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Thursday, May 13, 2004
The Ballad of the White Horse
Sorry for the hiatus! I had the flu, and I could hardly move for three days, much less type. Anyway, here is my helter-skelter literary look at The Ballad of the White Horse.
Most of G.K. Chesterton's poems haven't kept very well; they're too topical, dashed off in the service of some polemic or another. That little ditty on Antidisestablishmentarianism is amusing and well-made (and the line on Islam still unnerving), but... who cares anymore?
There are poems of his, though, that ought to be remembered for ever and ever. His religious poems will never become outdated: Think A Christmas Carol and The House of Christmas. Lepanto is his second greatest poem, wonderful in so many ways... Its long, divinely energetic lines, its stirring snare-drum beat, its sudden, cinematic shifts in location and perspective, its stunning color and unforgettable rhetoric.
But the Ballad of the White Horse is on a whole other level.
It is an epic poem, but it draws you in like an exciting novel. The emotional power and weight of the imagery are so far above Chesterton's usual poetic practice that the poem becomes Yeatsian in places. It is all about the war between paganism and Christianity, with the action usually focused on King Alfred. The verses insinuate themselves easily into your memory: they bristle with phrases that have the solid ring of proverb, or prophecy.
The Ballad is rhymed, but to avoid monotony, Chesterton uses three different stanza forms. Here is a passage that uses all three:
A: Her face was like an open word
B: When brave men speak and choose,
C: The very colours of her coat
B: Were better than good news.
A: She spoke not, nor turned not,
B: Nor any sign she cast,
C: Only she stood up straight and free,
C: Between the flowers in Athelney,
B: And the river running past.
A: One dim ancestral jewel hung
B: On his ruined armour grey,
C: He rent and cast it at her feet:
C: Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
C: Men came from hall and school and street
B: And found it where it lay.
The different rhyme schemes have an emotional effect as well. There is the sing-song simplicity of ABCB, then the more lively effect when a second C rhyme is added, and then the triple rhyme CCC which has a more mysterious power. Compare the stanzas:
And right to the red torchlight,
From the trouble of morning grey,
They stripped the White Horse of the grass
As they strip it to this day.
And under the red torchlight
He went dreaming as though dull,
Of his old companions slain like kings,
And the rich irrevocable things
Of a heart that hath not openings,
But is shut fast, being full.
This passage shows another important technique of GKC's: describing the same scene more than once, to get a richer sense of it. This same tactic is used in the Chanson de Roland - when something important happens, it is described three or four times from different angles, just to try and capture its full significance. Very effective. (Stevens uses it in a rather decadent way in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.")
And then there are the characters! Chesterton introduces each of Alfred's allies with a long, brilliant descripive passage. This is part of Colan's description, which contains one of GKC's most famous stanzas:
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.
And then there is this beautiful passage, which illustrates Colan's double allegiance so well:
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.
Much later in the poem, GKC gives Colan a speech that is unusually ambivalent for the rollicking Catholic journalist (I mean GKC, not Colan! Funny thought, anyway.):
"The tall trees of Britain
We worshipped and were wise,
But you shall raid the whole land through
And never a tree shall talk to you,
Though every leaf is a tongue taught true
And the forest is full of eyes.
"O'er a few round hills forgotten
The trees grow tall in rings,
And the trees talk together
Of many pagan things.
"Yet I could lie and listen
With a cross upon my clay,
And hear unhurt for ever
What the trees of Britain say."
There are signs of poetic laziness here and there (GKC's predilection for splashing purple moons and peacock skies about and calling it scenery), but most of the poem is as tightly constructed as the harp contest between the the four pagans - Harold, Elf, Ogier, and King Guthrum - and Alfred. In that book of the poem, each facet of paganism is shown, and then answered by Alfred.
And he cried of the ships as eagles
That circle fiercely and fly,
And sweep the seas and strike the towns
From Cyprus round to Skye.
How swiftly and with peril
They gather all good things,
The high horns of the forest beasts,
Or the secret stones of kings.
"For Rome was given to rule the world,
And gat of it little joy--
But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy.
"Great wine like blood from Burgundy,
Cloaks like the clouds from Tyre,
And marble like solid moonlight,
And gold like frozen fire.
"Smells that a man might swill in a cup,
Stones that a man might eat,
And the great smooth women like ivory
That the Turks sell in the street."
He sang the song of the thief of the world,
And the gods that love the thief;
And he yelled aloud at the cloister-yards,
Where men go gathering grief.
...As he sang of Balder beautiful,
Whom the heavens could not save,
Till the world was like a sea of tears
And every soul a wave.
"There is always a thing forgotten
When all the world goes well;
A thing forgotten, as long ago,
When the gods forgot the mistletoe,
And soundless as an arrow of snow
The arrow of anguish fell.
"The thing on the blind side of the heart,
On the wrong side of the door,
The green plant groweth, menacing
Almighty lovers in the spring;
There is always a forgotten thing,
And love is not secure."
"You sing of the young gods easily
In the days when you are young;
But I go smelling yew and sods,
And I know there are gods behind the gods,
Gods that are best unsung.
"And a man grows ugly for women,
And a man grows dull with ale,
Well if he find in his soul at last
Fury, that does not fail.
"The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man's heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then--
"While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.
"There lives one moment for a man
When the door at his shoulder shakes,
When the taut rope parts under the pull,
And the barest branch is beautiful
One moment, while it breaks.
"So rides my soul upon the sea
That drinks the howling ships,
Though in black jest it bows and nods
Under the moons with silver rods,
I know it is roaring at the gods,
Waiting the last eclipse.
He said, "I am older than you, Ogier;
Not all things would I rend,
For whether life be bad or good
It is best to abide the end."
He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.
For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.
"It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.
"When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.
"For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell.
"And a man hopes, being ignorant,
Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead:
And a man may still lift up his head
But never more his heart.
"There comes no noise but weeping
Out of the ancient sky,
And a tear is in the tiniest flower
Because the gods must die.
"The little brooks are very sweet,
Like a girl's ribbons curled,
But the great sea is bitter
That washes all the world.
"Strong are the Roman roses,
Or the free flowers of the heath,
But every flower, like a flower of the sea,
Smelleth with the salt of death.
"And the heart of the locked battle
Is the happiest place for men;
When shrieking souls as shafts go by
And many have died and all may die;
Though this word be a mystery,
Death is most distant then.
"Death blazes bright above the cup,
And clear above the crown;
But in that dream of battle
We seem to tread it down.
"Wherefore I am a great king,
And waste the world in vain,
Because man hath not other power,
Save that in dealing death for dower,
He may forget it for an hour
To remember it again."
And Alfred answers furiously:
"When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;
"He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.
"But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.
"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?
"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.
"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."
Which doesn't convey the impact of everything I cut out. I guess you'll just have to read the whole thing. (Insert shameless plug for Ignatius Press edition here.)
The end of the poem is shamelessly didactic - or "applicable," whichever you prefer.
"Though I give this land to Our Lady,
That helped me in Athelney,
Though lordlier trees and lustier sod
And happier hills hath no flesh trod
Than the garden of the Mother of God
Between Thames side and the sea,
"I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
"They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
"Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.
"They shall come mild as monkish clerks,
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred's days,
When pagans still were men.
"But though they bridge St. Mary's sea,
Or steal St. Michael's wing--
Though they rear marvels over us,
Greater than great Vergilius
Wrought for the Roman king;
"By this sign you shall know them,
The breaking of the sword,
And man no more a free knight,
That loves or hates his lord.
"Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And Man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.
"What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them,
That they ruin and make dark;
"By all men bond to Nothing,
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed,
Too blind to be abhorred;
"By terror and the cruel tales
Of curse in bone and kin,
By weird and weakness winning,
Accursed from the beginning,
By detail of the sinning,
And denial of the sin;
"By thought a crawling ruin,
By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
And the end of the world's desire;
"By God and man dishonoured,
By death and life made vain,
Know ye the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again--
"When is great talk of trend and tide,
And wisdom and destiny,
Hail that undying heathen
That is sadder than the sea.
What a glorious torrent of talismanic curses! It's a sort of catharsis, just encountering such certainty: furious certainty of rhythym, certainty of definition that leaves the dark, nebulous spirit of neopaganism "formulated, sprawling on a pin." It is meant to be a war poem, to rouse and encourage resistance. But it is tempered with caution: the White Horse must be patiently and continuously tended, or the grass will cover it. Evil is like the grass - it cannot be conquered "once and for all" (until the end of the world, anyway). There is no earthly "end to evil." Complacency is death. In this Chesterton is very close to Tolkien (the points of overlap between the two have become more apparent to me lately), as in several other places in the poem. It is interesting to see how Tolkien quotes Chesterton in his lectures and letters. Tolkien didn't care for The Ballad of the White Horse; he thought that Chesterton didn't know anything about "Northernness" and that the ending (where the King retakes London) was ridiculous. (He didn't explain this last judgement.) Of course, Tolkien and GKC were very far apart in style and vocation and temperament. Still... both of them understood the "tree" of tradition, the power of "fairy-stories," the need for humility - and the savour of eucatastrophe:
"The high tide!" King Alfred cried.
"The high tide and the turn!
As a tide turns on the tall grey seas,
See how they waver in the trees,
How stray their spears, how knock their knees,
How wild their watchfires burn!
"The Mother of God goes over them,
Walking on wind and flame,
And the storm-cloud drifts from city and dale,
And the White Horse stamps in the White Horse Vale,
And we all shall yet drink Christian ale
In the village of our name."
Yes. We shall yet.