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Philip Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination

Monday, April 19, 2004 - 11:33
Philip Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.  xvi + 260 pp. $69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-99435-3).

Reviewed by
Charles Rzepka
Boston University

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 impossibility" (4).

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 fictional--which is to say, ultimately unrepresentable--status 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's--Napoleon's--omnivoyant 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 frame

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.