The Field of Waterloo – Thomas Hardy
- The poem’s subject is an epic battle fought on 18th June 1815 in what is now Belgium bringing to an end the Napoleonic Wars which had lasted for 12 years. In the battle a joint Prussian and British force battled Napoleon’s French army.
- The scale of the battle can be seen from the numbers involved. 190,000 men were involved in the battle in which 47,000 men were either killed or wounded.
- One army major who visited the battlefield on 22nd January described the sight as “too horrible to behold,” “the multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move”
- Hardy’s poem captures the brutal ferocity and gory outcome of the battle, not by focusing on the battle itself, but by describing it from the perspective of the small animals, insects and finally plant life whose habitat is the field of battle and who are unwittingly caught up in it.
- The opening word of the poem establishes the conversational tone of the poem.
- A sympathetic tone develops as he captures the terror of the animals
- The tone shifts in the final verse to sorrow as he reflects on the premature death of the plants, destroyed before they have grown to maturity. The image, by association, can be interpreted as a sorrowful reflection on the young men killed in battle will never fulfil their promise and potential in life.
Words & Phrases:
- In each verse Hardy’s references to nature stress its fragility in the face of military onslaught – fleeing rabbits; lark’s eggs; worms; butterflies; burrowing moles. These vulnerable images of nature reflect the fragile nature of life which are then juxtaposed with the destructive forces of war
- The first verse uses swift verbs of motion – “their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels” – to capture the panic and terror felt by the rabbits as they try to flee from the advancing cavalry. These are then juxtaposed with the heavier onomatopoeic “thud of hoofs” which implies its menacing power
- Onomatopoeia is a prominent method in the poem. In verse 2 & 3 the onomatopoeic “crushed” and alliterative phrases “terrible tread” and “beaten about” are used to describe how forcefully the wheels of the artillery destroy the landscape – the insects and their habitats. (In the last verse “trodden and bruised”)
- Hardy’s use of personification to describe the futile attempts of the worm to evade the chaos creates sympathy for the plight of the creatures and hints at the devastating scale of human destruction taking place above it. (It is also used to capture its innocence, using black humour to portray it as it “asks what can be heard overhead”)
- This effect is reinforced by the hyperbolic metaphor used to describe the bloodshed – “foul red flood” – which also skilfully exploits alliteration, consonance and assonance to place greater stress on the image and capture the bloody gore of the battle and subtly reflect on the enormous scale of the human loss and suffering
- The final verse shifts the focus from insects and creatures to the plant life destroyed by the battle. The imagery stresses thwarted potential. He uses two images of plants that have been cut off and destroyed before they have fully grown and reached their prime. The words “greened” and “gold” are counterpointed by alliteration and consonance in the second last line while the keys words “bud” and “bloom” are counterpointed in the final line to emphatically reinforce this brutal reality of war. The repetition of “never” also helps to create this sense of tragic loss and waste.
- Final verse also employs a metaphor to describe the battlefield as “a miry tomb”
- The poem is written in tercets (three line verses) which has the effect of condensing the imagery in each verse thereby making it stand out more prominently
- The poem has a complicated rhyme scheme known as chain rhyme – aba, bcb. cdc etc… Each verse rhymes aba, but the middle line then provides the rhyme for the next verse.
- This has the effect of allowing each verse to stand out prominently while also linking the verses to capture the relentless process of destruction the battle creates. This effect is also enhanced by the use of enjambment between the third and fourth verses.