From Choice Readings for Public and Private Entertainments and for the Use of Schools, Colleges, and Public Readers, with Elocutionary Advice, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Edited by Robert McLean Cumnock, Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1898; pp. 379-386.
HORATIUS AT THE BRIDGE.
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.
The horsemen and the footman
Are pouring in amain
From many a stately market-place,
From many a fruitful plain.
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.
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 day.
Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
Could the wan burghers spy
The line of blazing villages
Red in the midnight sky.
380 The Fathers of the City,
They sat all night and day,
For every hour some horseman came
With tidings of dismay.
They held a council standing
Before the river-gate;
Short time was there, ye well may guess
For musing or debate.
Outspake 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.
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 outspake 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?
“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 strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
Then outspake Spurius Lartius, —
A Ramnian proud was he:
“Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
And keep the bridge with thee.”
And outspake 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.
Now, while the Three were tightening
There 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,
Came flashing back the noonday light,
Rank behind rank, like surges bright
382 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 mighty mass;
To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
And lifted high their shields, and flew
To win the narrow pass.
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.
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.
But now no sound of laughter
Was heard amongst the foes.
A wild and wrathful clamor
From all the vanguard rose.
Six spears’ lengths from the entrance
Halted that mighty mass,
And for a space no man came forth
To win the narrow pass.
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 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.
And the great lord of Luna
Fell at that deadly stroke,
As falls on Mount Avernus
A thunder-smitten oak.
384 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 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, Herminus!
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 further 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.
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.
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.
And now he feels the bottom: —
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers
To press his gory hands.
386 And now, with shouts and clapping,
And noise of weeping loud,
He enters through the River Gate,
Borne by the joyous crowd.
This poem was a popular piece for memorization and recitation by students and others at poetry readings and school performances, etc. It was included in a book of selections for public speaking. It was also chosen by a school-boy hero to declaim, in this example on this site: The Story of Posey, in “Cornfield Philosophy,” by C. D. Strode — Elf.Ed.
See a brief extract by Livy, who related the historical version, translated into English from the Latin: How Horatius Held the Bridge, on this site.
Also, read a modern day joke based on the longstanding admiration of Horatius and his deeds, long taught in schools (before this current era!), on this site, too: Horatio Wore a Helmet.