June 18, 2015 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, that decisive event that signaled the end of the Napoleonic Wars and, more broadly, constant military conflict on the European continent since 1756. Notable not only for Napoleon’s defeat by the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange, Waterloo remains one of the bloodiest military conflicts in history with nearly 48,000 causalities in only ten hours. Yet, even more than a political turning point, Waterloo left an inedible mark on the period’s cultural productions; as graduate students studying Romanticism, we remember the battle in terms of the massive literary and artistic output it inspired. From Wordsworth’s “Thanksgiving Ode” to a theatrical production at Sadler’s Wells that included the song ‘The Bellerophon, or Nappy napped,'” Waterloo became a permanent fixture in Europe’s cultural memory.
Following the battle’s bicentennial, I spoke with Professor Jeffrey N. Cox of the University of Colorado at Boulder about Waterloo’s importance for contemporary Romantic study. Dr. Cox gave a keynote address at “‘A War of No Common Description’: The Transnational Reception of Waterloo in the 19th Century,” (http://www.waterloo19.be/) a conference held in honor of the bicentennial hosted by the Centre for Reception Studies at the University of Leuven on the 18th and 19th of June. According to Cox’s report, the conference featured scholars working on cultural, social, and political responses to Waterloo in nineteenth-century England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The papers offered a variety of perspectives on how specific literary figures – Wordsworth, James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas De Quincy, to name a few – absorbed and interpreted the battle. Much like the storming of the Bastille and the beheading of Louis XVI, Waterloo was a polarizing event that meant different things depending on one’s political stance.
In his keynote address, Cox provided an overview of Romantic writers’ bifurcated responses, which ranged from ecstatic to depressed. In one anecdote, he told the story of how Benjamin Robert Haydon memorized the London Gazette’s report on the battle but then carefully avoided bringing up at dinner with Leigh Hunt; though a victory for the British, Cox argues that there was something deeply disturbing to people about the battle. Unlike the celebration that followed Napoleon’s abdication in the summer of 1814, the British response was much more muted, with speeches and sermons replacing fireworks and parties. Cox examined Wordworth’s “Thanksgiving Ode” as a site of this ambivalence, as well as the intertextual war it inspired between Hunt’s Examiner and the Champion.
Reflecting on the conference as a whole, Cox is especially interested in the notion of Waterloo as “media event,” one put forward by several presenters. What do you get, he wonders, by calling something a “media event” versus a “historical event”? Chatting with Cox, we talked about the importance of technologies that shape a public’s perception of a given event, with resulting effects on the technologies themselves. The French Revolution, he points out, irrevocably changed the London media scene by creating a need for regular news from France, culminating in daily issues of the London Times. Similarly, the ABC News program Nightline initially began reporting the Iran hostage crisis before becoming a staple of televised journalism. These kinds of events create the need for faster communication, resulting in technologies that then become institutionalized. As for Waterloo, Cox explains that once information about the battle reached England, consumers immediately began planning trips to visit the battlefield itself; the seemingly unmediated flow of information from the mainland culminated in a desire to experience the place. Thinking about Waterloo as media event, then, might get to the heart of what Cox perceives as a disconnect between the violence that occurred and literary representations’ failure to get to the heart of it. Likening it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cox claims that the British reading public knew that Waterloo symbolized something, but that something depended on where you fell on the political spectrum and the means by which you consumed information about the event in question.