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The Field of Waterloo
First Edition, First Impression:
The Field of Waterloo; A Poem. By Walter Scott, Esq.
Edinburgh; Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. For Archibald Constable
and Co. Edinburgh; And Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, and
John Murray, London, 1815.
Composition | Reception | Links
On hearing the news of the Allied victory at Waterloo (June 18,
1815), Scott burned to see the scene of Napoleon's final defeat
and to visit newly conquered Paris. Continental Europe had been
closed to British visitors for more than a decade, and Scott had
never before travelled abroad. In August, he set sail for Belgium,
hoping to recuperate his expenses by writing a series of imaginary
letters describing his travels. These were to be published as Paul's
Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816). Scott was amongst the first
British civilians to view the battlefield at Waterloo, accompanied
by General Adam's aide-de-camp, Captain Campbell, and Major Pryse
Gordon. Mixing personal observation with information gained from
his escorts and from other participants in the battle, he began
work on a poem, profits from which would go to a fund set up for
widows and orphans of soldiers. Proceeding to Paris, Scott obtained
further details from Allied officers and spoke with the Duke of
Wellington himself, whose lack of conceit and pretension greatly
The poem was sent to James
Ballantyne before the end of August and went to press in October.
Pre-empting the cool reaction of many subsequent readers, Ballantyne
made numerous objections and queries, taking a particular dislike
to the opening line ('Fair Brussels, thou art far behind'). For
the most part, Scott stood by his original text but reluctantly
followed Ballantyne's advice in toning down reminiscences of his
own The Lord of the Isles and The
Lady of the Lake.
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An initial run of 6,000 copies appeared on October 23, 1815. The
poem sold well and went into a third edition by the end of year.
The critics, however, were unimpressed. For the Critical Review,
it was 'absolutely the poorest, dullest, least interesting composition
that has hitherto issued from the author of Rokeby'.
The poem's worthy purpose prevented other journals from being quite
so harsh, but there was widespread censure of clumsy phrasing and
other signs of authorial haste. Although The Field of Waterloo
counted Byron amongst its few admirers, it is now best remembered
through an anonymous squib:
On Waterloo's ensanguined plain
Full many a gallant man was slain,
But none, by sabre or by shot,
Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.
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Last updated: 19-Dec-2011
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