But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe;
“Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?”
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods!”
An alliance of neighbouring city-states is attacking the young Roman republic with 10,000 cavalry and 80,000 foot soldiers. The River Tiber provides a natural defence, but the broad wooden bridge is a weak spot. Horatius with two friends will try to hold off the enemy while the bridge is being destroyed underneath them. Enemy champions attack them in single combat and are defeated, until the huge Astur strides up with his “four-fold shield”, shaking the sword “which none but he can wield”. He attacks Horatius and gashes his thigh. Horatius
… reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space,
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth and skull and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a handbreadth out
Behind the Tuscan’s head.
On Astur’s throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel.
And “See,” he cried, “the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?”
I was probably 11 when our English classes in my Jamaican boarding school were enlivened by Macaulay’s nearly 600-line poem (though, truthfully, our textbook cut out a lot of the slow introductory verses). As someone who otherwise lived on works like Tarzan of the Apes and Bomba the Jungle Boy (and of course banned comics of Superman and Batman when I was home for the holidays), it was wonderful to discover that verse could deliver just as dramatic, violent and heroic a story as novels and comics. Further, verse can do so in passages of enormous emotional power, heightened by the drama of their rhythm and rhyme, with short passages sticking in the mind forever even if you aren’t trying to learn them by heart.
The other qualities that appealed to me were undoubtedly the feelings of patriotism and religious approval that I suspect are natural in children – the sense of community, of tribe, of duty, of being morally in the right, of overcoming difficulties, of excelling, of supporting and saving people, of being praised for it. And what I value in that today is that it was done without any reference to an actual modern-day country or an actual modern-day religion. In other words the emotions could be stirred up and the child could be (at least temporarily) ennobled, without the poisons of nationalism or religious fundamentalism finding a place. Indeed, by placing the heroic emotions outside the here and now, I think the poem helped inoculate me against such diseases.
I was already very comfortable with poetry when I was introduced to ‘Horatius’ – A.A. Mine, Edward Lear, Robert Service and the Anglican hymn book come to mind – but this poem took poetry into another dimension entirely!