The Poem

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At Ardea, where the Romans are fighting, two Roman leaders, Tarquin and Collatine, speak together one evening. Collatine describes his beautiful young wife, Lucrece, in such glowing terms that Tarquin’s passions are aroused. The next morning, Tarquin leaves the Roman host and journeys to Collatium, where the unsuspecting Lucrece welcomes him as one of her husband’s friends. As Tarquin tells her many tales of Collatine’s prowess on the battlefield, he looks admiringly at Lucrece and decides that she is the most beautiful woman in Rome.

In the night, while the others of the household are asleep, Tarquin lays restless. Caught between desire for Lucrece and dread of being discovered, to the consequent loss of his honor, he wanders aimlessly about his chamber. On one hand, there is his position as a military man who should not be the slave of his emotions; on the other hand is his overwhelming desire. He fears the dreadful consequences that might be the result of his lustful deed. His disgrace would never be forgotten. Perhaps his own face would show the mark of his crimes and the advertisement linger on even after death. He thinks for a moment that he might try to woo Lucrece but decides that such a course would be to no avail. She is already married and is not mistress of her own desires. Again he considers the possible consequences of his deed.

At last, emotion conquers reason. As Tarquin makes his way to Lucrece’s chamber, many petty annoyances deter him. The locks on the doors have to be forced; the threshold beneath the door grates under his footstep; the wind threatens to blow out his torch; he pricks his finger on a needle. Tarquin ignores these omens of disaster. In fact, he misconstrues them as forms of trial that only make his “prize” more worth winning.

When he reaches the chamber door, Tarquin begins to pray for success. Realizing, however, that heaven will not countenance his sin, he declares that Love and Fortune will henceforth be his gods. Entering the room, he gazes at Lucrece in sleep. When he reaches forward to touch her breast, she awakens with a cry of fear. He tells her that her beauty has captured his heart and that she must submit to his will. First he threatens Lucrece with force, telling her that if she refuses to submit to him, he will not only kill her but also dishonor her name. His intention is to murder one of her slaves, place him in her arms, and then swear that he killed them because he had seen Lucrece embracing the man. If she yields, however, he promises he will keep the whole affair secret. Lucrece begins to weep and pleads with Tarquin. For the sake of her hospitality, her husband’s friendship, Tarquin’s position as a warrior, he must pity her and refrain from this deed. Her tears only increase his lust. Tarquin smothers her cries with the bed linen while he rapes her.

Shame-ridden, Tarquin leaves Lucrece, who is horrified and revolted. She tears her nails and hopes the dawn will never come. In a desperate fury, she rails against the night; its darkness and secrecy have ruined her. She is afraid of the day, for surely her sin will be revealed. Still worse, through her fall, Collatine will be forever shamed. It is Opportunity that is at fault, she claims, working for the wicked and against the innocent. Time, the handmaiden of ugly Night, is hand-in-hand with Opportunity, but Time can work for Lucrece now. She implores Time to bring misery and pain...

(This entire section contains 903 words.)

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to Tarquin. Exhausted from her emotional tirade, Lucrece falls back on her pillow. She longs for a suicide weapon; death alone could save her soul.

As the dawn breaks, she begins to consider her death. Not until she has told Collatine the complete details of her fall will she take the step, however, for Collatine must revenge her on Tarquin. Lucrece calls her maid and asks for pen and paper. Writing to Collatine, she asks him to return immediately. When she gives the messenger the letter, she imagines that he knows of her sin, for he gives her a sly, side glance. Surely everyone must know by now, she thinks. Her grief takes new channels. Studying a picture of the fall of Troy, she tries to find the face showing greatest grief. Hecuba, who gazes mournfully at Priam in his dying moments, seems the saddest. Lucrece grieves for those who died in the Trojan War, all because one man could not control his lust. Enraged, she tears the painting with her nails.

Collatine, returning home, finds Lucrece robed in black. With weeping and lamentations, she tells him of her shame, but without naming her violator. After she finishes, Collatine, driven half-mad by rage and grief, demands the name of the traitor. Before revealing it, Lucrece draws promises from the assembled soldiers that the loss of her honor would be avenged. Then, naming Tarquin, she draws a knife from her bosom and stabs herself.

Heartbroken, Collatine cries that he will kill himself as well, but Brutus, his friend, steps forward and argues that woe is no cure for woe; it is better to revenge Lucrece. The soldiers leave the palace to carry the bleeding body of Lucrece through Rome. The indignant citizens banish Tarquin and all his family.