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 sources 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.
Explore The Field of Waterloo
This poem depicts the scene of a battle. It is none other than the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. However, this poem does not deal with what humans think about the war. Rather it is about the creatures such as rabbits, moles, swallows, larks, etc. Throughout this piece, the poet captures the progress of the warhorses on the field. As an effect, those little creatures get affected. Lastly, the poet creates a horrid atmosphere through the portrayal of the suffering of the creatures. His main idea is everything is not going to be normal again after that war.
‘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 lines of each verse rhyme and the second line of each verse rhymes with the first and third lines of the following verse (ABA-BCB). The rhyming pattern of the piece forces the reader to continue to the next verse each time to complete the flow of the poem. Apart from that, there are a total of ten syllables in each line. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Hence the poem is composed in iambic pentameter.
The poem begins with the use of onomatopoeia. Here, the poet refers to the “thud of hoofs”, depicting the battlefield of Waterloo. The second line contains a transferred epithet in “their vanishing heels.” Thereafter, in the second stanza, the poet uses a metaphor in the phrase, “hedgehog’s household.” Moreover, Hardy makes use of alliteration in the phrase, “terrible tread.” This phrase has a repetition of the “t” sound. Along with that, there is a personification in the line, “The worm asks what can be overhead.” Moreover, the last line of the fourth stanza contains a rhetorical exclamation and irony as well. Lastly, the poet uses metonymy in the phrase, “miry tomb” and synecdoche in the usage of the word “ear”.
Analysis of The Field of Waterloo
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 first verse of ‘The Field of Waterloo’ 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. In this way, the poet depicts the harsh scene on the battlefield of Waterloo. The depiction of the rabbits along with the swallows, scared due to the thudding sound of the horse-hoofs, creates a tense mood inside this piece.
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 progression 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 whose 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 in the third stanza of ‘The Field of Waterloo’, with a snail, who flees in vain 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 the creature’s home in the vilest 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. The atmosphere of this section 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.
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 can 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 favor — Hardy’s use of simple words to describe the collapse of worlds helps the reader to feel the full effect of their devastation.
Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Field of Waterloo’ concerns the Battle of Waterloo, fought in 1815. At one side was the French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other side was the Seventh Coalition, led by the British forces. The coalition defeated Bonaparte ending the series of Napoleonic Wars. However, in his poem, Hardy depicts the effect of the war not on human beings, but the creatures of the lower order. According to the poet, those creatures also suffer during a heinous war. Their homes get plundered, future diminished, hopes distinguished, and lives choked out. Through this piece, the poet portrays their tragedy caused by the humans. Moreover, it is a symbolic piece too.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly center on the themes of the horror of war and destruction present in Hardy’s poem ‘The Field of Waterloo’.
- After Blenheim by Robert Southey – This poem centers on the aftermath of the Battle of Blenheim. Southey describes the futility of war through an ironic conversation between an old man and his grandchildren.
- Futility by Wilfred Owen – In this elegiac poem, Owen depicts the aftermath of a battlefield. Owen was one of the best-known wartime poets.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson – This poem is regarded as one of Tennyson’s well-known poems. Here, the poet depicts the charge of the British soldiers in the Crimean War.
- Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes – This poem centers on a soldier fighting in World War I. His suffering gets portrayed in this work.