Monday, September 1, 2008

Ballad of Chesterton

If you have not read The Ballad of the White Horse recently, you really must. I was feeling grim after deleting a nasty "you hypocrite" comment from the blog (that'll teach me to comment on politics!), but remembered to pick up this epic poem from our dearest GKC.

The reason it is such a timely piece lies in Chesterton's gloriously timeless theme: that the small conflicts of states and sovereigns are piece and puzzle of the great struggle between good and evil, the beautiful and corrupt, the pagan and the true faith.

Book III, when Alfred comes to the camp of the pagan Danes in disguise, is my favorite. He listens to the Danish King Guthrum's song of the heart without hope:

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 good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall comes after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart shall 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.

The pagan heart--the heart without Christ--is fiery, noble, beautiful, and, as Chesterton sings it, "half-witted." Its world turns endlessly along without a goal beyond immediate conquest, immediate gratification. (So, why does Guthrum's sadness remind me of TLC's "What Not To Wear"?)

And then Alfred strikes up the harp:

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...

When the Danes laugh at this Englishman and ask why he still sings when they have destroyed his land, Alfred sings on:

Here is my answer then.

That on you is fallen a shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame...

Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within...

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.

It is good to raise my eyes up out of the current political mire. Chesterton articulates so well the hearts of men without God and brings me back to the One Thing Necessary: that God hath blessed creation with his own death. And life.

5 comments:

Melanie B said...

I've actually never read it. It's on my to be read list but somehow I just don't have the attention span for long poetry these days. Perhaps I can find an audio version of it and listen to it while I cook dinner and fold laundry?

Melanie B said...

Oh! I did. Thank you for inspiring me to look for it!

Erika Ahern said...

Ooh! I'll have to get that, too. it would be great for long car trips... I'm not sure Miriam would enjoy it, though.

Melanie B said...

You never know Miriam might surprise you. We've been listening to The Lord of the Rings on short car trips around town and Isabella surprisingly doesn't object. Not sure she gets anything out of it, either; but then you never know.

Daniel Lieuwen said...

You can get it on mp3 at librivox

http://librivox.org/newcatalog/search.php?title=&author=chesterton&status=all&action=Search

for free. I listened to it this past weekend while working around the yard.

They have a number of his other books there. I've been on a bit of a Chesterton and C.S. Lewis kick lately.
The EWTN podcasts on Chesterton were a partial impetus.

Daniel Lieuwen
Former Dutch Calvinist, now Russian Orthodox Reader, amateur historian, with philosophical pretensions (at least, maybe more)