A Horse, a War and a Vision

Madonna & Child Book of Kells Oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in Western manuscript.
Madonna & Child
Book of Kells
Oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in Western manuscript.

This is my second post about G.K. Cheston’s epic poem Ballad of the White Horse.

G.K. Chesterton organized his epic by chapters, or books as they are called.  After the lovely Dedication to his wife Frances, he plunges us into the darkest days of King Alfred’s Life in the first book entitled The Vision of the King.  It has three scenes which are the establishing shots, if you will, for the rest of the ballad.

Uffington White Horse
Uffington White Horse

An enormous white horse gallops across the green hillside in Uffington.  Carved into the green hillside by, at best guess, a bronze age society, the turf has been removed exposing the white chalky soil beneath.  It is a feature of England that has always been, and has watched and seen the ebb and flow of power throughout British history from the Celtic tribes to the invasion of Rome, to the fall of Rome, and beyond.

“Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.”

“Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.”

“For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.”

The ballad turns to King Alfred at a low point in his life.  England is invaded by the Danes and has been unable to fend them off. Alfred has shamefully paid off the Danes to buy a little peace for his people for a few years.  His enemy is well supplied, exceeds  his forces in number, is entrenched, in essence, is unbeatable, and Alfred mourns the loss of the House of  Wessex on his watch.

“A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered and strove to stand.”

“Our towns were shaken of tall kings
With scarlet beards like blood:
The world turned empty where they trod
The took the kindly cross of God
And cut it up for wood.”

“For earthquake swallowing earthquake
Uprent the Wessex tree
The whirlpool of the pagan sway
Had swirled his sires as sticks away
When a flood smites the sea.”

“In the island in the river
He was broken to his knee
And read, writ with an iron pen,
That God had wearied of Wessex men
And given their country, field and fen,

To the devils of the sea.”

His army defeated and scattered, King Alfred is hiding out on the Island of Athelney.  He remembers his mother’s Book of Hours and in particular, a richly painted miniature image of Mary and Jesus.  Memories seem suddenly real and he unexpectedly experiences a hazy awareness of Mary’s presence.  Filled with hope at her blessed appearance, he seeks knowledge of the future.  Will England survive?  Will Christianity continue? Will he be able to turn back the Danes?

“She spoke not, nor turned not,
Nor any sign she cast,
Only she stood up straight and free,
Between the flowers in Athelney,
And the river running past.”

“Mother of God,” the wanderer said,
“I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
to see a secret thing.”

But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is forever is,
Or if our hearts shall break in bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?”

Her answer becomes a recurring motif of the epic.  She reminds Alfred that to divine the future is a pagan thing, and gives no clear answer,  but tells him that the times will get worse, and that the fight is not to win, but to be faithful.

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

This book has 277 lines, set in stanzas that vary from 4 to 6 lines each.  I’ve provided 56 lines here, more than I should’ve but less than I wanted!  It’s been a blessed challenge to select a relative few to give you a taste.  There are beautifully crafted stanzas between, before and after the verses I’ve lifted.  I have read this first book over several times and each time I see more and more in it!  This is the gift of great poetry!

In my last post, The Ballad of the White Horse, I included links to listen to the Ballad online.  There are also many options to read Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse online.  There is a free Kindle version.  Here is a link to the Gutenberg Project options.   I’m excited to be part of a bloggy gathering where readers share their favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes.

Next Sunday, I’ll be sharing Book Two, in which King Alfred, re-invigorated by the rightness of his cause, if not the surety of its success, rides out to gather his chiefs:

“The King went gathering Wessex men,
As wheat out of the husk;
Eldred, the Franklin by the sea,
And Mark, the man from Italy,
and Colan of the Sacred Tree
From the old tribe on Usk.”

The Daughter and I are complete novices to epic poetry.  So this post on G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse is a sharing of what we are reading and learning, but is not meant to be authoritative in any way.  The Seton Press edition that The Daughter and I are using in our study is a wonderful resource and we recommend it highly.  

Sarah MacKenzie, who writes at Amongst Lovely Things 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.  Please follow the link to Weekends with Chesterton and see what others are reading and writing!
Weekends With Chesterton

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