DI SẢN WALTER SCOTT BÚT HƠN GƯƠM
Qua Waterloo nhớ Walter Scott
Bút thần của hiền tài
Lưu non sông muôn thuở
Bền mạnh sắc hơn gươm.
Walter Scott là nhà thơ văn trữ tình lỗi lạc nhất của Scotland với nhiều tác phẩm của ông được coi là đại diện cho nền văn học cổ điển Anh. Ông sinh ngày 14 tháng 8 năm 1771 tại Edinburgh, mất ngày 21 tháng 9 năm 1832 tại Abbotsford House, Di sản của Walter Scott lưu dấu sâu đậm nhất ở Scotland tại Thư viện Trường Đại học Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Library) với Abbotsford House, Edinburgh. Đó là ba nơi mà bạn có thể đắm mình vào các tác phẩm nổi tiếng của Walter Scott.
Walter Scott rất nổi tiếng ở châu Âu, Bắc Mỹ, châu Á và Úc nhưng ở Việt Nam, bạn đọc chưa có nhiều chuyên khảo hoặc dịch thuật thơ văn ông. Tác phẩm đặc biệt nổi tiếng Cánh đồng Waterloo (The Field of Waterloo) là một trong những bài thơ đặc biệt nổi tiếng của Walter Scott trong kiệt tác Sir Walter Scott Poems. Bài thơ này được viết và xuất bản vào năm 1815, ngay sau khi quân liên minh chiến thắng quân đội Napoléon Bonaparte tại trận Waterloo vào ngày 18 tháng 6 năm 1815, Scott đã đến Bỉ vào tháng Tám, và ông là một trong các thường dân nước Anh đầu tiên đến thăm chiến trường.
Trận Waterloo đặc biệt nổi tiếng trên thế giới và toàn châu Âu. Trận Waterloo diễn ra vào ngày chủ nhật 18 tháng 6 năm 1815 tại một địa điểm gần Waterloo, thuộc Bỉ ngày nay. Đây là một trong những trận đánh nổi tiểng nhất và cũng là dấu chấm hết cho cuộc chiến tranh Napoléon. Quân đội Đế chế Pháp (La Grande Armée) dưới sự chỉ huy của Napoléon Bonaparte đã bị đánh bại bởi liên quân của Liên minh thứ bảy, bao gồm quân Anh và đồng minh do Arthur Wellesley, Công tước thứ nhất của Wellington chỉ huy và quân Phổ do Thống chế Gebhard von Blücher chỉ huy. Đây là trận đánh kết thúc chiến dịch Waterloo và cũng là trận đánh cuối cùng của Napoléon. Thất bại ở trận đánh này đã đặt dấu chấm hết cho ngôi vị Hoàng đế Pháp của Napoléon và Vương triều Một trăm ngày của ông.
Trận Waterloo thay đổi cục diện toàn châu Âu thời Napoléon Bonaparte cũng tương tự như Trận Xích Bích làm thay đổi cục diện Trung Quốc dưới thời thời Tam Quốc (Trận Xích Bích diễn ra vào mùa Đông năm 208 giữa liên quân Tôn Quyền–Lưu Bị với quân đội của Tào Tháo lấy danh nghĩa triều đình. Trận Xích Bích kết thúc với chiến thắng quyết định của phe Tôn-Lưu, tạo cơ sở hình thành thế chân vạc thời Tam Quốc của ba nước Tào Ngụy – Thục Hán – Đông Ngô.
Bài thơ ‘Cánh đồng Waterloo’ (The Field of Waterloo) của Walter Scott bi tráng và nổi tiếng khắp thế giới trong mọi thời đại, tương tự như bài Tiền Xích Bích phú và Hậu Xích Bích phú của đại thi hào Tô Đông Pha. Nó thể hiện tính nhân văn của kiếm bút tài tình có sức mạnh hơn cả lưỡi gươm chinh phạt của những danh tướng lừng danh nhất thế giới. Theo cách nói của Ban zắc, đại văn hào Pháp, tính nhân văn của kiếm bút chạm thấu những phần mà kiếm sắc của Napoleon không bao giờ và không thể với tới được. Bài thơ ‘Cánh đồng Waterloo’(The Field of Waterloo) của Walter Scott hướng tới những người nghèo, những số phận kém may mắn trong chiến tranh. Lợi nhuận từ bài thơ của Walter Scott về cuộc chiến được đi vào quỹ cho góa phụ và trẻ mồ côi của người lính. Những câu thơ đặc biệt xúc động, đơn giản nhưng rất khó dịch:
“On Waterloo’s ensanguined plain /
Lie tens of thousands of the slain; /
But none, by sabre or by shot, /
Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.” 
(Trên cánh đồng của Waterloo vấy đầy máu /
Nói dối là (chỉ) chục ngàn người bị giết;. /
Nhưng không (phải thế đâu), bởi (số người) bị đâm hay bị bắn, /
Đã giảm bằng nửa mức như vậy theo Walter Scott”
(Vì những người góa bụa và trẻ mồ côi còn lớn hơn nhiều!)
Bài thơ ‘Cánh đồng Waterloo’ (The Field of Waterloo) truyền tải tình yêu cuộc sống và góc nhìn thánh thiện cho biết bao thế hệ người châu Âu, đã lan tỏa nhanh và rộng khắp toàn cầu bởi giá trị nhân văn, lời thơ giản dị xúc động ám ảnh đi thẳng vào lòng người. Giá trị của bài thơ này tương tự như bài Tiền Xích Bích phú và Hậu Xích Bích phú của đại thi hào Tô Đông Pha, cũng tương tự như bài thơ ‘Bình Ngô đại cáo” của Nguyễn Trãi đã làm lay động biết bao nhiêu khối óc, con tim của người Trung Quốc, Việt Nam và người dân các nước châu Á ở nhiều thế hệ. Đó là những dòng sông thi ca rộng lớn chảy không ngưng nghỉ giữa mạch chính của kiến thức văn hóa nhân loại.
Tôi may mắn được đồng hành cùng ông José António Amorim Dias , Đại sứ đặc mệnh toàn quyền của nước Cộng hòa Dân chủ Timor-Leste tại UNESCO và Liên minh châu Âu đi qua cánh đồng Waterloo trên chuyến tàu tốc hành từ Brussels (Bỉ) đến Paris (Pháp). Chúng tôi chung khoang tàu và đã trò chuyện và chia sẻ rất nhiều điều về “The Field of Waterloo” của Nam tước Walter Scott cùng với những triết lý nhân sinh và văn hóa giáo dục. Tôi đã kể chuyện này trong bài “Đêm trắng và bình minh“.
Tôi chép nguyên văn bài thơ tiếng Anh “The Field of Waterloo” dưới đây để ước mong các bậc thức giả yêu thích thi ca và thạo tiếng Anh giúp chuyển ngữ bài thơ nổi tiếng này thành tiếng Việt, ngõ hầu góp phần vào việc giao lưu thi ca và văn hóa, góp phần trong công cuộc dạy và học, chấn hưng giáo dục và nâng cao dân trí Việt bằng sự đóng góp tận tụy, chuyển tải thông tin về danh nhân văn hóa Walter Scott đến bạn đọc Việt.
Thật mong lắm thay. Trân trọng cám ơn sự quan tâm của quý bạn.
Nguyên tác bài thơ: Cánh đồng Waterloo
THE FIELD OF WATERLOO
Poem by Sir Walter Scott
Fair Brussels, thou art far behind,
Though, lingering on the morning wind,
We yet may hear the hour
Pealed over orchard and canal,
With voice prolonged and measured fall,
From proud St. Michael’s tower;
Thy wood, dark Soignies, holds us now,
Where the tall beeches’ glossy bough
For many a league around,
With birch and darksome oak between,
Spreads deep and far a pathless screen,
Of tangled forest ground.
Stems planted close by stems defy
The adventurous foot-the curious eye
For access seeks in vain;
And the brown tapestry of leaves,
Strewed on the blighted ground, receives
Nor sun, nor air, nor rain.
No opening glade dawns on our way,
No streamlet, glancing to the ray,
Our woodland path has crossed;
And the straight causeway which we tread
Prolongs a line of dull arcade,
Unvarying through the unvaried shade
Until in distance lost.
A brighter, livelier scene succeeds;
In groups the scattering wood recedes,
Hedge-rows, and huts, and sunny meads,
And corn-fields glance between;
The peasant, at his labour blithe,
Plies the hooked staff and shortened scythe:-
But when these ears were green,
Placed close within destruction’s scope,
Full little was that rustic’s hope
Their ripening to have seen!
And, lo, a hamlet and its fane:-
Let not the gazer with disdain
Their architecture view;
For yonder rude ungraceful shrine,
And disproportioned spire, are thine,
Fear not the heat, though full and high
The sun has scorched the autumn sky,
And scarce a forest straggler now
To shade us spreads a greenwood bough;
These fields have seen a hotter day
Than e’er was fired by sunny ray,
Yet one mile on-yon shattered hedge
Crests the soft hill whose long smooth ridge
Looks on the field below,
And sinks so gently on the dale
That not the folds of Beauty’s veil
In easier curves can flow.
Brief space from thence, the ground again
Ascending slowly from the plain
Forms an opposing screen,
Which, with its crest of upland ground,
Shuts the horizon all around.
The softened vale between
Slopes smooth and fair for courser’s tread;
Not the most timid maid need dread
To give her snow-white palfrey head
On that wide stubble-ground;
Nor wood, nor tree, nor bush are there,
Her course to intercept or scare,
Nor fosse nor fence are found,
Save where, from out her shattered bowers,
Rise Hougomont’s dismantled towers.
Now, see’st thou aught in this lone scene
Can tell of that which late hath been? –
A stranger might reply,
‘The bare extent of stubble-plain
Seems lately lightened of its grain;
And yonder sable tracks remain
Marks of the peasant’s ponderous wain,
When harvest-home was nigh.
On these broad spots of trampled ground,
Perchance the rustics danced such round
As Teniers loved to draw;
And where the earth seems scorched by flame,
To dress the homely feast they came,
And toiled the kerchiefed village dame
Around her fire of straw.’
So deem’st thou-so each mortal deems,
Of that which is from that which seems:-
But other harvest here
Than that which peasant’s scythe demands,
Was gathered in by sterner hands,
With bayonet, blade, and spear.
No vulgar crop was theirs to reap,
No stinted harvest thin and cheap!
Heroes before each fatal sweep
Fell thick as ripened grain;
And ere the darkening of the day,
Piled high as autumn shocks, there lay
The ghastly harvest of the fray,
The corpses of the slain.
Ay, look again-that line, so black
And trampled, marks the bivouac,
Yon deep-graved ruts the artillery’s track,
So often lost and won;
And close beside, the hardened mud
Still shows where, fetlock-deep in blood,
The fierce dragoon, through battle’s flood,
Dashed the hot war-horse on.
These spots of excavation tell
The ravage of the bursting shell –
And feel’st thou not the tainted steam,
That reeks against the sultry beam,
From yonder trenched mound?
The pestilential fumes declare
That Carnage has replenished there
Her garner-house profound.
Far other harvest-home and feast,
Than claims the boor from scythe released,
On these scorched fields were known!
Death hovered o’er the maddening rout,
And, in the thrilling battle-shout,
Sent for the bloody banquet out
A summons of his own.
Through rolling smoke the Demon’s eye
Could well each destined guest espy,
Well could his ear in ecstasy
Distinguish every tone
That filled the chorus of the fray –
From cannon-roar and trumpet-bray,
From charging squadrons’ wild hurra,
From the wild clang that marked their way, –
Down to the dying groan,
And the last sob of life’s decay,
When breath was all but flown.
Feast on, stern foe of mortal life,
Feast on!-but think not that a strife,
With such promiscuous carnage rife,
Protracted space may last;
The deadly tug of war at length
Must limits find in human strength,
And cease when these are past.
Vain hope!-that morn’s o’erclouded sun
Heard the wild shout of fight begun
Ere he attained his height,
And through the war-smoke, volumed high,
Still peals that unremitted cry,
Though now he stoops to night.
For ten long hours of doubt and dread,
Fresh succours from the extended head
Of either hill the contest fed;
Still down the slope they drew,
The charge of columns paused not,
Nor ceased the storm of shell and shot;
For all that war could do
Of skill and force was proved that day,
And turned not yet the doubtful fray
On bloody Waterloo.
Pale Brussels! then what thoughts were thine,
When ceaseless from the distant line
Continued thunders came!
Each burgher held his breath, to hear
These forerunners of havoc near,
Of rapine and of flame.
What ghastly sights were thine to meet,
When rolling through thy stately street,
The wounded showed their mangled plight
In token of the unfinished fight,
And from each anguish-laden wain
The blood-drops laid thy dust like rain!
How often in the distant drum
Heard’st thou the fell Invader come,
While Ruin, shouting to his band,
Shook high her torch and gory brand! –
Cheer thee, fair City! From yon stand,
Impatient, still his outstretched hand
Points to his prey in vain,
While maddening in his eager mood,
And all unwont to be withstood,
He fires the fight again.
‘On! On!’ was still his stern exclaim;
‘Confront the battery’s jaws of flame!
Rush on the levelled gun!
My steel-clad cuirassiers, advance!
Each Hulan forward with his lance,
My Guard-my Chosen-charge for France,
France and Napoleon!’
Loud answered their acclaiming shout,
Greeting the mandate which sent out
Their bravest and their best to dare
The fate their leader shunned to share.
But HE, his country’s sword and shield,
Still in the battle-front revealed,
Where danger fiercest swept the field,
Came like a beam of light,
In action prompt, in sentence brief –
‘Soldiers, stand firm!’ exclaimed the Chief,
‘England shall tell the fight!’
On came the whirlwind-like the last
But fiercest sweep of tempest-blast –
On came the whirlwind-steel-gleams broke
Like lightning through the rolling smoke;
The war was waked anew,
Three hundred cannon-mouths roared loud,
And from their throats, with flash and cloud,
Their showers of iron threw.
Beneath their fire, in full career,
Rushed on the ponderous cuirassier,
The lancer couched his ruthless spear,
And hurrying as to havoc near,
The cohorts’ eagles flew.
In one dark torrent, broad and strong,
The advancing onset rolled along,
Forth harbingered by fierce acclaim,
That, from the shroud of smoke and flame,
Pealed wildly the imperial name.
But on the British heart were lost
The terrors of the charging host;
For not an eye the storm that viewed
Changed its proud glance of fortitude,
Nor was one forward footstep stayed,
As dropped the dying and the dead.
Fast as their ranks the thunders tear,
Fast they renewed each serried square;
And on the wounded and the slain
Closed their diminished files again,
Till from their line scarce spears’-lengths three,
Emerging from the smoke they see
Helmet, and plume, and panoply, –
Then waked their fire at once!
Each musketeer’s revolving knell,
As fast, as regularly fell,
As when they practise to display
Their discipline on festal day.
Then down went helm and lance,
Down were the eagle banners sent,
Down reeling steeds and riders went,
Corslets were pierced, and pennons rent;
And, to augment the fray,
Wheeled full against their staggering flanks,
The English horsemen’s foaming ranks
Forced their resistless way.
Then to the musket-knell succeeds
The clash of swords-the neigh of steeds –
As plies the smith his clanging trade,
Against the cuirass rang the blade;
And while amid their close array
The well-served cannon rent their way,
And while amid their scattered band
Raged the fierce rider’s bloody brand,
Recoiled in common rout and fear,
Lancer and guard and cuirassier,
Horsemen and foot,-a mingled host
Their leaders fall’n, their standards lost.
Then, WELLINGTON! thy piercing eye
This crisis caught of destiny –
The British host had stood
That morn ‘gainst charge of sword and lance
As their own ocean-rocks hold stance,
But when thy voice had said, ‘Advance!’
They were their ocean’s flood. –
O Thou, whose inauspicious aim
Hath wrought thy host this hour of shame,
Think’st thou thy broken bands will bide
The terrors of yon rushing tide?
Or will thy chosen brook to feel
The British shock of levelled steel,
Or dost thou turn thine eye
Where coming squadrons gleam afar,
And fresher thunders wake the war,
And other standards fly? –
Think not that in yon columns, file
Thy conquering troops from distant Dyle –
Is Blucher yet unknown?
Or dwells not in thy memory still
(Heard frequent in thine hour of ill),
What notes of hate and vengeance thrill
In Prussia’s trumpet-tone? –
What yet remains?-shall it be thine
To head the relics of thy line
In one dread effort more? –
The Roman lore thy leisure loved,
And than canst tell what fortune proved
That Chieftain, who, of yore,
Ambition’s dizzy paths essayed
And with the gladiators’ aid
For empire enterprised –
He stood the cast his rashness played,
Left not the victims he had made,
Dug his red grave with his own blade,
And on the field he lost was laid,
Abhorred-but not despised.
But if revolves thy fainter thought
On safety-howsoever bought, –
Then turn thy fearful rein and ride,
Though twice ten thousand men have died
On this eventful day
To gild the military fame
Which thou, for life, in traffic tame
Wilt barter thus away.
Shall future ages tell this tale
Of inconsistence faint and frail?
And art thou He of Lodi’s bridge,
Marengo’s field, and Wagram’s ridge!
Or is thy soul like mountain-tide,
That, swelled by winter storm and shower,
Rolls down in turbulence of power,
A torrent fierce and wide;
Reft of these aids, a rill obscure,
Shrinking unnoticed, mean and poor,
Whose channel shows displayed
The wrecks of its impetuous course,
But not one symptom of the force
By which these wrecks were made!
Spur on thy way!-since now thine ear
Has brooked thy veterans’ wish to hear,
Who, as thy flight they eyed
Exclaimed,-while tears of anguish came,
Wrung forth by pride, and rage, and shame,
‘O that he had but died!’
But yet, to sum this hour of ill,
Look, ere thou leav’st the fatal hill,
Back on yon broken ranks –
Upon whose wild confusion gleams
The moon, as on the troubled streams
When rivers break their banks,
And, to the ruined peasant’s eye,
Objects half seen roll swiftly by,
Down the dread current hurled –
So mingle banner, wain, and gun,
Where the tumultuous flight rolls on
Of warriors, who, when morn begun,
Defied a banded world.
List-frequent to the hurrying rout,
The stern pursuers’ vengeful shout
Tells, that upon their broken rear
Rages the Prussian’s bloody spear.
So fell a shriek was none,
When Beresina’s icy flood
Reddened and thawed with flame and blood,
And, pressing on thy desperate way,
Raised oft and long their wild hurra,
The children of the Don.
Thine ear no yell of horror cleft
So ominous, when, all bereft
Of aid, the valiant Polack left –
Ay, left by thee-found soldiers grave
In Leipsic’s corpse-encumbered wave.
Fate, in those various perils past,
Reserved thee still some future cast;
On the dread die thou now hast thrown
Hangs not a single field alone,
Nor one campaign-thy martial fame,
Thy empire, dynasty, and name
Have felt the final stroke;
And now, o’er thy devoted head
The last stern vial’s wrath is shed,
The last dread seal is broke.
Since live thou wilt-refuse not now
Before these demagogues to bow,
Late objects of thy scorn and hate,
Who shall thy once imperial fate
Make wordy theme of vain debate. –
Or shall we say, thou stoop’st less low
In seeking refuge from the foe,
Against whose heart, in prosperous life,
Thine hand hath ever held the knife?
Such homage hath been paid
By Roman and by Grecian voice,
And there were honour in the choice,
If it were freely made.
Then safely come-in one so low, –
So lost,-we cannot own a foe;
Though dear experience bid us end,
In thee we ne’er can hail a friend. –
Come, howsoe’er-but do not hide
Close in thy heart that germ of pride,
Erewhile, by gifted bard espied,
That ‘yet imperial hope;’
Think not that for a fresh rebound,
To raise ambition from the ground,
We yield thee means or scope.
In safety come-but ne’er again
Hold type of independent reign;
No islet calls thee lord,
We leave thee no confederate band,
No symbol of thy lost command,
To be a dagger in the hand
From which we wrenched the sword.
Yet, even in yon sequestered spot,
May worthier conquest be thy lot
Than yet thy life has known;
Conquest, unbought by blood or harm,
That needs nor foreign aid nor arm,
A triumph all thine own.
Such waits thee when thou shalt control
Those passions wild, that stubborn soul,
That marred thy prosperous scene:-
Hear this-from no unmoved heart,
Which sighs, comparing what THOU ART
With what thou MIGHT’ST HAVE BEEN!
Thou, too, whose deeds of fame renewed
Bankrupt a nation’s gratitude,
To thine own noble heart must owe
More than the meed she can bestow.
For not a people’s just acclaim,
Not the full hail of Europe’s fame,
Thy Prince’s smiles, the State’s decree,
The ducal rank, the gartered knee,
Not these such pure delight afford
As that, when hanging up thy sword,
Well may’st thou think, ‘This honest steel
Was ever drawn for public weal;
And, such was rightful Heaven’s decree,
Ne’er sheathed unless with victory!’
Look forth, once more, with softened heart,
Ere from the field of fame we part;
Triumph and Sorrow border near,
And joy oft melts into a tear.
Alas! what links of love that morn
Has War’s rude hand asunder torn!
For ne’er was field so sternly fought,
And ne’er was conquest dearer bought,
Here piled in common slaughter sleep
Those whom affection long shall weep
Here rests the sire, that ne’er shall strain
His orphans to his heart again;
The son, whom, on his native shore,
The parent’s voice shall bless no more;
The bridegroom, who has hardly pressed
His blushing consort to his breast;
The husband, whom through many a year
Long love and mutual faith endear.
Thou canst not name one tender tie,
But here dissolved its relics lie!
Oh! when thou see’st some mourner’s veil
Shroud her thin form and visage pale,
Or mark’st the Matron’s bursting tears
Stream when the stricken drum she hears;
Or see’st how manlier grief, suppressed,
Is labouring in a father’s breast, –
With no inquiry vain pursue
The cause, but think on Waterloo!
Period of honour as of woes,
What bright careers ’twas thine to close! –
Marked on thy roll of blood what names
To Britain’s memory, and to Fame’s,
Laid there their last immortal claims!
Thou saw’st in seas of gore expire
Redoubted PICTON’S soul of fire –
Saw’st in the mingled carnage lie
All that of PONSONBY could die –
DE LANCEY change Love’s bridal-wreath
For laurels from the hand of Death –
Saw’st gallant MILLER’S failing eye
Still bent where Albion’s banners fly,
And CAMERON, in the shock of steel,
Die like the offspring of Lochiel;
And generous GORDON, ‘mid the strife,
Fall while he watched his leader’s life. –
Ah! though her guardian angel’s shield
Fenced Britain’s hero through the field.
Fate not the less her power made known,
Through his friends’ hearts to pierce his own!
Forgive, brave Dead, the imperfect lay!
Who may your names, your numbers, say?
What high-strung harp, what lofty line,
To each the dear-earned praise assign,
From high-born chiefs of martial fame
To the poor soldier’s lowlier name?
Lightly ye rose that dawning day,
From your cold couch of swamp and clay,
To fill, before the sun was low,
The bed that morning cannot know. –
Oft may the tear the green sod steep,
And sacred be the heroes’ sleep,
Till time shall cease to run;
And ne’er beside their noble grave,
May Briton pass and fail to crave
A blessing on the fallen brave
Who fought with Wellington!
Farewell, sad Field! whose blighted face
Wears desolation’s withering trace;
Long shall my memory retain
Thy shattered huts and trampled grain,
With every mark of martial wrong,
That scathe thy towers, fair Hougomont!
Yet though thy garden’s green arcade
The marksman’s fatal post was made,
Though on thy shattered beeches fell
The blended rage of shot and shell,
Though from thy blackened portals torn,
Their fall thy blighted fruit-trees mourn,
Has not such havoc bought a name
Immortal in the rolls of fame?
Yes-Agincourt may be forgot,
And Cressy be an unknown spot,
And Blenheim’s name be new;
But still in story and in song,
For many an age remembered long,
Shall live the towers of Hougomont
And Field of Waterloo!
Stern tide of human Time! that know’st not rest,
But, sweeping from the cradle to the tomb,
Bear’st ever downward on thy dusky breast
Successive generations to their doom;
While thy capacious stream has equal room
For the gay bark where Pleasure’s steamers sport,
And for the prison-ship of guilt and gloom,
The fisher-skiff, and barge that bears a court,
Still wafting onward all to one dark silent port;-
Stern tide of Time! through what mysterious change
Of hope and fear have our frail barks been driven!
For ne’er, before, vicissitude so strange
Was to one race of Adam’s offspring given.
And sure such varied change of sea and heaven,
Such unexpected bursts of joy and woe,
Such fearful strife as that where we have striven,
Succeeding ages ne’er again shall know,
Until the awful term when Thou shalt cease to flow.
Well hast thou stood, my Country!-the brave fight
Hast well maintained through good report and ill;
In thy just cause and in thy native might,
And in Heaven’s grace and justice constant still;
Whether the banded prowess, strength, and skill
Of half the world against thee stood arrayed,
Or when, with better views and freer will,
Beside thee Europe’s noblest drew the blade,
Each emulous in arms the Ocean Queen to aid.
Well art thou now repaid-though slowly rose,
And struggled long with mists thy blaze of fame,
While like the dawn that in the orient glows
On the broad wave its earlier lustre came;
Then eastern Egypt saw the growing flame,
And Maida’s myrtles gleamed beneath its ray,
Where first the soldier, stung with generous shame,
Rivalled the heroes of the watery way,
And washed in foemen’s gore unjust reproach away.
Now, Island Empress, wave thy crest on high,
And bid the banner of thy Patron flow,
Gallant Saint George, the flower of Chivalry,
For thou halt faced, like him, a dragon foe,
And rescued innocence from overthrow,
And trampled down, like him, tyrannic might,
And to the gazing world may’st proudly show
The chosen emblem of thy sainted Knight,
Who quelled devouring pride and vindicated right.
Yet ‘mid the confidence of just renown,
Renown dear-bought, but dearest thus acquired,
Write, Britain, write the moral lesson down:
‘Tis not alone the heart with valour fired,
The discipline so dreaded and admired,
In many a field of bloody conquest known,
-Such may by fame be lured, by gold be hired:
‘Tis constancy in the good cause alone
Best justifies the meed thy valiant sons have won.
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The Field of Waterloo
First Edition, First Impression:
The Field of Waterloo; A Poem. By Walter Scott, Esq. Edinburgh; Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. For Archibald Constable and Co. Edinburgh; And Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, and John Murray, London, 1815.
On hearing the news of the Allied victory at Waterloo (June 18, 1815), Scott burned to see the scene of Napoleon’s final defeat and to visit newly conquered Paris. Continental Europe had been closed to British visitors for more than a decade, and Scott had never before travelled abroad. In August, he set sail for Belgium, hoping to recuperate his expenses by writing a series of imaginary letters describing his travels. These were to be published as Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816). Scott was amongst the first British civilians to view the battlefield at Waterloo, accompanied by General Adam’s aide-de-camp, Captain Campbell, and Major Pryse Gordon. Mixing personal observation with information gained from his escorts and from other participants in the battle, he began work on a poem, profits from which would go to a fund set up for widows and orphans of soldiers. Proceeding to Paris, Scott obtained further details from Allied officers and spoke with the Duke of Wellington himself, whose lack of conceit and pretension greatly impressed him.
The poem was sent to James Ballantyne before the end of August and went to press in October. Pre-empting the cool reaction of many subsequent readers, Ballantyne made numerous objections and queries, taking a particular dislike to the opening line (‘Fair Brussels, thou art far behind’). For the most part, Scott stood by his original text but reluctantly followed Ballantyne’s advice in toning down reminiscences of his own The Lord of the Isles and The Lady of the Lake
An initial run of 6,000 copies appeared on October 23, 1815. The poem sold well and went into a third edition by the end of year. The critics, however, were unimpressed. For the Critical Review, it was ‘absolutely the poorest, dullest, least interesting composition that has hitherto issued from the author of Rokeby‘. The poem’s worthy purpose prevented other journals from being quite so harsh, but there was widespread censure of clumsy phrasing and other signs of authorial haste. Although The Field of Waterloo counted Byron amongst its few admirers, it is now best remembered through an anonymous squib:
On Waterloo’s ensanguined plain
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