The Girl I Kissed at Clusium | Roman Marching Song by Rosemary Sutcliff

Anne wrote long ago at the Tab ‘Write!” above about the song The Girl I Kissed At Clusium. (Write – do use it, so many readers and visitors here are vastly more insightful and knowledgeable about Rosemary Sutcliff than I ).

As for why Rosemary Sutcliff used (Clusium—an ancient Etruscan city, one of the Etrurian confederacy that fought it out with Rome for supremacy in the early days)  for her famous legionary marching song in The Eagle of the Ninth, I think the answer lies in her early schooling. She mentions in her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills, just how much she and her classmates enjoyed declaiming Macaulay’s stirring poem, ‘Horatius (at the Bridge)’. Who could forget that image of Horatius and his two comrades gallantly holding the Pons Sublicius against the invading army of Lars Porsena, king of Clusium in the late 6th century BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium?

Meanwhile the Tuscan army, right glorious to behold,
Came 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.
Source

Here are Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words, so you can see the effect Macaulay’s poem had upon her young sensibilities.

We learned verse upon verse of Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ and proclaimed them with glorious fierceness, stiffening the sinews, summoning up the blood and lending the eyes a terrible aspect under the beetling brows of imaginary helmets:

‘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.’

Who were the Nine Gods? What wrong was the great house of Tarquin suffering? We had no idea. But the lines have the true trumpet ring to them yet; the purposeful tramp of a legion’s feet on the march.

The snatches of the legionnaires’ song in The Eagle of the Ninth are

Oh when I joined the Eagles
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away
A long march, a long march
And twenty years in store
When I left my girl at Clusium
Beside the threshing-floor

The girls of Spain were honey-sweet,
And the golden girls of Gaul:
And the Thracian maids were soft as birds
To hold the heart in thrall.
But the girl I kissed at Clusium
Kissed and left at Clusium,
The girl I kissed at Clusium
I remember best of all

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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