In the Introduction to "The Battle of the Lake Regillus," Thomas Babbington Macaulay points out that "The principal distinction between the Lay of Horatius and the Lay of the Lake Regillus is that the former is meant to be purely Roman, while the latter, though national in its general spirit, has a slight tincture of Greek learning and of Greek superstition." Learning and superstition, perhaps, but there also exists a preoccupation with material splendor prevalent in our notion of the aesthetic in Ancient Greek culture. In comparing the opening stanzas of each poem, we glimpse the differing definitions of glory between inherently "Roman" and "Greek."

In the first poem, "Horatius: A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLX," this "purely Roman" nature shines through in the evident focus on military action. Lars Porsena is defined by his homeland, his oath, and his initial command to summon his soldiers.

I Lars Porsena of Closium
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.

Whereas the Lay of Horatius opens with an individual, Lars Porsena, the Lake of Regillus opens with objects: a sounding trumpet, doors, windows, garlands, robes, and olive wreaths.

I__Ho, trumpets, sound a war-note!
Ho, lictors, clear the way!
The Knights will ride, in all their pride,
Along the streets to-day.
To-day the doors and windows_ Are hung with garlands all,
From Castor in the Forum,
To Mars without the wall.
Each Knight is robed in purple,
With olive each is crowned;
A gallant war-horse under each_ Paws haughtily the ground…

Although material preoccupation is often disparaged in our contemporary Puritanical culture, does it really detract from the wonder of poems like these? Are we more convinced by the show-don’t-tell nature of the lay of Horatius? Or do we engage more easily with the scene when the material specifics are spelled out for us? I defend the poem Macaulay deems more Greek in nature, for while it lingers around the seemingly trivial details of the visual culture, these quirks connect the reader to the scene effectively. For the Victorians, who sought to emulate elements Classical, this decadent poetry might possess more appeal than a straight recount of military events.

Discussion Questions

1. Which side do you take in considering the effect of material description when the focus of the poem is militaristic in nature?

2. The conclusion of the "Lay of Horatius" (see below) veers in a more materialistic direction. Was this a strategic move on the part of the writer to save the riches of the poem until battles were won, or is it simply the most logical way to conclude the epic?

When the goodman mends his armor,
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.[LXX]

3. Around stanza XXVII-XXIX of the Lay of Horatius, the speaker uses the inquisitive voice to inspire action in his soldiers. This rhetorical motif seems to return even in our current idea of the ‘pep-talk.’ Would it not be more effective to command a troop directly? Do questions really inspire more strongly?

Victorian Web Overview T. B. Macaulay

Last modified 12 February 2007 2007