On October 6, 1815, Robert Southey writes to his friend, John May, from Liege in Belgium. Southey has embarked on his tour of the Low Countries, which commenced in September and will end in October. During this tour, Southey visited the battlefield of Waterloo, probably on October 3. His observations will form the basis for his work ‘The Poets’ Pilgrimage to Waterloo’. In a letter to John Rickman, Southey provides a description of the battlefield, that will echo Byron’s description, after he too had made the pilgrimage to Waterloo in 1816. Southey writes to Rickman:
We have seen the whole field of battle, or rather all the fields, and vestiges enough of the contest, though it is almost wonderful to observe how soon nature recovers from all her injuries. The fields are cultivated again, and wild flowers are in blossom upon some of the graves. The Scotchmen – ’those men without breeches’ – have the credit of the day at Waterloo.
On his visit Byron will also remark how the fields show little of the damage and carnage of the great battle. This observation will be turned into lines in his poem:
As the ground was before, thus let it be; —
How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!
Southey’s letter reads:
Liege, Oct. 6. 1815, six p.m.
My dear Friend, I have a happy habit of making the best of all things; and being just at this time as uncomfortable as the dust and bustle, and all the disagreeables of an inn in a large filthy manufacturing city can make me, I have called for pen, ink, and paper, and am actually writing in the bar, the door open to the yard opposite to this unwiped table, the doors open to the public room, where two men are dining and talking French, and a woman servant at my elbow lighting a fire for our party. Presently the folding-doors are to be shut, the ladies are to descend from their chambers, the bar will be kept appropriated to our house, the male part of the company will get into good humour, dinner will be ready, and then I must lay aside the grey goose-quill. As a preliminary to these promised comforts, the servant is mopping the hearth, which is composed (like a tesselated pavement) of little bricks about two inches long by half an inch wide, set within a broad black stone frame. The fuel is of fire-balls, a mixture of pulverised coal and clay. I have seen a great deal, and heard a great deal,—more, indeed, than I can keep pace with in my journal, though I strive hard to do it; but I minute down short notes in my pencil-book with all possible care, and hope, in the end, to lose nothing. As for Harry and his party, I know nothing more of them than that they landed at Ostend a week before us, and proceeded the same day to Bruges. To-morrow we shall probably learn tidings of them at Spa. Meantime, we have joined company with some fellow-passengers, Mr. Vardon, of Greenwich, with his family, and Mr. Nash, an artist, who has lived many years in India. Flanders is a most interesting country. Bruges, the most striking city I have ever seen, an old city in perfect preservation. It seems as if not a house had been built during the last two centuries, and not a house suffered to pass to decay. The poorest people seem to be well lodged, and there is a general air of sufficiency, cleanliness, industry, and comfort, which I have never seen in any other place. The cities have grown worse as we advanced. At Namur we reached a dirty city, situated in a romantic country; the Meuse there reminded me of the Thames from your delightful house, an island in size and shape resembling that upon which I have often wished for a grove of poplars, coming just in the same position. From thence along the river to this abominable place, the country is, for the greater part, as lovely as can be imagined, especially at Huy, where we slept last night, and fell in with one of the inhabitants, a man of more than ordinary intellect, from whom I learnt much of the state of public opinion, &c.
Our weather hitherto has been delightful. This was especially fortunate at Waterloo and at Ligny, where we had much ground to walk over. It would surprise you to see how soon nature has recovered from the injuries of war. The ground is ploughed and sown, and grain and flowers and seeds already growing over the field of battle, which is still strewn with vestiges of the slaughter, caps, cartridges, boxes, hats, &c. We picked up some French cards and some bullets, and we purchased a French pistol and two of the eagles which the infantry wear upon their caps. What I felt upon this ground, it would be difficult to say; what I saw, and still more what I heard, there is no time at present for saying. In prose and in verse you shall some day hear the whole. At Les Quatre Bras, I saw two graves, which probably the dogs or the swine had opened. In the one were the ribs of a human body, projecting through the mould; in the other, the whole skeleton exposed.
Some of our party told me of a third, in which the worms were at work, but I shrunk from the sight. You will rejoice to hear that the English are as well spoken of for their deportment in peace as in war. It is far otherwise with the Prussians. Concerning them there is but one opinion; their brutality is said to exceed that of the French, and of their intolerable insolence I have heard but too many proofs. That abominable old Frederic made them a military nation, and this is the inevitable consequence. This very day we passed a party on their way towards France—some hundred or two. Two gentlemen and two ladies of the country, in a carriage, had come up with them; and these ruffians would not allow them to pass, but compelled them to wait and follow the slow pace of foot soldiers! This we ourselves saw. Next to the English, the Belgians have the best character for discipline.
“I have laid out some money in books—four or five-and-twenty pounds—and I have bargained for a set of the Acta Sanctorum to be completed and sent after me—the price 500 francs. This is an invaluable acquisition. Neither our time or money will allow us to reach the Rhine. We turn back from Aix-la-Chapelle, and take the route of Maestricht and Louvaine to Antwerp, thence to Ghent again, and cross from Calais. I bought at Bruges a French History of Brazil, just published by M. Alphonse de Beauchamp, in three volumes octavo. He says, in his Preface, that having finished the two first volumes, he thought it advisable to see if any new light had been thrown upon the subject by modern authors. Meantime, a compilation upon this history had appeared in England, but the English author, Mr. Southey, had brought no new lights; he had promised much for his second volume, but the hope of literary Europe had been again deceived, for this second volume, so emphatically promised, had not appeared. I dare say no person regrets this delay so much as M. Beauchamp, he having stolen the whole of his two first volumes, and about the third part of the other, from the very Mr. Southey whom he abuses. He has copied my references as the list of his own authorities (manuscripts and all), and he has committed blunders which prove, beyond all doubt, that he does not understand Portuguese. I have been much diverted by this fellow’s impudence.
“The table is laid, and the knives and forks rattling a pleasant note of preparation, as the woman waiter arranges them.
“God bless you! I have hurried through the sheet, and thus pleasantly beguiled what would have been a very unpleasant hour. We are all well, and your god-daughter has seen a live emperor at Brussels. I feel the disadvantage of speaking French ill, and understanding it by the ear worse. Nevertheless, I speak it without remorse, make myself somehow or other understood, and get at what I want to know. Once more, God bless you, my dear friend.
“Believe me always most affectionately yours,