The Ballad of the White Horse - G.K. Chesterton - ebook

The Ballad of the White Horse is one of the last great epic poems in the English language. On the one hand it describes King Alfred's battle against the Danes in 878. On the other hand it is a timeless allegory about the ongoing battle between Christianity and the forces of nihilistic heathenism. Filled with colorful characters, thrilling battles and mystical visions, it is as lively as it is profound. Chesterton incorporates brilliant imagination, atmosphere, moral concern, chronological continuity, wisdom and fancy. He makes his stanzas reverberate with sound, and hurries his readers into the heart of the battle.

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G.K. Chesterton


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Copyright © 2017 by G.K. Chesterton

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Of great limbs gone to chaos,

A great face turned to night—

Why bend above a shapeless shroud

Seeking in such archaic cloud

Sight of strong lords and light?

Where seven sunken Englands

Lie buried one by one,

Why should one idle spade, I wonder,

Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder

To smoke and choke the sun?

In cloud of clay so cast to heaven

What shape shall man discern?

These lords may light the mystery

Of mastery or victory,

And these ride high in history,

But these shall not return.

Gored on the Norman gonfalon

The Golden Dragon died:

We shall not wake with ballad strings

The good time of the smaller things,

We shall not see the holy kings

Ride down by Severn side.

Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured

As the broidery of Bayeux

The England of that dawn remains,

And this of Alfred and the Danes

Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns

Too English to be true.

Of a good king on an island

That ruled once on a time;

And as he walked by an apple tree

There came green devils out of the sea

With sea-plants trailing heavily

And tracks of opal slime.

Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;

His days as our days ran,

He also looked forth for an hour

On peopled plains and skies that lower,

From those few windows in the tower

That is the head of a man.

But who shall look from Alfred’s hood

Or breathe his breath alive?

His century like a small dark cloud

Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,

Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud

And the dense arrows drive.

Lady, by one light only

We look from Alfred’s eyes,

We know he saw athwart the wreck

The sign that hangs about your neck,

Where One more than Melchizedek

Is dead and never dies.

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.

Do you remember when we went

Under a dragon moon,

And ‘mid volcanic tints of night

Walked where they fought the unknown fight

And saw black trees on the battle-height,

Black thorn on Ethandune?

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.”

O go you onward; where you are

Shall honour and laughter be,

Past purpled forest and pearled foam,

God’s winged pavilion free to roam,

Your face, that is a wandering home,

A flying home for me.

Ride through the silent earthquake lands,

Wide as a waste is wide,

Across these days like deserts, when

Pride and a little scratching pen

Have dried and split the hearts of men,

Heart of the heroes, ride.

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.

Take these; in memory of the hour

We strayed a space from home

And saw the smoke-hued hamlets, quaint

With Westland king and Westland saint,

And watched the western glory faint

Along the road to Frome.



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.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had drunk at dawn their fill,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was hoary on the hill.

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 White Horse knew England

When there was none to know;

He saw the first oar break or bend,

He saw heaven fall and the world end,

O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,

And all we dwell to-day

As children of some second birth,

Like a strange people left on earth

After a judgment day.

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.

When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky

And whoso hearkened right

Could only hear the plunging

Of the nations in the night.

When the ends of the earth came marching in

To torch and cresset gleam.

And the roads of the world that lead to Rome

Were filled with faces that moved like foam,

Like faces in a dream.

And men rode out of the eastern lands,

Broad river and burning plain;

Trees that are Titan flowers to see,

And tiger skies, striped horribly,

With tints of tropic rain.

Where Ind’s enamelled peaks arise

Around that inmost one,

Where ancient eagles on its brink,

Vast as archangels, gather and drink

The sacrament of the sun.

And men brake out of the northern lands,

Enormous lands alone,

Where a spell is laid upon life and lust

And the rain is changed to a silver dust

And the sea to a great green stone.

And a Shape that moveth murkily

In mirrors of ice and night,

Hath blanched with fear all beasts and birds,

As death and a shock of evil words

Blast a man’s hair with white.

And the cry of the palms and the purple moons,

Or the cry of the frost and foam,

Swept ever around an inmost place,

And the din of distant race on race

Cried and replied round Rome.

And there was death on the Emperor

And night upon the Pope:

And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,

Hardened his heart with hope.

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.

He bent them back with spear and spade,

With desperate dyke and wall,

With foemen leaning on his shield

And roaring on him when he reeled;

And no help came at all.

He broke them with a broken sword

A little towards the sea,

And for one hour of panting peace,

Ringed with a roar that would not cease,

With golden crown and girded fleece

Made laws under a tree.

The Northmen came about our land

A Christless chivalry:

Who knew not of the arch or pen,

Great, beautiful half-witted men

From the sunrise and the sea.

Misshapen ships stood on the deep

Full of strange gold and fire,

And hairy men, as huge as sin

With horned heads, came wading in

Through the long, low sea-mire.

Our towns were shaken of tall kings

With scarlet beards like blood:

The world turned empty where they trod,

They took the kindly cross of God

And cut it up for wood.

Their souls were drifting as the sea,

And all good towns and lands

They only saw with heavy eyes,

And broke with heavy hands,

Their gods were sadder than the sea,

Gods of a wandering will,

Who cried for blood like beasts at night,

Sadly, from hill to hill.

They seemed as trees walking the earth,

As witless and as tall,

Yet they took hold upon the heavens

And no help came at all.

They bred like birds in English woods,

They rooted like the rose,

When Alfred came to Athelney

To hide him from their bows

There was not English armour left,

Nor any English thing,

When Alfred came to Athelney

To be an English king.

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.

And the great kings of Wessex

Wearied and sank in gore,

And even their ghosts in that great stress

Grew greyer and greyer, less and less,

With the lords that died in Lyonesse

And the king that comes no more.

And the God of the Golden Dragon

Was dumb upon his throne,

And the lord of the Golden Dragon

Ran in the woods alone.

And if ever he climbed the crest of luck

And set the flag before,

Returning as a wheel returns,

Came ruin and the rain that burns,

And all began once more.

And naught was left King Alfred

But shameful tears of rage,

In the island in the river

In the end of all his age.

In the island in the river

He was broken to his knee:

And he 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.

And he saw in a little picture,

Tiny and far away,

His mother sitting in Egbert’s hall,

And a book she showed him, very small,

Where a sapphire Mary sat in stall

With a golden Christ at play.

It was wrought in the monk’s slow manner,

From silver and sanguine shell,

Where the scenes are little and terrible,

Keyholes of heaven and hell.

In the river island of Athelney,