Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. xvi + 260 pp.
$69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-99435-3).
Bibliographic Citation: Rzepka, Charles.
"On Philip Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination."
[date of access]. Romantic Circles Reviews 7.2 (2004): 8 pars.
19 Apr. 2004. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/reviews/shaw.html>.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Return to Waterloo
1. Walter Scott: The Discipline of History
2. Exhibiting War: Panoramas and Battle Tours
3. Southey's Vision of Command
4. Coleridge: The Imagination at War
5. Wordsworth's Abyss of Weakness
6. "For Want of a Better Cause": Lord Byron's War with Posterity
- Philip Shaw's Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination combines
detailed and extensive research into cultural, scientific, political,
and artistic responses to the deciding engagement of the Napoleonic
Wars with a challenging, and largely persuasive, reading of its often
paradoxical impact on the major writers of the romantic movement.
Employing a Lacanian mode of cultural analysis, Shaw succeeds in up-ending
traditional apocalyptic views of Waterloo as a unifying, and unified,
historical watershed in the rise of Great Britain as a modern nation
state. As he is at pains to show, far from serving to consolidate
the victors' national identity, Napoleon's final defeat tested "ideas
of nationhood, authority and the relations between violence and identity"
in a more profound manner than the War itself ever could have done (x).
- What is distinctive and ironic about Waterloo, for Shaw, is that it
did away with the only powerful motive for national unity that England
had known for some two decades. Represented primarily as a defeat
for tyranny, in the form of Napoleon's limitless ambitions, the battle
left open the question, for Whigs and Tories alike, of what exactly
had been won. The legitimation crisis that had been artificially
resolved by Britain's entry into the war soon began to re-emerge, aided
by the pressures of economic dislocations, rising unemployment, and
widespread political unrest. Celebrated throughout the following
year, Waterloo thus "captures a moment of life-threatening fragility,
the point where dreams of national perfection teeter on the edge of
- In Shaw's view, Waterloo becomes, for the post-War public imaginary,
"Sublime" in a Lacanian sense, "an impossible object
of desire, a measure of the limits of imagination and crucially of the
lack at the heart of the nation state" (6). Contributing
to Waterloo's resistance to representability was the inherent difficulty
of subsuming under a single unified idea the appalling reality of death,
carnage, and disorder on such a huge scale. Turner alone among
painters, says Shaw, seems to have recognized, in The Field of Waterloo
(1818), the impossibility of reconciling the gruesome facts of war with
the idealization of a collective national will to victory (22-23).
In nearly all other representations of the battle, graphic, dramatic,
and written, true suffering is erased by anecdotal illustrations of
the "stiff upper lip" variety (24-25) or by panoramic overviews
in which culturally indigestible details are lost.
- In successive chapters, Shaw examines the specific impact of Waterloo
on the imaginations of its first cultural mediators, beginning with
a suggestive juxtaposition of the battlefield visits of Sir Walter Scott
and the eminent brain scientist and surgeon, Sir Charles Bell, who met
each other at the site soon after the event. In Shaw's view, Waterloo
forces Scott and Bell to move in opposite directions along the polarities
of history and romance. Bell, tending the wounded and dying, began sketching
anatomical studies that, in their attempts to contain the reality of
death and suffering in a Romantic aesthetics of fragments and decay,
mark a transition "from surgical detachment to aesthetic enchantment"
(42). By contrast, Scott's The Field of Waterloo (1815)
betrays his "secret sympathy" (59) with the historically doomed
Napoleon in opposition to the triumphant but phlegmatic Wellington.
Seeing in France an irrecoverable ideal of romance similar to Jacobite
Scotland, Scott soon put aside his poems of Border minstrelsy to pursue,
in the continuation of the Waverley novels, a more vigorously historicized
version of that bygone Scottish epoch. In his first such attempt,
The Antiquary, Scott reveals his understanding of the fictionalwhich
is to say, ultimately unrepresentablestatus of history itself
in the wake of Waterloo, a series of "illusions redeemed and rechannelled
in the service of the state" (63).
- Shaw's next chapter, on battle-tours and panoramic exhibitions, builds
on the post-battle accounts of Scott and Bell to construct a portrait
of "battle tourism" as an opportunity for various classes
to intermingle and socialize outside the constraints of conventional
society and within the homogenizing ideals of the picturesque.
This democratization of tourism promoted a paradoxical ideological fiction
of distinction, however, emblematized by Napoleon's "Observatory,"
a 60-foot wooden tower, erected for government surveying purposes by
the King of the Netherlands, that Napoleon had commandeered to watch
the battle unfold. Bell's account of the panoramic views available
from the top of this tower participates in a bourgeois fantasy of "ideological
totality" (69) resulting from the tourist's usurpation of the Usurper'sNapoleon'somnivoyant
point of view. While Bell seemed to be aware of the fantastic
status of this point of view, it soon became central to the popularity
of panoramic representations of the battle back home. In promoting
the appearance of Waterloo as "a visual totality" for a democratized
clientele, the Panorama functioned as an "ideological machine"
that made Waterloo "impervious to the partial gaze of radical critique"
(71), swallowing the details of individual suffering in distance while
offering a nationally unifying image for mass consumption by Britons
of all classes.
- The next four chapters examine the poetry and prose of Southey, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, and Byron as they were shaped by the incomprehensibly Sublime
object of impossible desire that was Waterloo. Shaw's readings
of these authors are too complex and fine-grained to summarize here,
but I will try to give some idea of their scope and direction.
Southey, preoccupied with the question of his own authority as Poet
Laureate in the face of the need to make a living as a professional
writer, challenges the factuality of Wellington's published aristocratic
version of events in order to "square the Romantic ideal of a heroic,
privatized subjectivity with the reality of his social status as a member
of the very class that is learning to convert this ideal into a marketable
commodity" (97). Coleridge, who never addressed Waterloo
directly, reveals its impact in his reflections on the Imagination in
Biographia Literaria; the staging of Remorse, his revision
of Osorio, at Drury Lane; and the writing of his box-office failure,
Zapolya. Wordsworth, after a life-long interest in things
military, hails "Carnage" as the "daughter" of God
in his unpopular "Thanksgiving" ode to reveal the reality
of war in the midst of an ignorant triumphalism, and works in general
to dispel "the fascination with Wellington" (146), whom Wordsworth
sees as little more than a self-interested tool of the state. Byron's
response reveals sharp class distinctions in the Whig response to Napoleon's
defeat. In particular, Byron's inability to understand why Napoleon
did not choose death over dishonor shows the difference between his
"tragic" view of history, based on the "aristocratic
ideals of the private sphere," and the "utilitarian"
views of middle-class liberals like Leigh Hunt, for whom true heroism
consists in practically advancing, like Shakespeare, Bacon, and Newton,
"democratic principles" (171).
- These thumbnail summaries hardly cover the wide range of Shaw's analyses,
which are well-informed, various, and almost without exception stimulating.
However, readers may find themselves wondering occasionally how they
arrived at a particular bend in the road and, more importantly, how
they are supposed to find their way back to Shaw's central thesis concerning
the unreadability of Waterloo as historic event and cultural symbol.
In a related manner the postmodern psychoanalytic fabric of Shaw's analysis,
which fits him well at the outset, stretches in the wearing. At
one point, a Lacanian interpretation of De Quincey's "The English
Mail-Coach" requires Shaw to read the essay as a "hallucinatory
fantasy of matricide" (202-3), despite the fact that the Royal
Mail never threatens the life of a mother, but of a young woman and
her beau. Elsewhere, Shaw's eagerness to indict Southey for effacing
the human reality of war from the Waterloo passages in his Journal
of a Tour in the Netherlands in the Autumn of 1815 motivates a related
charge, in the manner of John Barrell and Marjorie Levinson, that the
poet has erased unpleasant signs of human labor in a preceding description
of Dutch farmlands (102-03). Yet Southey himself remarks the physical
absence of laborers from the silent fields, as might be expected in
November, even though "the agriculture proved the existence of
an ample and active population." One can hardly accuse a
writer of erasing from his landscape people who were not there, especially
when he acknowledges signs of their tangible existence beyond the narrative
- In the main, however, Shaw's book is a compelling elucidation of the
cultural contradictions incited by Waterloo, particularly in the
final chapter, where he teases out the far-reaching effects of the eroticization
of war in productions as diverse as the nude Achilles memorial project
for Wellington, Thackeray's account of the Duchess of Richmond's ball
in Vanity Fair, the bullfight stanzas from Canto I of Childe
Harold, and Leigh Hunt's anti-war poem, Captain Sword and Captain
Pen. Shaw's argument throughout is deft, witty, informed,
and bristling with implications for further research. This is
a much-needed contribution to our understanding of the social transformations
and literary repercussions of perhaps the single most important event
to have occurred in the nineteenth-century history of England.
No one interested in the rapidly changing cultural scene of post-Napoleonic
Britain can afford to ignore it.
Review published 19 April 2004; last updated 25 June