Monday, January 11, 2016

G. K. Chesterton walks where they fought the unknown fight - The Ballad of the White Horse - all their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad

Reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse was like watching an early modern tabletop automaton in action (warning: noise), except that this one was built in 1911 – I did not know that people were still creating such things.  It is an epic poem in verse on the subject of King Alfred’s defeat of the Danes in the year 878.  It is also a Catholic allegory, and a source for Tolkien.  It’s excellent, but not really of its time.

In the same year, Chesterton published The Innocence of Father Brown, detective stories, more analogous to, I don’t know, an airplane, something still very much of our time.  Whether the airplane or the clockwork wine-pouring salt cellar was considered more of a folly or diversion by the mechanic who built them I do not know.

It is just odd to see the same writer simultaneously write significant works at the end and beginning of major literary traditions, is what I am trying to say.

The allegory I do not understand, but otherwise the poem works like a battlefield epic should.  The battle scenes are tense and exciting and Alfred’s other famous scenes – as when, in disguise, he burns a cake:

Screaming, the woman caught a cake
   Yet burning from the bar,
And struck him suddenly on the face,
   Leaving a scarlet scar. (Bk. IV)

King Alfred first thoughts are of “torture” and “evil things” but after reflecting on pride (this allegory I understand)

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
    Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
  For the laughter of a King.

Love those dreaming squirrels.

Chesterton takes occasional breaks from the narrative for quieter moments, as when he interrupts the battle to watch a child build, and topple, piles of stones.

Through the long infant hours like days
    He built one tower in vain –
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
   And he piled them up again.  (Bk. VII)

All right, this symbolism is not so hard, either.  Or Chesterton watches the animals flee the approaching army:

And long ere the noise of armour,
    An hour ere the break of light,
The woods awoke with crash and cry,
And the birds sprang clamouring harsh and high,
And the rabbits ran like an elves’ army
    Ere Alfred came in sight.  (Bk. V)

Or he thanks his wife for visiting battlefields on their vacation:

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?  (Dedication)

All the sort of thing that makes the poem richer and more readable, more enjoyable, than I had first guessed.  I had feared a slog.  But no, this was fun, even if I could not read it quite in the spirit in which it was written.

A bonus: some great Chesterton lines on the Irish:

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.  (Bk. II)


  1. I should have known better, but I never thought of Chesterton as a poet; so, I thank you for your insightful and celebratory posting, and -- if I can ever overcome my feckless, forgetful, and fearful shortcomings -- I look forward to reading this one by Chesterton. All the best from a confused pilgrim.

  2. The edition of Chesterton's collected poems I have been using is 375 pages, with The Ballad of the White Horse taking up a hundred of them. The rest are lyrics.

    What I have read so far - about half the book - has been good.

  3. Chesterton is interesting but I don't know that much of him. Just looked and this is on LibriVox in two versions--think this will be treadmill or laundry-folding listening.

    " trees on the battle-height, / Black thorn on Ethandune": it does have a Tolkienish air. Or Tolkien has a Chestertonish air, I suppose.

    1. And it ends with "The Scouring of the Horse." Even more of a familiar ring.

  4. I wish I had known about the Chesteron poem as a Tolkeinish teen. I would have enjoyed it.

    A sympathetic performance of it would be great.