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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Robert Southey

Byron was not the only British Romantic poet to make a literary pilgrimage to the battlefield of Waterloo. Robert Southey (1774-1843), the poet laureate, was also inspired by his visit to the site, though the resulting work, The poet’s pilgrimage to Waterloo, is pedestrian enough, recalling Byron’s dismissive summary of Southey in Don Juan as ‘quaint and mouthy’.

To Southey, who had abandoned the republican sympathies of his youth for a reactionary Toryism, Wellington’s victory at Waterloo was a categorical triumph of good over evil, as his introduction to the poem makes clear: 

… never was there a victory so important to the best interests of human nature as that which was won by British valour at Waterloo; its effects extending over the whole civilized world. 

Plate showing the ruins of the farmhouse of Hougoumont, with a group of battlefield tourists in the foregroundRuins of HougoumontIn The poet’s pilgrimage Southey acknowledges ‘the opinions of those persons who lament the late events because the hopes which they entertained from the French Revolution have not been realized’, but he makes it clear that these opinions, though sincerely held, were misguided.

Napoleon’s intentions, he explains, were always to establish a military tyranny across Europe and beyond, and the victory over him was a victory over ‘evil principles’.

The poem is accompanied by several engravings of the battlefield and its surroundings. The image here shows the ruins of the farmhouse of Hougoumont, contemplated by a small group of battlefield tourists. The farmhouse, garrisoned by Wellington’s troops, was the scene of fierce fighting during the battle, and was reduced to ruins by heavy shelling.

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