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'Then out spake brave Horatius': poetry for speaking out
on 19 December 2003
Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome - above all that of Horatius - were well known to earlier generations who first heard them at school but now seem to be unknown in book-shops. This is odd because, whenever I looked for a copy, various modern poets were listed under M who were unknown to me and whose 'verse' was mostly unmemorable, obscure and pretentious prose split up into arbitrary lines, whereas 'Horatius' is eminently memorable. From among the many quotations that spring to mind for those who read it in their youth, at least two have gone into general currency:'Those behind cried Forward/And those before cried Back.' and 'Even the Ranks of Tuscany/Could scarce forebear to cheer.'
The poem might be qualified as being 'declamatory' or mainly for school boys. But unlike e.g. Newbolt, Belloc or Chesterton, who speak directly to the reader, Macaulay, as he explains in an Introduction which wears its great scholarship lightly, was trying to reproduce the effect of a traditional Latin poem of the early Republican era; he draws a parallel with what Scott tried to do with his ballads. Remarkably, he was only an occasional poet.
Through Amazon and Abebooks I acquired an 1852 edition. I cannot see the solipsistic obscurities of any modern poets being sought out in 150 years time for the mere pleasure of reading them.