Ballad of the White Horse


As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Daughter and I are reading Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse as part of our Year 7 studies.   And as I mentioned in another earlier post, I am reading a great deal of poetry lately.  So between the history, and the poetry, I was destined to fall in love with this stunningly observant and prescient poem.

C.S. Lewis states my subsequent problem succinctly in Reflections on the Psalms when he says that “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.”

Imagine my joy to find by way of the CiRCE blog, another blog called Amongst Lovely Things whose author,  Sarah MacKenzie is hosting a bloggy gathering called Weekends  with Chesterton, where all sorts of people are sharing favorite quotes and snappy one-liners from G.K. Chesterton’s great abundance of writings. Brilliant! Perfect!

The Ballad of the White Horse takes the form of eight chapters called books focusing on the defining Battle of Ethandun in 878 where King Alfred the Great comes back from staggering defeat to successfully defend England and Christianity against the invasion of the Danes led by King Guthrum.  The Books are preceded by a Prefatory Note in which Chesterton disclaims a strictly factual account of this historical battle and informs the reader of his artistic choices.  Following is a poetic Dedication, a beautiful tribute to the instrumental role his wife Frances, played in his faith journey.  While some might skip to the poem, I refuse to do so:

Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
Who brought the cross to me,
Since on you flaming without flaw
I saw the sign that Guthrum saw
When he let break his ships of awe,
And laid peace on the sea.

And I thought, “I will go with you,
As man with God has gone,
And wander with a wandering star,
The wandering heart of things that are,
The fiery cross of  love and war
That like yourself, goes on.”

Up through an empty house of stars,
Being what heart you are,
Up the inhuman steeps of space
As on a staircase go in grace,
Carrying the firelight on your face
Beyond the loneliest star.

There are sixteen stanzas in the Dedication; so there are other stanzas before, between and following these three stanzas I’ve lifted out to share.   In the notes provided by Sharon K. Higby in the Seton Press edition, she reminds us of the convention in epic poetry to honor the muse, who in Chesterton’s case is his wife, Frances.  He alludes in the second stanza to Ruth’s faith commitment to Naomi, in making his own.  The last stanza I’ve quoted celebrates the impact Christians have on their families when they can shine the light of Christ in even the coldest and loneliest circumstances.

G.K. Chesterton & his wife Frances
G.K. Chesterton & his wife Frances

Next Sunday, I’ll share a few stanzas from Book 1 The Vision of the King.  And explain about the horse.  Thanks for reading!

There are abundant options for reading this beautiful poem online.  If you’d like to listen to the Ballad of the White Horse, a fellow WordPress Blogger, priest, poet, teacher and author Malcolm Guite provides additional background, and links to his recordings of all nine books of the epic poem, should you want to have a listen.  If you are a Librivox fan, here is link, Librivox Recording on Youtube by Phillippe Acazou. Each book of the poem is fairly brief, running between 12 to 16 minutes each.

This is our third epic poem this year.  We read confidently through Beowulf while listening to Seamus Heaney, aided by the copious notes available online.  We were then confidant taking on Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight with Simon Armitrage, but missed some of the symbolism, so I sought guidance in order to savor every word of the rich poetry of G. K. Chesterton. The Daughter and I are well pleased with the Seton Press edition of the Ballad of the White Horse. There are helpful notes on the poetic elements, footnotes, a map, summaries, references and wonderful illustrations by Ben Hatke (Link here to his amazing blog Art and Adventure!)

Thanks to Sarah MacKenzie for hosting this link up and giving me the opportunity to share!
Weekends With Chesterton

9 thoughts on “Ballad of the White Horse

  1. Oh I’m so happy to meet you! 🙂 I have yet to approach Chesterton’s poetry (I do it in great fear and trembling, because I don’t really know how to enjoy poetry as I know I ought…). At any rate, I’m grateful for your insight here. 🙂 Welcome to Weekends with Chesterton! We’re glad you’re along for the ride.

  2. This is so wonderful! Some years back I bought a set of two cassette tapes of GKC himself reading The Ballad of the White Horse. When I read your post just now dug them out of a box and popped the first one in the player; I’m listening to it as I type. I bought them so that I could listen in the car, but the recording is so poor that I miss a third of the words, and really should read along with the printed poem. Still, it is very special to have the poet’s own voice! I hadn’t thought to look for another better reading by someone else, but now that you have shared options for that, I will plan on pursuing that.
    More recently, when my daughter and I were in England, we visited White Horse Hill just because of my desire to make the physical, material connection to the whole subject, and we walked all over that mysterious and historic horse.
    I’m also so happy to meet you Garners here on Weekends With Chesterton! Thanks very much for posting, and thank you again, Sarah, for hosting this discussion. It’s hard to believe we aren’t even a quarter of the way through the year, and already we’ve received a great deal of blessing from the treasures of this beloved man’s mind and heart – with more to come!

    1. I’m so glad to have reminded you of your treasure! I agree there is something very wonderful at work when a poet reads his own writing. Thanks for reading!

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