King's College London
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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Byron's 'Childe Harold'

The dramatic events of Napoleon’s ‘Hundred Days’, the Allies’ victory at Waterloo and the subsequent exile of the former Emperor to the remote island of St Helena could not fail to capture the popular and literary imagination. From the poems of Lord Byron to Thackeray’s 1848 masterpiece, Vanity Fair, with its poignant description of the dashing young George Osborne lying dead on the battlefield, Waterloo and its aftermath haunted and inspired a generation. 

Byron’s admiration for Napoleon’s genius contained a degree of identification with the Emperor, whose energy, egoism and compelling personal power were attributes shared by both men. When in 1822 the terms of an inheritance obliged Byron to adopt the surname Noel, he was pleased at the opportunity thus afforded to sign himself ‘NB’ in imitation of his hero.  In canto XI of Don Juan the poet refers to himself as ‘the grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme’. 

Byron was deeply disappointed by Napoleon’s abdication of 1814 and wrote a number of poems critically apostrophising the Emperor, but perhaps his best known lines on a Napoleonic theme are his dramatic account of the Waterloo ball in the third canto of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage, shown in the image here.

Opening showing Waterloo stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3Opening showing Waterloo stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3The ball, given in Brussels by the Duchess of Richmond on 15 June 1815, was a dazzling affair, attended by Wellington and most of his senior officers. During the ball Wellington received the news that Napoleon’s forces had crossed the Belgian frontier, less than 30 miles away, and the ball broke up, as officers hastened to re-join their companies: 

And there was mounting in hot haste: the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed, 
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;

Byron composed the Waterloo stanzas of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage on 4 May 1816, after visiting the site of the battle. Like many battlefield tourists, he was keen to take away a souvenir of his visit, and was pleased to collect some pieces of shot and a French soldier’s cap badge.

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