first stanza, we see Napoleon not as master of Europe, but rather as a man in a precarious place wholly dependent upon others. Napoleon may rise on this win or be crashed. And all depends upon Lannes, his Marshall. If Lannes fails, then Napoleon fails. If the army fails, the emperor fails.
The image from the first stanza of an worried sovereign on a little mound, comes back here as an echo. What sort of mound does the emperor stand upon? We will soon see that he stands upon the backs of the dead. His Kingdom is in the hands of Lannes.
The soldier who has just lived through this battle is asking you to understand the emperor in a particular manner. This is not a lecture on war, or class structure, or any similar thing. This is a invitation to view Napoleon’s battles from the eyes of those who fight and die or live.
Moreover, it is never precisely vicious concerning Napoleon. There is a constant strain of the precarious nature of the leader’s position. His glory is as contingent as the life of everyone else. The poem is neither jingoistic, nor is it anti-war. Instead, by the use of this narrator, Browning causes of to empathize, to feel the world through the eyes of this other people.
This brings us to the second half of the stanza: A messenger in full haste rushes up to the “mound.” He has been riding his horse with abandon. And so just as Napoleon is concerning himself with whether the day will be won, tidings come.
Then off there flung in smiling joy,
And held himself erect
By just his horse’s mane, a boy:
You hardly could suspect—
(So tight he kept his lips compressed,
Scarce any blood came through)
You looked twice ere you saw his breast
Was all but shot in two.
An English poet of this time cannot be assumed to have ignorance of Shakespeare. And so the dim echo of Macbeth in this scene is likely haunting the background. The King is upon the scene of the battle anxious for information as to how the battle has gone.
Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald–
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him–from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore: but all’s too weak:
For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
The sergeant is played in Browning’s poem by the boy. Macbeth cuts a man’s chest in two. The boy himself as been cut in two. Both Kings, Duncan and Napoleon, have their kingdom’s and lives in the hands of other men whose death keeps them alive (although not in Browning’s mind, there is something vampire like where the King’s life is maintained by the loss of other’s blood).
The reference to a “boy” in the battle is poignant. As Napoleon’s wars increased, he continued to obtain younger soldiers to replenish the men who had died.
What is not suspected: The boy’s bloody condition. In the movement of the words, there is a hint that the messenger being a boy might have been the surprise.
The boy’s face and chest are odds with one-another. The boy holds his lips so tightly together that “scarce any blood came through”. This is suggestive but not entirely clear: Does he me that no blood was in his lips and thus his lips were white? Or is there a wound somewhere which is being hidden, is he bleeding from his mouth.
Whatever the precise reference, by looking at his bloodless lips you do not suspect the ravaged chest.