Byron’s thoughts on war

Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815. A painting by William Barnes Wollen.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Byron’s thoughts on war

Lord Byron shared his views on Waterloo and especially the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Did you know that this poem is part of a much larger poem entitled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage? The main theme of this poem is war. Yet it isn’t the battle you might have in mind.

Byron’s thoughts on war
Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815. A painting by William Barnes Wollen.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

About Waterloo

So, Waterloo. A small Belgium municipality in Walloon Brabant. It’s mostly known for the Battle of Waterloo that took place on Sunday, June 1815. When you read the part we know as The eve of Waterloo, you might be convinced that it’s about the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Byron didn’t write this poem based on these events. This battle was based on an earlier battle.

On June 16, 1815, the Battle of Quatre Bras was fought. This was two days before the decisive battle at the Belgian municipality of Waterloo. At the time when these battles were fought, Belgium did not gain its independence. For centuries, this country belonged to other countries and rulers, including Spain and The Netherlands. Belgium gained its independence in 1831 when the Belgian Revolution led to the separation of the southern provinces from The Netherlands.


In his poem, Lord Byron remembers the Duchess of Richmond, Lady Charlotte Lennox. She organized a ball and invited both English and Prussian officers. Amongst the invitees was no other than the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. He would play an important role during the Battle of Waterloo. During this ball, the news got out that the French army was planning a surprise attack on Quatre Bras. Wellington made sure that no one knew about the advancing army and managed to get all the officers to their regiments. The battle was won by the English and Prussian armies.

Why is this important? Well, first of all, because Lord Byon based his poem on these events and the fact that people were celebrating and were disturbed by war. On both sides – the Allies and the French – thousands would die. Those who survived asked themselves the question why this all happened. This poem is a protest to all wars. A typical protest poem of the nineteenth century.

The most important lesson to learn from this poem: lives may be segregated, but in the end – when people (soldiers) die, there is no difference anymore.


And now, the poem!


Byron’s thoughts on war

Text version

The eve of Waterloo

HERE was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium’s capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men.
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;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it? — No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon’s opening roar!
Within a windowed niche of that high hall
Sate Brunswick’s fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
And caught its tone with death’s prophetic ear;
And when they smiled because he deemed it near,
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretched his father on a bloody bier,
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell;
He rushed into the field, and, foremost fighting, fell.
Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which, but an hour ago,
Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness.
And there were sudden partings, such as press
The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs
Which ne’er might be repeated; who would guess
If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,
Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!
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;
And the deep thunder, peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips — “The foe! they come! they come!”

Lord Byron – from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage