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Horatius -- Thomas Babbington Macaulay

This week's theme: Lays of Ancient Rome, beginning with what is probably the
longest poem you'll ever see on Minstrels...
(Poem #489) Horatius
 A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLX


 Lars Porsena of Closium
 By the Nine Gods he swore
 That the great house of Tarquin
 Should suffer wrong no more.
 By the Nine Gods he swore it,
 And named a trysting day,
 And bade his messengers ride forth,
 East and west and south and north,
 To summon his array.


 East and west and south and north
 The messengers ride fast,
 And tower and town and cottage
 Have heard the trumpet's blast.
 Shame on the false Etruscan
 Who lingers in his home,
 When Porsena of Clusium
 Is on the march for Rome.


 The horsemen and the footmen
 Are pouring in amain
 From many a stately market-place,
 From many a fruitful plain,
 From many a lonely hamlet,
 Which, hid by beech and pine,
 Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
 Of purple Apennine;


 From lordly Volaterræ,
 Where scowls the far-famed hold
 Piled by the hands of giants
 For godlike kings of old;
 From seagirt Populonia,
 Whose sentinels descry
 Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops
 Fringing the southern sky;


 From the proud mart of Pisæ,
 Queen of the western waves,
 Where ride Massilia's triremes
 Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
 From where sweet Clanis wanders
 Through corn and vines and flowers;
 From where Cortona lifts to heaven
 Her diadem of towers.


 Tall are the oaks whose acorns
 Drop in dark Auser's rill;
 Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
 Of the Ciminian hill;
 Beyond all streams Clitumnus
 Is to the herdsman dear;
 Best of all pools the fowler loves
 The great Volsinian mere.


 But now no stroke of woodman
 Is heard by Auser's rill;
 No hunter tracks the stag's green path
 Up the Ciminian hill;
 Unwatched along Clitumnus
 Grazes the milk-white steer;
 Unharmed the water fowl may dip
 In the Volsminian mere.


 The harvests of Arretium,
 This year, old men shall reap;
 This year, young boys in Umbro
 Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
 And in the vats of Luna,
 This year, the must shall foam
 Round the white feet of laughing girls
 Whose sires have marched to Rome.


 There be thirty chosen prophets,
 The wisest of the land,
 Who alway by Lars Porsena
 Both morn and evening stand:
 Evening and morn the Thirty
 Have turned the verses o'er,
 Traced from the right on linen white
 By mighty seers of yore.


 And with one voice the Thirty
 Have their glad answer given:
 "Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
 Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
 Go, and return in glory
 To Clusium's royal dome;
 And hang round Nurscia's altars
 The golden shields of Rome."


 And now hath every city
 Sent up her tale of men;
 The foot are fourscore thousand,
 The horse are thousands ten.
 Before the gates of Sutrium
 Is met the great array.
 A proud man was Lars Porsena
 Upon the trysting day.


 For all the Etruscan armies
 Were ranged beneath his eye,
 And many a banished Roman,
 And many a stout ally;
 And with a mighty following
 To join the muster came
 The Tusculan Mamilius,
 Prince of the Latian name.


 But by the yellow Tiber
 Was tumult and affright:
 From all the spacious champaign
 To Rome men took their flight.
 A mile around the city,
 The throng stopped up the ways;
 A fearful sight it was to see
 Through two long nights and days.


 For aged folks on crutches,
 And women great with child,
 And mothers sobbing over babes
 That clung to them and smiled,
 And sick men borne in litters
 High on the necks of slaves,
 And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
 With reaping-hooks and staves,


 And droves of mules and asses
 Laden with skins of wine,
 And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
 And endless herds of kine,
 And endless trains of wagons
 That creaked beneath the weight
 Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
 Choked every roaring gate.


 Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
 Could the wan burghers spy
 The line of blazing villages
 Red in the midnight sky.
 The Fathers of the City,
 They sat all night and day,
 For every hour some horseman come
 With tidings of dismay.


 To eastward and to westward
 Have spread the Tuscan bands;
 Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
 In Crustumerium stands.
 Verbenna down to Ostia
 Hath wasted all the plain;
 Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
 And the stout guards are slain.


 I wis, in all the Senate,                [wis: know]
 There was no heart so bold,
 But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
 When that ill news was told.
 Forthwith up rose the Consul,
 Up rose the Fathers all;
 In haste they girded up their gowns,
 And hied them to the wall.


 They held a council standing,
 Before the River-Gate;
 Short time was there, ye well may guess,
 For musing or debate.
 Out spake the Consul roundly:
 "The bridge must straight go down;
 For, since Janiculum is lost,
 Nought else can save the town."


 Just then a scout came flying,
 All wild with haste and fear:
 "To arms! to arms! Sir Consul:
 Lars Porsena is here."
 On the low hills to westward
 The Consul fixed his eye,
 And saw the swarthy storm of dust
 Rise fast along the sky.


 And nearer fast and nearer
 Doth the red whirlwind come;
 And louder still and still more loud,
 From underneath that rolling cloud,
 Is heard the trumpet's war-note proud,
 The trampling, and the hum.
 And plainly and more plainly
 Now through the gloom appears,
 Far to left and far to right,
 In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
 The long array of helmets bright,
 The long array of spears.


 And plainly and more plainly,
 Above that glimmering line,
 Now might ye see the banners
 Of twelve fair cities shine;
 But the banner of proud Clusium
 Was highest of them all,
 The terror of the Umbrian,
 The terror of the Gaul.


 And plainly and more plainly
 Now might the burghers know,
 By port and vest, by horse and crest,
 Each warlike Lucumo.
 There Cilnius of Arretium
 On his fleet roan was seen;
 And Astur of the four-fold shield,
 Girt with the brand none else may wield,
 Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
 And dark Verbenna from the hold
 By reedy Thrasymene.


 Fast by the royal standard,
 O'erlooking all the war,
 Lars Porsena of Clusium
 Sat in his ivory car.
 By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
 Prince of the Latian name;
 And by the left false Sextus,
 That wrought the deed of shame.


 But when the face of Sextus
 Was seen among the foes,
 A yell that rent the firmament
 From all the town arose.
 On the house-tops was no woman
 But spat towards him and hissed,
 No child but screamed out curses,
 And shook its little fist.


 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,


 "And for the tender mother
 Who dandled him to rest,
 And for the wife who nurses
 His baby at her breast,
 And for the holy maidens
 Who feed the eternal flame,
 To save them from false Sextus
 That wrought the deed of shame?


 "Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
 With all the speed ye may;
 I, with two more to help me,
 Will hold the foe in play.
 In yon strait path a thousand
 May well be stopped by three.
 Now who will stand on either hand,
 And keep the bridge with me?"


 Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
 A Ramnian proud was he:
 "Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
 And keep the bridge with thee."
 And out spake strong Herminius;
 Of Titian blood was he:
 "I will abide on thy left side,
 And keep the bridge with thee."


 "Horatius," quoth the Consul,
 "As thou sayest, so let it be."
 And straight against that great array
 Forth went the dauntless Three.
 For Romans in Rome's quarrel
 Spared neither land nor gold,
 Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
 In the brave days of old.


 Then none was for a party;
 Then all were for the state;
 Then the great man helped the poor,
 And the poor man loved the great:
 Then lands were fairly portioned;
 Then spoils were fairly sold:
 The Romans were like brothers
 In the brave days of old.


 Now Roman is to Roman
 More hateful than a foe,
 And the Tribunes beard the high,
 And the Fathers grind the low.
 As we wax hot in faction,
 In battle we wax cold:
 Wherefore men fight not as they fought
 In the brave days of old.


 Now while the Three were tightening
 Their harness on their backs,
 The Consul was the foremost man
 To take in hand an axe:
 And Fathers mixed with Commons
 Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,
 And smote upon the planks above,
 And loosed the props below.


 Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
 Right glorious to behold,
 Come flashing back the noonday light,
 Rank behind rank, like surges bright
 Of a broad sea of gold.
 Four hundred trumpets sounded
 A peal of warlike glee,
 As that great host, with measured tread,
 And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
 Rolled slowly towards the bridge's head,
 Where stood the dauntless Three.


 The Three stood calm and silent,
 And looked upon the foes,
 And a great shout of laughter
 From all the vanguard rose:
 And forth three chiefs came spurring
 Before that deep array;
 To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
 And lifted high their shields, and flew
 To win the narrrow way;


 Aunus from green Tifernum,
 Lord of the Hill of Vines;
 And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves
 Sicken in Ilva's mines;
 And Picus, long to Clusium
 Vassal in peace and war,
 Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
 From that gray crag where, girt with towers,
 The fortress of Nequinum lowers
 O'er the pale waves of Nar.


 Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
 Into the stream beneath;
 Herminius struck at Seius,
 And clove him to the teeth;
 At Picus brave Horatius
 Darted one fiery thrust;
 And the proud Umbrian's gilded arms
 Clashed in the bloody dust.


 Then Ocnus of Falerii
 Rushed on the Roman Three;
 And Lausulus of Urgo,
 The rover of the sea;
 And Aruns of Volsinium,
 Who slew the great wild boar,
 The great wild boar that had his den
 Amidst the reeds of Cosa's fen,
 And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
 Along Albinia's shore.


 Herminius smote down Aruns:
 Lartius laid Ocnus low:
 Right to the heart of Lausulus
 Horatius sent a blow.
 "Lie there," he cried, "fell pirate!
 No more, aghast and pale,
 From Ostia's walls the crowd shall mark
 The track of thy destroying bark.
 No more Campania's hinds shall fly
 To woods and caverns when they spy
 Thy thrice accursed sail."


 But now no sound of laughter
 Was heard among the foes.
 A wild and wrathful clamor
 From all the vanguard rose.
 Six spears' lengths from the entrance
 Halted that deep array,
 And for a space no man came forth
 To win the narrow way.


 But hark! the cry is Astur:
 And lo! the ranks divide;
 And the great Lord of Luna
 Comes with his stately stride.
 Upon his ample shoulders
 Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
 And in his hand he shakes the brand
 Which none but he can wield.


 He smiled on those bold Romans
 A smile serene and high;
 He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
 And scorn was in his eye.
 Quoth he, "The she-wolf's litter
 Stand savagely at bay:
 But will ye dare to follow,
 If Astur clears the way?"


 Then, whirling up his broadsword
 With both hands to the height,
 He rushed against Horatius,
 And smote with all his might.
 With shield and blade Horatius
 Right deftly turned the blow.
 The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
 It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
 The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
 To see the red blood flow.


 He 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 hand-breadth out
 Behind the Tuscan's head.


 And the great Lord of Luna
 Fell at that deadly stroke,
 As falls on Mount Alvernus
 A thunder smitten oak:
 Far o'er the crashing forest
 The giant arms lie spread;
 And the pale augurs, muttering low,
 Gaze on the blasted 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 Lucomo comes next
 To taste our Roman cheer?"


 But at his haughty challange
 A sullen murmur ran,
 Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
 Along that glittering van.
 There lacked not men of prowess,
 Nor men of lordly race;
 For all Etruria's noblest
 Were round the fatal place.


 But all Etruria's noblest
 Felt their hearts sink to see
 On the earth the bloody corpses,
 In the path the dauntless Three:
 And, from the ghastly entrance
 Where those bold Romans stood,
 All shrank, like boys who unaware,
 Ranging the woods to start a hare,
 Come to the mouth of the dark lair
 Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
 Lies amidst bones and blood.


 Was none who would be foremost
 To lead such dire attack;
 But those behind cried, "Forward!"
 And those before cried, "Back!"
 And backward now and forward
 Wavers the deep array;
 And on the tossing sea of steel
 To and frow the standards reel;
 And the victorious trumpet-peal
 Dies fitfully away.


 Yet one man for one moment
 Strode out before the crowd;
 Well known was he to all the Three,
 And they gave him greeting loud.
 "Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
 Now welcome to thy home!
 Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
 Here lies the road to Rome."


 Thrice looked he at the city;
 Thrice looked he at the dead;
 And thrice came on in fury,
 And thrice turned back in dread:
 And, white with fear and hatred,
 Scowled at the narrow way
 Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
 The bravest Tuscans lay.


 But meanwhile axe and lever
 Have manfully been plied;
 And now the bridge hangs tottering
 Above the boiling tide.
 "Come back, come back, Horatius!"
 Loud cried the Fathers all.
 "Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
 Back, ere the ruin fall!"


 Back darted Spurius Lartius;
 Herminius darted back:
 And, as they passed, beneath their feet
 They felt the timbers crack.
 But when they turned their faces,
 And on the farther shore
 Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
 They would have crossed once more.


 But with a crash like thunder
 Fell every loosened beam,
 And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
 Lay right athwart the stream:
 And a long shout of triumph
 Rose from the walls of Rome,
 As to the highest turret-tops
 Was splashed the yellow foam.


 And, like a horse unbroken
 When first he feels the rein,
 The furious river struggled hard,
 And tossed his tawny mane,
 And burst the curb and bounded,
 Rejoicing to be free,
 And whirling down, in fierce career,
 Battlement, and plank, and pier,
 Rushed headlong to the sea.


 Alone stood brave Horatius,
 But constant still in mind;
 Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
 And the broad flood behind.
 "Down with him!" cried false Sextus,
 With a smile on his pale face.
 "Now yield thee," cried Lars Porsena,
 "Now yield thee to our grace."


 Round turned he, as not deigning
 Those craven ranks to see;
 Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
 To Sextus nought spake he;
 But he saw on Palatinus
 The white porch of his home;
 And he spake to the noble river
 That rolls by the towers of Rome.


 "Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
 To whom the Romans pray,
 A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
 Take thou in charge this day!"
 So he spake, and speaking sheathed
 The good sword by his side,
 And with his harness on his back,
 Plunged headlong in the tide.


 No sound of joy or sorrow
 Was heard from either bank;
 But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
 With parted lips and straining eyes,
 Stood gazing where he sank;
 And when above the surges,
 They saw his crest appear,
 All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
 And even the ranks of Tuscany
 Could scarce forbear to cheer.


 But fiercely ran the current,
 Swollen high by months of rain:
 And fast his blood was flowing;
 And he was sore in pain,
 And heavy with his armor,
 And spent with changing blows:
 And oft they thought him sinking,
 But still again he rose.


 Never, I ween, did swimmer,
 In such an evil case,
 Struggle through such a raging flood
 Safe to the landing place:
 But his limbs were borne up bravely
 By the brave heart within,
 And our good father Tiber
 Bare bravely up his chin.


 "Curse on him!" quoth false Sextus;
 "Will not the villain drown?
 But for this stay, ere close of day
 We should have sacked the town!"
 "Heaven help him!" quoth Lars Porsena
 "And bring him safe to shore;
 For such a gallant feat of arms
 Was never seen before."


 And now he feels the bottom;
 Now on dry earth he stands;
 Now round him throng the Fathers;
 To press his gory hands;
 And now, with shouts and clapping,
 And noise of weeping loud,
 He enters through the River-Gate
 Borne by the joyous crowd.


 They gave him of the corn-land,
 That was of public right,
 As much as two strong oxen
 Could plough from morn till night;
 And they made a molten image,
 And set it up on high,
 And there is stands unto this day
 To witness if I lie.


 It stands in the Comitium
 Plain for all folk to see;
 Horatius in his harness,
 Halting upon one knee:
 And underneath is written,
 In letters all of gold,
 How valiantly he kept the bridge
 In the brave days of old.


 And still his name sounds stirring
 Unto the men of Rome,
 As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
 To charge the Volscian home;
 And wives still pray to Juno
 For boys with hearts as bold
 As his who kept the bridge so well
 In the brave days of old.


 And in the nights of winter,
 When the cold north winds blow,
 And the long howling of the wolves
 Is heard amidst the snow;
 When round the lonely cottage
 Roars loud the tempest's din,
 And the good logs of Algidus
 Roar louder yet within;


 When the oldest cask is opened,
 And the largest lamp is lit;
 When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
 And the kid turns on the spit;
 When young and old in circle
 Around the firebrands close;
 When the girls are weaving baskets,
 And the lads are shaping bows;


 When the goodman mends his armor,
 And trims his helmet's plume;
 When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
 Goes flashing through the loom;
 With weeping and with laughter
 Still is the story told,
 How well Horatius kept the bridge
 In the brave days of old.
-- Thomas Babbington Macaulay
Today's poem is easily the most famous of Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient
Rome"[1], and IMHO the best of the lot. I first encountered it when I was
twelve or so, when it instantly skyrocketed to the top of my 'favourite
poems' list (I actually sat and memorised it, though it has sadly faded
with time), and have loved it ever since - the blend of stirring heroics,
rippling verse and, of course, one of the most romantic periods of history
and legend make its popularity not at all surprising.

I've mentioned liking certain poems because they fit so well my idea of what
good - and, more importantly, enjoyable - poetry should be, and 'Horatius'
certainly falls within the list. The story is engaging and well told, the
verse is at once polished and effortless, and the imagery both original and

Of course, the first fine, careless rapture has worn off a bit, and I can see
some of the poem's flaws (in particular, some of the digressions Macaulay
takes are highly annoying, and contribute nothing to the poem - see verses
XXXII-XXXIII for example) but it remains one of the best narrative poems
I've seen.

[1] from which this theme takes its title - the full book is up on
Gutenberg (see links)


One of the chief delights of this poem is its form, so it is worth looking
at in a little more detail. The poem is written mainly in ballad metre[2],
but with the abcb rhyme scheme varied with the occasional abccb, abcccb or
even abccccb. This, along with the occasional departure from strict iambs,
helps make the metre pleasingly rather than monotonously regular. The
stretched out verses are used to good effect, too - two nice examples are
verses XXXV:

   Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
   Right glorious to behold,
   Come flashing back the noonday light,
   Rank behind rank, like surges bright
   Of a broad sea of gold.
   Four hundred trumpets sounded
   A peal of warlike glee,
   As that great host, with measured tread,
   And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
   Rolled slowly towards the bridge's head,
   Where stood the dauntless Three.

where the 'rank behind rank' and 'measured tread' are reinforced by the
succession of rhyming tetrametric lines, and XLIX:

   And, from the ghastly entrance
   Where those bold Romans stood,
   All shrank, like boys who unaware,
   Ranging the woods to start a hare,
   Come to the mouth of the dark lair
   Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
   Lies amidst bones and blood.

where the drawn out tension is almost palpable.

And let us not forget the main point of ballad metre - it derived in large
part from earlier oral traditions, and 'Horatius' is certainly faithful to
the spirit of those sung and chanted lays. This is a poem you are strongly
encouraged to read aloud.

[2] "Most ballads are suitable for singing and, while sometimes varied in
practice, are generally written in ballad meter, i.e., alternating lines of
iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with the last words of the second and
fourth lines rhyming." - [broken link]


The Year of the City:
  In the early days, Romans denoted years by the names of the two Consuls
  who ruled each year and that system continued long after other ways of
  denoting the year were used. Later they began to count the years from the
  foundation of the City of Rome. There is no single agreed date for that
  but a Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro fixed the date as what we would
  call 753BC and that is the standard I shall use here. Romans used the
  letters AUC after these dates (in Latin ab urbe condita - from the
  foundation of the city).
    -- [broken link]

So CCCLX AUC would be 393 BC.

See the links section for more extensive notes and commentary; here I'll
just quote an excerpt from Macaulay's introduction to the poem:

  "There can be little doubt that among those parts of early Roman history
  which had a poetical origin was the legend of Horatius Cocles. We have
  several versions of the story, and these versions differ from each other
  in points of no small importance. Polybius, there is reason to believe,
  heard the tale recited over the remains of some Consul or Prætor
  descended from the old Horatian patricians; for he introduces it as a
  specimen of the narratives with which the Romans were in the habit of
  embellishing their funeral oratory. It is remarkable that, according to
  him, Horatius defended the bridge alone, and perished in the waters.
  According to the chronicles which Livy and Dionysius followed, Horatius
  had two companions, swam safe to shore and was loaded with honours and
  rewards." --


  Macaulay's History of England brought him a secure, if diminished, place
  among English historians as the founder, with his contemporary Henry
  Hallam, of what is now known as the Whig interpretation of history.
  Fostered in the traditions of sturdy evangelical piety and liberal
  reform, he saw the origin and triumph of these values in the Revolution
  of 1688, which firmly established the supremacy of Parliament and
  restricted the monarchy to a constitutional status. He planned to write
  the history of England from 1688 to 1820 (the death of George III) but
  died before he had completed it. Macaulay's work is thus an account of
  that revolution, with a narration of the years preceding and following
  it. In stressing the unique importance for England of the revolution and,
  by implication, the superior virtues of those who brought it about,
  traditionally the Whig Party (though the Tories were also involved),
  Macaulay popularized a view of English history that was notably followed
  by his nephew Sir George Otto Trevelyan and his great-nephew George
  Macaulay Trevelyan and that affected the teaching of history as late as
  World War II.

  His essays helped to mold the outlook of a generation of Englishmen and
  to give to many their first vivid glimpse of the past, together with a
  conviction that their own institutions would serve the best interests of
  developing countries under their care. His style, clear, emphatic, and
  insensitive, with short sentences forming a self-contained paragraph,
  came to be for half a century the characteristic English style in higher
  journalism and exposition of all kinds. Macaulay's reputation, immense
  during the last decade of his life, fell steadily in the 50 years that
  followed. His undisguised political partisanship, his arrogant assumption
  that English bourgeois standards of culture and progress were to be
  forever the norm for less favoured nations, and the materialism of his
  judgments of value and taste all came under heavy fire from such
  near-contemporary critics as Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John
  Ruskin. Moreover, a revolution in the realm of historical studies,
  already accomplished in Germany during Macaulay's lifetime but never
  appreciated by him, soon affected English historiography. Wide as was
  Macaulay's reading, his approach was largely uncritical, as his
  enthusiasm often carried him away. By taste and training an orator, his
  writing was special pleading rather than impartial presentation. Yet,
  despite these severe limitations, his greatness is incontrovertible, and,
  regarded solely as a work of art, the status of his History remains
  unassailed. In the grasp and range of his knowledge, in his powers of
  vivid and sustained narrative, and in his marshalling of topics to serve
  a great design, his History is unsurpassed among the work of English
  historians, save, perhaps, by The History of the Decline and Fall of the
  Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

        -- EB

  ['Lays of Ancient Rome' seems to have been very much a footnote in his
  literary career - m.]


For a biography, see,5716,50820+1,00.html

A nicely annotated copy of the poem, from one of my favourite poetry sites

Jerry Pournelle has a nice essay on the Lays, followed by the complete text
from Gutenberg:

And in case you've never encountered Project Gutenberg before:


61 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

rajeevc said...

marvellous, martin.
this was just marvellous, splendiferous, superlative and so on.

Blairlaw1 said...

Whoever you are...I have been searching for this poem, by Thos Babington
Macaulay, for several years...Reason: I knew it was one of the favorites of
Sir Winston Churchill, one of my, thanks for having it available...
Blair Law

erik.paterson said...


M WICKHAM said...

First heard this poem from my father when I was 7 years old. I was hooked for
life, and at 62 it is still the instinctive fulcrum which shifts my mind from
prose to poetry. It appeared in the RPO website in 1999 following my appeal to
Ian Lancashire for its inclusion.

Bruce & Nancy McKenzie said...

I was induced to learn off by heart parts of this poem by the most wonderful of teachers when I was 10 years old in 1953. I have never forgotten the stanzas of bravery and blood

Bruce McKenzie

Leira Howard said...

I must protest... the "poem's flaws" you note, "(in particular, some of the
digressions Macaulay
takes are highly annoying, and contribute nothing to the poem - see verses
XXXII-XXXIII for example)" are not necessarily FLAWS. Actually, those two
stanzas were the first that I had ever seen from this poem, and the very
reason that I looked it up and it has now become one of my favorites. I like
the way they fit into the poem as a sort of interlude, and the bit of
insight that they add.

jmccue1 said...


jmccue1 said...

Was I not clear?

Crap. England at the height of her infatuation with her own imperial
greatness and her college dons at the limit of their brandy intake.

The USA is in the same place and posture now, though the lingo is updated.

jmccue1 said...

Persia Persia beware. Leonidas is combing his hair.

Macauley's poem is Victorian fag rubbish. No offense.

John Hayman said...

Herminius, like Alexander the Great, must have been left-handed.
John Hayman,
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Fettarappa Virginia said...

This was my favourite bedtime story, and I too knew it by heart some
50 years ago. It is marvellous and moving. 'jmccue': why so angry
and rude? Sour grapes I fear!

Karin Wells said...

A super good poem - one that I, too, read and enjoyed at about the
age of twelve. Some lines have stayed with me all my life. What great
Thanks for an inspiring reverie.
Peter Wells

Gaddis Cliff said...

I wondered about this poem for 50 years. The boar part is quoted in
Edison Marshall's big-game book "Heart of the Hunter" (I think). Thanks
for posting it.

Cliff Gaddis

Ian Thomson said...

"Victorian fag rubbish. No offense." Sorry, you oaf, great offence!
It is a bit schlocky, i admit, but it's really quite stirring, unless
you're hopelessly jaundiced. And like it or not, the lines beginning,
"For how can man die better" are just magnificent. Old fashioned,
maybe, but magnificent. And I'm a Democrat. Get a life, man.

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What a pity that someone uses terms like, 'crap, fag etc' to describe a remarkable piece of literary construction. Clearly such a contributer has a mind clouded by prejudice and concentrates on the content as if somehow Macauley was writing, not a creative masterpiec, but rather a propaganda bulletin.

The contributer in question should LEARN to weigh the effect such a piece of literature produces, not view such with suspicion. Macauley intended to create a dynamic spectacle which would stir the emotions of the reader. In this by his combination of rythm and other poetic devices he succeeds

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