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Anonymous Drawing -- Donald Justice

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #503) Anonymous Drawing
 A delicate young Negro stands
 With the reins of a horse clutched loosely in his hands;
 So delicate, indeed, that we wonder if he can hold the spirited creature
        beside him
 Until the master shall arrive to ride him.
 Already the animal's nostrils widen with rage or fear.
 But if we imagine him snorting, about to rear,
 This boy, who should know about such things better than we,
 Only stands smiling, passive and ornamental, in a fantastic livery
 Of ruffles and puffed breeches,
 Watching the artist, apparently, as he sketches.
 Meanwhile the petty lord who must have paid
 For the artist's trip up from Perugia, for the horse, for the boy, for
        everything here, in fact, has been delayed,
 Kept too long by his steward, perhaps, discussing
 Some business concerning the estate, or fussing
 Over the details of his impeccable toilet
 With a manservant whose opinion is that any alteration at all would spoil it.
 However fast he should come hurrying now
 Over this vast greensward, mopping his brow
 Clear of the sweat of the fine Renaissance morning, it would be too late:
 The artist will have had his revenge for being made to wait,
 A revenge not only necessary but right and clever --
 Simply to leave him out of the scene forever.
-- Donald Justice
Since we're showcasing poems that deal with commerce between the visual and
literary arts, I thought some readers might enjoy this one. Justice was a
student of, among others, John Berryman, whose painterly poem, "Winter
Landscape" (after Brueghel) we read some days previously. That poem seems to me
more elegant in its compression; but, of course, Berryman wasn't aiming for the
glib wit of the Justice piece. Long lines with delayed terminal rhymes (see
lines 3, 12, and 16) call to mind Ogden Nash, yet Justice manages to escape the
light verse genre by his severe punchline: the ruthless omissions of artistic
choice. Small consolation for the slave, maybe, but a kind of Justice seems to
have been served by the slaveholder's extinction.

By claiming that the poet has eluded "the light verse genre," incidentally, I do
not wish to cast aspersions on the form. In many a poem, Justice shows memorably
what can be done with light verse proper, how it can surpass our expectations.

Sunil Iyengar.

MCMXIV -- Philip Larkin

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta:
(Poem #502) MCMXIV
 Those long uneven lines
 Standing as patiently
 As if they were stretched outside
 The Oval or Villa Park,
 The crowns of hats, the sun
 On moustached archaic faces
 Grinning as if it were all
 An August Bank Holiday lark;
 And the shut shops, the bleached
 Established names on the sunblinds,
 The farthings and sovereigns,
 And dark-clothed children at play
 Called after kings and queens,
 The tin advertisements
 For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
 Wide open all day;
 And the countryside not caring
 The place-names all hazed over
 With flowering grasses, and fields
 Shadowing Domesday lines
 Under wheats' restless silence;
 The differently-dressed servants
 With tiny rooms in huge houses,
 The dust behind limousines;
 Never such innocence,
 Never before or since,
 As changed itself to past
 Without a word--the men
 Leaving the gardens tidy,
 The thousands of marriages
 Lasting a little while longer:
 Never such innocence again.
-- Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin is not usually counted among the so-called War Poets, and his poem
is naturally more detached, though none the less harsh and caustic for that. I
think comparing the lines of entraining soldiers (and presaging the lines of
trenches stretched across the countryside) with the ticket queues at the
Kensington or at an Aston Villa match on August Bank Holiday is absolutely
devastating in its irony. Also note the biting satire of "The thousands of
marriages/Lasting a little while longer" - never such innocence again, indeed -
the Great War destroyed all that was sweet and innocent in civilization.


King of the River -- Stanley Kunitz

Guest poem submitted by Sandra Scott:
(Poem #501) King of the River
If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still,
you would see yourself,
slipped out of your skin,
nosing upstream,
slapping, thrashing,
over the rocks
till you paint them
with your belly's blood:
Finned Ego,
yard of muscle that coils,
If the knowledge were given you,
but it is not given,
for the membrane is clouded
with self-deceptions
and the iridescent image swims
through a mirror that flows,
you would surprise yourself
in that other flesh
heavy with milt,
bruised, battering toward the dam
that lips the orgiastic pool.
Come. Bathe in these waters.
Increase and die.
If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.
The great clock of your life
is slowing down,
and the small clocks run wild.
For this you were born.
You have cried to the wind
and heard the wind's reply:
"I did not choose the way,
the way chose me."
You have tasted the fire on your tongue
till it is swollen black
with a prophetic joy:
"Burn with me!
The only music is time,
the only dance is love."
If the heart were pure enough,
but it is not pure,
you would admit
that nothing compels you
any more, nothing
at all abides,
but nostalgia and desire,
the two-way ladder
between heaven and hell.
On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished
-- Stanley Kunitz
I first heard a recording of this poem read by Kunitz himself and at the time
didn't know what I was listening to - neither the title nor the author nor
really what it meant, but the powerful images stuck in my head.  The next day I
was leisurely browsing through poetry books at the bookstore and picked up one
by an unknown author because the title and cover looked interested...  I let it
fall open and on the page in front of me was that poem!

That amazing coincidence in itself is enough to endear King of the River to me
forever, but the reason this poem is really a favorite is (a) the way it gets
richer with each read, (b) the way the images are painted with such a visceral
strength and (c) the content, which, sure enough, speaks to an area close to
home... It's like this poem was meant for me to discover:  I'm a medical student
and every day in the hospital I witness displays of strength from patients who
are near the end, mustering all remaining energy to continue to fight upstream
through physical and mental decline.  Kunitz's depiction of the unseen glory,
triumph and destiny of that final fight is unforgettable.



Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. His ten books of
poetry include Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (W. W. Norton,
1995), which won the  National Book Award; Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and
Essays (1985); The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, which won the Lenore
Marshall Poetry Prize; Passport to the War (1940);Selected Poems, 1928-1958,
which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Testing-Tree (1971); and
Intellectual Things (1930). He also co-translated Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach
(1978), Story Under Full Sail by Andrei Voznesensky (1974), and Poems of
Akhmatova (1973), and edited The Essential Blake (1987), Poems of John Keats
(1964), and The Yale Series of Younger Poets (1969-77).


A Dirge -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Guest poem submitted by Cristina Gazzieri:
(Poem #500) A Dirge
 Rough Wind, that moanest loud
 Grief too sad for song;
 Wild wind, when sullen cloud
 Knells all the night long;
 Sad storm, whose tears are vain,
 Bare woods, whose branches strain,
 Deep caves and dreary main, _
 Wail, for the world's wrong!
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
For those who like Romanticism,  Shelley's 'Dirge' has incredible appeal.

The natural elements (wind, storm, wood, caves, main) are presented alongside
with a series of adjectives of an indisputably Romantic nature, suggesting utter
desolation and dark melancholy (rough, sullen, sad, vain). The few verbs
(moanest, knells, wail) also reinforce the idea of deep grief and wasting

The word "wind" is repeated twice in this short poem and as in the more famous
'Ode to the West Wind' it stands out as the central element of the composition.
As in the 'Ode...' the wind is connected with the tree - note the analogues
sky=cloud, Earth=wood caves, Sea=main - in a poetic structure which is yet much
more compressed than the long, complex and repetitive composition of the former
poem. Moreover, the parallel structure of lines 1-3-5-6 gives the poem a
strongly marked rhythm which adds to the intensity, especially thanks to the
fact that there is only one final verb that supports the whole poem: wail.
Natural elements are constantly personified in the poem (the wind moans, the
clouds are sullen, the storm is sad and sheds tears) so that the poet
establishes a connection between natural elements and human feelings, which,
being attributed to the different natural backgrounds of the earth become
somewhat universal. I also think that in the poem there are traces of the
ancient topos of man as a tree in the use of the words "whose brances strain",
but I admit, I could be forcing the interpretation here.

Though I do not like all Romantic poetry I find in this poem by Shelley a force
and greatness I could not disregard.


Lay of Ancient Rome -- Thomas Ybarra

I wish I had found this poem a week ago...
(Poem #499) Lay of Ancient Rome
 Oh, the Roman was a rogue,
   He erat was, you bettum;
 He ran his automobilis
   And smoked his cigarettum;
 He wore a diamond studibus
   And elegant cravattum,
 A maxima cum laude shirt,
   And a stylish hattum!

 He loved the luscious hic-haec-hoc,
   And bet on games and equi;
 At times he won, at others, though,
   He got it in the necqui;
 He winked (quo usque tandem?)
   At puellas on the Forum,
 And sometimes even made
   Those goo-goo oculorum!

 He frequently was seen
   At combats gladiatorial,
 And ate enough to feed
   Ten boarders at Memorial;
 He often went on sprees
   And said, on starting homus,
 "Hic labor --- opus est,
   Oh, where's my hic--hic--domus?"

 Although he lived in Rome --
   Of all the arts the middle --
 He was (excuse the phrase)
   A horrid individ'l;
 Ah! what a diff'rent thing
   Was the homo (dative, hominy)
 Of far-away B.C.
   From us of Anno Domini.
-- Thomas Ybarra
"Quiquid latine dictum sit altum viditur" - whatever is said in Latin sounds
profound <grin>. Well, not always, as today's poem makes clear. A neat little
follow-up to Martin's theme of last week: patchy in parts, but very entertaining
in sum.



Bettum, automobilis, cigarettum, studibus, cravattum, hattum, necqui, homus -
are all pseudo-Latin, as is the word 'pseudo-Latin' itself. (self-reference,

"erat" - a pun on 'a rat'.

"maxima cum laude" - with the maximum distinction (compare 'magna cum laude',
with great distinction, and 'summa cum laude', with the highest distinction).
Used usually in the context of graduation. Note the pun on 'laundered'.

"hic-haec-hoc" - a reminiscence of grammar exercises while studying Latin cases,
but also a clever pun on (drunken) hiccoughs and hock (slang for cheap liquor).

"equi" - horses.

"domus" - unlike 'homus' above, 'domus' actually does mean 'home'.

"puellas" - wenches.

"forum" - 'the marketplace or public place of an ancient Roman city forming the
center of judicial and public business' [Merriam-Webster]. The modern meaning
derives from this.

"oculorum" - eye

"quo usque tandem?" - the opening phrase from Cicero's first oration to
Catiline. The full sentence is, "Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia
nostra?" - "How long, oh Catiline, will you abuse our patience?". The entirety
is a masterpiece of rhetoric - not for nothing is Cicero considered the greatest
orator of all time. O tempora, o mores!

"Hic labor --- opus est" - a take on Virgil, the Aeneid, book VI, where the
Sybil tells Aeneas:

        "Facilis descensus Averno;
        noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
        sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
        hoc opus, hic labor est.

In Robert Fitzgerald's beautiful translation,

        "The way downward is easy from Avernus.
        Black Dis's door stands open night and day.
        But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
        There is the trouble, there is the toil."

Avernus is 'the burning lake', and Dis is another name for Pluto, God of the
Underworld. The phrase also appears in Ovid.

"homo" - short for Homo sapiens - Man, the Wise (!).

"(dative, hominy)" - Latin words change their form based on their case;
schoolchildren studying Latin therefore have to memorize various inflections and
declensions, such as dative, possessive, ablative and so on... needless to say,
'hominy' has nothing to do with 'homo'; instead, it means "kernels of corn that
have been soaked in a caustic solution (as of lye) and then washed to remove the
hulls" [Merriam-Webster], as in 'hominy grits'.

"Anno Domini" - literally, the Year of Our Lord; colloquially used to refer to
'modern times'.


Thomas Ybarra's only other claim to fame (insofar as Google is concerned) is
that he was the originator of the following aphorism: "A Christian is a man who
feels repentance on Sunday for what he did on Saturday and is going to do on

[Administrivia and Gloatitude]

You may have noticed that advertisements have started to pop up at the beginning
of each Minstrels email. This is not our doing; it's just that the
powers-that-be at eGroups decided it would be a nice change. Needlees to say, we
disagree, and are looking into ways of getting rid of the 'service'. With any
luck the issue will be resolved in a day or two.

On a happier note, you may also have noticed that today is our 500th poem - yup,
five hundred. That's quite a milestone, wouldn't you say? The good thing is,
it's still every bit as much fun sending out Minstrels emails today as it was a
year and a half ago, and we have no plans to stop any time in the near future.
Besides, there are still so many wonderful poems that we have yet to cover...
watch this space!

The World Below the Brine -- Walt Whitman

(Poem #498) The World Below the Brine
  The world below the brine,
  Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
  Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle
    openings, and pink turf,
  Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play
    of light through the water,
  Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the
    aliment of the swimmers,
  Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to
    the bottom,
  The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with
    his flukes,
  The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and
    the sting-ray,
  Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
    breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
  The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by
    beings like us who walk this sphere,
  The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
-- Walt Whitman
Today's poem is striking for the sheer density of its imagery, and the
skilful way it has been used to create an impression of a rich, crowded
undersea world, teeming with life and motion. Whitman's nature poetry stands
in sharp contrast to that of earlier poets, in that he makes little attempt
to 'tame' his subject and capture it neatly in the precise geometrical
framework of a poem. Rather, he sees the world as alive and chaotic, and is
content to let that life and vividness overflow and spill through the page,
leaving always the impression of something far vaster than we can conceive.


Like a lot of Whitman's poems, this one is beautifully crafted. The
predominant technique here is the list of images, presented in rapid
succession so that no one image stands out; the effect being to force the
reader to concentrate on the whole, the canvas of the poem on which each
individual item is merely a brushstroke. Note how the poem is built up out
of ever more complex layers - vegetation, colour, life, interaction - until
he reaches the last two lines, and figuratively takes a step back, looking
at the completed work and musing on its relation to 'our' world.


It is virtually impossible to assess Whitman's influence on the various
prosodies of modern poetry. Such American poets as Hart Crane, William
Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke all have used Whitman's long line,
extended rhythms, and "shaped" strophes.

        -- EB


Check out the other Whitman poems in the archive:
[broken link]

Biography and criticism at poem #54

For a vaguely similar, but far 'paler'[1] poem, see poem #140

[1] note that i'm not using the word in a negative sense


Landscape: I -- bpNichol

(Poem #497) Landscape: I
(for thomas a. clark)

-- bpNichol
In recent weeks I've been exploring various aspects of the relationship between
poetry and the visual arts - first, with the series of poems on Brueghel's
'Hunters in the Snow', and then with e. e. cummings' typographical experiments
in 'Poem 42'. 'Landscape' is another take on the same theme - here, though, the
words do not describe a picture (as in the Brueghel poems), nor is their
arrangement a way of enhancing their effect (as in the cummings). Rather, the
words themselves _are_ the picture; their visual impact is at least as important
as the meanings they convey.



Four poems based on Brueghel's painting 'Hunters in the Snow':
poem #483, Poem #484, Poem #485, and Poem #486.

Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is another poem based on a Brueghel; this time,
his 'Fall of Icarus': poem #68

e. e. cummings is probably the most famous exponent of 'visual' poetry; the poem
mentioned above, Poem 42, is archived at poem #493

Geoffrey Hill's 'A Prayer to the Sun' is another example of (semi-)visual
poetry; you can read it (along with an essay on the nature of poetry
itself), at poem #349.

Nohow and contrariwise, it should also be remembered that the origins of poetry
are fundamentally oral/aural; check out
'The Seafarer': poem #326
'Gnomic Stanzas': poem #333
and of course any number of song lyrics on the Minstrels website.

We've run one bpNichol poem before, the wonderfully titled 'Dear Captain
Poetry', which you can read at poem #189

There's a decent bpNichol homepage at

[More on Nichol]

"... Nichol's Translating Translating Apollinaire went back to a point of
origin, and was intended as a life-long project. The basic proposition of the
work was to subject a single poem to every possible transformational process.
Quite naturally, he chose his first published poem, 'Translating Apollinaire',
as the base for the work. Much of the series works out visual strategies
specific to a typewriter's unit spacing in a number of ways. As visual poetry,
the most interesting are those described in terms of three dimensional space.
The fifth of the 'Ten Views' sequence, for instance, charts the poem in terms of
"walking west along the southern boundary looking north", while the last is a
labyrinthine view beginning on the exterior and walking in. The series also
includes visual poems composed by other people and some done by Nichol in the
style of others...

... perhaps Nichol's most extreme ephemeral poem, and extreme poem period, was
the short booklet Cold Mountain. This booklet contained instructions for folding
the book and burning it. In this case the real visual poem was something you
could only see for a few minutes: the book burning in front of you.
Paradoxically, perhaps, I doubt that many recipients actually burned their
copies, and beyond that, a large part of the edition was destroyed by

... Nichol could tinker with just about anything in terms of visual poetry. He
rang numerous variations on Basho's most famous haiku ("old pond/frog jumps
in/water sound") - again, note that this is a form of returning to square one,
the basic poem of a genre. His last variation, apparently never published, was
simply a capital letter Q - the circle is the pond, and the tail is the frog's
diving board. As far as I know, the last Basho poem he prepared for print (in
Art Facts) was a poem found in a newspaper: 'Frog Pond turns into gold mine'..."

        -- Karl Young, an essay bpNichol's visual poetry
Complete article at

A generous extract from 'Translating Translating Apollinaire' can be found at

The Basho haiku mentioned above has featured on the Minstrels; you can read it
at poem #23


If you're interested in concepts such as translation, transliteration and
transformation, if you like reflecting on the music of language and the mystery
of meaning, or if you just want to indulge yourself in a wild intellectual ride,
well, I can't do better than to recommend Douglas Hofstadter's new book, 'Le ton
beau de Marot'. Read it!

The Lay of the Troubled Golfer -- Edgar Guest

(Poem #496) The Lay of the Troubled Golfer
His eye was wild and his face was taut with anger and hate and rage,
And the things he muttered were much too strong for the ink of the printed page.
I found him there when the dusk came down, in his golf clothes still was he,
And his clubs were strewn around his feet as he told his grief to me:
"I'd an easy five for a seventy-nine -- in sight of the golden goal --
An easy five and I took an eight -- an eight on the eighteenth hole!

"I've dreamed my dreams of the `seventy men', and I've worked year after year,
I have vowed I would stand with the chosen few ere the end of my golf career;
I've cherished the thought of a seventy score, and the days have come and gone
And I've never been close to the golden goal my heart was set upon.
But today I stood on the eighteenth tee and counted that score of mine,
And my pulses raced with the thrill of joy -- I'd a five for seventy-nine!

"I can kick the ball from the eighteenth tee and get this hole in five,
But I took the wood and I tried to cross that ditch with a mighty drive --"
Let us end the quotes, it is best for all to imagine his language rich,
But he topped that ball, as we often do, and the pill stopped in the ditch.
His third was short and his fourth was bad and his fifth was off the line,
And he took an eight on the eighteenth hole with a five for a seventy-nine.

I gathered his clubs and I took his arm and alone in the locker room
I left him sitting upon the bench, a picture of grief and gloom;
And the last man came and took his shower and hurried upon his way,
But still he sat with his head bowed down like one with a mind astray,
And he counted his score card o'er and o'er and muttered this doleful whine:
"I took an eight on the eighteenth hole, with a five for a seventy-nine!"
-- Edgar Guest
No, I have never played. My introduction to golf has been an altogether
kindlier and gentler one - the inimitable stories of P. G. Wodehouse, which
have given me a keen appreciation of the many tragedies and heartbreaks that
litter the golf-courses, and the inevitable amusement they afford a

Today's poem is in much the same vein. All the standard elements of a good
golf story are present - the fanatically dedicated golfer, the game hung in
the balance, the tragically bad hole and the almost de rigeur spate of rage
and profanity (always referred to, of course; never quoted). Truly not a
game for the timid :)

Of course, the 'standard elements' comment could be seen to cut both ways,
and this is certainly not a poem whose originality rests in the 'plot', but
to expect it to do so is to miss the point entirely. Like many other good
humorous poets[1], Guest takes an utterly trivial and commonplace incident,
and immortalises it with a great poem.

[1] this practice is not, of course, limited to humorous verse, but it does
seem to flourish there, since the very act of dignifying such trivialities
can be seen as funny (note the use of 'lay' in the title, for instance).


Heptametric couplets, grouped into verses of six lines. As longtime readers
know, I am always glad to see good heptameter - it has a lovely swing to it
that carries the poem along effortlessly, making it much favoured by
narrative poets.

The other noteworthy device is the repetition - a device that needs no
explanation if you've ever had to listen to someone whine about something :)


  Born in Birmingham, England, on August 20, 1881, Edgar A. Guest settled
  with his family in Detroit in 1891. Starting in 1895 as a copy boy at the
  Detroit Free Press, Guest worked his way up as police reporter, exchange
  editor, and verse columnist. His first, weekly column, "Chaff," began in
  1904 and eventually became the daily "Breakfast Table Chat," which was
  ultimately syndicated to 300 newspapers throughout the United States. His
  fourth volume of poetry, A Heap o' Livin', reputedly sold more than one
  million copies. He broadcast weekly from Chicago on NBC radio from 1931 to
  1942. (For example, in the 1937-38 season his program, "Edgar Guest in
  Welcome Valley," was sponsored by Household Finance on Tuesdays from 8:30
  to 9:00 p.m. and ran on 18 stations.) In 1951 NBC broadcast his "A Guest
  in Your Home" on television.

  On June 28, 1906, Guest and Nellie Crossman married. They had two
  children. Guest was a Mason, a member of the Episcopal church, and a
  lifelong golfer. Late in life Guest was given several honorary degrees,
  notably by the University of Michigan in 1955.

  Guest authored over 20 volumes of poetry. At his death on August 5, 1959,
  he was affectionately called "the poet of the people" because he wrote of
  everyday family lives with deep sentimentality. He was thought to have
  penned over 11,000 poems in his lifetime, many of them in fourteeners,
  which have been neglected by major poets for centuries. An index to all
  his poems exists in the Seattle Public Library. Academic anthologies
  usually omit his works, possibly because in them he unashamedly wears his
  heart on his sleave and leaves little room for multiple interpretations.
  Possibly his best-known poem is "It Couldn't be Done." His Collected Verse
  appeared in 1934 and went into at least 11 editions.



Speaking of Wodehouse, see the very similar poem "Missed": poem #179


p.s. An unprecedented event - a Guest poem submitted by me :)

Marmion -- Sir Walter Scott

Guest poem submitted by Siddhartha Joshi:
(Poem #495) Marmion
 (A Tale of Flodden Field)

 I. (Canto First 1-13)

 Day set on Norham's castled steep,
 And Tweed's fair river, broad and deep,
 And Cheviot's mountains lone:
 The battled towers, the donjon keep,
 The loophole grates, where captives weep,
 The flanking walls that round it sweep,
 In yellow lustre shone.
 The warriors on the turrets high,
 Moving athwart the evening sky,
 Seemed forms of giant height:
 Their armour, as it caught the rays,
 Flashed back again the western blaze,
 In lines of dazzling light.

 V. (Canto Second 87-98)

 Nought say I here of Sister Clare,
 Save this, that she was young and fair;
 As yet a novice unprofessed,
 Lovely and gentle, but distressed.
 She was betrothed to one now dead,
 Or worse, who had dishonoured fled.
 Her kinsmen bid her give her hand
 To one who loved her for her land:
 Herself, almost heart-broken now,
 Was bent to take the vestal vow,
 And shroud within Saint Hilda's gloom,
 Her blasted hopes and withered bloom.

 VII. (Canto Second 113-127)

 Lovely, and gentle, and distressed-
 These charms might tame the fiercest breast.
 Harpers have sung, and poets told,
 That he, in fury uncontrolled,
 The shaggy monarch of the wood,
 Before a virgin, fair and good,
 Hath pacified his savage mood.
 But passions in the human frame,
 Oft put the lion's rage to shame:
 And jealousy, by dark intrigue,
 With sordid avarice in league,
 Had practiced with their bowl and knife
 Against the mourner's harmless life.
 This crime was charged 'gainst those who lay
 Prisoned in Cuthbert's islet grey.[1]

 XVI. (Canto Fifth 463-475)

 And while the king his hand did strain,
 The old man's tears fell down like rain.
 To seize the moment Marmion tried,
 And whispered to the king aside:
 "Oh, let such tears unwonted plead
 For respite short from dubious deed!
 A child will weep a bramble's smart,
 A maid to see her sparrow part,
 A stripling for a woman's heart:
 But woe awaits a country when
 She sees the tears of bearded men.
 Then, oh! what omen dark and high,
 When Douglas wets his manly eye!"

 And for those bits that Pelham Grenville pinched and had Bertie Wooster (or
Jeeves) mouth :

 XVIII. (Canto Sixth 532-537)

 O, what a tangled web we weave,
 When first we practice to deceive!
 A Palmer [2] too! - no wonder why
 I felt rebuked beneath his eye:
 I might have known there was but one,
 Whose look could quell Lord Marmion."

 XXX (Canto Sixth 902-907)

 [3] O, woman in our hours of ease,
 Uncertain, coy and hard to please,
 And variable as the shade
 By the light quivering aspen made;
 When pain and anguish wring the brow,
 A ministering angel thou!
-- Sir Walter Scott
This is a poem which does not pretend to champion principles (while filled with
incidents highlighting Chivalry, Love and other Good Things beginning with
capital letters) or claim to be a result of a deep study of human nature (though
Scott would clearly come across as someone with a deep interest in and
understanding of the same). Neither is it perfect - indeed there are barren
passages that could not have come from Scott's quill. It is poetry for the sake
of poetry (with the intention of course of spinning an engaging yarn). Marmion
is a poem that could at once become a good friend - the kind of poem you would
get back to for solace - not necessarily for advice or commiseration, but to
read the familiar, rhyming - indeed almost alive - and soothing verses.

Also evident is the feeling of motion as you read the poem - it just doesn't
*feel* right to recite it standing still. As RF Cholmeley wrote in the
introduction to the old school edition I have - "Certainly Marmion is a poem to
be recited walking - one might almost say riding, or running, but for the
practical difficulties of such a performance; it goes with motion. To say it on
a hearthrug, or in a classroom, may be good evidence that you know it, but the
poem does not get a fair chance."

Scott did write much of "Marmion" when he was in quarters with the volunteer
cavalry that he had helped to raise, 1797, against the expected invasion of the



Born: 15 August 1771 - the son of a very honourable and generous Scottish
attorney. His mother was the daughter of Dr. John Rutherford of Edinburgh; she
liked poetry and as a little boy he read aloud to her a great deal of Pope's
translation of Homer, among other poems. He was a delicate child and a sudden
lameness, which came upon him at the age of eighteen months, never quite left
him - though as he grew up, he became strong and active beyond the average.

At school, according to his own account, he was "an incorrigibly idle imp, who
was always longing to do something else than was enjoined him", and he owns that
to his sorrow he forgot entirely what little Greek he learned. However, in 1786
he was apprenticed to his father in Edinburgh and in 1792 was called to the bar,
and worked steadily at that profession for some years, though without much
success or liking.

He took an active part in social and political life and in December 1799 was
made Sheriff of Selkirkshire. This secured him an income without heavy duties
and he turned at once to poetry, though as yet only by editing Border
Minstrelsy. The success of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, five years later made
it clear that literature was to be his business. In the same year (1805) he
began what was to bring him even greater fame than his poetry, the Waverley
Novels. Waverley, the first of these, was often interrupted and was not
published until 1814, after which he continued to produce them with
extraordinary rapidity. A man of his vigorous spirit was not likely to be
without ambition, and Scott's ambition was to found a family and become a
distinguished landowner. This aim and a taste for adventurous projects such as
often goes with a quick imagination led him into business enterprises which
ended disastrously; he met his calamities with great courage and devoted his
strength and genius to securing his creditors from loss. In 1820 he was made a
baronet by George IV. He died on the 21st of September, 1832, at Abbotsford.

[On Marmion]

The plot of Marmion is concerned with the love story of Clara and De Wilton, and
the treachery and death of Marmion, intervening with the battle of Flodden and
ending with a splendid description of the battle itself. Marmion and De Wilton
were both English nobles and Clara de Clare an heiress of the Earl of
Gloucester. Clara was betrothed to De Wilton, but Marmion coveted her lands and
determined to marry her. He contrived, by forged letters, to bring a charge of
high treason against De Wilton. De Wilton, unable to clear himself, challenged
him to the ordeal of battle in accordance with feudal practice, but was defeated
and left for dead. His life was saved, but he had to wander in foreign lands
from which, as the story opens, he had returned in the form of a palmer [2].
Meanwhile Clare had fled from Marmion to the protection of the Abbess of Whitby,
to whom she was related, and had become a novice in the convent. (See the third
verse above). Marmion's position was complicated by the fact that he had, three
years before, induced a nun Constance de Beverley, to leave her convent in
France and follow him disguised as a page. She helped him in his plot against De
Wilton, but in jealousy of Clare, attempted with the help of a monk to poison
her. The plot was discovered and Marmion, on  his way to the Scottish court as
ambassador from Henry VIII, left Constance at Holy Isle in the hands of the
monks [1]. The poem begins with the arrival of Marmion at Norham castle on the
south bank of the Tweed, in August 1513.

A friend of Scott's laughed at him for bringing his hero by a way where "there
never was a road since the world was created". Scott said that he had done it
for the scenery, and that it was Marmion's business to find his own road; but he
took a hint from the criticism and brought him back by Dunbar and Tantallon


1. Constance was imprisoned and executed for breaking her vows.

2. palmer: a pilgrim who spent his life in traveling from one holy shrine to
another; De Wilton in disguise.

3. Marmion to Clare as he lay dying of his wounds after the battle of Flodden.


But passions in the human frame,
Oft put the lion's rage to shame:

Lovely, that :-).

PPS: And this is the work that has "Lochinvar" sung by a minstrel in the Fifth

The Fall of Rome -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #494) The Fall of Rome
 The piers are pummelled by the waves;
 In a lonely field the rain
 Lashes an abandoned train;
 Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

 Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
 Agents of the Fisc pursue
 Absconding tax-defaulters through
 The sewers of provincial towns.

 Private rites of magic send
 The temple prostitutes to sleep;
 All the literati keep
 An imaginary friend.

 Cerebrotonic Cato may
 Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
 But the muscle-bound Marines
 Mutiny for food and pay.

 Caesar's double-bed is warm
 As an unimportant clerk
 On a pink official form.

 Unendowed with wealth or pity,
 Little birds with scarlet legs,
 Sitting on their speckled eggs,
 Eye each flu-infected city.

 Altogether elsewhere, vast
 Herds of reindeer move across
 Miles and miles of golden moss,
 Silently and very fast.
-- W H Auden
for Cyril Connolly.

This poem may be read instructively with "Under Which Lyre," the lyric that
precedes it in Edward Mendelson's Selected Auden. Both poems shrewdly juxtapose
Roman vices and political intrigue with post-World War II America. In "The Fall
of Rome," the effect transcends both eras, presenting one fused vision of a
civilization in decline. I especially admire the sheer tawdriness of details
Auden selects. Any melodrama is swiftly undercut by the mundane, even pathetic.
In this Rome, "tax-defaulters" consume the State's attention; entrenched labor
grievances compromise the Marines; and the city is threatened not by the
outbreak of another plague, but by flu.

Further notes on content: "All the literati keep/An imaginary friend" probably
refers to the poet's opinion (see the essays comprising his prose collection,
"The Dyer's Hand") that poor writing can often be attributed to a disregard for
one's audience. Thus, an "imaginary friend" betrays the poet into "the spell of
self-enchantment when lip-smacking imps of mawk and hooey/write with us what
they will." That line comes from "The Cave of Making," Auden's tribute to Louis

Finally, who can resist smiling at the all-too-recognizable image of "an
unimportant clerk" who writes "I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form"?
Auden alone of 20th-century poets is so attuned to the discordance between our
personal and professional lives. (Again, see his essay, "The Poet and the City"
for a great analysis of this distinction in ancient and modern times.) One
thinks immediately of his lines from "September 1, 1939":

 From the conservative dark
 Into the ethical life
 The dense commuters come,
 Repeating their morning vow,
 "I will be true to the wife,
 I'll concentrate more on my work."

As in the best of Auden, content in "The Fall of Rome" is inseparable from the
syntax that disperses itself across the regular stanzas. The ABBA rhyme-scheme
allows each scene to cohere at the center, then ripple away to an unexpected
relationship with the opening line. More strikingly, the clever enjambments (the
continuation of a phrase across a line boundary) assure us right away that Auden
will avoid a singsong rhythm. In the first stanza alone, we get startled by "In
a lonely field the rain/Lashes an abandoned train," and the feat is sustained
until the last stanza, worth repeating in full:

 Altogether elsewhere, vast
 Herds of reindeer move across
 Miles and miles of golden moss
 Silently and very fast.

(Seamus Heaney cites this stanza enthusiastically in an excellent essay,
"Sounding Auden.") The stress on the first syllable of "Silently" slows down the
line, compelling the awe of "very fast." We are left to contemplate this
gorgeous (and slightly ominous) image of arrival, "altogether elsewhere," and
how "the unimportant clerk" and his ilk stand in lamentable contrast to this
promise of total freedom.

Sunil Iyengar.

A Pict Song -- Rudyard Kipling

(Poem #493) A Pict Song
 Rome never looks where she treads.
   Always her heavy hooves fall
 On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
   And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
 Her sentries pass on -- that is all,
   And we gather behind them in hordes,
 And plot to reconquer the Wall,
   With only our tongues for our swords.

 We are the Little Folk -- we!
   Too little to love or to hate.
 Leave us alone and you'll see
   How we can drag down the State!
 We are the worm in the wood!
   We are the rot at the root!
 We are the taint in the blood!
   We are the thorn in the foot!

 Mistletoe killing an oak --
   Rats gnawing cables in two --
 Moths making holes in a cloak --
   How they must love what they do!
 Yes -- and we Little Folk too,
   We are busy as they --
 Working our works out of view --
   Watch, and you'll see it some day!

 No indeed! We are not strong,
   But we know Peoples that are.
 Yes, and we'll guide them along
   To smash and destroy you in War!
 We shall be slaves just the same?
   Yes, we have always been slaves,
 But you -- you will die of the shame,
   And then we shall dance on your graves!

   We are the Little Folk, we, etc.
-- Rudyard Kipling
        (from "The Winged Hats", Puck of Pook's Hill)

Yet another perspective on the Roman Empire - this time from the outside.
For all its glory and romance, ancient Rome could in a very real sense be
seen as an imperialistic aggressor, riding roughshod over a multitude of
other nations and cultures:

  "Rome was not the first state of organized gangsterdom, nor was it the
  last; but it was the only one that managed to bamboozle posterity into an
  almost universal admiration." -- Petr Beckmann

Of course, the truth (as always) lies somewhere in between; nonetheless it
is undeniable that most of the popular writing on the period is from the
Roman point of view. They were, after all, the victors.

Kipling has surely written his share of pro-Roman fiction and poetry;
however, one of his particular talents is the ability to write from a wide
number of viewpoints, some of them diametrically opposed, and handle each
with the same sympathy and facility. (This is most evident in his large
body of work set in the time of the British Empire). I believe this was in
large part due to his ability to look at people, cultures and nations in
their own right, and appreciate them for their own, internally consistent,
virtues, transcending in the process the (inevitably unfair) tendency to
measure them against the rigid yardstick of one particular worldview.
A recurrent theme in his works is the look at one culture as seen through
the prejudices of another, a turn of mind doubtless engendered by his own
multicultural background - indeed, I find it amazing how often he is accused
of Jingoism and of subscription to an unthinking 'British superiority'

Today's poem is from my favourite Kipling book, "Puck of Pook's Hill", a
brilliant (and ingeniously interconnected) series of tales tracing the
history of Britain from the Roman invasion up to the Magna Carta[1]. As
Thomas has mentioned earlier, one of the nicest features of Kipling's books
is his practice of starting and ending each chapter with a poem - ranging
from the direct to the tangential, these poems add greatly to the depth and
colour of the stories, as well as being wonderful standalone poetry.

The whole depiction (npi) of the Picts, both in the poem and the
accompanying story, is interesting, in that most books portray them as
savages, barely worth a mention except as the stereotypical barbaric enemy.
It is even more interesting in that the story is from the Roman point of
view, dealing with the Viking invasion to which the last verse of the poem
refers, and that neither Rome nor the Picts are portrayed as the 'bad guys'.

The poem does a beautiful job of lending a voice to an oppressed people,
fierce but powerless; proud, but with a very different notion of pride - the
lines "We shall be slaves just the same? / Yes, we have always been slaves"
are particularly poignant, and sum up the plight of the Picts perfectly.

[1] the sequel, Rewards and Fairies, while a good book in its own right,
sadly failed to recapture the magic of the original.


Not much to say about the construction - note the unobtrusive use of
alliteration, though, and the preponderance of long vowels. The latter seem
to give the poem a plaintive tinge, but I may be influenced by Leslie Fish's
setting of the poem to music, which accentuates them to good effect.


Kipling is one of my favourite poets, and has rather unsurprisingly featured
heavily in the past. Check out the archive:
[broken link]

See, in particular, poem #143,
my favourite poem from "Puck of Pook's Hill" and further evidence of
Kipling's range and diversity of subjects.

And in case I haven't made it clear enough, you are *strongly* urged to get
hold of and read "Puck of Pook's Hill"

Kipling biography: poem #17

Leslie Fish's album "Cold Iron", which sets a number of Kipling's poems to
music, is sadly out of print. In the unlikely event that you stumble across
a copy, grab it. (Her third Kipling album, 'Our Fathers of Old' looks set to
be rereleased - see [broken link]

The dominant feature in the history of Roman-Pict interaction was, of course,
Hadrian's wall. The following site is a nice overview of the subject:
[broken link]

The Beckmann quote I picked up from a thread on alt.quotations; someone
rebutted it with the Commando scene from the hilarious Monty Python sketch
'The Life of Brian'. Here it is, for the sake of completeness:
[broken link]

And of course, the Romans-as-bad-guys idea reached its apotheosis in the
Asterix comics :) Check out
if you're unfamiliar with the strip; longtime fans might enjoy the Annotated
Asterix at [broken link]


This has been an unusually fun theme to do, and one close to my heart (as
the length of the commentaries probably indicates <g>). There was, as can be
imagined, no shortage of candidate poems; I chose three that I felt
presented radically different aspects of the legend that was Ancient Rome.

It is rather revealing that all three have a military cast to them - true,
Rome was also renowned for its engineering works, but if anyone has written
an Ode to an Aqueduct I've yet to come across it. (I have seen a few 'Roman
Road' poems but they didn't really fit the spirit of the theme.)

On Themes:

We usually announce themes explicitly at the start of the week, so if you
have poem suggestions, do send them in. In particular, it'd be really nice
to extend a theme with a fourth, guest poem, so if a particular theme
catches your imagination or calls a favourite poem to mind, do write up a
few comments and send it in.


p.s. A gratuitous Latin phrase is the sine qua non of a true Ancient Rome

Poem 42 -- e e cummings

(Poem #492) Poem 42



 g can




 the m







-- e e cummings
From '73 poems', published posthumously in 1963.

Cummings' reputation as an innovator and experimenter with form have
all-too-often obscured his position as possibly the finest Romantic poet since
Yeats [1]. That reputation has done nothing to diminish his popularity, though:
at the time of his death in 1962, he was second only to Robert Frost in the
affections of the reading public, and he's certainly one of the most-requested
poets here on the Minstrels.

Cummings was also an accomplished artist - "In the Cummings papers at Houghton,
besides his literary notes and manuscripts we find more than ten thousand pages
of pencil-drawings, and his estate comprises about 1600 oils and watercolors.
The number of his published poems, one may remember, amounts to roughly one
thousand." [2]. Seen in this light [3], the many typographical games he plays
are hardly surprising; indeed, Cummings himself referred to his works as


[1] W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas are the only serious challengers for the title,
but the former wrote too much verse in too many different genres to be
considered a purely Romantic poet, while the latter died too young to leave
behind a completely coherent and credible body of work.

[2] Martin Heusser, 'An Eyeful of Silence: The Poetry of. E. E. Cummings'.
There's more from this essay below, in the 'Analysis' section.

[3] Pun fully intended.


Alan Tranter offers the following insightful commentary on the arrangement of
the letters in today's poem:

"A perfect example of a theme being enhanced typographically... What amounts to
a single seven-word sentence, is spread with symmetrical precision across seven
'stanzas' and fifteen lines. The three line units begin and end with the same
lower case letter, the capital letter of the middle line shifts from the ends to
the centre point, back to the ends, and once again to the centre. Each of the
first two one line units consists of four lower case letters, consisting firstly
of a single letter, space, and three letters; and then reversed, three letters,
space, and the first of the next word. The final one line unit, 'of' launches
the denouement of the phrase, revealing exactly what it is that nothing can
surpass the mystery of. What is revealed to be a simple aphorism is presented in
a complex and precise manner, a skilful act of balancing, using each letter to
work for the poem's effect. However, before we notice the symmetry, we are
forced to reconstitute the words of the phrase, piece by piece over the hurdles
that Cummings has laid down for us. The resulting effect is to reduce the speed
at which we comprehend its message, echoing the 'stillness' of the poem's
conclusion. What is clear when examining the structure of the above piece is
that any examination of the positions of letters or the shape of the stanza does
not reveal anything more than the aphorism itself, but it does amplify its
effect, so that we may feel its meaning instead of merely acknowledging it. The
effect of the piece is holistic, its meaning comes in a rush, hopefully
providing the reader with a greater sense of his intention."

        -- Alan Tranter
'"music for no instrument": Style, Complexity, and the Love Poetry of E. E.
Cummings'. Full text at

And Martin Heusser has this to say:

"At first glance, this does not seem like much like a poem. Not only is the text
before our eyes devoid of any conventional poetic form - even the language
itself seems to put itself out of the reader's reach. It is only after some
scrutiny that we recognize the simple statement behind the apparently random
arrangement of letters: "Nothing can surpass the mystery of stillness." By
disregarding the conventional distribution of upper and lowercase letters, and
by recklessly ignoring traditional word boundaries, Cummings alters the visual
appearance of his statement so completely that it is not recognizable at all as
an English sentence at first. Instead of the expected linguistic structure, we
find a bafflingly intricate visual complex. Closer inspection reveals that
"nOthIng" consists of a multitude of artfully interwoven symmetries. In fact,
symmetry seems to be the key to of the poem's structure... "

        -- Martin Heusser
'An Eyeful of Silence: The Poetry of. E. E. Cummings'. Full text at
[broken link]

[Minstrels Links]

There's quite a bit of Cummings on the Minstrels website, and it looks like
there'll be quite a bit more - as I mentioned above, he's one of our
most-requested poets. Check out
[broken link]
for previously-run examples of his work.

There's a biography and critical assessment at poem #56

"n OthI n" throws up yet another connection between poetry and (visual) art -
see my theme for last week: poem #483, Poem #484, Poem #485, and Poem #486.


Searching for this poem on the web was extremely easy... Google("urpas ster
tillnes") doesn't leave much room for error <grin>.

Incidentally, I think this mail sets a new record for the ratio of commentary to
poem length...

Roman Wall Blues -- W H Auden

(Poem #491) Roman Wall Blues
 Over the heather the wet wind blows,
 I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

 The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
 I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

 The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
 My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

 Aulus goes hanging around her place,
 I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

 Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
 There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

 She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
 I want my girl and I want my pay.

 When I'm a veteran with only one eye
 I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
-- W H Auden
Note: This is song XI from Auden's 'Twelve Songs'

'Roman Wall Blues' is, in some ways, the antithesis of 'Horatius' - absent
is the stirring glory of ancient Rome, and the legendary bravery of her
sons; rather, the Roman soldier is presented as nothing more than an
ordinary guy doing an unpleasant job.

This is a somewhat modern genre of poetry (and fiction) - a body of work
whose central theme seems to be 'the more things change, the more they stay
the same'. It has given rise to several excellent works, blending the rich
tapestry of history and legend with the deeper, and more personally
involving concerns of the present, rendering the former more immediate and
accessible, while robbing it of none of its magic.

Wordsworth perhaps captured the dichotomy best in his 'Solitary Reaper':

      Will no one tell me what she sings? -
      Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
      For old, unhappy, far-off things,
      And battles long ago;
      Or is it some more humble lay,
      Familiar matter of today?
      Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
      That has been, and may be again?

Today's poem (and, indeed, the whole aforementioned genre) points out that
the two are not necessarily disparate; robbed of the softening effect of
time and distance, all our romantic history was merely the 'familiar matter
of today' to its participants, and that what has been and what may be again
are not too dissimilar.

Of course, there is another major body of work to which today's plaintive
(but oddly philosophical) poem belongs - the poetry (and novels, and songs,
and of late, movies) that seeks to deglamourize war, not by the graphic
portrayal of its horrors, but by the startling revelation that for the most
part the common soldier neither knows nor cares what the War is all about -
*his* personal battle reduces to "I want my girl, and I want my pay". The
'ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods' never enter into the


The poem is written in a series of rhyming couplets, with a predominantly
triple metre that fits the desultory monologue perfectly.

I must confess myself unfamiliar with the (mostly musical, though it has
spilled over into poetry) Blues movement, so I don't know how closely
today's poem follows the definition - could someone else comment on this


Auden is one of those poets with whom I have a love-hate relationship - as
I've remarked earlier, I can't stand most of his work, but when he's good,
he's *very* good. Life would be dull indeed if everyone had the same taste
in poetry, though, and there are no less than seven of his poems already in
the archive - see

You can find the complete Twelve Songs at
[broken link]

For some more poems that lend immediacy to a romantic past:

  poem #76
  poem #167
  poem #209
  poem #217
  poem #228
  poem #291
  poem #357

I won't bother linking to other war poems, since there are way too many of

Here's a Blues FAQ: [broken link]

and another webpage on the Blues:

An Auden biography: poem #50


The Elements -- Tom Lehrer

(Poem #490) The Elements
There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium,
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium,
And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium,
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium,
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium,
And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium,
And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium.
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There's sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium,
And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Ha'vard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discavard.
-- Tom Lehrer
An astonishing feat of ingenuity - a perfectly rhymed, perfectly metrical parody
of 'The Major-General's Song' from Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Pirates of Penzance'
[1]. It's rather mild by Lehrer's standards (no serial killers, dope peddlers or
mathematicians - indeed, no political incorrectness of any sort), but it's no
less briliant for that, and who am I to complain?


[1] For Gilbert's immortal original, see poem #88

[Web stuff]

I found this in a Rhino records article about Tom Lehrer:

"'The Elements' was an attempt to top the song 'Tschaikowsky', by Ira Gershwin
and Kurt Weill. [Danny] Kaye sang it in the show Lady In The Dark, rattling off
at lightning speed the names of 50 Russian composers."

        -- [broken link]

Other examples of poetic ingenuity abound on the Minstrels (no great surprise,
given our fondness for the genre). Check out:

'Juggler, Magician, Fool: A Pantoum', by Peter Schaeffer, at poem #195

'Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line', by George Starbuck,
at poem #194

And then there's Mike Keith's home page, which I have to admit is the most
mindblowingly amazing site I've come across in all my years of surfing the web:

[More on Lehrer]

"Tom Lehrer was one of comedy's great paradoxes -- a respected Harvard
mathematics professor by day, he also ranked among the foremost song satirists
of the postwar era, recording vicious, twisted parodies of popular musical
trends which proved highly influential on the "sick comedy" revolution of the
1960s. Despite an aversion to the press and a relatively small recorded output,
Lehrer became a star, although he remained an enigma to even his most ardent
fans; he rarely toured, never allowed his photo to adorn album jackets, and
essentially retired from performing in 1965, leaving behind a cult following
which only continued to grow in his absence from the limelight."

        -- [broken link]

[Still More on Lehrer]

"Lehrer was born April 9, 1928; even as a child, he frequently parodied popular
songs of the day, and also learned to play piano. In 1944, he left New York City
to study math at Harvard, earning his master's degree within three years and
remaining as a graduate student through 1953. During his student years Lehrer
wrote The Physical Revue, a collection of academic song satires staged on campus
in January, 1951; an updated performance followed in May of the next year. He
also sang his parodies at coffeehouses and student gatherings throughout the
Cambridge, Massachusetts area; as demand for an album of his songs increased, he
spent $15 on studio time to cut Songs by Tom Lehrer, a ten-inch record privately
pressed in an edition of 400 copies.

The record sold out its entire run, and as the Harvard student body dispersed
across the country for Christmas vacation, the disc spread ("like herpes,"
Lehrer joked) far beyond its intended local audience. Soon Lehrer was inundated
with requests for copies from across the nation; after several re-pressings,
Songs by Tom Lehrer sold an astounding 350, 000 copies on the strength of tracks
like "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" (about a man who cut off his girlfriend's hand
in order to nibble on her fingertips), "Irish Ballad" (a buoyant romp about a
killing spree) and "My Home Town" (concerning a place where murderers teach
school and old perverts operate the candy store).

In 1955, Lehrer was inducted to serve in the Army, and was honorably discharged
two years later. Finally, in 1959 he recorded a follow-up, More of Tom Lehrer,
featuring "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "The Masochism Tango; " the same
collection of songs were also recorded during a live performance at Harvard, and
issued simultaneously as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. A tour of Europe
followed, resulting in another concert collection, Tom Lehrer Revisited, which
constituted live renditions of the tracks from the debut LP. However,
controversial reactions to his "sick" comedy during a series of Australian
performances prompted Lehrer to retire, and he returned full-time to his first
love, teaching."

        -- [broken link]

Horatius -- Thomas Babbington Macaulay

This week's theme: Lays of Ancient Rome, beginning with what is probably the
longest poem you'll ever see on Minstrels...
(Poem #489) Horatius
 A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLX


 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.


 East and west and south and north
 The messengers ride fast,
 And tower and town and cottage
 Have heard the trumpet's blast.
 Shame on the false Etruscan
 Who lingers in his home,
 When Porsena of Clusium
 Is on the march for Rome.


 The horsemen and the footmen
 Are pouring in amain
 From many a stately market-place,
 From many a fruitful plain,
 From many a lonely hamlet,
 Which, hid by beech and pine,
 Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
 Of purple Apennine;


 From lordly Volaterræ,
 Where scowls the far-famed hold
 Piled by the hands of giants
 For godlike kings of old;
 From seagirt Populonia,
 Whose sentinels descry
 Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops
 Fringing the southern sky;


 From the proud mart of Pisæ,
 Queen of the western waves,
 Where ride Massilia's triremes
 Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
 From where sweet Clanis wanders
 Through corn and vines and flowers;
 From where Cortona lifts to heaven
 Her diadem of towers.


 Tall are the oaks whose acorns
 Drop in dark Auser's rill;
 Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
 Of the Ciminian hill;
 Beyond all streams Clitumnus
 Is to the herdsman dear;
 Best of all pools the fowler loves
 The great Volsinian mere.


 But now no stroke of woodman
 Is heard by Auser's rill;
 No hunter tracks the stag's green path
 Up the Ciminian hill;
 Unwatched along Clitumnus
 Grazes the milk-white steer;
 Unharmed the water fowl may dip
 In the Volsminian mere.


 The harvests of Arretium,
 This year, old men shall reap;
 This year, young boys in Umbro
 Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
 And in the vats of Luna,
 This year, the must shall foam
 Round the white feet of laughing girls
 Whose sires have marched to Rome.


 There be thirty chosen prophets,
 The wisest of the land,
 Who alway by Lars Porsena
 Both morn and evening stand:
 Evening and morn the Thirty
 Have turned the verses o'er,
 Traced from the right on linen white
 By mighty seers of yore.


 And with one voice the Thirty
 Have their glad answer given:
 "Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
 Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
 Go, and return in glory
 To Clusium's royal dome;
 And hang round Nurscia's altars
 The golden shields of Rome."


 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.


 For all the Etruscan armies
 Were ranged beneath his eye,
 And many a banished Roman,
 And many a stout ally;
 And with a mighty following
 To join the muster came
 The Tusculan Mamilius,
 Prince of the Latian name.


 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 days.


 For aged folks on crutches,
 And women great with child,
 And mothers sobbing over babes
 That clung to them and smiled,
 And sick men borne in litters
 High on the necks of slaves,
 And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
 With reaping-hooks and staves,


 And droves of mules and asses
 Laden with skins of wine,
 And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
 And endless herds of kine,
 And endless trains of wagons
 That creaked beneath the weight
 Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
 Choked every roaring gate.


 Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
 Could the wan burghers spy
 The line of blazing villages
 Red in the midnight sky.
 The Fathers of the City,
 They sat all night and day,
 For every hour some horseman come
 With tidings of dismay.


 To eastward and to westward
 Have spread the Tuscan bands;
 Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
 In Crustumerium stands.
 Verbenna down to Ostia
 Hath wasted all the plain;
 Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
 And the stout guards are slain.


 I wis, in all the Senate,                [wis: know]
 There was no heart so bold,
 But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
 When that ill news was told.
 Forthwith up rose the Consul,
 Up rose the Fathers all;
 In haste they girded up their gowns,
 And hied them to the wall.


 They held a council standing,
 Before the River-Gate;
 Short time was there, ye well may guess,
 For musing or debate.
 Out spake the Consul roundly:
 "The bridge must straight go down;
 For, since Janiculum is lost,
 Nought 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.


 And plainly and more plainly,
 Above that glimmering line,
 Now might ye see the banners
 Of twelve fair cities shine;
 But the banner of proud Clusium
 Was highest of them all,
 The terror of the Umbrian,
 The terror of the Gaul.


 And plainly and more plainly
 Now might the burghers know,
 By port and vest, by horse and crest,
 Each warlike Lucumo.
 There Cilnius of Arretium
 On his fleet roan was seen;
 And Astur of the four-fold shield,
 Girt with the brand none else may wield,
 Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
 And dark Verbenna from the hold
 By reedy Thrasymene.


 Fast by the royal standard,
 O'erlooking all the war,
 Lars Porsena of Clusium
 Sat in his ivory car.
 By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
 Prince of the Latian name;
 And by the left false Sextus,
 That wrought the deed of shame.


 But when the face of Sextus
 Was seen among the foes,
 A yell that rent the firmament
 From all the town arose.
 On the house-tops was no woman
 But spat towards him and hissed,
 No child but screamed out curses,
 And shook its little fist.


 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 out spake 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,


 "And for the tender mother
 Who dandled him to rest,
 And for the wife who nurses
 His baby at her breast,
 And for the holy maidens
 Who feed the eternal flame,
 To save them from false Sextus
 That wrought the deed of shame?


 "Haul 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 out spake Spurius Lartius;
 A Ramnian proud was he:
 "Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
 And keep the bridge with thee."
 And out spake 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.
 For Romans in Rome's quarrel
 Spared neither land nor gold,
 Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
 In the brave days of old.


 Then none was for a party;
 Then all were for the state;
 Then the great man helped the poor,
 And the poor man loved the great:
 Then lands were fairly portioned;
 Then spoils were fairly sold:
 The Romans were like brothers
 In the brave days of old.


 Now Roman is to Roman
 More hateful than a foe,
 And the Tribunes beard the high,
 And the Fathers grind the low.
 As we wax hot in faction,
 In battle we wax cold:
 Wherefore men fight not as they fought
 In the brave days of old.


 Now while the Three were tightening
 Their 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,
 Come flashing back the noonday light,
 Rank behind rank, like surges bright
 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 deep array;
 To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
 And lifted high their shields, and flew
 To win the narrrow way;


 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,
 Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
 From that gray crag where, girt with towers,
 The fortress of Nequinum lowers
 O'er the pale waves of Nar.


 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.


 Then Ocnus of Falerii
 Rushed on the Roman Three;
 And Lausulus of Urgo,
 The rover of the sea;
 And Aruns of Volsinium,
 Who slew the great wild boar,
 The great wild boar that had his den
 Amidst the reeds of Cosa's fen,
 And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
 Along Albinia's shore.


 Herminius smote down Aruns:
 Lartius laid Ocnus low:
 Right to the heart of Lausulus
 Horatius sent a blow.
 "Lie there," he cried, "fell pirate!
 No more, aghast and pale,
 From Ostia's walls the crowd shall mark
 The track of thy destroying bark.
 No more Campania's hinds shall fly
 To woods and caverns when they spy
 Thy thrice accursed sail."


 But now no sound of laughter
 Was heard among the foes.
 A wild and wrathful clamor
 From all the vanguard rose.
 Six spears' lengths from the entrance
 Halted that deep array,
 And for a space no man came forth
 To win the narrow way.


 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 four-fold 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 hand-breadth out
 Behind the Tuscan's head.


 And the great Lord of Luna
 Fell at that deadly stroke,
 As falls on Mount Alvernus
 A thunder smitten oak:
 Far o'er the crashing forest
 The giant arms lie spread;
 And the pale augurs, muttering low,
 Gaze on the blasted head.


 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 Lucomo comes next
 To taste our Roman cheer?"


 But at his haughty challange
 A sullen murmur ran,
 Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
 Along that glittering van.
 There lacked not men of prowess,
 Nor men of lordly race;
 For all Etruria's noblest
 Were round the fatal place.


 But all Etruria's noblest
 Felt their hearts sink to see
 On the earth the bloody corpses,
 In the path the dauntless Three:
 And, from the ghastly entrance
 Where those bold Romans stood,
 All shrank, like boys who unaware,
 Ranging the woods to start a hare,
 Come to the mouth of the dark lair
 Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
 Lies amidst bones and blood.


 Was none who would be foremost
 To lead such dire attack;
 But those behind cried, "Forward!"
 And those before cried, "Back!"
 And backward now and forward
 Wavers the deep array;
 And on the tossing sea of steel
 To and frow the standards reel;
 And the victorious trumpet-peal
 Dies fitfully away.


 Yet one man for one moment
 Strode out before the crowd;
 Well known was he to all the Three,
 And they gave him greeting loud.
 "Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
 Now welcome to thy home!
 Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
 Here lies the road to Rome."


 Thrice looked he at the city;
 Thrice looked he at the dead;
 And thrice came on in fury,
 And thrice turned back in dread:
 And, white with fear and hatred,
 Scowled at the narrow way
 Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
 The bravest Tuscans lay.


 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, Herminius!
 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 farther 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.


 And, like a horse unbroken
 When first he feels the rein,
 The furious river struggled hard,
 And tossed his tawny mane,
 And burst the curb and bounded,
 Rejoicing to be free,
 And whirling down, in fierce career,
 Battlement, and plank, and pier,
 Rushed headlong to the sea.


 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;
 Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
 To Sextus nought 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.


 "Oh, 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.


 Never, I ween, did swimmer,
 In such an evil case,
 Struggle through such a raging flood
 Safe to the landing place:
 But his limbs were borne up bravely
 By the brave heart within,
 And our good father Tiber
 Bare bravely up his chin.


 "Curse on him!" quoth false Sextus;
 "Will not the villain drown?
 But for this stay, ere close of day
 We should have sacked the town!"
 "Heaven help him!" quoth Lars Porsena
 "And bring him safe to shore;
 For such a gallant feat of arms
 Was never seen before."


 And now he feels the bottom;
 Now on dry earth he stands;
 Now round him throng the Fathers;
 To press his gory hands;
 And now, with shouts and clapping,
 And noise of weeping loud,
 He enters through the River-Gate
 Borne by the joyous crowd.


 They gave him of the corn-land,
 That was of public right,
 As much as two strong oxen
 Could plough from morn till night;
 And they made a molten image,
 And set it up on high,
 And there is stands unto this day
 To witness if I lie.


 It stands in the Comitium
 Plain for all folk to see;
 Horatius in his harness,
 Halting upon one knee:
 And underneath is written,
 In letters all of gold,
 How valiantly he kept the bridge
 In the brave days of old.


 And still his name sounds stirring
 Unto the men of Rome,
 As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
 To charge the Volscian home;
 And wives still pray to Juno
 For boys with hearts as bold
 As his who kept the bridge so well
 In the brave days of old.


 And in the nights of winter,
 When the cold north winds blow,
 And the long howling of the wolves
 Is heard amidst the snow;
 When round the lonely cottage
 Roars loud the tempest's din,
 And the good logs of Algidus
 Roar louder yet within;


 When the oldest cask is opened,
 And the largest lamp is lit;
 When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
 And the kid turns on the spit;
 When young and old in circle
 Around the firebrands close;
 When the girls are weaving baskets,
 And the lads are shaping bows;


 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.
-- Thomas Babbington Macaulay
Today's poem is easily the most famous of Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient
Rome"[1], and IMHO the best of the lot. I first encountered it when I was
twelve or so, when it instantly skyrocketed to the top of my 'favourite
poems' list (I actually sat and memorised it, though it has sadly faded
with time), and have loved it ever since - the blend of stirring heroics,
rippling verse and, of course, one of the most romantic periods of history
and legend make its popularity not at all surprising.

I've mentioned liking certain poems because they fit so well my idea of what
good - and, more importantly, enjoyable - poetry should be, and 'Horatius'
certainly falls within the list. The story is engaging and well told, the
verse is at once polished and effortless, and the imagery both original and

Of course, the first fine, careless rapture has worn off a bit, and I can see
some of the poem's flaws (in particular, some of the digressions Macaulay
takes are highly annoying, and contribute nothing to the poem - see verses
XXXII-XXXIII for example) but it remains one of the best narrative poems
I've seen.

[1] from which this theme takes its title - the full book is up on
Gutenberg (see links)


One of the chief delights of this poem is its form, so it is worth looking
at in a little more detail. The poem is written mainly in ballad metre[2],
but with the abcb rhyme scheme varied with the occasional abccb, abcccb or
even abccccb. This, along with the occasional departure from strict iambs,
helps make the metre pleasingly rather than monotonously regular. The
stretched out verses are used to good effect, too - two nice examples are
verses XXXV:

   Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
   Right glorious to behold,
   Come flashing back the noonday light,
   Rank behind rank, like surges bright
   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.

where the 'rank behind rank' and 'measured tread' are reinforced by the
succession of rhyming tetrametric lines, and XLIX:

   And, from the ghastly entrance
   Where those bold Romans stood,
   All shrank, like boys who unaware,
   Ranging the woods to start a hare,
   Come to the mouth of the dark lair
   Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
   Lies amidst bones and blood.

where the drawn out tension is almost palpable.

And let us not forget the main point of ballad metre - it derived in large
part from earlier oral traditions, and 'Horatius' is certainly faithful to
the spirit of those sung and chanted lays. This is a poem you are strongly
encouraged to read aloud.

[2] "Most ballads are suitable for singing and, while sometimes varied in
practice, are generally written in ballad meter, i.e., alternating lines of
iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with the last words of the second and
fourth lines rhyming." - [broken link]


The Year of the City:
  In the early days, Romans denoted years by the names of the two Consuls
  who ruled each year and that system continued long after other ways of
  denoting the year were used. Later they began to count the years from the
  foundation of the City of Rome. There is no single agreed date for that
  but a Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro fixed the date as what we would
  call 753BC and that is the standard I shall use here. Romans used the
  letters AUC after these dates (in Latin ab urbe condita - from the
  foundation of the city).
    -- [broken link]

So CCCLX AUC would be 393 BC.

See the links section for more extensive notes and commentary; here I'll
just quote an excerpt from Macaulay's introduction to the poem:

  "There can be little doubt that among those parts of early Roman history
  which had a poetical origin was the legend of Horatius Cocles. We have
  several versions of the story, and these versions differ from each other
  in points of no small importance. Polybius, there is reason to believe,
  heard the tale recited over the remains of some Consul or Prætor
  descended from the old Horatian patricians; for he introduces it as a
  specimen of the narratives with which the Romans were in the habit of
  embellishing their funeral oratory. It is remarkable that, according to
  him, Horatius defended the bridge alone, and perished in the waters.
  According to the chronicles which Livy and Dionysius followed, Horatius
  had two companions, swam safe to shore and was loaded with honours and
  rewards." --


  Macaulay's History of England brought him a secure, if diminished, place
  among English historians as the founder, with his contemporary Henry
  Hallam, of what is now known as the Whig interpretation of history.
  Fostered in the traditions of sturdy evangelical piety and liberal
  reform, he saw the origin and triumph of these values in the Revolution
  of 1688, which firmly established the supremacy of Parliament and
  restricted the monarchy to a constitutional status. He planned to write
  the history of England from 1688 to 1820 (the death of George III) but
  died before he had completed it. Macaulay's work is thus an account of
  that revolution, with a narration of the years preceding and following
  it. In stressing the unique importance for England of the revolution and,
  by implication, the superior virtues of those who brought it about,
  traditionally the Whig Party (though the Tories were also involved),
  Macaulay popularized a view of English history that was notably followed
  by his nephew Sir George Otto Trevelyan and his great-nephew George
  Macaulay Trevelyan and that affected the teaching of history as late as
  World War II.

  His essays helped to mold the outlook of a generation of Englishmen and
  to give to many their first vivid glimpse of the past, together with a
  conviction that their own institutions would serve the best interests of
  developing countries under their care. His style, clear, emphatic, and
  insensitive, with short sentences forming a self-contained paragraph,
  came to be for half a century the characteristic English style in higher
  journalism and exposition of all kinds. Macaulay's reputation, immense
  during the last decade of his life, fell steadily in the 50 years that
  followed. His undisguised political partisanship, his arrogant assumption
  that English bourgeois standards of culture and progress were to be
  forever the norm for less favoured nations, and the materialism of his
  judgments of value and taste all came under heavy fire from such
  near-contemporary critics as Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John
  Ruskin. Moreover, a revolution in the realm of historical studies,
  already accomplished in Germany during Macaulay's lifetime but never
  appreciated by him, soon affected English historiography. Wide as was
  Macaulay's reading, his approach was largely uncritical, as his
  enthusiasm often carried him away. By taste and training an orator, his
  writing was special pleading rather than impartial presentation. Yet,
  despite these severe limitations, his greatness is incontrovertible, and,
  regarded solely as a work of art, the status of his History remains
  unassailed. In the grasp and range of his knowledge, in his powers of
  vivid and sustained narrative, and in his marshalling of topics to serve
  a great design, his History is unsurpassed among the work of English
  historians, save, perhaps, by The History of the Decline and Fall of the
  Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

        -- EB

  ['Lays of Ancient Rome' seems to have been very much a footnote in his
  literary career - m.]


For a biography, see,5716,50820+1,00.html

A nicely annotated copy of the poem, from one of my favourite poetry sites

Jerry Pournelle has a nice essay on the Lays, followed by the complete text
from Gutenberg:

And in case you've never encountered Project Gutenberg before: