June 22 1815: Byron Hears of Waterloo

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In June 1815, the  American scholar George Ticknor is in London and calls on Lord Byron. In his memoirTicknor writes that this visit took place on June 20. He also adds that he and Byron were interrupted on that day with the news of the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. The problem with this chronology is that the official news of the victory at Waterloo only arrived in London late at around 11:15 p.m. on June 21 1815. Wellington’s aide-de-camp, Major Henry Percy,  reached London at that time with Wellington’s dispatch announcing the victory. Ticknor writes that he and Byron are told about the victory by Sir James Bland Burgess. In turn, Sir Burgess tells them that he learned the news, in his words, from an “aide -de-camp arrived in town last night; he has been in Downing Street this morning, and I have just seen him as he was going to Lady Wellington’s.” The aide-de-camp had to be Major Percy. So Ticknor, writing his memoir in 1876, must have made a mistake in his recollection of when he visited Byron. The visit had to have taken place on June 22 1815.

Nevertheless, Ticknor’s description of Byron’s reaction to the news of Napoleon’s defeat is of interest and telling. Ticknor writes:

Just at this time Sir James Bland Burgess, who had something to do in negotiating Jay’s Treaty, came suddenly into the room, and said abruptly, “My lord, my lord, a great battle has been fought in the Low Countries, and Bonaparte is entirely defeated.” “But is it true?” said Lord Byron, —”is it true?” “Yes, my lord, it is certainly true; an aide-de-camp arrived in town last night; he has been in Downing Street this morning, and I have just seen him as he was going to Lady Wellington’s. He says he thinks Bonaparte is in full retreat towards Paris.” After an instant’s pause, Lord Byron replied, “I am d—d sorry for it”; and then, after another slight pause, he added, “I didn’t know but I might live to see Lord Castlereagh’s head on a pole. But I suppose I sha’n’t, now.” And this was the first impression produced on his impetuous nature by the news of the battle of Waterloo.

The full letter reads:

June 20. — I called on Lord Byron to-day, with an introduction from Mr. Gifford. Here, again, my anticipations were mistaken. Instead of being deformed, as I had heard, he is remarkably well built, with the exception of his feet. Instead of having a thin and rather sharp and anxious face, as he has in his pictures, it is round, open, and smiling; his eyes are light, and not black; his air easy and careless, not forward and striking; and I found his manners affable and gentle, the tones of his voice low and conciliating, his conversation gay, pleasant, and interesting in an uncommon degree. I stayed with him about an hour and a half, during which the conversation wandered over many subjects. He talked, of course, a great deal about America; wanted to know what was the state of our literature, how many universities we had, whether we had any poets whom we much valued, and whether we looked upon Barlow as our Homer. He certainly feels a considerable interest in America, and says he intends to visit the United States; but I doubt whether it will not be indefinitely postponed, like his proposed visit to Persia. I answered to all this as if I had spoken to a countryman, and then turned the conversation to his own poems, and particularly to his “English Bards,” which he has so effectually suppressed that a copy is not easily to be found. He said he wrote it when he was very young and very angry; which, he added, were “the only circumstances under which a man would write such a satire.” When he returned to England, he said, Lord Holland, who treated him with very great kindness, and Rogers, who was his friend, asked him to print no more of it, and therefore he had suppressed it. Since then, he said, he had become acquainted with the persons he had satirized, and whom he then knew only by their books, — was now the friend of Moore, the correspondent of Jeffrey, and intimate with the Wordsworth school, and had a hearty liking for them all, — especially as they did not refuse to know one who had so much abused them. Of all the persons mentioned in this poem, there was not one, he said, with whom he now had any quarrel, except Lord Carlisle; and, as this was a family difference, he supposed it would never be settled. On every account, therefore, he was glad it was out of print; and yet he did not express the least regret when I told him that it was circulated in America almost as extensively as his other poems. As to the poems published during his minority, he said he suppressed them because they were not worth reading, and wondered that our booksellers could find a profit in reprinting them. All this he said without affectation; in fact, just as I now repeat it. He gave great praise to Scott; said he was undoubtedly the first man of his time, and as extraordinary in everything as in poetry, — a lawyer, a fine scholar, endowed with an extraordinary memory, and blessed with the kindest feelings.

Of Gilford, he said it was impossible that a man should have a better disposition; that he was so good-natured that if he ever says a bitter thing in conversation or in a review he does it unconsciously!

Just at this time Sir James Bland Burgess, who had something to do in negotiating Jay’s Treaty, came suddenly into the room, and said abruptly, “My lord, my lord, a great battle has been fought in the Low Countries, and Bonaparte is entirely defeated.” “But is it true?” said Lord Byron, —” is it true?” “Yes, my lord, it is certainly true; an aide-de-camp arrived in town last night; he has been in Downing Street this morning, and I have just seen him as he was going to Lady Wellington’s. He says he thinks Bonaparte is in full retreat towards Paris.” After an instant’s pause, Lord Byron replied, “I am d—d sorry for it”; and then, after another slight pause, he added, “I didn’t know but I might live to see Lord Castlereagh’s head on a pole. But I suppose I sha’ n’t, now.” And this was the first impression produced on his impetuous nature by the news of the battle of Waterloo.

As I was going away, he carried me up stairs, and showed me his library, and collection of Romaic books, which is very rich and very curious; offered me letters for Greece; and, after making an appointment for another visit, took leave of me so cordially that I felt almost at home with him.

While I was there, Lady Byron came in. She is pretty, not beautiful, — for the prevalent expression of her countenance is that of ingenuousness. “Report speaks goldenly of her.” She is a baroness in her own right, has a large fortune, is rich in intellectual endowments, is a mathematician, possesses common accomplishments in an uncommon degree, and adds to all this a sweet temper. She was dressed to go and drive, and, after stopping a few moments, went to her carriage. Lord Byron’s manner to her was affectionate; he followed her to the door, and shook hands with her, as if he were not to see her for a month.

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