“Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine!”
vah-tair-low! vah-tair-low! vah-tair-low! mor-nuh PLENN! Click below to hear this.*
Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! dismal plain!
It’s time to reveal who wrote this line of poetry, and whom he was talking about!
The author wasn’t Napoleon. And to say the subject was Napoleon–well, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French poets of all time, was also a man of strong political opinions. He held several elected positions in several French governments. He campaigned ferociously for abolition, the rights of the downtrodden, women’s rights, among other issues.
In his long epic poem L’Expiation, Hugo compared Napoleon Bonaparte with his nephew, Napoleon III. The poet admired Bonaparte, though he felt that Bonaparte had betrayed and sinned against the people in carrying out his coup d’état of November 9, 1799 (called le 18 brumaire in the Republican calendar). As for Louis-Napoleon, Hugo felt that he was just a copycat trying to imitate his uncle’s great exploits. In a way, the poem is about both Napoleons.
Part II of L’Expiation begins with this mournful line: Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine! The poet imagines Napoleon surveying the battlefield, where his men were soundly defeated. Napoleon wonders if perhaps he is atoning for some sin, and thinks that the defeat must be his punishment.
The poem is far too long to analyze here, and maybe you are worried that you don’t remember your history all that well. Here are links to a few sources that will help you. It’s a highly complex and profound poem, after all:
For the text of the complete poem. (Many sources on the internet publish only the opening section, or the first two or three. This one quotes the entire poem.)
For a brief summary and analysis of the poem. See especially the second paragraph, which outlines the structure of the poem.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: