Welcome to my third post sharing thoughts about G.K. Cheston’s epic poem Ballad of the White Horse.
“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.”
G.K. Chesterton organized his epic by chapters, or books as they are called. After the lovely Dedication to his wife Frances, which I discuss in the first post Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton plunges us into the dark days after King Alfred’s defeat by the Danes in Book 1 The Vision of the King. My post on this first book is entitled A Horse, a War and a Vision, which provides a hint as to three of the primary themes! In this post, I’m sharing about Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs, in which King Alfred, with renewed purpose, sets out to gather his army by approaching three key leaders, Eldred, Mark and Colan. We learn a great deal about these men by the way they consider Alfred’s request. Alfred has a difficult task. He must overcome their objections to another war, under his leadership, against what appears to be a fierce and unassailable enemy.
Alfred first visits Eldred’s farm, which is homely, but generous in hospitality.
“And Eldred’s doors stood wide apart
For loitering foot or labouring cart,
And Eldred’s great and foolish heart
Stood open like his door.”
Eldred questions the necessity of war, and the benefit of war to the humble.
“Come not to me, King Alfred,
Save always for the ale:
Why should my harmless hinds be slain
Because the chiefs cry once again,
As in all fights, that we shall gain,
And in all fights we fail?”
“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
from grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.
And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.'”
Alfred heads next to visit Marcus, the Roman.
“A bronzed man, with a bird’s bright eye,
And a strong bird’s beak and brow,
His skin was brown like buried gold,
And of certain of his sires was told
That they came in the shining ship of old,With Caesar in the prow…
Alfred begins the conversation with tremendous humility.
“I am that oft-defeated King
Whose failure fills the land,
Who fled before the Danes of old,
Who chaffered with the Danes with gold,
Who now upon the Wessex wold
Hardly has feet to stand.
But out of the mouth of the Mother of God
I have seen the truth like fire,
This – that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”
Marcus reluctantly replies with questions about the battle plans and objectives, as he looks longingly over his land, his olive trees and vineyards. Alfred leaves the Roman, telling him the location of the meeting place, and heads out to meet with the last of his three chieftains, Colan of Caerleon (in Wales).
“And the man was come like a shadow,
From the shadow of Druid trees,
When Usk, with mighty murmurings,
Past Caerleon of the fallen kings,
Goes out to ghostly seas…
“His harp was carved and cunning,
His sword prompt and sharp,
and he was gay when he held the sword,
Sad when he held the harp.
For the great Gaels of Ireland
are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.”
Colan is not afraid of a fight, but questions why Alfred won’t accept defeat.
“When you win you brag and blow,
And when you lose you rail,
Army of eastland yokels
Not strong enough to fail.”
“I bring not boast or railing,”
Spake Alfred not in ire,
“I bring of Our Lady a lesson set,
This – that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”
Mary’s prescient declaration, “the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher,” proves effective in rallying the warriors. Each of them, despite their cautionary reluctance, can see the truth in it, with as much clarity as they see the hopelessness of their position. And yet they choose to fight.
Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse has a prophetic once and future feel to it. The author set the poem in the first millenia, at a pivotal battle to defend the faith, and England, against the vicious invasion of cruel and godless heathens, yet the Ballad sings as strongly to us at the beginning of the third millenia as we struggle to fight a culture war that appears unwinnable. “The sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher,” and yet we must fight.
In the next Ballad of the White Horse post, we’ll be reading excerpts from Book III The Harp of Alfred, in which King Alfred hides his sword and crown, picks up his harp and enters the enemy camp disguised as a traveling minstrel. He learns a great deal about them by the songs they sing, and does some singing of his own! As always, thank you for reading. You bless me.
Book II The Gathering of the Chieftains has 280 lines, set in stanzas that vary from 4 to 6 lines each. I’ve provided 71 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 each book over several times and each time I see more and more! This is the gift of great poetry!
In my first post, The Ballad of the White Horse, I included links to listen to the Ballad online.
In my second post A Horse, a War and a Vision, I included links to read the Ballad online.
Here are links to websites for two Roman villas in Sussex which Alfred would perhaps have been aware of, and which were originally settled by someone like Marcus, Bignor Roman Villa, and Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens.
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!