Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
 
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Eve of Waterloo

T HIS is a part of one of Byron's finest poems, "Childe Harold." It relates the events of the night before the battle of Quatre Bras, which was fought near Brussels, the capital of Belgium, on June 16, 1815, and was the preliminary of the great battle of Waterloo, fought two days later.

Three nights before the battle of Waterloo the English Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in Brussels, and invited many of the officers of the allied English and Prussian armies, which were at war with the French. The Duke of Wellington, commander-in-chief of the English army, was said to have been one of the guests. While the ball was at its height a messenger brought word to Wellington that the French under Napoleon were advancing towards the city. He did not wish to alarm the people, and so kept the information secret, but he sent the officers one by one to their regiments, and finally left for the field himself.

In the poem, however, the dancers at the ball heard a distant booming. At first they paid little heed to it, and went on with the dancing; but presently the sound grew louder and clearer, and they recognized it as the roar of cannon. The first to hear it was Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick, whose father had been killed in battle. He left for the front at once, and was killed the next day, June 16th, in the battle of Quatre Bras.

The officers said farewell to the ladies, and hurried from the ball to mount and ride against the French; while the frightened citizens crowded the streets, fearing that Napoleon was about to enter Brussels.

Waterloo was a great victory for the English and Prussian armies. It was the real end of Napoleon's all-conquering career, and led to his capture and banishment to the island of St. Helena.

The Eve of Waterloo

by George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron

There 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 could 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!"


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