The Field of Waterloo
The Field of Waterloo is a poem by Walter Scott, written and published in 1815. It is in iambic tetrameters and trimeters with a few Spenserian stanzas at the end. The work moves from a depiction of the site of the battle, with farm life renewing in the autumn, to an account of the conflict, highlighting Napoleon and Wellington, and a roll-call of prominent British casualties.
After the allied victory at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, Scott travelled to Belgium in August, and was one of the first British civilians to visit the battlefield before moving on to Paris. He was hoping to recover his expenses by producing an account of his travels (in the form of imaginary letters), published as Paul's Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816), and The Field of Waterloo was also written during the trip. The profits from the poem were intended to go to a fund for widows and orphans of soldiers. Scott mixed personal observation with information received from his escorts, General Adam's aide-de-camp Campbell and Major Pryse Gordon and other officers, including the Duke of Wellington himself, whom he met in Paris.
The finished poem was sent to James Ballantyne before the end of August. On his return to Abbotsford Scott was correcting proofs during the first week of October, responding to detailed criticisms by James Ballantyne.
The Field of Waterloo was published on 23 October 1815 in Edinburgh by Archibald Constable and Co. and on 2 November in London by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, and John Murray. It cost 5s (25p) and the print run was 6000. Two more editions followed in November of 1000 and 3000 copies respectively.
A critical edition is due to be included in Volume 5 of The Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott's Poetry, published by Edinburgh University Press.
Only 6 of the 17 reviews of Waterloo were favourable, as against 8 unfavourable and 3 neutral. There was anger at Scott's foisting on the public 'a crude, ill-organized abortion'. The British Critic was unusual in detecting moments of dignified beauty but recognised that it was difficult to combine poetry and patriotism in modern poetry, given Britain's tendency to generous reserve. The Critical Review judged it as 'absolutely the poorest, dullest, least interesting composition that has hitherto issued from the author of Rokeby. Even the gazette of the battle contains more information, and the style of the poem is very little, if at all, superior to that of Marshal Wellington's modest dispatches.' The poor reception of the poem led to widespread joking about Sir Walter Scott like Napoleon meeting his greatest defeat at Waterloo, as in the widely circulated squib attributed to Lord Erskine: 'On Waterloo's ensanguined plain / Lie tens of thousands of the slain; / But none, by sabre or by shot, / Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.'
- The Letters of Sir Walter Scott: 1815–1817, ed. H. J. C. Grierson (London, 1933), 87 (Scott to James Ballantyne, 30 August 1815).
- Ibid., 100 (Scott to J. B. S. Morritt, 2 October ); 102 (Scott to Archibald Constable, 5 October ); Edgar Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown (London, 1970), 507–08.
- William B. Todd and Ann Bowden, Sir Walter Scott: A Bibliographical History (New Castle, Delaware, 1998), 376–79.
- Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, ed. Ainsley McIntosh (Edinburgh, 2018), [ii].
- For a detailed consideration of the reviews of Waterloo see J. H. Alexander, The Reviewing of Walter Scott's Poetry: 1805‒1817, Vol. 2 of Two Studies in Romantic Reviewing (Salzburg, 1976), 405‒07.
- The Scourge, 10 (December, 1815), 437‒51 (450).
- The British Critic (new series), 4 (November 1815), 528‒32.
- The Critical Review Series the Fifth, vol. II, no. I, pp. 457–463.
- Baron John Campbell, The lives of the lords chancellors and keepers of the great seal of England: from the earliest times till the reign of King George IV, vol. 6 (1851), p. 518