“Facing Fearful Odds”

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Like most of us, I’ve often see this stanza, from a poem by Macaulay; indeed, it’s been often quoted in recent weeks, with regard to the valor of the Ukrainians defending their nation:

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.”

It’s stirring, of course, but I’ve often found it a bit distanced from us because of the last two lines: My sense is that we don’t care as much as did the Romans about the resting places of our ancestors, and those of us who are religious mostly (not entirely, but mostly) don’t view any particular temple with great reverence.

More broadly, the last two lines seem to be about fighting for honor or tradition, not for living people who are loved in the way we love the living. It’s easy, of course, to view the last two lines as a stand-in for compatriots, friends, family, and the like; but it takes a bit of conceptual broadening.

But just today I came across the next four lines; let me quote again the first stanza, but this time followed by those lines:

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.”

A slightly different effect, I think. (There’s more to the poem, but I don’t find it quite as striking.)

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