Tennyson’s ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ — Part One


The Duke of Wellington visiting the Effigy and Personal Relics of Napoleon by James Scott, after Sir George Hayter. Mezzotint published 1854. The two men never met, but Wellington visited an exhibit at Madame Tussauds where he saw the Emperor’s wax likeness and a collection of his possessions including his imperial crown and the mantle that his horse Marengo wore at Waterloo.

Between the day of Wellington’s death on 14th of September 1852 and the internment of his remains in St Paul’s Cathedral on November 18th, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was inspired to write his ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington.’ It would take the form of a classical ‘Horatian Ode’ in English, to act as an enduring memorial to the great Duke whom Tennyson himself admired. By 1852, Tennyson was widely considered the leading poet in England and he would have to defend this reputation when composing his new work to commemorate the Duke. He would also have to meet a deadline. Wellington’s funeral did not occur until more than two months after his death, however despite the relatively long period that the Duke remained unburied this fixed window provided Tennyson only limited time to have his work published before the great funeral procession would be held through the streets of London. He was certainly under pressure. This poem, as well as providing a valuable insight into the public spirit at the time of Wellington’s death, also shows the reader Tennyson’s own perspective and the anxieties that were aroused in him after Wellington had passed away.

The Duke of Wellington lying in state at Chelsea Hospital, 1852. Lithography by A. Maclure (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/s6sg5a5s)

At the time of his writing the Ode, Tennyson’s previous work had demonstrated that he had an inclination towards the patriotic. His Ode represents a profession of his faith in both God and country, and the fact that he was deeply moved by Wellington’s death. This was not simply due to sadness at the loss of a renowned British hero, but also due to a sense of national anxiety about what the loss of Wellington meant for England. For Tennyson and many in Britain in the mid-19th century, the Duke of Wellington was an embodiment of the values of public service, devotion to duty, courage, simplicity and integrity. He had also been a great protector of Britain from foreign powers. With his departure from British life, Tennyson was certainly uneasy about what the future would hold for Britain and its people.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1845–55. Wood engraving by Henry Duff Linton, after Edmund Morin. (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw40936/Alfred-Lord-Tennyson?sort=dateAsc&search=sp&sText=alfred%2C+lord+tennyson&firstRun=true&rNo=2)

In December of 1851, Louis Napoleon sat on the throne of France after a successful coup d’état. It must have been concerning for Tennyson that at the time that a new Napoleon had risen to prominence in France, the great Duke of Wellington lay dead. The possible threat of invasion that Britain would have to face without the victor of Waterloo certainly sat at the forefront of Tennyson’s mind. At the time, Tennyson frantically composed verses ‘in a white heat of emotion’ for publication in the press to exhort his countrymen to vigilance and valour in defending Britain’s coasts from the new French threat. He would later remind his countrymen of Wellington in his Ode:

He bade you guard the sacred coasts… (172)

In June 1852, Wellington had championed the Militia Bill in the House of Lords. The proposed bill would have added 80,000 men to Britain’s defences and the measure was enthusiastically supported by Tennyson. For the poet, Wellington was a great guardian of Britain’s shores, and had fought tirelessly to free the nation from continental threats. There was a great deal of public reverence for Wellington, and he had become somewhat of a larger than life character. Now that he was gone, his absence must have been felt by those who feared for the protection of Britain’s coastline.

Napoleon III by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1853 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon_III#/media/File:Franz_Xaver_Winterhalter_Napoleon_III.jpg)

In addition to the nation’s safety, another apparently common feeling after Wellington’s death in September was the prolonged length of time that his body remained unburied. Tennyson’s Ode reflected the discomfort felt by many at this delay, repeating at the beginning of the Ode the command to bury the Duke:

Bury the Great Duke

With an empire’s lamentation,

Let us bury the Great Duke

To the noise of the mourning of a mighty nation,

Mourning when their leaders fall,

Warriors carry the warrior’s pall,

And sorrow darkens hamlet and hall. (1–7)

The anxiety surrounding the delay in the Duke’s burial may have been the result of outbreaks of disease within the city of London, which were then followed by legislation intended to distance the public from corpses and the pollution they created. Since 1831 London had experienced outbreaks of cholera, and the 1850 Metropolitan Internments Act and the 1852 Burial Act came about to manage and limit the contact between the living and the dangerous ‘effluvia’ from the dead. The body of the Duke of Wellington was above ground for far longer than was normal at the time, and there was indeed a Victorian obsession with quick and proper burials. Despite the laws that would prohibit the burial of corpses within close proximity to the living, the remains of eminent individuals would continue to be buried within the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, as Tennyson says:

Here, in streaming London’s central roar. (9)

Tennyson himself would later be buried in Westminster Abbey. There may have been a degree of discomfort amongst Tennyson’s readers regarding the nature of Wellington’s body. In the context of the fear of disease experienced by 19th century Londoners, the natural transformations of corpses in the months after an individual’s death would have likely aroused anxiety. Perhaps to mitigate such feeling and ‘sanitise’ the Duke’s remains, Tennyson refers not to a corpse but instead suggests that within the coffin lies only a skeleton:

Let the sound of those he wrought for,

And the feet of those he fought for,

Echo round his bones for evermore. (10–12)

Tennyson definitely presents some troubling images in his Ode, and these may arise from his anxiety over what he believed Wellington’s death meant for the nation. Many would feel a personal loss at the death of such a great military hero, particularly one so ubiquitous in the public eye. However Tennyson takes a very bleak stance indeed and looks ahead to a future for England that is desolate and troubled. He writes:

Let the long long procession go,

And let the sorrowing crowd about it grow,

And let the mournful martial music blow;

The last great Englishman is low. (15–18)

The last line in this extract is particularly powerful. Could Tennyson really be suggesting that there shall never again be any great men born in England? The totality of this line must have been troubling for his readers, and shows the certainty in Tennyson’s mind that the likes of Wellington will never be seen again. In this way, it may have been the case (at least for those who shared Tennyson’s view) that what they were mourning was not only the death of one man. At the end of Wellington’s life, what may have seemed to be lost was a heroic past for England; the end of an era that would result in the downfall of a nation that seemed at the peak of its greatness. After his victory at Waterloo, many began to refer to Wellington as ‘the saviour of Europe.’ Such titles emphasise the achievements of talented individuals and their importance for the entire nation’s safety. In a future devoid of such great men, how was England to defend herself from the ambitions of foreign powers? After the Ode was published and reviewed, Tennyson made some alterations and the final version lacks some lines that were present in the original. Following his belief that Wellington’s death marked the end of an era of heroic Englishmen, Tennyson included some lines in his first version that predicted a potential apocalyptic future. He wrote:

Perchance our greatness will increase;

Perchance a darkening future yields

Some reverse from worse to worse,

The blood of men in quiet fields,

And sprinkled on the sheaves of peace. (170–175)

Although these lines were removed when the poem was reworked, they certainly show that in the two months before the Duke’s burial, Tennyson was experiencing a sense of existential foreboding about the future of his nation.

The Duke of Wellington’s funeral procession passing Somerset House. Tennyson watched the procession from a window here, and pronounced it ‘very fine.’ This engraving was published by the Illustrated London News as part of a series that recorded many events throughout the day of the funeral.

It is important to remember that the Ode was first written before the funeral procession and internment of Wellington’s remains took place. Tennyson watched the procession go by from a window at Somerset House and read an account of the service at St Paul’s. This influenced his later additions to the poem as he likely felt more able to conjure the mood of the occasion and capture its significance. The first writing of the Ode, however, was very much an act of imagination on the part of Tennyson as he anticipated the events that might take place. One particularly interesting section in the poem shows the spirit of Viscount Horatio Nelson awakened from his rest in St Paul’s Cathedral by the service that would honour the Duke of Wellington. As if rising from his sarcophagus beneath the Cathedral’s great dome, Nelson asks the poet:

Who is he that cometh, like an honoured guest,

With banner and with music, with soldier and with priest,

With a nation weeping, and breaking on my rest? (80–82)

Nelson’s sarcophagus in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, directly beneath the great dome. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Nelson,_1st_Viscount_Nelson#/media/File:Tomb_of_Horatio_Nelson_on_Saint-Paul_Cathedral.jpg)

In some newspapers after the publication of the Ode on November 16th, Tennyson was criticised for the imperfect rhyme of ‘priest’ with ‘guest’ and ‘rest.’ It is interesting that Tennyson chose to represent Nelson’s ignorance of the man who would join him at his rest in St Paul’s. Arthur Wellesley met Nelson in 1805, at the Colonial Office in London. At the time Nelson was recognised as the greatest military hero of the age having achieved victory at the Battle of the Nile. Not long after he would meet his death under enemy fire on the day of his greatest victory, at the battle of Trafalgar. Having died years before the commencement of hostilities of the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal and a decade before the battle of Waterloo, it is natural for Nelson’s spirit to be relatively unaware of the achievements of the man by whose funeral he was woken. The poet urges the spirit of Nelson to welcome Wellington’s body to share his resting place, assuring him of his worthiness to be buried in St Paul’s:

Mighty Seaman, this is he

Was great by land as thou by sea.


O give him welcome, this is he

Worthy of our gorgeous rites,

And worthy to be laid by thee. (92–94)

The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise. Painted between 1859 and 1864, and displayed in the Houses of Parliament. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Nelson,_1st_Viscount_Nelson#/media/File:Daniel_Maclise_-_The_Death_of_Nelson_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)

The extract above is followed by a truly excellent recounting of Wellington’s victories which I have included below. This section demonstrates in rousing verse the career of the Iron Duke and its vast consequences for the world, from India where he found distinction to his final battle and crowning achievement at Waterloo:

He that gain’d a hundred fights,

Nor ever lost an English gun;

This is he that far away

Against the myriads of Assaye

Clash’d with his fiery few and won;

And underneath another sun,

Warring on a later day,

Round affrighted Lisbon drew

The treble works, the vast designs

Of his labor’d rampart lines,

Where he greatly stood at bay,

Whence he issued forth anew,

And ever great and greater grew,

Beating from the wasted vines

Back to France her banded swarms,

Back to France with countless blows,

Till o’er the hills her eagles flew

Beyond the Pyrenean pines,

Follow’d up in valley and glen

With blare of bugle, clamor of men,

Roll of cannon and clash of arms,

And England pouring on her foes.

Such a war had such a close.

Again their ravening eagle rose

In anger, wheel’d on Europe-shadowing wings,

And barking for the thrones of kings;

Till one that sought but Duty’s iron crown

On that loud sabbath shook the spoiler down;

A day of onsets of despair!

Dash’d on every rocky square

Their surging charges foam’d themselves away;

Last, the Prussian trumpet blew;

Thro’ the long-tormented air

Heaven flash’d a sudden jubilant ray,

And down we swept and charged and over-threw.

So great a soldier taught us there,

What long-enduring hearts could do

In that world-earthquake, Waterloo! (96–133)

Arthur Wellesley mounted at the battle of Assaye, which he later remarked was the greatest achievement of his military career. Engraving after William Heath. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Wellesley,_1st_Duke_of_Wellington#/media/File:Battle_of_Assaye.jpeg)

Robin James



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