The Eve of Waterloo: About the poem
‘The Eve of Waterloo’ by Lord Byron is a part of his long narrative poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” which consists of four cantos. The poem ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ forms part of the Canto III of the original poem. The poem expresses the disillusionment felt by the generation weary of the wars of post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. At the same time, it harps on the constant juxtaposition of a real, tangible, material human life and its fickle-nature. It is full of excitement and pathos. The poem is sometimes anthologized as ‘On the Eve of Waterloo’.
‘The Eve of Waterloo’ relates the events that took place a night before the Battle of Quatre Bras fought near Brussels, capital of Belgium on June 16, 1815. This battle was a precursor to the Battle of Waterloo fought two days later.
Three nights before the Battle of Waterloo, the Duchess of Richmond Lady Charlotte organised a ball and invited many officers of the English and Prussian armies. Among the invited was the Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley, the commander-in-chief of the English army. It was during this ball that he received a word from a messenger that Napoleon-led French army was advancing towards the city for a surprise attack. Unwilling to create any panic, the Duke managed to get the officers to their regiments without much noise and left for the field himself.
The English and the Prussian emerged victors of the war. The war marked the end of the all-conquering career of Napoleon and his subsequent capture and exile to St. Helena.
And, what is more, many soldiers from both the sides lost their lives in the fierce battle, making this life’s hopes and aspirations futile. The poem “The Eve of Waterloo” highlights how laughter, love and chivalry turn into tears and sighs and bravery in battle is reduced to a handful of dust. The poet here disapproves of any kind of war by depicting its dangerous consequences, though it is not an anti war poem in its typical sense. Presenting the fickle nature of life, as already mentioned, seems to be the main motive.
Lord George Gordon Byron was a British poet, politician and a leader of the Romantic Movement. He is a widely read poet due in his part to accept and reverse the gender stereotypes. He travelled extensively across Europe and later he even joined the Greek War of Independence where he died. His other well-known works include narrative poem like Don Juan, and the short lyric-poem “She Walks in Beauty”.
The Eve of Waterloo: Form and Structure
The poem is composed in Spenserian stanzas, named after Edmund Spenser. Here, the first eight lines are in iambic pentameter and the last line is in iambic hexameter. The rhyming scheme is ababbcbcc.
The poem, consisting of eight stanzas of nine lines each, is rather long. The language is crafty and elaborate in some places. The poet has used similes, metaphors, personifications, symbols and images quite often in the poem ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ announcing his artistic capacity.
The Eve of Waterloo: Line by Line Analysis
There was a sound of revelry by night,
The opening stanza of the poem The Eve of Waterloo accentuates the love and romance where the ‘sound of revelry’ was overwhelming the ballrooms of Lady Charlotte the night before the battle in Brussels.
And Belgium’s Capital had gathered then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;
The fair dames and the officers from Brussels, Belgium’s capital had gathered and they looked bright. The lamps filling the ballrooms were shining on these fair women and brave men.
Here, ‘Her Beauty’ and ‘her Chivalry’ mark clever use of personification.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
The heart of the thousand of people present in the ballroom beat happily implying the festivity and gaiety of the occasion. With the increase in the volume of the music the dancing couples exchanged glances which stealthily spoke the words of love. It was all merry like a wedding ceremony.
‘As a’ marks the use of figure of speech simile in the line where the poet compares the ball party to a marriage ceremony.
So, this is how the poet wants to create a situational irony. The men and women engaged in the merrymaking are at the peak of their amusement and can’t even imagine what is waiting for them in a short while.
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
With the interjections like ‘hush’, ‘hark’, the poet takes a turn to exemplify a contrasting situation. It is one where a deep sound like a church bell for burial or death strikes. It demarcates a sudden change from fun and merriment to death and darkness.
Again a simile has been employed with the word “like” comparing the harsh sound outside to a knell. And the first stanza ends here with a contrasting note to how it began.
Did ye not hear it? – No; ‘twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
The second stanza of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ begins here. People engrossed in the merriment ignored the sound of the cannon. When asked about if they heard it they said it was the wind or the car rattling over the stony street.
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined ;
No sleep till morn,
They chose to continue to dance to let the endless joy continue till the revelry ends in the morning.
when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet—
Here, the poet uses the personification in ‘Youth’ and ‘Pleasure’ to indicate that when youths are up for pleasure, the fast dancing feet seem to chase the time passing by. It means that during the dance, the time flies.
But hark!—that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
But, the heavy sound breaks in again, one more time like the cloud roars and its echo repeats. This time the sound was nearer, clearer and deadlier than before.
The poet accentuates the intensity of the sound through the use of three comparative adjectives ‘nearer, clearer, deadlier’.
Arm! Arm! it is—it is – the cannon’s opening roar!
The reality dawned on them and they recognized the sound as the enemy cannon’s opening roar and the men were called upon to arm themselves.
The poet here aims to bring out the effect of the shadowy unreality hovering over the seemingly unthreatened, calm, peaceful human life. Thus the second stanza of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ ends with a sharp contrast to where it started, very similar to the first one.
Within a windowed niche of that high hall
Sate Brunswick’s fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
Within the windowed enclosure of the high halls of the ballroom, the chieftain of Brunswick (Duke of Brunswick) Fredrick Williams stood sated. He was the first to hear the sound amidst all the festivities.
And caught its tone with Death’s prophetic ear;
He caught the tone of the sound. The figure of speech employed in ‘Death’s prophetic ear’ are personification and metaphor. It implies his familiarity with the sound since he had heard that sound before.
And when they smiled because he deemed it near,
And the Duke deemed the enemies were near even amidst all the laughter and festivities. This hints at the alertness and the insight he possesses.
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretched his father on a bloody bier,
The poet says that the Duke knew that thundering peal well. It was like the one which preceded his father’s death in the battlefield. So, the feeling of pre-existing enmity is now stirred up.
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell;
He was determined to take revenge against Napoleon and this could only be quelled by shedding the blood of his enemies in the battlefield.
He rushed into the field, and, foremost fighting, fell.
Driven by the vengeance he rushed into the battlefield and was the foremost to die while fighting.
This marks the end of the third stanza of the poem ‘The Eve of Waterloo’. This stanza has dealt with the Chieftain of Brunswick, how he heard and identified the sound before anyone else, how he reached the field to quench his thirst for revenge and his final fall at the hands of the enemies.
Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
This stanza of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ marks the chaos that ensued in the ballrooms with the information that Napoleon’s army was advancing towards the city. People were hurrying to and fro, moving without knowing where to go.
And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago
Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness;
The eyes of the women were filling with tears and they were trembling with distress. Their cheeks, which an hour ago were blushing at the praise of their loveliness, now grew pale.
And there were sudden partings, such as press
The life from out young hearts,
The women and the men suddenly parted from each other. The young people felt as if life was being pressed out of them.
and choking sighs
Which ne’er might be repeated; who could guess
If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,
The choking sighs could be heard which might never be repeated; no one knew who would return alive from the battlefield and if ever these eyes would meet again. So, uncertainty and melancholy engrossed everything.
Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!
They were all confused and wondered how such sweet, exciting night could give rise to such an awful, gloomy morning.
And there was mounting in hot haste: the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
The fifth stanza deals with the preparation of war and the alertness all around. The officers quickly and hastily mounted their horses (steed), the squadron mustered and the clattering car speeded forward with impetuous speed.
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder peal on peal afar;
The men swiftly formed into the ranks of war while the deep thunder peal rang over and over from afar.
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
Meanwhile, the beat of the warning drum roused up the soldiers before the morning
star could come up in the sky.
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips – ‘The foe! They come! They come!’
Amidst all the military preparations, the citizens of the city gathered, terrified. They whispered about the French army with fear symbolised by ‘white lips’ that the enemy had arrived.
And wild and high the ‘Cameron’s Gathering’ rose!
The war-note of Lochiel, which Albyn’s hills
Have heard, and heard, too, have her Saxon foes:—
The wild and high notes of the bagpipes of the Camerons (a clan of Scottish Highlanders) playing the war-song ‘Cameron’s Gathering’ which was also the war-note of Lochiel (the chief of the Cameron clan) rose high. It was often heard in the Albyn’s (Gaelic name for Scotland) hills and was also heard by their Saxon (a Germanic tribe) foes.
The poet is here deviating from the main action what was going on so far. He rather goes on to the historical implications of the war-note that continues for the entire sixth stanza of the poem.
How in the noon of night that pibroch thrills,
Savage and shrill!
Like the time when these Cameron Highlanders played their bagpipes in the middle of the night, their ‘savage and shrill’ war-tunes (pibroch) filled the Saxons with fear.
But with the breath which fills
Their mountain-pipe, so fill the mountaineers
With the fierce native daring …
They puffed ‘fierce native daring’ into the Highlanders fighting the war the way their breath filled up the bagpipes. In short, the sound of the bagpipes pumped up the warriors to put up a brave fight.
The stirring memory of a thousand years,
And Evan’s, Donald’s fame rings in each clansman’s ears!
This reminded them of the military exploits of the Highlanders against the Saxons for thousand years especially the achievements of Sir Evan Cameron and his son David Cameron whose fame rings in each clansman’s ears.
And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves,
Dewy with nature’s tear-drops, as they pass,
In the seventh stanza of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’, the poet makes a skillful use of pathetic fallacy (a literary device used to attribute human feelings to inanimate objects nature, animals etc.) in order to evoke readers’ sympathy for those young soldiers who just left the pleasure of a merry, happy life to participate in a war against their enemies.
The poet paints a melancholy picture of the journey of these soldiers through the patch of the forest of Ardennes. He says that the leaves of the trees were dewy or wet with nature’s tear-drops (as if the nature was crying) and they waved above these soldiers when they passed.
Grieving, if aught inanimate e’er grieves,
Over the unreturning brave,—alas!
The trees were grieving like anything inanimate may ever grieve over the unreturning brave. Alas! They seemed to have anticipated the casualty the war was to claim.
Ere evening to be trodden like the grass
Which now beneath them, but above shall grow
In its next verdure, when this fiery mass
Of living valour, rolling on the foe
Here the poet makes a powerful image in the mind of readers. It was as if the nature realized that the soldiers were going ‘to be trodden’, to face the sad ending, i.e., death before evening. The poet compares the soldiers’ fate with that of the grass these soldiers were treading, though the grass would grow again above the soldiers when their corpses are mixed with the earth. The ‘fiery mass of living valour’ expresses the valour and courage of the soldiers who take on their enemy.
Again a simile has been used with the word “like” while comparing the soldiers with the grass.
And burning with high hope, shall moulder cold and low.
This line indicates at how the high hopes and courage of these soldiers would turn cold and low in the face of the war. Thus, the seventh stanza of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ ends with some wise words from the poet, Lord Byron.
Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay,
This last stanza is all about summarizing the sudden turns of the events of the night from happy laughter and chivalry to uncertainty, despair and violence in a poignant manner. Just the last noon the young men and women were looking at a life of lust; the last evening in women’s circle was full of happiness and gaiety.
The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms,
While the midnight brought the signal of strife and war, the morning saw the young soldiers getting ready and armed.
Battle’s magnificently-stern array!
The soldiers lined up in a magnificent disciplined (stern) array on the day of battle. This is indicative of the high level of discipline and respect the soldiers possess for their seniors.
The thunder-clouds close o’er it, which when rent
The earth is covered thick with other clay
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
Rider and horse,—friend, foe,—in one red burial blent!
The stormy thunder-clouds surrounds the battlefield and are torn apart by the violence of war. And the earth is covered thick with the dead bodies (other clay). The earth’s own clay will again cover these heaped in a single bloody (red) burial. The poet is pointing towards the dead bodies dropping on the grounds irrespective of their own identities. Whether a rider and a horse, or a friend and a foe, all were to be heaped under one, single burial.
Here, the poet makes a subtle remark that while alive our lives may be segregated with various kinds and levels of distinction; with death we all become one and the same.
And thus ends the poem ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ on a didactic note traversing through happiness and then sadness. This is something that touches every heart and makes the poem remarkable.