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Poems Every Child Should Know by  Mary E. Burt

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HORATIUS AT THE BRIDGE

"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,

[194]

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,

[195]

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.


[196]

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;

[197]

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.


[198]

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;

[199]

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."

[200]

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.

[201]

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;

[202]

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.

[203]

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.


[204]

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,

[205]

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.


[206]

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,

[207]

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;

[208]

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;

[209]

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;

[210]

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.


THOMAS B. MACAULAY.


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