Journal Article

'Imperfectly Civilized': Ballads, Nations, and Histories of Form

by Meredith Martin

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome have fallen prey to Matthew Arnold’s 1861 dismissive and damning assessment: “a man’s power to detect the ring of false metal in those Lays is a good measure of his fitness..."

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome – his 1842 collection of poems written as if they were lost Roman ballads – are all but absent in our current understanding of the Victorian era. The Victorian edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature includes Macaulay’s famous 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” but not Lays of Ancient Rome, nor does the magisterial Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory include even an excerpt.[1] Macaulay’s Lays have fallen prey to Matthew Arnold’s 1861 dismissive and damning assessment: “a man’s power to detect the ring of false metal in those Lays is a good measure of his fitness to give an opinion about poetical matters at all.”[2] Arnold’s dismissal appears in his own cultural translation project – his lectures on translating Homer argue against using ballad meters as the vehicle for popularizing Homer’s greatness – and Arnold’s influential views have effectively removed Macaulay’s poems and their paratextual materials from the literary map of the nineteenth century. This essay explores what is at stake in such a critical erasure and shows why and how these erasures have shaped our contemporary understanding of poetic form.

It isn’t the centrality of Macaulay’s poems in the late-Victorian canon and their absence in our curriculum today that interests me as much as the way their form – the ballad – came to be coded as a communally felt phenomenon. This fabric of a connective, political, and national rhythm begins as a story about a primitive drum, is transformed to a family hearth where stories of the community’s history are told, and then becomes the organized rhythm of the march to war. This idea – of a unifying primitive rhythm – began as a universalist claim in the mid-eighteenth century. By the turn of the nineteenth century and especially after the first reform bill in England, “primitive rhythm” became a poetic function. This poetic function grew increasingly nationalistic in its aims toward mid-century, and then ended up as at once universalizing and nationalistic at the turn of the twentieth century, depending on the discipline in which it was discussed. The Lays of Ancient Rome appear in the middle of that story, in 1842, as part of a larger discourse about rhythm and meter.[3] Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, their history and intervention, can teach us a great deal about what rhythm and meter do and mean for a sense of national identification at mid-century. Macaulay’s project is to impose a vision of martial action as an accepted universal urge and to meld that vision with the discourse of both poetics and civilization. How does Macaulay’s project in Lays of Ancient Rome advance an argument about ballads, nations, and histories of form that maps onto a larger story about rhythm and community, history and education, and comparative poetics? That larger story is still not large enough, for it ignores, entirely, the basis of all of those theories in a world much wider than the Western one.

Sixty-three editions of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome were published between 1842 and 1939; the poem became prominent at the same time that the English empire created a new literary history of India, thanks, in large part, to Macaulay. His 1835 ‘Minute on Indian Education’ secured the passage of Bentinck’s Indian Education Act, making English the language of instruction and promoting an English literary tradition as a civilizing ideological force on the subcontinent. This concept of an English literary tradition was consolidated in the 1830s, before there was a state education system in England. As Gauri Viswanathan has argued, the English literary canon was largely invented in order to subdue and civilize the empire’s Indian subjects.[4] Just as the literature of Rome civilized primitive England, so too would the literature of England civilize, Macaulay writes, the primitive “Hindoo.” The parallel to Rome in Macaulay’s progress narrative for England was evident in his parliamentary speeches in favor of reform and it was the success of these speeches that landed him the job in India to begin with. In his first reform speech, he aligns Roman and British social conflict: had the first reform bill not passed, England would have witnessed a “struggle between the young energy of one class and the ancient privileges of another. Such was the struggle between the Plebeians and the Patricians of Rome.”[5] Just as he worked to fuse India’s sense of itself with England’s history and literature in the “Minute,” so, too, did he simultaneously work to fuse England’s sense of itself with Rome’s history and literature in Lays of Ancient Rome. Macaulay recollects that the idea for the poems occurred to him while he was stationed “in the jungle at the foot of the Neilgherry hills;”[6] and most of the verses were made “during a dreary sojourn at Ootacamund (Uhtagamund) and a disagreeable voyage in the Bay of Bengal.”[7]  

From June 26 to August 31, 1834, Macaulay was stationed at Ootacamund with the Governor General Bentick’s entourage. He left for the hills as soon as he arrived: “I traveled the whole four hundred miles on men’s shoulders. Each palanquin required twelve bearers who were changed every fifteen miles or so. My baggage, though I brought no more than was absolutely necessary, required ten porters.”[8] While stationed, he “read insatiably” the books that those ten porters carried. His classical texts soothed him and reminded him of home; he writes, “[w]hat a blessing it is to love books as I love them, -- to be able to converse with the dead and to live amidst the unreal.” He praised Virgil in one of his many long letters: “I like him best on Italian grounds. I like his localities, his national enthusiasm, his frequent allusions to his country, its history, its antiquities, and its greatness. In this respect he often reminded me of Sir Walter Scott.”[9] Indeed, Macaulay’s Lays were a fusion of Virgil and Scott, an elevation of Scott’s metrical project to the great themes of Roman civilization but in the form of imagined ancient Roman ballads. But why ballads? Scott’s introduction to his two-volume collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first published in 1802 and 1803, gives a compelling history of the ballad that is also a history of England.[10]  In Scott’s 1830 introduction to his 1805 Lay of the Last Minstrel he narrates the genesis of his own ballad-writing project – a mashup of Stodart’s recitation of Coleridge’s “Christabel,” in an attempt to avoid what Byron called the “fatal felicity” of the octosyllabic line and “romantic stanza.” Scott’s ballad meter was a structure of verse that “might have the effect of novelty to the public ear, and afford the author an opportunity of varying his measure with the variations of a romantic subject,” by which he means – and demonstrates – largely accentual four-beat lines.[11] The history of metrical theories of the ballad stanza, which I’ll examine in further detail, are related to Macaulay’s project. I’ll argue that Macaulay combined Scott’s metrical project with his own understanding of the highly debated Latin Saturnian meter which, Macaulay argued (via the Danish German historian Barthold Niebuhr) was the authentic primitive verse form of ancient Rome. But Macaulay’s project was not merely about re-creating Roman ballads. Macaulay was arguing that the ballad was the earliest poetry of all primitive civilizations, and by reconstructing and popularizing this history he was also advancing a ballad-theory of civilization.

The ballad-theory of civilization had been circulating long before Niebuhr first applied it to ancient Rome in his controversial 1812 Romische Geschichte, and long before Macaulay played out Niebuhr’s ballad theories in his Lays. The theory will be familiar to anyone who has read eighteenth-century ballad discourse but also to anyone who has read Derek Attridge’s theories of rhythm, or, for an opposite view, Virginia Jackson’s reading of Longfellow’s own ballad-theory of civilization in “Hiawatha” and Michael Cohen and Susan Stewart’s work on Percy and Child.[12]  Cohen writes, “whether mediating ideas of history, culture, nationality, or identity, ballads have been contested property since at least the eighteenth century” (196). What Cohen describes as “the recuperation of history through balladeering,” largely after Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry were published in 1765, “became a paradoxical process of restoring fragmentation . . .  – of rendering media transparent” (199). In a letter to a friend, Niebuhr writes: “I am a historian, for I can make a complete picture from separate fragments, and I know where the parts are missing and how to fill them up. No one believes how much of what seems to be lost can be restored.”[13] Historiography and the ballad theory of civilization, then, emerged at the same moment. In addition to historiography, ballad discourse influenced and inspired Friedrich August Wolf’s theories about Homer, the writings of Robert Lowth about Hebrew Poetry, Johann Gottfried Herder’s collection of German folk songs, Biblical criticism, and the creation, in many registers and disciplines, of a never recuperable origin story, spoken or sung, available only in fragments supplemented by the specialist collector’s skill.[14] But ballads were also, crucially and ideally, comparable across national boundaries and borders. Ballads were at once imagined to be the authentic record of a nation’s earliest poets as well as evidence of early songs that appeared at the beginning of every culture. Now collections of fragments, authentic ballads had to be in some way corrupted or faded so that their re-creation could accommodate the nostalgic projection onto the past of a purer form of connected society, via poetry – and this is part of what I mean when I say “the ballad-theory of civilization.”

But another part of the ballad-theory of civilization is that the peripheral is elevated as the primitive and brought into the whole fabric of the nation as an imagined common past of the colonizing nation, and in this instance I specifically mean Scotland and India as England’s peripheries. An imagined innocent past, a purer primitive poetics in the shape or guise of “ballad,” is most familiar as the uncorrupted cadences of the now lost ballads of Scotland but it has powerful implications for India as well. For Scott, the periphery is crucially the border – the place where a nation must defend itself against invasion, mark out its territory, record its unique history, and assert its communal identity.[15] Much of our knowledge about English ballad discourse, as Katie Trumpener and others have argued, comes from theories of culture appropriated from the periphery. Trumpener writes “English literature, so-called, constitutes itself in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the systematic imitation, appropriation, and political neutralization of antiquarian and nationalist literary developments in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.”[16] In the Indian context, the idea of the “ballad” as a lost origin story meshes with fantasies of a preliterate, mystical, uncivilized power. William Jones, the orientalist, philologer, and translator of Persian poetry posited in a 1786 address to the Asiatick Society, that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin may have all “sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists.” [17] The emergence of the Indo-European language theory – all South Asian and European languages and civilizations coming from one spring – becomes a powerful basis, therefore, for Anglophone poetics. Ballad discourse, treating all these peripheries as primitive sources of power, formed an intellectual constellation with contemporary linguistics, rhetoric, and the burgeoning field of English literary criticism. And it identified primitive groups of people even in modern societies: the child, the uneducated working classes, the rural village-dweller, and the colonial subject, all of whom were not yet touched by Englishness and could be recruited to represent a powerful fantasy of poetic purity.

Macaulay had some feelings about this. He wanted to replace Indian culture with a constructed, hybrid form of English -- an invented imported past; in the “Minute” he writes: “I have never found one among them [the Hindoos] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” By accepting the invented history of English poetry, Macaulay’s education reforms would “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.” Refine, enrich, borrow, render by degrees fit – these words echo and enact the ballad theory of civilization, which becomes a theory of the civilizing power of poetry. This mindset recalls Matthew Arnold’s similar rhetoric in the wake of the second reform bill. As McKelvy rightly asserts, Macaulay transfers the values of reform culture onto the Indian subcontinent. “What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity.”[18]

Macaulay’s composition of Lays of Ancient Rome while he was a colonial legislator in India connects England’s obsession with orientalist language and poetics with the violent endgame of the ballad-theory of civilization – the civilized is always predicated on the fantasy of the uncivilized, imaginary primitive past. The Lays both assert and reveal the fantasy that a poetic form – in this case the ballad stanza – gives form to that unruly and wild historical projection of the “uncivilized” which is at the heart of the ballad theory of civilization.  

The fantasy of the uncivilized and poetry’s role in the civilized nation’s unity appears throughout the period. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century grammars borrow from and inform debates about the centrality of the ballad to a nation’s sense of its present and its connection to a universal preliterate past.[19] To give just one example, Hugh Blair, the influential Scottish rhetorician (who also believed that James Macpherson authored the Ossian poems), advances the ballad-theory of civilization in the section titled “The Origins and Progress of Poetry” in his 1783 Lectures on Rhetoric. In it, Blair aligns repetition and community in early childhood with the early life of nations: “The ear gave assistance to the memory by the help of numbers; fathers repeated and sung them to their children and by this oral tradition of national ballads were conveyed all historical knowledge and all the instruction of the first ages.” Here, as in countless other discussions that go on to influence not only poetic history but English pedagogy in the later nineteenth century, national ballads contain “all historical knowledge and all the instruction of the first ages.” Pedagogy through repeated national ballads, therefore, guaranteed the survival of the idea of the nation. This is Hugh Blair:

We have reason to look for poems and songs among the antiquities of all countries, so we may expect, that in the strain of these there will be a remarkable resemblance, during the primitive periods of every country. The praises of gods and heroes, the celebration of famed ancestors, the recital of martial deeds, songs of victory, and songs of lamentation over the misfortunes and death of their countrymen, occur among all nations; and the same enthusiasm and fire, the same wild and irregular, but animated composition, concise and glowing style, bold and extravagant figures of speech, are the general distinguishing characters, of all the most ancient original poetry. That strong hyperbolic manner, which we have been long accustomed to call the oriental manner of poetry (because some of the earliest poetical productions came to us from the east) is in truth no more oriental than occidental; it is characteristical of an age rather than of a country; and belongs, in some measure, to all nations at that period which first gives rise to music and song. Mankind never resemble each other so much as they do in the beginnings of society. Its subsequent revolutions give birth to the principal distinctions of character among nations, and divert into channels widely separated, that current of human genius and manners, which descends originally from one spring. [20]

Blair’s discourse, here, is clearly influenced by the philological discoveries of eighteenth-century Indology. Claiming the “oriental” manner as no different than the “occidental,” Blair powerfully projects Jones’s and other philologists’ suppositions about the origin of human language onto “character . . . genius and manners.” Ancient poetry, for Blair, is “characteristical of an age rather than a country,” homogenous and universal in the primitive phase (an idealized community) but then becoming heterogeneous as a society civilizes. The primitive is portrayed as fundamentally poetical both because of its themes (martial, national) and its forms – (wild, animated). Following these eighteenth-century precedents, Macaulay combined Scott’s accentual four-beat line and the rumored Latin Saturnian verse form to give the ballad even more ideological weight as an access point to an originary wildness and animation – an effect we still associate with what we now call the “ballad stanza.”

Michael Cohen’s discussion of balladization, which grows out of Jackson and Prins’s argument about lyricization, is useful here: “Ballad reading made certain assumptions about the objects it encountered: among them, that the poems indexed particular times, places, and cultures; that they both narrated and constituted popular, social history; and that they created in readers a sense of identification with the collective spirit embodied in the poem.”[21] Both processes –balladization and lyricization – highlight the heterogeneity of poetic forms and the mutable, unstable genres that reading practices consolidate. And, indeed, the earliest contrary definitions of the ballad stanza support this thinking. Variable definitions of the ballad stanza persist throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries and do not solidify into the notion we have now (a quatrain of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimester) until the turn of the twentieth-century. An 1806 Annual Review article by Robert Southey notes that the common ballad stanza was a couplet.[22] Scott’s Minstrelsy claims that “longer metrical romances, which were in fashion in the middle ages, were reduced to shorter compositions, in order that they might be chanted before an inferior audience.”[23] For Scott, modernizing and moving a ballad away from its imagined original form is to balladize it, so that the transmission from the past to the present of ancient ballads means their degradation and corruption.[24] In English, and according to Scott, this process of degradation involved dividing two longer lines of seven accents into four lines of four, three, four, three, which, Scott writes, is “now generally called the ballad stanza.”[25] An 1810 Monthly Review article hypothesizes: “Our metre indeed once consisted of a lumbering line of sixteen syllables. The division of these long verses produced our ballad stanza of 8-6 syllables alternately; one of the most elegant forms of our versification, adapted equally to the unity of narrative and variety of passion.”[26] Southey’s 1821 preface to Vision of Judgment makes the history of the ballad stanza a dilemma of print: “the English line greatly exceeds the ancient one in literal length so that it is actually too long for any page if printed in types of the originary proportion to the size of the book, whatever that may be.”[27] By 1859, William Ramsay’s Manual of Latin Prosody could retrospectively summarize the craze for “fourfold rhythm” derived from the revival of Anglo-Saxon songs, citing Spanish, German, and Persian verses as all containing four feet.[28] Just as “ballads” referred to poetry from a lost community, so too did the lost and reconstructed origin of the “ballad stanza” – which sometimes had four lines, sometimes seven – occupy literary critics. Despite the heterogeneity of ballads, including Macaulay’s, that demonstrated a variety of stanzaic patterns, rhyme schemes, line lengths, and meters, the transhistoric and cross-cultural story of the ballad quatrain took firm hold in nearly all literary historical accounts from the 1920s on.[29]

In addition, there were heterogeneous names for ballads. Something described as a ballad might be called a lay, something called a lay might be termed a ballad. Niebuhr uses the word “Lieder,” which scholars now think is etymologically different from “Lay,” but when History of Rome was first translated in 1828 by Thirwall and Hare they used “Lay.” And of course between Niebuhr’s use of the word and Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the word seems to have referred to a “transcription” of a song, imagined to have been orally transmitted to an ancient community and narrating a past event important to that ancient community – a fantasy of a community held together by that song. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined a “Lay” as “a poem or song,” and a ballad as simply “a song.” Of course the OED was itself just beginning to be assembled from fragments at the time Macaulay published his Lays so it is no surprise that the OED’s first four nineteenth-century examples are Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, Keble’s Christian Year, Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and a passage from Macaulay’s 1853 History of England: “the popular lays chaunted about the streets of Norwich and Leeds in the time of Charles the Second.”[30] The “lay” all but disappears, replaced by ballad entirely in the twentieth-century. But the connotations of Lay, as in both a “law,” something that can civilize, and the “laity,” something sung by or to a “lay” person – someone not in the clergy, a commoner – these simultaneously infect ideas about the ballad.

Macaulay yoked together what Scott calls the “singularly irregular structure of . . . stanzas” in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” –a “mescalonza of measures”— with a controversial interpretation of Latin Saturnian verses from Niebuhr, whose Roman ballad-theory of civilization was seen as so important by historians that Thomas Arnold learned German to read it. Niebuhr’s hotly contested ballad theory of 1812 made a prosodic argument that scattered references to Saturnian verse form proved that Latin ballads preceded the Greek epics.[31] Niebuhr used Virgil’s description of the rustics, among others, to assert that these early Latin ballads were wild, uncivilized songs. By using an analogical approach to history, Niebuhr argued that early Roman history would have been transmitted through songs. He suggested, like Blair, that all nations go through a similar process of development and, noting the existence of heroic poetry in Scandinavia, Greece, Serbia, and Scotland, claimed that such heroic poems must be a universal phenomenon. Because these must exist among all nations, they must also have existed in ancient Rome. Macaulay summarized in his preface, “While Virgil in hexameters of exquisite modulation, described the sports of the rustics, those rustics were still singing their wild Saturnian ballads.”[32]

Niebuhr’s theory unapologetically praised the wild, martial Roman society– and, broadly, kept alive a kind of now-tamed but always-ready-to-erupt wildness– before the gradual amalgamation of Roman and Hellenic civilization. Indeed, Niebuhr’s proof for his ballad theory rested solely on his interpretation of the Saturnian verse form. So much depended on this form that he intended to write a separate prosodic treatise exploring it. Saturnian verse form, then, was the false consolidation of an invented ancient past under the banner of the ballad. And the ancient past that the ballad represented was read as the primitive, martial origin of a society – ancient Rome – that would become perfectly civilized by the influence of Hellenism. That is, the primitive martial wildness in ancient Roman times was subtly tamed by the Hellenistic civilization – the Greeks. Niebuhr’s theories recuperated those wild Roman ballads at the same time that they justified a more abrupt process of civilization in which one primitive culture in the ballad phase is co-opted, colonized, and refined by a better civilization into the model of the modern nation state. It is this notion of civilization that Macaulay has in mind when he introduces his own Lays using Niebuhr’s theories. This is from Macaulay’s fascinating preface to the Lays, again interpreting Niebuhr’s theories:

there was an earlier Latin literature, a literature truly Latin, which has wholly perished, which had, indeed, almost wholly perished long before those whom we are in the habit of regarding as the greatest Latin writers were born. That literature abounded with metrical romances, such as are found in every country where there is much curiosity and intelligence, but little reading and writing. All human beings, not utterly savage, long for some information about past times, and are delighted by narratives that present pictures to the eye of the mind. But it is only in very enlightened communities that books are readily accessible. Metrical composition, therefore, which, in a highly civilized nation, is a mere luxury, is, in nations imperfectly civilized, almost a necessary of life, and is valued less on account of the pleasure which it gives to the ear, than on account of the help which it gives to the memory. . . . Such is the origin of ballad-poetry, a species of composition which scarcely ever fails to spring up and flourish in every society, at a certain point in the progress toward refinement” (171).

Again, the origin story, written three months before the Minute on Indian Education, a now much more famous piece about literature’s violent uses in colonialism’s progress narrative. If Saturnian verses are the occidental parallel to the ancient oriental poetry cited by Blair, then how do we define them? Of course, scholars still don’t agree on what actually constitutes a Saturnian meter. Niebuhr’s theories sparked decades of vehement prosodic denials. Macaulay tries to summarize the debates in a long footnote, concluding finally – and succinctly – that “there cannot be a more perfect Saturnian line” than “the queen was in her parlour, eating bread and honey” from the English folk song “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (178). Or, for the metrically ambitious, it was said to consist of two parts: a catalectic dimeter iambic followed by three trochees. So, essentially, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Saturnian meter is a measure that can sound like a 4/3/4/3 measure, with alternating iambs and trochees with an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the iambic lines.[33]

Lays, ballads, invented national pasts, heroes, military exploits, histories of poetic form – these are all present in Macaulay’s prefatory material and in the poems themselves. As he explains: “the lost ballad poetry of Rome has transformed into history. To reverse that process, to transform some portions of early Roman history back into the poetry out of which they were made, is the object of this work” (185). He credits Livy and The Iliad for his narratives and includes detailed prefaces to each of the four poems. “Horatius,” the poem I’ll use as my closing example here, is subtitled “a Lay made about the year of the city 360.” The city is important because it is a poem about the preservation of that city, Rome, its heroic defense at the bridge over the river Tiber. He writes “the following ballad is supposed to have been made about a hundred and twenty years after the war which it celebrates, and just before the taking of Rome by the Gauls.” So at the time Macaulay imagines this ballad is being sung, its imagined singer is projecting an already achieved union between the patricians and the plebeians that had not yet occurred in the imagined historical moment that the poem narrates. In fact, he is describing ballad discourse when he describes his imaginary invented “author:” “The author seems to have been an honest citizen, proud of the military glory of his country, sick of the disputes of factions, and much given to pining after the good old times which had never really existed” (188). The projection, here, from Macaulay’s India, where he is proud of the military glory of his own country and much given to pining after the good old times, to this pre-Republican Roman citizen who is, in the story, projecting back to a time when the citizens of ancient Rome could rally to the defense of their city – a simple, tribal community – is full of the pathos of ballad discourse. But the invented projected pasts don’t end there – the poem is full of these double and triple projections, in which Macaulay tells the story of the story of the story and then dictates how the story will be repeated over and over again. These double and triple projections are expressed thematically and formally throughout the opening (and arguably most well-known) poem of the Lays, “Horatius at the Bridge.”

“Horatius” doesn’t begin with the hero; it starts in the early days of Roman Republic and narrates how the last exiled king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, rallied an Etruscan army led by his ally Lars Porsena, to invade Rome. Here is the first stanza – this is still 300 years before the Roman Empire:

Lars Porsena of Clusium

By the Nine Gods he swore

That the great house of Tarquin

Should suffer wrong no more.

By the Nine Gods he swore it,

And named a trysting day,

And bade his messengers ride forth

East and west and south and north,

To summon his array (1-9).                                                               


The repetition of “By the Nine Gods he swore” serves as momentum, secures the three-beat trimeters, and also shows that an external presence – the nine gods – give him authority that he then sends to the messenger, who will ride east and west and south and north – also repeated in the second stanza, to spread the word that he will attack Rome. The following stanzas show the pastoral scenes from which  “the horsemen and the footmen / Are pouring in amain” (l. 18-19) gathering to form Lars Porsena’s “array,” summoned by a messenger. Though we have already seen the effect that Lars Porsena’s messenger will have, Macaulay makes the martial effort mythical, the result of a prophecy:

. . .  thirty chosen prophets

The wisest of the land,

Who always 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 (66-73).   


Beginning with Lars Porsena’s verbal oath to the nine gods, spread throughout the land by messengers, and sanctioned by the prophets who read and re-read verses in order to interpret that Lars Porsena’s oath was prophesied before he swore it, the poem’s opening thematically enacts the same circularity as the chiastic “morn and evening / evening and morn.” These, along with the regular structures of anaphora, serve as an eddying repetition that seems to be moving the story forward but is also always turning it in on itself.

Though the anaphora and chiasmus persist, the poem moves forward and expands during battle. Macaulay shows both insecurity and foreshadowing that the early Roman republic will not, facing fearful odds, win out against a multitude whipped up to a frenzy – a subtle echo of his fear of colonial revolt:

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 (162-173).


The battle is beautiful, and a welcome break from the many previous stanzas outlining how every facet of society readies itself for battle. The trope of counting – Lars Porsena’s array and the thirty prophets who spoke as one – is expressed formally here. The lines in the middle of each stanza keep expanding – expand three times, in fact, so that each of the quatrains becomes two lines of trimeter followed by three of tetrameter and close with another trimeter line. Three is the figure of the poem, but the first big battle stanza, twenty-one (multiple of three, of course) needs extra feet for the vision of the large army. With that in mind, it isn’t surprising in stanza twenty-seven when Horatius delivers his stirring speech, and two volunteers join him to guard the bridge, that these three become, for the rest of the poem “the dauntless three:”

Then out spake brave Horatius

The Captain of the Gate:

‘To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

An how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods (217-224).


The poem is now in the universal realm -- about respecting the valor of any martial enemy, the purity of it, the beauty and simplicity of combat, what is seen as pure, primitive, and perfect about war and songs about war. The verses of Rudyard Kipling and Henry Newbolt are foreshadowed here, in the imperial balladic realm of Macaulay’s invented past; the three strong beats of each line sound imperative and unifying.

It is tempting to say that the three strong trimeter beats amid a variable number of syllables represent the consolidation of the three heroes who are saving the bridge; an expressive reading that, along with the occasional galloping tetrameters as the army advances serves to help hundreds of schoolchildren memorize this poem. There is also the layer of Macaulay’s own commitment to the classics. Yopie Prins’s work on Victorian Hellenism has trained me to see that two lines of trimeter can form an accentual hexameter line, and Macaulay would have been aware of the controversies around translating Homer at mid-century.[34] But perhaps the trimeter is significant for the very reason that it is simply that – trimeter, variously expanded to tetrameter. It is not any sort of recognizable “ballad stanza,” nor really an imitative “Saturnian verse” though Macaulay spends pages in his introduction telling us what that is. We are guided through a reading of the poem by the effect of the strong trimeter beats and the way the tetrameter lines are interspersed at moments when the action builds; we are also guided through the performance of authentically reading the preponderance of Latin names, as if we would have been familiar with them – the Latin syllables so etched into the meter that we are not supposed to misstep as we say them aloud. The three stand at the gate as stanzas of challengers come at us, daring us to recite improperly: “Then Ocnus of Falerii / Rushed on the Roman Three; / And Lausulus of Urgo / The Rover of the sea; And Arum of Volsinium, / Who slew the great wild boar” (319-324) and on and on, so that these multitudes also fade – become both specific and interchangeable enemies in a vernacular faux-classicism.

The versification was praised as “without flaws,” and they were well known as poems that “the general reader is wise enough to know . . . by heart” despite Matthew Arnold’s condemnation.[35] Richard Horne writes in 1843 that “the style and form of his metres and rhythms, which are not classical but Gothic, and often remind us of Percy’s Reliques, [make] no attempt to imitate the ancient metres.”[36] They were read as an “array of strong thoughts and glittering fancies bounding along a rushing stream of feeling” by Edwin Percy Whipple, importing that glittering array of spears into his reading of the poem, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning exclaimed that “Macaulay . . . has a noble, clear, metallic note in his soul, and makes us ready by it for battle . . . I . . . could scarcely read his ballads and keep lying down. They seemed to draw me up to my feet as the mesmeric powers are said to do.”[37] McKelvy and Donald Gray argue that the popularity of Lays of Ancient Rome increased toward the end of the century, and certainly their inclusion in school books and in collections like David Montgomery’s 1895 Heroic Ballads with Poems of War and Patriotism[38] did little to diminish their reputation as patriotic poems that were, at first, telling a story of civilization but, by the end of the nineteenth century were read as a story of sacrifice, slaughter, war, and heroic action – a story that fit into the early twentieth-century concept of what ballads could inspire a community to feel and do.[39] By 1906, George Saintsbury writes that the ballad is “the most definitely English—blood and bone, flesh and marrow—of all English meters.”[40]

I want to conclude by showing how Macaulay predicted that these poems would be received. Here are the final three stanzas of the poem.

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 armour,

And trims his helmets 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 (566-589).


We are in a pastoral scene here, which is important. Maureen McLane usefully condenses the civilizing project of the ballad in one discursive sweep: “balladeering discourse relies on  . . . cultural comparison . . . variously informed by Enlightenment anthropology, Rousseauian primitivism, antiquarian eclecticism, and a Scottish mode of conjectural history in which a ‘rude’ age was imagined to be succeeded by pastoral and ultimately commercial eras.”[41] Macaulay also condenses the ballad theory of civilization into such a sweep, but with a strategy: he has compressed his war-song into a three-stanza pastoral, a cottage surrounded by a tempest – the threat of violence outside, the threat of what the pastoral civilizes. The goat has been sacrificed – the “kid” turns on the spit and will be eaten. The primitive, natural world outside is no match for the roar of the fire inside – both the fire of the healthy family hearth and the inspirational fire of the poem. Something now figured as even more primal prevails here, the passing on of the story through repetition. The children are a crucial part of the circle around the fire, the “young and old in circle,” and the girl is weaving a basket – lay also means lathe, to weave – as the boy is shaping a bow – because the story will be, inevitably, about battle. And the mother and father have taught them this – the mother weaves her shuttle in the loom, the father polishes his armor. The children’s activities are presented here not as learned forms from the parents but as natural activities that have progressed to perfection in the mother and father’s activities. Macaulay imagines and enacts how poetry is in touch with this universal primitive whenever it is assigned the task of representing the transmission of civilization through generations. The fire, the circle, the story being told “still” though it is a story of action, this is the fantasy of the ballad, its primitive scene, the family of man.       

But that is not the only story I want to tell. The unanswered question of the ballad form, the abstract notion of its primitive nature, permeates both this scene and Macaulay’s notion of civilizing India through English poetry. If a hybrid of the primitive and the civilized could produce Hellenic culture from the martial patriotism of ancient Rome to the refinement of the Greeks, then some combination of secular mysticism and Englishness could perfectly civilize India. Ballad discourse and imperial discourse are intertwined through this question of poetic form based not on a stanza or a syllable count, but on an abstract notion of the primitive mind, the peasant, the savage, the working class child. Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome operates as a bridge between late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century romantic ideas of poetry, imagined primitive communities and fragmentary history, and later revivals of these ideas. By the turn of the twentieth-century, when these poems are re-animated as an emblem of England’s imperial might after the Sepoy revolt and are swept into what I’ve elsewhere called the “military metrical complex,” they become merely another emblem of England’s blindness.[42] But this narrower notion of the national ballad erases their complicated and expansive pre-history, and erases what Macaulay demonstrated: that the lay is always a fantasy form, that the ballad doesn’t have a folk, that the idea of a stable ballad stanza form is an abstraction of actual verse history. By ignoring the history of this poem’s creation we miss the discourses that Macaulay so carefully considered as he assembled these imaginary fragments into immensely popular and influential poems. Ignoring Macaulay’s Lays and the discourse around them, then, allows us to keep intact that powerful fantasy of poetic purity (often in the guise of preliterate universalism masquerading as rhythm). I have been arguing that such fantasies are what we now call poetic form.


[1] Thomas Babington Macaulay, The Lays of Ancient Rome (London: Longman, 1842).

The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7 vol., eds. Stephen Greenblatt, M.H. Abrams, Catherine Robson, and Carol Christ (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Co. 2005); The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, eds. Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne Rundle (Ontario and NY: Broadview Press, 1999).

[2] Matthew Arnold, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R.H. Super, 11 vol. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1960-77): 1:211. As William McKelvy writes “Arnold could not ‘allow that Homer’s poetry is ballad-poetry at all’ (1:207), and for Arnold to discredit the notion that Homer’s epics were like popular ballads, he needed to convince his audience that Macaulay’s ballads were not at all poetic.” Mckelvy, “Primitive Ballads, Modern Criticism, Ancient Skepticism: Macaulay’s Lay’s of Ancient Rome.Victorian Literature and Culture (2000): 290.

[3] See Meredith Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012).

[4] See Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, (New York: Columbia UP, 1989); Elmer Cutts, “The Background of Macaulay’s Minute” The American Historical Review, 58 (July 1953): 824-853; Catherine Hall, “Macaulay’s Nation” Victorian Studies, 51 (Spring 2009): 505-523, and Clare A. Simmons “Macaulay’s Rome and the Defense of Classicism” Prose Studies, 31 (August 2009): 102-112.

[5] Thomas Babington Macaulay, The Complete Writings of Lord Macaulay, 20 vol. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900) 17: 8-9. Quoted in McKelvy, 292. One of the most frequently quoted lines from “Horatius,” the first poem of four in the book, is “then none were for a party / and all were for the state.”

[6] Thomas Babington Macaulay, The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, ed. Thomas Pinney, 6 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1974-81) 4:66.

[7] Peter Clarke, A Macaulay Letter. Notes and Queries, (October 1967): 369. He probably landed at Madras, now Chennai, and traveled to Ootacamund (now Ooty) from there.

[8] Macaulay, Letters, 4:59.

[9] Letters 4:62.

[10] See Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: Consisting of Historical and Romantic Ballads, Collected in the Southern Counties of Scotland; With a Few of Modern Date, Founded Upon Local Tradition. In Two Volumes. Vol. I (II). (Kelso: Printed By James Ballantyne, For T. Cadell Jun. And W. Davies, Strand, London; And Sold by Manners and Miller, and A. Constable, Edinburgh, 1802-1803).

[11] Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel: with a memoir of the author (Boston: Little, Brown, 1863): 22.

[12] Barthold Niebhur, Römische Geschichte, (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1811-1812); Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996); Virginia Jackson “Longfellow’s Tradition; or, Picture-Writing a Nation,” Modern Language Quarterly, 59 (December 1998): 471-496; Michael Cohen, “Whittier, Ballad Reading, and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Poetry” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, 64, (Autumn 2008): 1-29 and “Popular Ballads: Rhythmic Remediations in the Nineteenth Century.” Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Jason Hall, (Athens: Ohio UP, 2011); Susan Stewart, “Scandals of the Ballad” Representations (Autumn 1990) 134-156; “Notes on Distressed Genres,” The Journal of American Folklore, 104, (Winter 1991): 5-31 and Crimes of Writing (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1994).

[13] Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, ed. Christopher John Murray, 2 vol. (New York, Oxford: Taylor & Francis) 2:807.

[14] See E.F. Shaffer, Kubla Khan and the Fall of Jersualem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980).

[15] “Hence, the expressions of Lesly the historian, quoted in the following Introduction, in which he paints the delight taken by the Borderers in their peculiar species of music, and the rhyming ballads in which they celebrated the feats of their ancestors, or recorded their own ingenious stratagems in predatory warfare. In the same Introduction the reader will find the reasons alleged why the taste for song was and must have been longer preserved on the Border than in the interior of the country” Minstrelsy, 23-24.

[16] Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997): xi.

[17] “The Third Anniversary Discourse on the Hindus,” Feb. 2, 1786 in Winfred P. Lehman, A Reader in Nineneeth-Century Indo-European Historical Linguistics (Indiana: Indiana UP: 1968). Accessed online August 12, 2014.

[18] The Norton Anthology of English Literature 6:1640.

[19] Stewart writes “in appropriating folklore genres, the literary tradition was able to create an idealization of itself through a separation of speech and writing. Such a separation, anchored in a mimetic theory of representation, always posits speech as a form of nature” “Distressed” (8).

[20] Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, (London: W. Strahan; T. Cadell, and W. Creech, 1785): 79.

[21] Cohen, “Ballad Reading,” 5.

[22] Robert Southey, “Todd’s Works of Edmund Spenser” Annual Review of History and Literature, 4 (1806): 544-555, esp. 553.

[23] Scott, “Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry,”14.

[24] See Simon Dentith, “Walter Scott and Heroic Minstrelsy” in Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge UP, 2006).

[25] “Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry,” 24.

[26] “Review of Pegge’s Anonymiana,” The Monthly Review, 63 (September-December, 1810): 302.

[27] Southey continues, 1821: “The same inconvenience was formerly felt in that fine measure of the Elizabethan age, the seven-footed couplet, which to the diminution of its powers was for that reason divided into quatrains (the pause generally falling on the eighth syllable) and then converted into the common ballad stanza.” Nathaniel Halhed, in Grammar of Bengal (Bengal: Hoogley, 1778) (the first of its kind), states that the verses of Bengal “like those of the Arabians and Persians are in Rhyme. . . The metre most usually applied in Shanscrit [sic] poems is a stanza composed of four lines . . . each of which answers to a dimeter iambic, with the rhyme on the second and fourth line.” 201.

[28] William Ramsay, Manual of Latin Prosody (London and Glasgow: Richard Griffin and Company, 1859). Ramsay devotes nearly twenty pages to the debates over the most primitive Latin poetry, supposedly rude verses in “Saturnian” verse form, the earliest imagined Latin ballad form. “These verses in use from the remotest times are quite analogous to the Persian, Arabic, the ancient German, Northern and Anglo-Saxon verses, and in fact to all in which alliteration prevails” (12).

[29] See The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 47, Special Issue: Ballads and Songs of the Eighteenth Century (Summer/Fall 2006).

[30] Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James II, 3 vol. (London: Longman, Green): I: 418.

[31] Translated in 1827 by F.A. Walter but immediately superseded by translation of second edition by Julius Hare and Connop Thirlwall, completed by William Smith and Leonhard Schmitz (last edition, 1847-1851).

[32] Thomas Macaulay, Complete Writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 10 vol. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901): 10, 180.

[33] See W. Beare, “Pollicis Ictus, the Saturnian, and Beowulf,” Classical Philology 50 (April 1955) 89-97.

[34] See Yopie Prins, “Nineteenth-Century Homers and the Hexameter Mania,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, eds. Michael Wood and Sandra Bermann (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005).

[35] William Ernest Henley, Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys (New York: Scribner, 1891) 353 note.

[36] Richard Horne, A New Spirit of the Age (London: Smith, Elder & Company) 2: 49.

[37] Edwin Percy Whipple, English Poets of the Nineteenth Century, Essays and Reviews vol. 1, 340. 1843, in a letter to Horne, Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 2 vol. (New York: Macmillan, 1897) 1: 166.

[38] David Montgomery, Heroic Ballads with Poems of War and Patriotism (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1895).

[39] Donald Gray, “Macaulay Lays of Ancient Rome and the Publication of Nineteenth-Century British Poetry,” Victorian Literature and Society: Essays Presented to Richard D. Altick, (Athens: Ohio UP, 1984).

[40] George Saintsbury, History of English Prosody (London: Macmillan, 1906-1910) 3 vol. 1:247.

[41] Maureen McLane, Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), 92.

[42] See Martin, Rise and Fall of Meter, chapter 4.

Article Information

Publication date: 
May 18, 2018


Join the Colloquy

Prosody: Alternative Histories

Eric Weiskott, Natalie Gerber
Book Chapter
Book Chapter
Journal Article
Journal Article
Journal Article
Book Chapter
Journal Article