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The Ballad of the White Horse, by Chesterton, G. K.

Book II

The Gathering of the Chiefs

Up across windy wastes and up

Went Alfred over the shaws,

Shaken of the joy of giants,

The joy without a cause.

In the slopes away to the western bays,

Where blows not ever a tree,

He washed his soul in the west wind

And his body in the sea.

And he set to rhyme his ale-measures,

And he sang aloud his laws,

Because of the joy of the giants,

The joy without a cause.

The King went gathering Wessex men,

As grain out of the chaff

The few that were alive to die,

Laughing, as littered skulls that lie

After lost battles turn to the sky

An everlasting laugh.

The King went gathering Christian 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 rook croaked homeward heavily,

The west was clear and warm,

The smoke of evening food and ease

Rose like a blue tree in the trees

When he came to Eldred’s farm.

But Eldred’s farm was fallen awry,

Like an old cripple’s bones,

And Eldred’s tools were red with rust,

And on his well was a green crust,

And purple thistles upward thrust,

Between the kitchen stones.

But smoke of some good feasting

Went upwards evermore,

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.

A mighty man was Eldred,

A bulk for casks to fill,

His face a dreaming furnace,

His body a walking hill.

In the old wars of Wessex

His sword had sunken deep,

But all his friends, he signed and said,

Were broken about Ethelred;

And between the deep drink and the dead

He had fallen upon sleep.

“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?

“Your scalds still thunder and prophesy

That crown that never comes;

Friend, I will watch the certain things,

Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,

And the ripening of the plums.”

And Alfred answered, drinking,

And gravely, without blame,

“Nor bear I boast of scald or king,

The thing I bear is a lesser thing,

But comes in a better name.

“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.’”

Then silence sank. And slowly

Arose the sea-land lord,

Like some vast beast for mystery,

He filled the room and porch and sky,

And from a cobwebbed nail on high

Unhooked his heavy sword.

Up on the shrill sea-downs and up

Went Alfred all alone,

Turning but once e’er the door was shut,

Shouting to Eldred over his butt,

That he bring all spears to the woodman’s hut

Hewn under Egbert’s Stone.

And he turned his back and broke the fern,

And fought the moths of dusk,

And went on his way for other friends

Friends fallen of all the wide world’s ends,

From Rome that wrath and pardon sends

And the grey tribes on Usk.

He saw gigantic tracks of death

And many a shape of doom,

Good steadings to grey ashes gone

And a monk’s house white like a skeleton

In the green crypt of the combe.

And in many a Roman villa

Earth and her ivies eat,

Saw coloured pavements sink and fade

In flowers, and the windy colonnade

Like the spectre of a street.

But the cold stars clustered

Among the cold pines

Ere he was half on his pilgrimage

Over the western lines.

And the white dawn widened

Ere he came to the last pine,

Where Mark, the man from Italy,

Still made the Christian sign.

The long farm lay on the large hill-side,

Flat like a painted plan,

And by the side the low white house,

Where dwelt the southland man.

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.

His fruit trees stood like soldiers

Drilled in a straight line,

His strange, stiff olives did not fail,

And all the kings of the earth drank ale,

But he drank wine.

Wide over wasted British plains

Stood never an arch or dome,

Only the trees to toss and reel,

The tribes to bicker, the beasts to squeal;

But the eyes in his head were strong like steel,

And his soul remembered Rome.

Then Alfred of the lonely spear

Lifted his lion head;

And fronted with the Italian’s eye,

Asking him of his whence and why,

King Alfred stood and said:

“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.”

Long looked the Roman on the land;

The trees as golden crowns

Blazed, drenched with dawn and dew-empearled

While faintlier coloured, freshlier curled,

The clouds from underneath the world

Stood up over the downs.

“These vines be ropes that drag me hard,”

He said. “I go not far;

Where would you meet? For you must hold

Half Wiltshire and the White Horse wold,

And the Thames bank to Owsenfold,

If Wessex goes to war.

“Guthrum sits strong on either bank

And you must press his lines

Inwards, and eastward drive him down;

I doubt if you shall take the crown

Till you have taken London town.

For me, I have the vines.”

“If each man on the Judgment Day

Meet God on a plain alone,”

Said Alfred, “I will speak for you

As for myself, and call it true

That you brought all fighting folk you knew

Lined under Egbert’s Stone.

“Though I be in the dust ere then,

I know where you will be.”

And shouldering suddenly his spear

He faded like some elfin fear,

Where the tall pines ran up, tier on tier

Tree overtoppling tree.

He shouldered his spear at morning

And laughed to lay it on,

But he leaned on his spear as on a staff,

With might and little mood to laugh,

Or ever he sighted chick or calf

Of Colan of Caerleon.

For the man dwelt in a lost land

Of boulders and broken men,

In a great grey cave far off to the south

Where a thick green forest stopped the mouth,

Giving darkness in his den.

And the man was come like a shadow,

From the shadow of Druid trees,

Where Usk, with mighty murmurings,

Past Caerleon of the fallen kings,

Goes out to ghostly seas.

Last of a race in ruin —

He spoke the speech of the Gaels;

His kin were in holy Ireland,

Or up in the crags of Wales.

But his soul stood with his mother’s folk,

That were of the rain-wrapped isle,

Where Patrick and Brandan westerly

Looked out at last on a landless sea

And the sun’s last smile.

His harp was carved and cunning,

As the Celtic craftsman makes,

Graven all over with twisting shapes

Like many headless snakes.

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.

He kept the Roman order,

He made the Christian sign;

But his eyes grew often blind and bright,

And the sea that rose in the rocks at night

Rose to his head like wine.

He made the sign of the cross of God,

He knew the Roman prayer,

But he had unreason in his heart

Because of the gods that were.

Even they that walked on the high cliffs,

High as the clouds were then,

Gods of unbearable beauty,

That broke the hearts of men.

And whether in seat or saddle,

Whether with frown or smile,

Whether at feast or fight was he,

He heard the noise of a nameless sea

On an undiscovered isle.

Lifting the great green ivy

And the great spear lowering,

One said, “I am Alfred of Wessex,

And I am a conquered king.”

And the man of the cave made answer,

And his eyes were stars of scorn,

“And better kings were conquered

Or ever your sires were born.

“What goddess was your mother,

What fay your breed begot,

That you should not die with Uther

And Arthur and Lancelot?

“But 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.”

Then Colan of the Sacred Tree

Tossed his black mane on high,

And cried, as rigidly he rose,

“And if the sea and sky be foes,

We will tame the sea and sky.”

Smiled Alfred, “Seek ye a fable

More dizzy and more dread

Than all your mad barbarian tales

Where the sky stands on its head?

“A tale where a man looks down on the sky

That has long looked down on him;

A tale where a man can swallow a sea

That might swallow the seraphim.

“Bring to the hut by Egbert’s Stone

All bills and bows ye have.”

And Alfred strode off rapidly,

And Colan of the Sacred Tree

Went slowly to his cave.

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30