Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815 has long been recognised as one of the decisive moments of world history. The conflict was also a key event for many of the major British writers of the Romantic Period. As Francis Jeffrey, the leading literary reviewer of the day, remarked in the Edinburgh Review:
All our bards … great and small, and of all sexes, ages, and professions, from Scott and Southey down to hundreds without names or additions, have adventured upon this theme.
News of Wellington and Blücher’s victory in farmland south of Brussels met with a mixed reaction from British writers. William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and their families celebrated by joining the public rejoicing that was held on the summit of a nearby mountain, Skiddaw, near Keswick, on August 21 1815. The festivities involved dancing round a bonfire, rolling large balls of burning flax and turpentine down the mountain, eating roast beef and plum pudding and singing “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia.”
But not everyone responded to the news with such enthusiastic displays of patriotism. The essayist William Hazlitt, a strident radical who would later write an epic biography of Napoleon, was distraught. The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote of Hazlitt:
It is not to be believed how the destruction of Napoleon affected him; he seemed prostrated in mind and body, he walked about unwashed, unshaven, hardly sober by day, and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration, for weeks.
Lord Byron had similarly adopted Napoleon as his personal idol and on hearing of Bonaparte’s defeat commented dejectedly “I am d–––d sorry for it”.
Almost immediately after the battle, Waterloo became a tourist destination. Writers and artists joined those who flocked to gain first-hand experience of the site that Byron described as the “place of skulls, The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo”.
Walter Scott, one of the period’s major war poets, hurried to the scene of conflict in August 1815 with the specific intention of writing his poem “The Field of Waterloo”, which he began on the first day of his visit. Robert Southey, who as Poet Laureate felt himself “bound to celebrate the greatest victory in British history”, undertook his own pilgrimage to the battlefield in October, a journey he described at length in The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo.
In 1816, Lord Byron rode across the battlefield as he travelled in self-imposed exile from Britain to Italy. His account of Waterloo included his famous description of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, held in Brussels on the night before the battle. Byron’s was one of the most politically controversial of the many poetic versions of the conflict – to Walter Scott’s disappointment, Byron refused to praise Wellington’s contribution to the victory.
Byron felt a strong affinity with Napoleon – in his epic poem Don Juan he later described himself as “The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme” – and in Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he combined elegies for the fallen of both sides with an analysis of his hero’s complex character as “Conqueror and captive of the earth”.
JMW Turner visited the battlefield in August 1817, making the sketches that formed the basis for his powerful depiction of the conflict’s aftermath, The Field of Waterloo. In this painting, Turner emphasised the shattering loss caused by a battle in which approximately 50,000 men had been killed or wounded in nine hours of fighting.
He portrayed the conflict’s aftermath, showing the corpses of allied and French troops heaped together while women and children search for their loved ones amongst the piles of bodies. Turner accentuated the combat’s devastating effect on both sides by attaching to the painting Byron’s description of “Rider and horse, – friend, foe, – in one red burial blent!” from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
William Wordsworth’s major poetic response to the Battle of Waterloo was the poem generally known by the shortened title of “Thanksgiving Ode”, written seven months after the battle on a date that had been chosen for national thanksgiving. In this poem, Wordsworth presented Waterloo as a worthy historical culmination to the years of conflict, describing it as a “closing deed magnificent”. He hadn’t yet visited the battlefield.
But Wordsworth’s poem proved highly controversial because of its claim that “carnage” was the “daughter” of God, in other words, that war was part of God’s divine plan. These lines were parodied and criticised by William Hazlitt, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron amongst others. Byron, for example, described Waterloo as the “crowning carnage”, presenting it as both the culminating slaughter of the wars and a battle that had restored the monarchies of Europe to their thrones. Wordsworth later changed the lines in a version published in 1845.
In 1820, Wordsworth travelled to see the battlefield with his sister Dorothy. For both of them, it was a deeply moving experience. Dorothy noted: “We stood upon grass, and cornfields where heaps of our countrymen lay buried beneath our feet.” Like Turner, her emphasis was on the conflict’s dead: “There was little to be seen; but much to be felt; — sorrow and sadness, and even something like horror breathed out of the ground as we stood upon it!”
William echoed his sister’s account at the conclusion to his sonnet After Visiting the Field of Waterloo:
… we felt as Men should feel,
With such hoards of hidden carnage near,
And horror breathing from the silent ground!
Wordsworth’s gothic and elegiac lines remain a powerful reminder of the human cost of the Battle of Waterloo.