Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo - Waterloo

Robert Southey

Southward from Brussels lies the field of blood,
Some three hours journey for a well-girt man;
A horseman who in haste pursued his road
Would reach it as the second hour began.
The way is thro' a forest deep and wide,
Extending many a mile on either side.

No chearful woodland this of antic trees,
With thickets varied and with sunny glade;
Look where he will, the weary traveller sees
One gloomy, thick, impenetrable shade
Of tall straight trunks, which move hefore his sight,
With interchange of lines of long green light.

Here, where the woods receding from the road
Have left on either hand an open space
For fields and gardens, and for man's abode,
Stands Waterloo; a little lowly place,
Obscure till now, when it hath risen to fame,
And given the victory its English name.

What time the second Carlos ruled in Spain,
Last of the Austrian line by Fate decreed,
Here Castanaza reared a votive fane,
Praying the Patron Saints to bless with seed
His childless sovereign; Heaven denied an heir,
And Europe mourned in blood the frustrate prayer.

That temple to our hearts was hallowed now :
For many a wounded Briton there was laid,
With such poor help as time might then allow
From the fresh carnage of the field conveyed ;
And they whom human succours could not save,
Here in its precincts found a hasty grave.

And here on marble tablets set on high,
In English lines by foreign workmen traced,
Are names familiar to an English eye;
Their brethren here the fit memorials placed,
Whose unadorned inscriptions briefly tell
Their gallant comrades' rank, and where they fell.

The stateliest monument of public pride,
Enriched with all magnificence of art,
To honour Chieftains who in victory died,
Would wake no stronger feeling in the heart
Than these plain tablets, by the soldiers hand
Raised to his comrades in a foreign land.

Not far removed you find the burial-ground,
Yet so that skirts of woodland intervene;
A small enclosure, rudely fenced around;
Three grave-stones only for the dead are seen:
One bears the name of some rich villager,
The first for whom a stone was planted there.

Beneath the second is a German laid,
Whom Bremen, shaking off the Frenchman's yoke,
Sent with her sons the general cause to aid;
He in the fight received his mortal stroke,
Yet for his country's aggravated woes
Lived to see vengeance on her hated ibes.

A son of Erin sleeps below the third;
By friendly hands his body where it lay
Upon the field of blood had been interred,
And thence by those who mourned him borne away
In pious reverence for departed worth,
Laid here with holy rites in consecrated earth.

Repose in peace, brave soldiers, who have found
In Waterloo and Soigny's shade your rest!
Ere this hath British valour made that ground
Sacred to you, and for your foes unblest,
When Marlborough here, victorious in his might
Surprized the French, and smote them in their flight.

Those wars are as a tale of times gone by,
For so doth perishable fame decay,..
Here on the ground wherein the slaughtered lie,
The memory of that fight is past away;..
And even our glorious Blenheim to the field
Of Waterloo and Wellington must yield.

Soon shall we reach that scene of mighty deeds,
In one unbending line a short league hence;
Aright the forest from the road recedes,
With wide sweep trending south and westward thence;
Aleft along the line it keeps its place
Some halt-hour's distance at a traveller's pace.

The country here expands, a wide-spread scene;
No Flemish gardens fringed with willows these,
Nor rich Brabantine pastures ever green,
With trenches lined, and rows of aspin trees;
In tillage here the unwooded open land
Returns its increase to the farmer's hand.

Behold the scene where Slaughter had full sway!
A mile before us lieth Mount St. John,
The hamlet which the Highlanders that day
Preserved from spoil; yet as much farther on
The single farm is placed, now known to fame,
Which from the sacred hedge derives its name.

Straight onward yet for one like distance more,
And there the house of Belle Alliance stands,
So named, I guess, by some in days of yore,
In friendship, or in wedlock joining hands :
Little did they who called it thus foresee
The place that name should hold in history!

Beyond these points the fight extended not,..
Small theatre for such a tragedy!
Its breadth scarce more, from eastern Papelot
To where the groves of Hougoumont on high
Rear in the west their venerable head,
And cover with their shade the countless dead.

But wouldst thou tread this celebrated ground,
And trace with understanding eyes a scene
Above all other fields of war renowned,
From western Hougoumont thy way begin;
There was our strength on that side, and there first,
In all its force, the storm of battle burst.

Strike eastward then across toward La Haye,
The single farm: with dead the fields between
Are lined, and thon wilt see upon the way
Long wave-like dips and swells which intervene,
Such as would breathe the war-horse, and impede,
"When that deep soil was wet, his martial speed.

This is the ground whereon the young Nassau,
Emuling that day his ancestors' renown,
Received his hurt; admiring Belgium saw
The youth proved worthy of his destined crown:
AH tongues his prowess on that day proclaim,
And children lisp his praise and bless their Prince's name. 

When thou hast reached La Haye, survey it well,
Here was the heat and centre of the strife;
This point must Britain hold whate'er befell,
And here both armies were profuse of life:
Once it was lost,.. and then a slander by
Belike had trembled for the victory.

Not so the leader, on whose equal mind
Such interests hung in that momentous day;
So well had he his motley troops assigned,
That where the vital points of action lay,
There had he placed those soldiers whom he knew
No fears could quail, no dangers could subdue.

Small was his British force, nor had he here
The Portugals, in heart so near allied,
The worthy comrades of his late career,.
Who fought so oft and conquered at his side,
When with the Red Cross joined in brave advance,
The glorious Quinas mocked the air of France,

Now of the troops with whom he took the field,
Some were of doubtful faith, and others raw ;
He stationed these where they might stand or yield;
But where the stress of battle he foresaw,
There were his links (his own strong words I speak)
And rivets which no human force could break.

O my brave countrymen, ye answered well
To that heroic trust! Nor less did ye,
Whose worth your grateful country aye shall tell,
True children of our sister Germany,
Who while she groaned beneath the oppressor's chain,.
Fought for her freedom in the fields of Spain.

La Haye, bear witness! sacred is it hight,
And sacred is it truly from that day;
For never braver blood was spent in fight
Than Britain here hath mingled with the clay.
Set where thou wilt thy foot, thou scarce canst tread
Here on a spot unhallowed by the dead.

Here was it that the Highlanders withstood
The tide of hostile power, received its weight
With resolute strength, and stemmed and turned the flood;
And fitly here, as in that Grecian straight,
The funeral stone might say, Go traveller, tell
Scotland, that in our duty here we fell.

Still eastward from this point thy way pursue.
There grows a single hedge along the lane,
No other is there far or near in view:
The raging enemy essayed in vain
To pass that line, a braver foe withstood,
And this whole ground was moistened with their blood.

Leading his gallant men as he was wont,
The hot assailants' onset to repel,
Advancing hat in hand, here in the front
Of battle and of danger, Picton fell;
Lamented Chief! than whom no braver name
His country's annals shall consign to fame.

Scheldt had not seen us, had his voice been heard,
Return with shame from her disastrous coast:
But Fortune soon to fairer fields preferred
His worth approved which Cambria long may boast:
France felt him then, and Portugal and Spain
His honoured memory will for aye retain.

Hence to the high-walled house of Papelot,
The battle's boundary on the left, incline;
Here thou seest Frischermont not far remote,
From whence, like ministers of wrath divine,
The Prussians issuing on the yielding foe,
Consummated their great and total overthrow.

Deem not that I the martial skill should boast
Where horse and foot were stationed, here to tell,
What points were occupied by either host,
And how the battle raged, and what befell,
And how our great Commander's eagle eye
Which comprehended all, secured the victory.

This were the historian's, not the poet's part;
Such task would ill the gentle Muse beseem,
Who to the thoughtful mind and pious heart,
Comes with her offering from this awful theme;
Content if what she saw and gathered there
She may in unambitious song

Look how upon the Ocean's treacherous face
The breeze and summer sunshine softly play,
And the green-heaving billows bear no trace
Of all the wrath and wreck of yesterday;
So from the field which here we looked upon,
The vestiges of dreadful war were gone.

Earth had received into her silent womb
Her slaughtered creatures: horse and man they lay,
And friend and foe, within the general tomb.
Equal had been their lot; one fatal day
For all,.. one labour,.. and one place of rest
They found within their common parent's breast.

The passing seasons had not yet effaced
The stamp of numerous hoofs impressed by force
Of cavalry, whose path might still be traced.
Yet Nature every where resumed her course;
Slow pansies to the sun their purple gave,
And the soft poppy blossomed on the grave.

In parts the careful farmer had renewed
His labours, late by battle frustrated;
And where the unconscious soil had been imbued
With blood, profusely there like water shed,
There had his plough-share turned the guilty ground,
And the green corn was springing all around.

The graves he left for natural thought humane
Untouched; and here and there where in the strife
Contending feet had trampled down the grain,
Some hardier roots were found, which of their life
Tenacious, had put forth a second head,
And sprung, and eared, and ripened on the dead.

Some marks of wreck were scattered all around,
As shoe, and belt, and broken bandoleer,
And hats which bore the mark of mortal wound;
Gun-flints and balls for those who closelier peer;
And sometimes did the breeze upon its breath
Bear from ill-covered graves a taint of death.

More vestige of destructive man was seen
Where man in works of peace had laboured more;
At Hougoumont the hottest strife had been,
Where trees and walls the mournful record bore
Of war's wild rage, trunks pierced with many a wound,
And roofs and half-burnt rafters on the ground.

A goodly mansion this, with gardens fair,
And ancient groves and fruitful orchard wide,
Its dove-cot and its decent house of prayer,
Its ample stalls and garners well supplied,
And spacious bartons clean, well-walled around,
Where all the wealth of rural life was found.

That goodly mansion on the ground was laid,
Save here and there a blackened broken wall;
The wounded who were borne beneath its shade
Had there been crushed and buried by the fall;
And there they lie where they received their doom,
Oh let no hand disturb that honourable tomb!

Contiguous to this wreck the little fane
For worship hallowed, still uninjured stands,
Save that its Crucifix displays too plain
The marks of outrage from irreverent hands.
Alas, to I dink such irreligious deed
Of wrong from British soldiers should proceed!

The dove-cot too remains; scared at the fight
The birds sought shelter in the forest shade;
But still they kept their native haunts in sight,
And when few days their terror had allayed,
Forsook again the solitary wood,
For their old home and human neighbourhood.

The gardener's dwelling was untouched; his wife
Fled with her children to some near retreat,
And there lay trembling for her husband's life:
He stood the issue, saw the foe's retreat,
And lives unhurt where thousands fell around,
To tell the story of that famous ground.

His generous dog was well approved that hour,
By courage as by love to man allied;
He thro' the fiery storm and iron shower
Kept the ground bravely by his master's side:
And now when to the stranger's hand he draws,
The noble beast seems conscious of applause.

Toward the grove the wall with musket-holes
Is pierced; our soldiers here their station held
Against the foe, and many were the souls.
Then from their fleshly tenements expelled.
Six hundred Frenchmen have been burnt close by,
And underneath one mound their bones and ashes lie.

One streak of blood upon the wall was traced,
In length a man's just stature from the head;
There where it gushed you saw it unefl'aced:
Of all the blood which on that day was shed
This mortal stain alone remained impressed,
The all-devouring earth had drunk the rest.

Here from the heaps who strewed the fatal plain
"Was Howard's corse by faithful hands conveyed,
And not to be confounded with the slain,
Here in a grave apart with reverence laid,
Till hence his honoured relics o'er the seas
Were borne to England, where they rest in peace.

Another grave had yielded up its dead,
From whence to bear his son a father came,
That he might lay him where his own grey head
Ere long must needs be laid. That soldier's name
Was not remembered there, yet may the verse
Present this reverent tribute to his herse.

Was it a soothing or a mournful thought
Amid this scene of slaughter as we stood,
Where armies had with recent fury fought,
To mark how gentle Nature still pursued
Her quiet course, as if she took no care
For what her noblest work had suifered there

The pears had ripened on the garden wall;
Those leaves which on the autumnal earth were spread,
The trees, though pierced and scarred with many a ball,
Had only in their natural season shed:
Flowers were in seed whose buds to swell began
When such wild havoc here was made of man!

Throughout the garden, fruits and herbs and flowers
You saw in growth, or ripeness, or decay;
The green and well-trimmed dial marked the hours
With gliding shadow as they past away;
Who would have thought, to see this garden fair,
Such horrors had so late been acted there!

Now Hougoumont, farewell to thy domain !
Might I dispose of thee, no woodman's hand
Should e'er thy venerable groves profane;
Untouched, and like a temple should they stand,
And consecrate by general feeling, wave
Their branches o'er the ground where sleep the brave.

Thy ruins as they fell should aye remain,..
What monument so fit for those below?
Thy garden through all ages should retain
The form and fashion which it weareth now,
That future pilgrims here might all things see,
Such as they were at this great victory.

Soon after the tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte was decisively defeated by the Duke of Wellington and the allied armies at Waterloo, Southey visited the battlefield.

The battlefield today is not much changed. There is a monumental mound built in 1820 by the Dutch King on the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange was wounded. The fields still roll away from the ridge where Wellington stationed his forces towards where the French lines stood. Most of the key buildings are also still there - the Chateau de Hougoumont and the farms at La Haye Sainte, and La Belle Alliance.