Tag Archives: Macaulay

Evocative Fragments: from Macaulay’s ‘Horatius at the Bridge’

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!

Review: Lord Macaulay, “Lays of Ancient Rome”

horatius

Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ are remarkable in several ways. The well-known ‘Horatius’ (aka ‘Horatius at the Bridge’) is glorious, memorable, stirring, heroic, in lovely rolling ballad-type stanzas:

Then up 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?”

Great stuff! It seems in keeping that Winston Churchill (love him or loathe him) would have learnt all 70 stanzas as a schoolboy, inspiring himself to develop courage (and oratory).

But the second remarkable thing is how bad the rest of the material in the volume is. The poetry is uninteresting, and the pure heroism of ‘Horatius’ is replaced either by gods winning the human battle, or by a girl being ‘saved’ from being despoiled by a tyrant by her father killing her when the three are together in the Forum (and not attempting to kill the tyrant), or by the poems deteriorating into blathery fragments.

Macaulay was wordy from an early age. The story is told of him that, uninterested in toys, he was reading avidly by the age of three and he already talked like a book. When hot coffee was accidentally spilled on his legs and a kindly woman asked “Is Diddums all right?” he replied, “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.”

The third way in which this volume is remarkable is in the main Preface and in the shorter prefaces to each of the poems, especially ‘Horatius’. Here Macaulay lectures in detail on a perceived universal process of ballad creation in preliterate societies (and on the value of verse for memorisation), ballads’ subsequent devaluation when higher standards of literacy come in, and finally their total loss or partial recovery. He recounts the differences between two ballads of the Battle of Otterburn which have quite different outcomes for the protagonists, even though both ballads were probably written by people who were alive at the time of the battle.

And in a throw-away paragraph he inadvertently highlights the changes in education and culture that have taken place in the past 150 years: “The early history of Rome is indeed far more poetical than anything else in Latin literature. The loves of the Vestal and the God of War, the cradle laid among the reeds of Tiber, the fig-tree, the she-wolf, the shepherd’s cabin” (to these five he adds a further 23 examples, ending with) “the combat between Valerius Corvus and the gigantic Gaul, are among the many instances which will at once suggest themselves to every reader.”

As if! Well, that was then, this is now. But ‘Horatius’ itself has a timeless quality to it. Although if you are trying to invoke heroism by reading it to a 10-year-old which I strongly recommend, you should pre-read it and comfortably skip some of the unnecessary early verses.