I’ve always liked this poem. The most famous stanza is as follows:
Then out spoke 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,
I have no doubt that Churchill knew this poem. This is a poem of sacrifice, of bravery against incredible odds. It can be a testament to the individual, or a testament to the group. Is it nationalistic? Damn straight. Though written in the 1800s it has a classical view of the world, and most likely it was constantly memorized and recited by school boys – especially Churchill. Did you know that he took part in one of the few remaining cavalry charges with the advent of the mechanized army? Can anyone deny that Dunkirk was nothing more than a highly strategic maneuver equal to a ‘Horatius at the Bridge?’ I believe Churchill drank from the poem. I believe he took in deep drafts of…
Like wine, speaking the poem out loud, in performance, would make you heady. Stand in front of an audience and recite this poem and you may never be the same. It attaches to your cells – and thus one day you may write your own Horatius Poem — which may have segments that sound like, “We will fight them on the beaches…
I can hear the naysayers, “This is a poem of a bygone era.”
Not so for Private Young who stayed at his machine gun post on the Solomon Islands to cover his unit’s retreat – his body was riddled with bullets.
Not so for Captain John Ripley who dangled underneath the Bridge at Dong HA, to lay the explosives against the advancing Viet Cong Army.
Not so for SFC Paul Smith who commandeered an armored personnel carrier and engaged the enemy to cover the withdrawal of his wounded and stop the attack of the enemy.
Not so for every man and woman that faces their own “fearful odds” that may occur in peacetime as well. We must choose to face our own “fearful odds” in standing up for injustice, even if you are the only one to speak when others run from comment. We must choose to face our own “fearful odds” when we step out from the crowd and help someone in need when others pretend not to see. ”For the ashes of his Fathers…”is ‘standing at the bridge’ because we remember that is what our parents would of done. “For the temple of his gods…” is standing on principle and on top a moral plain because that is what they would of done as well. Sometimes we are lucky to have our friends on our left and right. Horatius had Spurius and Titus (the proud Romans) who stood with him until the bridge was destroyed, but Horatius chose to stand alone so that his ‘battle buddies’ could seek the safety of the walls of Rome.
The tale of Horatius at the Bridge has been played and replayed many times. There are those today who know what it is like to wear armor, or have worn armor on the battlefield. There are stories of valor peppered across the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are those that have laid their principles on the line who have never seen a battlefield, such as the ‘freedom riders’ and those that sat at the lunch counters in Selma at the height of the discriminatory practices of Jim Crow.
“And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,”
The lays (a type of poetry, a song, a simply narrative poem) describes how Horatius and his two companion Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius held the Sublician bridge against the Etruscan Army. The heroes fought at the end of the bridge while the Romans destroyed the bridge behind them. This gave time for Romans soldiers and citizenry to get behind the walls of Rome for protection. The bridge caught fire and Horatius stayed to cover the retreat of Spurius and Titus so that they too could run to safety. Finally the hero dives into the swollen Tiber to swim to safety.
Written by Lord MacCaulay, Horatius at the Bridge was a standard ‘recited’ poem through the English School System.
If you think that Horatius at the Bridge is rather ‘old hat’ just search for it on YouTube and see how many videos come up of people reciting it – especially the young.
If you think it to be a child’s rhyme, something to be cast off, you can think that, but those who have recited it, those that have thrilled to its words and felt their spine tingle at each stanza, are hooked and it will forever be a part of them – like a memory. Men and women are affected by memories. It makes up who we are. The person that has recited Horatius at the Bridge in some strange psychological level think themselves to have stood with Horatius himself. For did not he or she feel their back and arms tingle when speaking aloud such stanzas as…
|Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus|
|Into the stream beneath;|
|Herminius struck at Seius,|
|And clove him to the teeth;|
|At Picus brave Horatius||315|
|Darted one fiery thrust,|
|And the proud Umbrian’s gilded arms|
|Clashed in the bloody dust.|
You are changed forever. Now I would like to tell you about the 300 Spartans.