Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

From Pantomime to Poetry: Wordsworth, Byron, and Harlequin Read Waterloo

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

From Pantomime to Poetry: Wordsworth, Byron, and Harlequin Read Waterloo

Article excerpt

WELLINGTON ISSUED HIS OFFICIAL REPORT ON THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO on June 19, 1815; it arrived in London on June 21 and was published as a London Gazette Extraordinary the following day. Benjamin Robert Haydon, the painter and friend to Keats, heard the news from a messenger for the Foreign Office on the night of the 21st, as he was leaving the house of John Scott, editor of the weekly Champion, to whom he returned to celebrate the news. Haydon wrote in his diary on June 25 of the impact of the Gazette on himself and another editor-friend:

Read the Gazette again; I know it now actually by heart. Dined with
Leigh Hunt. I give myself credit for not worrying him to Death at the
news. He was quiet for some time, but knowing it must come by & by,
so putting on an air of indifference, "Terrible Battle this, Haydon."
"A glorious one, Hunt." "Oh, certainly." To it we went. (1)

This anecdote suggests some of the division within the response of the British intelligentsia to the news of Napoleon's defeat. On the one hand, Wordsworth and Southey danced around a bonfire on Skiddaw singing "God Save the King" and eating the standard British roast beef and plum pudding. (2) On the other hand, Hazlitt, who viewed Napoleon's loss as "the utter extinction of human liberty from the earth," was extremely distraught, with Thomas Noon Talfourd finding him "staggering under the blow of Waterloo... as if he had sustained a personal wrong" and with Haydon describing him as "prostrated in mind and body, he walked about unwashed, unshaved, hardly sober by day, and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration, for weeks." (3)

The public response was, of course, celebratory if rather muted. On June 23, there were illuminations in London, which the Times of the 24th praised as "brilliant" but without "novelty"; "the names of WELLINGTON and BLUCHER shone side by side with magnificence of light," but "We noticed but few transparencies." (4) By June 26, the Times was calling for a national day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God, a fund for Waterloo widows and orphans, and a triumphal arch, made up of the cannons seized at Waterloo and surmounted by an equestrian statue of Wellington as the "Great Conqueror," perhaps at the entrance to Hyde Park. (5) Already on June 29, there was a meeting of the Merchants, Bankers, and Traders of the City of London at the City of London tavern to propose a relief fund. The day of Thanksgiving would, of course, eventually occur on January 18, 1816. It would be 1846 before a statue of Wellington was placed on an arch, not made of cannons and at Green's Park, and by that time, the statue would raise a controversy. (6)

What is perhaps surprising is that the Allies' decisive victory did not prompt the kind of celebrations in London that followed Napoleon's abdication in 1814. (7) Then, elaborate festivities greeted the arrival ot the various European leaders; Green's, St. James's, and Hyde Parks were all given over to fireworks, fair-like festivities, and military reenactments; and huge parties were thrown, including a masquerade held in Wellington's honor at Burlington House on July 1 by Watier's club, of which Byron was a member. Those earlier celebrations were perhaps still too fresh in the public's mind or, more likely, the incredible death toll of Waterloo made such entertainments seem frivolous. Still, there were many sermons preached on Waterloo and particularly its widows and orphans, there were many poems published within a year of the battle--at least thirty two, according to Simon Bainbridge, and perhaps a hundred or so if we include periodical publications (8)--and there were several Waterloo museums established. These included the Waterloo Exhibition featuring not only artifacts taken from the battlefield but also clothes worn by the emperor and empress, the Waterloo Rooms that displayed Napoleon's charger, and the Waterloo Museum opened by Mr. Palmer at Pall Mall, the advertisements for which focus on the fact that "good fires are kept. …

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