1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 300-03.



Mr. Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome differed initially from Mr. Lockhart's Spanish translations in this, that the latter worked from the native materials, which he refined and improved; the former simply from the general scope and spirit of ancient legends. Taking it for granted, according to the very probable theory of Niebuhr, that the semi-fabulous traditions of all infant nations must have existed primarily in a metrical form, he retransferred some of the portions of early Roman history back into the shape which might be supposed to have been their original one ere historicised by Livy, and this with consummate imaginative and artistic ability. He is entirely of the Homer, the Chaucer, and Scott school, his poetry being thoroughly that of action; and sentiment is seldom ever more than interjectionally introduced — the utmost fidelity being thus shown to the essential characteristics of that species of composition which he has so triumphantly illustrated.

The four subjects selected by Mr. Macaulay are those of Horatius Cocles, The Battle of the Lake Regillus, Virginia, and The Prophecy of Capys; and he has clothed them in a drapery of homely grandeur, yet at the same time with a picturesqueness of effect, which carries us back to Homer in his wars of Troy, and in his wanderings of Ulysses. Mr. Macaulay has evidently sedulously endeavoured to preserve a thorough distinctive nationality, not only in the materials, natural and historical, but in the very spirit of his different legends; and he has wonderfully succeeded in this delicate, difficult, and laborious task. In vividness of outline, in graphic breadth, and in rapidity of narrative, he approaches the author of The Lay and Marmion — like the mighty minstrel, unreservedly throwing himself into and identifying himself with his subject. Probably the finest, at least the most poetical, of the four legends, is The Prophecy of Capys, which breathes the very spirit of antique simplicity, and is encrusted with such a thick-falling shower of local allusions as to stamp it with the air of truth. The Battle of the Bridge is, beyond the others, full of heroic action and energy; and Virginia is touching, from the very simplicity of its majestic sentiment-so childlike and yet so noble.

Mr. Macaulay is another of the few poets who have written too little by far. The fragment of The Armada is like a Torso of Hercules — redolent of graphic power; and The Battle of Ivry, although scarcely equal to it, is also remarkable for its masculine conception and disdain of petty ornament.

The following placid descriptive sketch from The Battle of the Lake Regillus contrasts finely with the ancient stirring associations of the scene:—

Now on the place of slaughter
Are cots and sheepfolds seen,
And rows of vines, and fields of wheat,
And apple-orchards green:
The swine crush the big acorns
That fall from Corne's oaks;
Upon the turf, by the fair fount,
The reaper's pottage smokes.
The fisher baits his angle,
The hunter twangs his bow,
Little they think on those strong limbs
That moulder deep below.
Little they think how sternly
That day the trumpets pealed;
How, in the slippery swamp of blood,
Warrior and war-horse reeled;
How wolves came with fierce gallop,
And crows on eager wings,
To tear the flesh of captains,
And peck the eyes of kings;
How thick the dead lay scattered
Under the Portian height;
How, through the gates of Tusculum,
Raved the wild stream of flight:
And how the Lake Regillus
Bubbled with crimson foam,
What time the Thirty Cities
Came forth to war with Rome.