The Field of Waterloo by Thomas Hardy

For Thomas Hardy, nature and war were significant sources of inspiration. For many of his most famous poems, the connections and parallels between the two are the primary source of deep thought and introspection that serves as the basis for so much of his work. In The Field of Waterloo, Hardy brings these elements together in a way that forms a truly unique — and uniquely powerful — look at some of the most violent and brutal wars that inspired his work. As the title suggests, The Field of Waterloo is a look into the historic battle on the eponymous field that was marked as one of the bloodiest conflicts of its time, and uses a rather different lens to make a strong point throughout.

The Field of Waterloo Analysis

Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,

And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,

And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.

The Field of Waterloo has an interesting structure to it. It is written in stanzas of three lines each, with a rhyming pattern that incorporates the following stanza, as though it were originally written in six-line verses instead. The first and third line of each verse rhymes, and the second line of each verse rhymes with the first and third line of the following verse (ABA-BCB). This first verse presents a great deal of natural imagery, referencing coneys (rabbits), hoofs, and swallows (a kind of bird). During this verse, rabbits and birds are scared from their homes and flee when they hear loud hoofbeats. A “scut” is synonymous with a rabbit’s tail, the second line suggesting the rabbits are fleeing very quickly from the source of the noise.

The mole’s tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,

The lark’s eggs scattered, their owners fled;

And the hedgehog’s household the sapper unseals.

As the progress from the horses continues, wheels — suggesting chariots — crush the homes of moles, and scatter the unborn chicks from their mothers. This verse provides the first indication (besides the title) that the movement of horses is for a war effort, as a sapper is described as destroying the homes of hedgehogs. A sapper is a soldier who’s main responsibilities typically include terrain management and destruction, through reparations and explosions respectively.

The snail draws in at the terrible tread,

But in vain; he is crushed by the felloe-rim.

The worm asks what can be overhead,

The animalistic imagery continues with a snail, who flees in fain from the rim of the felloe, the wooden wheels that are likely from the aforementioned verse, while a worm wonders what all the commotion must be about. It is clear by now that the theme of The Field of Waterloo will not be the horrors of war in terms of human casualty, as is typical, but rather the impact to the natural world — to the rabbits and birds and other animals who have quite literally nothing whatsoever to do with the war efforts.

And wriggles deep from a scene so grim,

And guesses him safe; for he does not know

What a foul red flood will be soaking him!

The worm from the previous verse regards a grim scene, and witnesses the beginning of the fighting. As a worm’s typical home is underground, the creature imagines that it will be safe from the commotion, being far below the surface of the conflict. What it does not know, however, is that enough blood will be spilled on the field to soak deep into the soil and flood its home in a most vile fashion. Indeed, historically, the Battle at Waterloo was a very bloody conflict, where a great many soldiers lost their lives — any worms living near the battlefield would certainly have wanted to stay clear of it.

Beaten about by the heel and toe

Are butterflies, sick of the day’s long rheum,

To die of a worse than the weather-foe.

In another tragic bit of imagery, the reader is presented with the idea of butterflies, caught up in the conflict, being kicked and stepped on as they try to return to the air, dying a far worse death than they ever could naturally.

Trodden and bruised to a miry tomb

Are ears that have greened but will never be gold,

And flowers in the bud that will never bloom.

The final verse is a summation of The Field of Waterloo, lamenting the natural life that is dying beneath the marshlands, and the flowers that are stunted and dying, an apt metaphor for the influence war has on human society. By framing his poem through the natural world, however, Hardy is able to illustrate the devastation war — and even a single battle — has on innocent life. The rabbits and snails and butterflies depicted throughout the poem are bystanders only, and entirely innocent of the war brewing between Napoleon Bonaparte and those who objected to his rule. Even these terms seem rather ridiculous when paralleled with a poem about lives being crushed and homes destroyed, but this isn’t something often considered when the lives belong to snails and the homes to hedgehogs and worms. And yet it is a powerful frame to use, for it is what’s happening — innocent lives are being utterly destroyed, no matter how the war is viewed, either from the perspective of its soldiers, of their families, or of the creatures of nature that are removed from it all, but affected anyway.

Hardy’s joining of these two worlds is a unique perspective to take, and the language throughout the poem works well in its favour — Hardy’s use of simple words to describe the collapse of worlds helps the reader to feel the full effect of their devastation. The rhyming pattern of the piece forces the reader to continue to the next verse each time to complete the flow of the poem. Its atmosphere is constantly grim, bringing forward images of beautiful scenery, and wiping them out in the next line. It’s a powerful device in a powerful poem that uniquely demonstrates that humans who make a choice aren’t always the only casualties of brutal wars.

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