Napoleon Visits A Pesthouse In Jaffa

A Sonnet About A Painting

You join Napoleon’s army and you march
To Egypt, taking Jaffa, killing all,
The sand and the conditions, blinding, harsh;
Your uniform at least was not your pall.
In battle you refused somehow to fall,
The city all in flames, its levies parched,
Victorious, and yet your body stalls;
The plague takes root among you like a larch.
Your dying troop, the monastery arched
Have taken to be treated, and to bawl.
The bubos in your pits and in your crotch:
Good thing Napoleon’s here to touch them all.
Before the emperor visited you’d thought
You’d killed the guiltless and rightly died for naught.


Propaganda art! No head of state is above optics! Napoleon actually did visit plague victims in Jaffa, they say, but come on. Look at the lieutenant or whatever behind him with a rag over his mouth. Look at Napoleon touching that dude’s armpit. Is this how it actually went down? I have my doubts!

The story goes that Napoleon’s army crushed Jaffa and killed a bunch of POWs. Before his army moved on, a lot of his own guys got the plague. So Bonaparte had to be like “Ok, well, how many days is this going to set us back?” Then after it turned out that it would be many days, he asked his crew if they ought to just kill all their own Black Death victims — his own soldiers — with overdoses of morphine and his crew were like, “Um, probably not?” So they didn’t do that. But he wanted to!

History is full of assholes, is the lesson.

Thanks for reading!

This is Phil.


Image: Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros