Horatius at the Bridge

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Horatius at the Bridge
by Thomas B. Macaulay
"Horatius at the Bridge" is too long a poem for children to memorise. But I never saw a boy who did not want some stanzas of it. "Hold the bridge with me!" Boys like that motto instinctively. T.B. Macaulay (1800-59).

    Lars Porsena of Clusium,
      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.

    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.

    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 came
      With tidings of dismay.

    To eastward and to westward
      Have spread the Tuscan bands;
    Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecot,
      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,
      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 spoke the Consul roundly:
     "The bridge must straight go down;
    For, since Janiculum is lost,
      Naught 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 the glimmering line,
    Now might ye see the banners
      Of twelve fair cities shine;
    But the banner of proud Clusium
      Was the highest of them all,
    The terror of the Umbrian,
      The terror of the Gaul.

    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 toward 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?

   "Hew 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 straight 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--
    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 say'st, 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.

    Now while the Three were tightening
      Their harness on their backs,
    The Consul was the foremost man
      To take in hand an ax;
    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,
    Came 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 toward 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 narrow 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
    Amid 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 tracks of thy destroying bark,
    No more Campania's hinds shall fly
    To woods and caverns when they spy
      Thy thrice accurséd sail."

    But now no sound of laughter
      Was heard among the foes.
    A wild and wrathful clamour
      From all the vanguard rose.
    Six spears' length 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 fourfold 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 wildcat 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.

    And the great Lord of Luna
      Fell at the 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 Lucumo comes next
      To taste our Roman cheer?"

    But at his haughty challenge
      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 amid 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 fro 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 ax 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;
    Naught spake he to Lars Porsena,
      To Sextus naught 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.

    And 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 armour,
      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
      Bore 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 plow from morn till night:
    And they made a molten image,
      And set it up on high,
    And there it 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 amid 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 armour,
      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.