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British writer G.K. Chesterton was an irrepressible jack-of-all-trades when it came to literature, producing popular works in virtually every genre. The Ballad of the White Horse is an epic poem detailing the triumphs and travails of Saxon King Alfred the Great. It is said that Chesterton spent more time on this poem than any other work, and some critics regard it as his finest poetic accomplishment.
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The Ballad of the White Horse
G. K. Chesterton
Of great limbs gone to chaos,A great face turned to night--Why bend above a shapeless shroudSeeking in such archaic cloudSight of strong lords and light?
Where seven sunken EnglandsLie buried one by one,Why should one idle spade, I wonder,Shake up the dust of thanes like thunderTo smoke and choke the sun?
In cloud of clay so cast to heavenWhat shape shall man discern?These lords may light the mysteryOf mastery or victory,And these ride high in history,But these shall not return.
Gored on the Norman gonfalonThe Golden Dragon died:We shall not wake with ballad stringsThe good time of the smaller things,We shall not see the holy kingsRide down by Severn side.
Stiff, strange, and quaintly colouredAs the broidery of BayeuxThe England of that dawn remains,And this of Alfred and the DanesSeems like the tales a whole tribe feignsToo English to be true.
Of a good king on an islandThat ruled once on a time;And as he walked by an apple treeThere came green devils out of the seaWith sea-plants trailing heavilyAnd tracks of opal slime.
Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;His days as our days ran,He also looked forth for an hourOn peopled plains and skies that lower,From those few windows in the towerThat is the head of a man.
But who shall look from Alfred's hoodOr breathe his breath alive?His century like a small dark cloudDrifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,Where the tortured trumpets scream aloudAnd the dense arrows drive.
Lady, by one light onlyWe look from Alfred's eyes,We know he saw athwart the wreckThe sign that hangs about your neck,Where One more than MelchizedekIs dead and never dies.
Therefore I bring these rhymes to youWho brought the cross to me,Since on you flaming without flawI saw the sign that Guthrum sawWhen he let break his ships of awe,And laid peace on the sea.
Do you remember when we wentUnder a dragon moon,And `mid volcanic tints of nightWalked where they fought the unknown fightAnd 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 warThat like yourself, goes on."
O go you onward; where you areShall 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, whenPride and a little scratching penHave 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 spaceAs on a staircase go in grace,Carrying the firelight on your faceBeyond the loneliest star.
Take these; in memory of the hourWe strayed a space from homeAnd saw the smoke-hued hamlets, quaintWith Westland king and Westland saint,And watched the western glory faintAlong the road to Frome.
THE VISION OF THE KING
Before the gods that made the godsHad seen their sunrise pass,The White Horse of the White Horse ValeWas cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the godsHad drunk at dawn their fill,The White Horse of the White Horse ValeWas 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 EnglandWhen 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-dayAs children of some second birth,Like a strange people left on earthAfter 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 skyAnd whoso hearkened rightCould only hear the plungingOf the nations in the night.
When the ends of the earth came marching inTo torch and cresset gleam.And the roads of the world that lead to RomeWere 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 ariseAround that inmost one,Where ancient eagles on its brink,Vast as archangels, gather and drinkThe sacrament of the sun.
And men brake out of the northern lands,Enormous lands alone,Where a spell is laid upon life and lustAnd the rain is changed to a silver dustAnd the sea to a great green stone.
And a Shape that moveth murkilyIn mirrors of ice and night,Hath blanched with fear all beasts and birds,As death and a shock of evil wordsBlast 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 raceCried and replied round Rome.
And there was death on the EmperorAnd night upon the Pope:And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,Hardened his heart with hope.
A sea-folk blinder than the seaBroke all about his land,But Alfred up against them bareAnd 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 shieldAnd roaring on him when he reeled;And no help came at all.
He broke them with a broken swordA little towards the sea,And for one hour of panting peace,Ringed with a roar that would not cease,With golden crown and girded fleeceMade laws under a tree.
The Northmen came about our landA Christless chivalry:Who knew not of the arch or pen,Great, beautiful half-witted menFrom the sunrise and the sea.
Misshapen ships stood on the deepFull of strange gold and fire,And hairy men, as huge as sinWith horned heads, came wading inThrough the long, low sea-mire.
Our towns were shaken of tall kingsWith scarlet beards like blood:The world turned empty where they trod,They took the kindly cross of GodAnd cut it up for wood.
Their souls were drifting as the sea,And all good towns and landsThey 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 heavensAnd no help came at all.
They bred like birds in English woods,They rooted like the rose,When Alfred came to AthelneyTo hide him from their bows
There was not English armour left,Nor any English thing,When Alfred came to AthelneyTo be an English king.
For earthquake swallowing earthquakeUprent the Wessex tree;The whirlpool of the pagan swayHad swirled his sires as sticks awayWhen a flood smites the sea.
And the great kings of WessexWearied and sank in gore,And even their ghosts in that great stressGrew greyer and greyer, less and less,With the lords that died in LyonesseAnd the king that comes no more.
And the God of the Golden DragonWas dumb upon his throne,And the lord of the Golden DragonRan in the woods alone.
And if ever he climbed the crest of luckAnd 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 AlfredBut shameful tears of rage,In the island in the riverIn the end of all his age.
In the island in the riverHe was broken to his knee:And he read, writ with an iron pen,That God had wearied of Wessex menAnd 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 stallWith 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,With the river running past,In colours of such simple creedAll things sprang at him, sun and weed,Till the grass grew to be grass indeedAnd the tree was a tree at last.
Fearfully plain the flowers grew,Like the child's book to read,Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;He looked; and there Our Lady was,She stood and stroked the tall live grassAs a man strokes his steed.
Her face was like an open wordWhen brave men speak and choose,The very colours of her coatWere better than good news.
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.
One dim ancestral jewel hungOn his ruined armour grey,He rent and cast it at her feet:Where, after centuries, with slow feet,Men came from hall and school and streetAnd found it where it lay.
"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.
"The gates of heaven are fearful gatesWorse than the gates of hell;Not I would break the splendours barredOr seek to know the thing they guard,
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