Monday, 18 May 2009

By the nine gods he swore

I downloaded Bill Wyman's (Si, Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star to help my son with his French homework and to improve his vocabulary for his upcoming French trip, but there are some errors in the grammar apparently, so he tells me.

Talking of poetry - as I was yesterday - one of my first school memories (I am guessing that I must have been eight) was of reading a poem out loud as a performance to parents. Wooden sword in hand, I stood in line with the other children to recite my part of Horatius by Lord McCaulay.

That was what counted for interactive learning in my day - learning great tracts of an epic poem by heart. You could be forgiven for never having heard of it. It begins thus:

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.

I remember that first verse as though it were yesterday. Anyway - so it goes its windy way for verse after verse after verse, illuminated here and there by flashes of Gladiator-style violence. This bit sticks in my mind.

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 golden arms clashed in the bloody dust.

Clove him to the teeth. For some reason, at the time I had imagined some kind of upward blow that had split his whole body in half up to his jaw (ending up like an old-fashioned clothes peg), rather than the downward blow McCaulay was clearly envisaging. Likewise I thought the proud Umbrian really did have golden arms (and who wouldn't be proud of that?), and they had been chopped off.

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, yet 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 hand-breadth out behind the Tuscan's head.

That's gotta hurt! as my son would say. Those Victorians certainly knew a thing or two about gratuitous gore-fests.


  1. I don't know this poem but needed to google it to find what my demented mother was driven by as she stood fiercely over patrons in a coffee shop waving her serviette and started off, "By the nine Gods he swore....whirling up his broadsword... he reeled (and crashing her wheelie walker into the tables) "like a wild cat.. through teeth and skull..." and as we were returning to the car she said that were so many heads floating around detached from their bodies! See where all that memorizing ends up!:)

  2. Ha! That's amazing. Though maybe not so at the time. It is fascinating what the brain manages to forget and what it chooses to remember.