August 2 Lord Macaulay

Admiration of prowess in battle, and of exploits motivated by patriotism is one of the oldest sources of poetry: one such poem is “Horatius”, the best known of Lord Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”. Horatius, with two comrades, has successfully defended a narrow pass to the bridge across the river Tiber that would give the Tuscan army access to Rome:

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.

‘O 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.

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