Last modified on 29 October 2014, at 06:54

The Ballad of the White Horse

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) by G. K. Chesterton is an account in verse of the career of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and often considered to have been the first "King of England." Segments of the epic have been selected to convey a general idea of the account it gives of the historical and legendary events. Chesterton interweaves historical information with references to a great deal of mythical and religious lore. The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington a huge stylized image of a white horse that has existed in the hills of southern England since ancient times, maintained by a periodic scouring of the ground to expose the underlying chalk stone beneath.

The full text of the epic is available at Wikisource: The Ballad of the White Horse and at Project Gutenberg: The Ballad of the White Horse.

DedicationEdit

These lords may light the mystery
Of mastery or victory,
And these ride high in history,
But these shall not return.
Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran…
Lady, by one light only
We look from Alfred's eyes
  • Of great limbs gone to chaos,
    A great face turned to night —
    Why bend above a shapeless shroud
    Seeking in such archaic cloud
    Sight of strong lords and light?
  • In cloud of clay so cast to heaven
    What shape shall man discern?
    These lords may light the mystery
    Of mastery or victory,
    And these ride high in history,
    But these shall not return.
  • Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;
    His days as our days ran
    ,
    He also looked forth for an hour
    On peopled plains and skies that lower,
    From those few windows in the tower
    That is the head of a man.
  • Lady, by one light only
    We look from Alfred's eyes,
    We know he saw athwart the wreck
    The sign that hangs about your neck,
    Where One more than Melchizedek
    Is dead and never dies.
  • Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
    Who brought the cross to me,
    Since on you flaming without flaw
    I saw the sign that Guthrum saw
    When he let break his ships of awe,
    And laid peace on the sea.
  • "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 war
    That like yourself, goes on."
  • Up through an empty house of stars,
    Being what heart you are,
    Up the inhuman steeps of space
    As on a staircase go in grace,
    Carrying the firelight on your face
    Beyond the loneliest star.

Book I : The Vision of the KingEdit

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 England
When 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-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.
The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
English forces face defeat after defeat, and Alfred barely mantains any territory save on a river island. Alfred has a vision of Mary which though bleak, inspires him to action.
  • "Before the gods that made the gods
    Had seen their sunrise pass,
    The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
    Was cut out of the grass.

    Before the gods that made the gods
    Had drunk at dawn their fill,
    The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
    Was 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 England
    When 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-day
    As children of some second birth,
    Like a strange people left on earth
    After 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 sky
    And whoso hearkened right
    Could only hear the plunging
    Of the nations in the night."

  • A sea-folk blinder than the sea
    Broke all about his land,
    But Alfred up against them bare
    And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
    Staggered, and strove to stand.
  • He broke them with a broken sword
    A little towards the sea,
    And for one hour of panting peace,
    Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
    With golden crown and girded fleece
    Made laws under a tree.
  • There was not English armour left,
    Nor any English thing,
    When Alfred came to Athelney
    To be an English king.
  • And the great kings of Wessex
    Wearied and sank in gore,
    And even their ghosts in that great stress
    Grew greyer and greyer, less and less,
    With the lords that died in Lyonesse
    And the king that comes no more.
  • And naught was left King Alfred
    But shameful tears of rage,
    In the island in the river
    In the end of all his age.
  • 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 stall
    With a golden Christ at play.
  • "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 gates
    Worse than the gates of hell;
    Not I would break the splendours barred
    Or seek to know the thing they guard,
    Which is too good to tell.
  • "The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
    We do not guard our gain
    ,
    The heaviest hind may easily
    Come silently and suddenly
    Upon me in a lane.
  • "And any little maid that walks
    In good thoughts apart,
    May break the guard of the Three Kings
    And see the dear and dreadful things
    I hid within my heart.
  • "The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
    We do not guard our gold
    ,
    Men may uproot where worlds begin,
    Or read the name of the nameless sin;
    But if he fail or if he win
    To no good man is told.
  • You and all the kind of Christ
    Are ignorant and brave,
    And you have wars you hardly win
    And souls you hardly save.

    "I tell you naught for your comfort,
    Yea, naught for your desire,
    Save that the sky grows darker yet
    And the sea rises higher.
    "

    "Night shall be thrice night over you,
    And heaven an iron cope.
    Do you have joy without a cause,
    Yea, faith without a hope?"

Book II : The Gathering Of The ChiefsEdit

Alfred gathers allies to fight against the Danish invaders
  • Up across windy wastes and up
    Went Alfred over the shaws,
    Shaken of the joy of giants,
    The joy without a cause.
  • 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.
    "

  • "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."

  • "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.
  • 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 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.

  • 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?

  • "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.

Book III : The Harp of AlfredEdit

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.
Alfred, incognito, sings among the Danes and prophecies an end of their rule.
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.
  • By the yawning tree in the twilight
    The King unbound his sword,
    Severed the harp of all his goods,
    And there in the cool and soundless woods
    Sounded a single chord.

    Then laughed; and watched the finches flash,
    The sullen flies in swarm,
    And went unarmed over the hills,
    With the harp upon his arm,

    Until he came to the White Horse Vale.

  • And as he went by White Horse Vale
    He saw lie wan and wide
    The old horse graven, God knows when,
    By gods or beasts or what things then
    Walked a new world instead of men
    And scrawled on the hill-side.
    And when he came to White Horse Down
    The great White Horse was grey,
    For it was ill scoured of the weed,
    And lichen and thorn could crawl and feed,
    Since the foes of settled house and creed
    Had swept old works away.
  • "Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers
    When they waded fresh from foam,
    Before they were turned to women
    By the god of the nails from Rome;

    "But since you bent to the shaven men,
    Who neither lust nor smite,
    Thunder of Thor, we hunt you
    A hare on the mountain height."

  • The mighty people, womanlike,
    That have pleasure in their pain
    As he sang of Balder beautiful,
    Whom the heavens loved in vain.

    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 in the last eclipse the sea
    Shall stand up like a tower,
    Above all moons made dark and riven,
    Hold up its foaming head in heaven,
    And laugh, knowing its hour.
  • 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.
    "
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • On you is fallen the 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.

    "That though you hunt the Christian man
    Like a hare on the hill-side,
    The hare has still more heart to run
    Than you have heart to ride.

    "That though all lances split on you,
    All swords be heaved in vain,
    We have more lust again to lose
    Than you to win again.

  • All things achieved and chosen pass,
    As the White Horse fades in the grass,
    No work of Christian men.

    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.
    "

  • And the King, with harp on shoulder,
    Stood up and ceased his song;
    And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
    And the Danes laughed loud and long.

Book IV : The Woman In The ForestEdit

Well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?
Alfred travelling as a common vagabond sympathises with the plight of the poor, and is humbled for his neglect of a menial task.
Some see God like Guthrum,
Crowned, with a great beard curled,
But I see God like a good giant,
That, labouring, lifts the world.
  • Alfred, bowing heavily,
    Sat down the fire to stir,
    And even as the woman pitied him
    So did he pity her.

    Saying, "O great heart in the night,
    O best cast forth for worst,
    Twilight shall melt and morning stir,
    And no kind thing shall come to her,
    Till God shall turn the world over
    And all the last are first.

    "And well may God with the serving-folk
    Cast in His dreadful lot;
    Is not He too a servant,
    And is not He forgot?

  • "Did not a great grey servant
    Of all my sires and me,
    Build this pavilion of the pines,
    And herd the fowls and fill the vines,
    And labour and pass and leave no signs
    Save mercy and mystery?
    "
  • "On things half sprung from sleeping,
    All sleepy suns have shone,
    They stretch stiff arms, the yawning trees,
    The beasts blink upon hands and knees,
    Man is awake and does and sees—
    But Heaven has done and gone.

    For who shall guess the good riddle
    Or speak of the Holiest,
    Save in faint figures and failing words
    ,
    Who loves, yet laughs among the swords,
    Labours, and is at rest?

    "But some see God like Guthrum,
    Crowned, with a great beard curled,
    But I see God like a good giant,
    That, labouring, lifts the world.

    "Wherefore was God in Golgotha,
    Slain as a serf is slain;
    And hate He had of prince and peer,
    And love He had and made good cheer,
    Of them that, like this woman here,
    Go powerfully in pain.

    "But in this grey morn of man's life,
    Cometh sometime to the mind
    A little light that leaps and flies,
    Like a star blown on the wind.

    "A star of nowhere, a nameless star,
    A light that spins and swirls,
    And cries that even in hedge and hill,
    Even on earth, it may go ill
    At last with the evil earls.

    "A dancing sparkle, a doubtful star,
    On the waste wind whirled and driven;
    But it seems to sing of a wilder worth,
    A time discrowned of doom and birth,
    And the kingdom of the poor on earth
    Come, as it is in heaven.

  • "But even though such days endure,
    How shall it profit her?
    Who shall go groaning to the grave,
    With many a meek and mighty slave,
    Field-breaker and fisher on the wave,
    And woodman and waggoner.

    "Bake ye the big world all again
    A cake with kinder leaven;
    Yet these are sorry evermore—
    Unless there be a little door,
    A little door in heaven."

    And as he wept for the woman
    He let her business be,
    And like his royal oath and rash
    The good food fell upon the ash
    And blackened instantly.

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

    King Alfred stood up wordless,
    A man dead with surprise,
    And torture stood and the evil things
    That are in the childish hearts of kings
    An instant in his eyes.

  • 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 the King.

    And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
    In a wild solemnity,
    On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
    On one man laughing at himself
    Under the greenwood tree—

    The giant laughter of Christian men
    That roars through a thousand tales,
    Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
    And Jack's away with his master's lass,
    And the miser is banged with all his brass,
    The farmer with all his flails;

    Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
    Yet end not all in scorning—
    Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
    And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right
    ,
    That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
    And Christmas Day in the morning.

    "Now here is a good warrant,"
    Cried Alfred, "by my sword;
    For he that is struck for an ill servant
    Should be a kind lord.

    "He that has been a servant
    Knows more than priests and kings,
    But he that has been an ill servant,
    He knows all earthly things.

    "Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,
    As a man flings up sand,
    But the firm feet of humility
    Take hold of heavy land.

    "Pride juggles with her toppling towers,
    They strike the sun and cease,
    But the firm feet of humility
    They grip the ground like trees.

    "He that hath failed in a little thing
    Hath a sign upon the brow;
    And the Earls of the Great Army
    Have no such seal to show.

  • "Follow a light that leaps and spins,
    Follow the fire unfurled!
    For riseth up against realm and rod,
    A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod,
    The last lost giant, even God,
    Is risen against the world."

Book V : Ethandune: The First StrokeEdit

Who would see
Signs, must give all things.

Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.

Do thou take my sword
Who have done this deed of fire,
For this is the manner of Christian men,
Whether of steel or priestly pen,
That they cast their hearts out of their ken
To get their heart's desire.
The Battle of Ethandun begins
  • King Guthrum was a war-chief,
    A wise man in the field,
    And though he prospered well, and knew
    How Alfred's folk were sad and few,
    Not less with weighty care he drew
    Long lines for pike and shield.
  • The live wood came at Guthrum,
    On foot and claw and wing,
    The nests were noisy overhead,
    For Alfred and the star of red,
    All life went forth, and the forest fled
    Before the face of the King.

    But halted in the woodways
    Christ's few were grim and grey,
    And each with a small, far, bird-like sight
    Saw the high folly of the fight;
    And though strange joys had grown in the night,
    Despair grew with the day.

  • "People, if you have any prayers,
    Say prayers for me:
    And lay me under a Christian stone
    In that lost land I thought my own,
    To wait till the holy horn is blown,
    And all poor men are free."
  • "I was a fool and wasted ale—
    My slaves found it sweet;
    I was a fool and wasted bread,
    And the birds had bread to eat.

    "The kings go up and the kings go down,
    And who knows who shall rule;
    Next night a king may starve or sleep,
    But men and birds and beasts shall weep
    At the burial of a fool.

    "O, drunkards in my cellar,
    Boys in my apple tree,
    The world grows stern and strange and new,
    And wise men shall govern you,
    And you shall weep for me.

    "But yoke me my own oxen,
    Down to my own farm;
    My own dog will whine for me,
    My own friends will bend the knee,
    And the foes I slew openly
    Have never wished me harm."

  • And all were moved a little,
    But Colan stood apart,
    Having first pity, and after
    Hearing, like rat in rafter,
    That little worm of laughter
    That eats the Irish heart.

    And his grey-green eyes were cruel,
    And the smile of his mouth waxed hard,
    And he said, "And when did Britain
    Become your burying-yard?

  • "Before the Romans lit the land,
    When schools and monks were none,
    We reared such stones to the sun-god
    As might put out the sun.

    "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.

  • "Yet I could lie and listen
    With a cross upon my clay,
    And hear unhurt for ever
    What the trees of Britain say."

    A proud man was the Roman,
    His speech a single one,
    But his eyes were like an eagle's eyes
    That is staring at the sun.

  • Then Alfred, King of England,
    Bade blow the horns of war,
    And fling the Golden Dragon out,
    With crackle and acclaim and shout,
    Scrolled and aflame and far.

    And under the Golden Dragon
    Went Wessex all along,
    Past the sharp point of the cloven ways,
    Out from the black wood into the blaze
    Of sun and steel and song.

    And when they came to the open land
    They wheeled, deployed and stood;
    Midmost were Marcus and the King,
    And Eldred on the right-hand wing,
    And leftwards Colan darkling,
    In the last shade of the wood.

  • Far to the King's left Elf the bard
    Led on the eastern wing
    With songs and spells that change the blood;
    And on the King's right Harold stood,
    The kinsman of the King.

    Young Harold, coarse, with colours gay,
    Smoking with oil and musk,
    And the pleasant violence of the young,
    Pushed through his people, giving tongue
    Foewards, where, grey as cobwebs hung,
    The banners of the Usk.

    But as he came before his line
    A little space along,
    His beardless face broke into mirth,
    And he cried: "What broken bits of earth
    Are here? For what their clothes are worth
    I would sell them for a song."

    For Colan was hung with raiment
    Tattered like autumn leaves,
    And his men were all as thin as saints,
    And all as poor as thieves.

    No bows nor slings nor bolts they bore,
    But bills and pikes ill-made;
    And none but Colan bore a sword,
    And rusty was its blade
    .

    And Colan's eyes with mystery
    And iron laughter stirred,
    And he spoke aloud, but lightly
    Not labouring to be heard.

    "Oh, truly we be broken hearts,
    For that cause, it is said,
    We light our candles to that Lord
    That broke Himself for bread.

    "But though we hold but bitterly
    What land the Saxon leaves,
    Though Ireland be but a land of saints,
    And Wales a land of thieves,

    "I say you yet shall weary
    Of the working of your word,
    That stricken spirits never strike
    Nor lean hands hold a sword.

    "And if ever ye ride in Ireland,
    The jest may yet be said,
    There is the land of broken hearts,
    And the land of broken heads.
    "

    Not less barbarian laughter
    Choked Harold like a flood,
    "And shall I fight with scarecrows
    That am of Guthrum's blood?

    "Meeting may be of war-men,
    Where the best war-man wins;
    But all this carrion a man shoots
    Before the fight begins."

    And stopping in his onward strides,
    He snatched a bow in scorn
    From some mean slave, and bent it on
    Colan, whose doom grew dark; and shone
    Stars evil over Caerleon,
    In the place where he was born.

    For Colan had not bow nor sling,
    On a lonely sword leaned he,
    Like Arthur on Excalibur
    In the battle by the sea.

    To his great gold ear-ring Harold
    Tugged back the feathered tail,
    And swift had sprung the arrow,
    But swifter sprang the Gael.

    Whirling the one sword round his head,
    A great wheel in the sun,
    He sent it splendid through the sky,
    Flying before the shaft could fly—
    It smote Earl Harold over the eye,
    And blood began to run.

    Colan stood bare and weaponless,
    Earl Harold, as in pain,
    Strove for a smile, put hand to head,
    Stumbled and suddenly fell dead;
    And the small white daisies all waxed red
    With blood out of his brain.

    And all at that marvel of the sword,
    Cast like a stone to slay,
    Cried out. Said Alfred: "Who would see
    Signs, must give all things. Verily
    Man shall not taste of victory
    Till he throws his sword away.
    "

    Then Alfred, prince of England,
    And all the Christian earls,
    Unhooked their swords and held them up,
    Each offered to Colan, like a cup
    Of chrysolite and pearls.

    And the King said, "Do thou take my sword
    Who have done this deed of fire,
    For this is the manner of Christian men,
    Whether of steel or priestly pen,
    That they cast their hearts out of their ken
    To get their heart's desire.

  • "And whether ye swear a hive of monks,
    Or one fair wife to friend,
    This is the manner of Christian men,
    That their oath endures the end.

    "Love with the shield of the Broken Heart
    Ever his bow doth bend,
    With a single shaft for a single prize,
    And the ultimate bolt that parts and flies
    Comes with a thunder of split skies,
    And a sound of souls that rend.

    "So shall you earn a king's sword,
    Who cast your sword away.
    "
    And the King took, with a random eye,
    A rude axe from a hind hard by
    And turned him to the fray.

    For the swords of the Earls of Daneland
    Flamed round the fallen lord.
    The first blood woke the trumpet-tune,
    As in monk's rhyme or wizard's rune,
    Beginneth the battle of Ethandune
    With the throwing of the sword.

Book VI : Ethandune: The Slaying Of The ChiefsEdit

An account of the Battle of Ethandun
  • Thrice drowned was Elf the minstrel,
    And washed as dead on sand;
    And the third time men found him
    The spear was in his hand.

    Seven spears went about Eldred,
    Like stays about a mast;
    But there was sorrow by the sea
    For the driving of the last.

    Six spears thrust upon Eldred
    Were splintered while he laughed;
    One spear thrust into Eldred,
    Three feet of blade and shaft.

    And from the great heart grievously
    Came forth the shaft and blade,
    And he stood with the face of a dead man,
    Stood a little, and swayed—

    Then fell, as falls a battle-tower,
    On smashed and struggling spears.
    Cast down from some unconquered town
    That, rushing earthward, carries down
    Loads of live men of all renown—
    Archers and engineers.

    And a great clamour of Christian men
    Went up in agony,
    Crying, "Fallen is the tower of Wessex
    That stood beside the sea."

  • "Stand like an oak," cried Marcus,
    "Stand like a Roman wall!
    Eldred the Good is fallen—
    Are you too good to fall?
  • "Spears at the charge!" yelled Mark amain.
    "Death on the gods of death!
    Over the thrones of doom and blood
    Goeth God that is a craftsman good,
    And gold and iron, earth and wood,
    Loveth and laboureth.

    "The fruits leap up in all your farms,
    The lamps in each abode;
    God of all good things done on earth,
    All wheels or webs of any worth,
    The God that makes the roof, Gurth,
    The God that makes the road.

  • "No more shall the white towns of the south,
    Where Tiber and Nilus run,
    Sitting around a secret sea
    Worship a secret sun.

Book VII : Ethandune: The Last ChargeEdit

The child played on, alone, divine,
As a child plays on the last line
That sunders sand and surf.
Alfred born in Wantage
Rules England till the doom.

Because in the forest of all fears
Like a strange fresh gust from sea,
Struck him that ancient innocence
That is more than mastery.

An account of the turn of the tide in the Battle of Ethandun
  • Away in the waste of White Horse Down
    An idle child alone
    Played some small game through hours that pass,
    And patiently would pluck the grass,
    Patiently push the stone.

    On the lean, green edge for ever,
    Where the blank chalk touched the turf,
    The child played on, alone, divine,
    As a child plays on the last line
    That sunders sand and surf.

    For he dwelleth in high divisions
    Too simple to understand,
    Seeing on what morn of mystery
    The Uncreated rent the sea
    With roarings, from the land.

  • The child whom Time can never tire,
    Sings over White Horse Down.

    And this was the might of Alfred,
    At the ending of the way;
    That of such smiters, wise or wild,
    He was least distant from the child,
    Piling the stones all day.

  • Mark forgotten,
    That was wise with his tongue and brave;
    And the cairn over Colan crumbled,
    And the cross on Eldred's grave.

    Their great souls went on a wind away,
    And they have not tale or tomb;
    And Alfred born in Wantage
    Rules England till the doom.

    Because in the forest of all fears
    Like a strange fresh gust from sea,
    Struck him that ancient innocence
    That is more than mastery.

  • "Brothers at arms," said Alfred,
    "On this side lies the foe;
    Are slavery and starvation flowers,
    That you should pluck them so?

    "For whether is it better
    To be prodded with Danish poles,
    Having hewn a chamber in a ditch,
    And hounded like a howling witch,
    Or smoked to death in holes?

    "Or that before the red cock crow
    All we, a thousand strong,
    Go down the dark road to God's house,
    Singing a Wessex song?

  • "Though dead are all the paladins
    Whom glory had in ken,
    Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
    With proud hearts died among the Danes,
    While a man remains, great war remains:
    Now is a war of men.

    "The men that tear the furrows,
    The men that fell the trees,
    When all their lords be lost and dead
    The bondsmen of the earth shall tread
    The tyrants of the seas.

  • When Alfred's word was ended
    Stood firm that feeble line,
    Each in his place with club or spear,
    And fury deeper than deep fear,
    And smiles as sour as brine.
  • "And now I blow the hunting sign,
    Charge some by rule and rod;
    But when I blow the battle sign,
    Charge all and go to God."

    Wild stared the Danes at the double ways
    Where they loitered, all at large,
    As that dark line for the last time
    Doubled the knee to charge—

    And caught their weapons clumsily,
    And marvelled how and why—
    In such degree, by rule and rod,
    The people of the peace of God
    Went roaring down to die.

  • Barriers go backwards, banners rend,
    Great shields groan like a gong—
    Horses like horns of nightmare
    Neigh horribly and long.

    Horses ramp high and rock and boil
    And break their golden reins,
    And slide on carnage clamorously,
    Down where the bitter blood doth lie,
    Where Ogier went on foot to die,
    In the old way of the Danes.

    "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.
  • For back indeed disorderly
    The Danes went clamouring,
    Too worn to take anew the tale,
    Or dazed with insolence and ale,
    Or stunned of heaven, or stricken pale
    Before the face of the King.

    For dire was Alfred in his hour
    The pale scribe witnesseth,
    More mighty in defeat was he
    Than all men else in victory,

    And behind, his men came murderously,
    Dry-throated, drinking death.

  • And highest sang the slaughter,
    And fastest fell the slain,
    When from the wood-road's blackening throat
    A crowning and crashing wonder smote
    The rear-guard of the Dane.

    For the dregs of Colan's company—
    Lost down the other road—
    Had gathered and grown and heard the din,
    And with wild yells came pouring in,
    Naked as their old British kin,
    And bright with blood for woad.

    And bare and bloody and aloft
    They bore before their band
    The body of the mighty lord,
    Colan of Caerleon and its horde,
    That bore King Alfred's battle-sword
    Broken in his left hand.

    And a strange music went with him,
    Loud and yet strangely far;
    The wild pipes of the western land,
    Too keen for the ear to understand,
    Sang high and deathly on each hand
    When the dead man went to war.

    Blocked between ghost and buccaneer,
    Brave men have dropped and died;
    And the wild sea-lords well might quail
    As the ghastly war-pipes of the Gael
    Called to the horns of White Horse Vale,
    And all the horns replied.

  • Not till the floor of the skies is split,
    And hell-fire shines through the sea,
    Or the stars look up through the rent earth's knees,
    Cometh such rending of certainties,
    As when one wise man truly sees
    What is more wise than he.
  • Far out to the winding river
    The blood ran down for days,
    When we put the cross on Guthrum
    In the parting of the ways.

Book VIII : The Scouring Of The HorseEdit

Not till the night's blue slate is wiped
Of its last star utterly,
And fierce new signs writ there to read,
Shall eyes with such amazement heed,
As when a great man knows indeed
A greater thing than he.
Then men would come from the ends of the earth,
Whom the King sat welcoming,
And men would go to the ends of the earth
Because of the word of the King.
The Reign of Alfred, an honoring of past traditions, anticipation of times when ways of honor shall diminish, and the taking of London.
When all philosophies shall fail,
This word alone shall fit;
That a sage feels too small for life,
And a fool too large for it.
And though skies alter and empires melt,
This word shall still be true:
If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.
In what wise men shall smite him,
Or the Cross stand up again,
Or charity or chivalry,
My vision saith not; and I see
No more; but now ride doubtfully
To the battle of the plain.
Loud was the war on London wall,
And loud in London gates,
And loud the sea-kings in the cloud
Broke through their dreaming gods, and loud
Cried on their dreadful Fates.

And all the while on White Horse Hill
The horse lay long and wan…

  • Wonder smote the pirate king,
    And brought him to his christening
    And the end of all his raids.

    (For not till the night's blue slate is wiped
    Of its last star utterly,
    And fierce new signs writ there to read,
    Shall eyes with such amazement heed,
    As when a great man knows indeed
    A greater thing than he.
    )

  • He gat good laws of the ancient kings,
    Like treasure out of the tombs;
    And many a thief in thorny nook,
    Or noble in sea-stained turret shook,
    For the opening of his iron book,
    And the gathering of the dooms.

    Then men would come from the ends of the earth,
    Whom the King sat welcoming,
    And men would go to the ends of the earth
    Because of the word of the King.

  • Alfred in the orchard,
    Among apples green and red,
    With the little book in his bosom,
    Looked at green leaves and said:

    "When all philosophies shall fail,
    This word alone shall fit;
    That a sage feels too small for life,
    And a fool too large for it.
    "

    "Asia and all imperial plains
    Are too little for a fool;
    But for one man whose eyes can see
    The little island of Athelney
    Is too large a land to rule.

  • Then Alfred smiled. And the smile of him
    Was like the sun for power.
    But he only pointed: bade them heed
    Those peasants of the Berkshire breed,
    Who plucked the old Horse of the weed
    As they pluck it to this hour.
  • "Will ye part with the weeds for ever?
    Or show daisies to the door?
    Or will you bid the bold grass
    Go, and return no more?
  • "And though skies alter and empires melt,
    This word shall still be true:
    If we would have the horse of old,
    Scour ye the horse anew.
  • 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.
  • "The dear sun dwarfed of dreadful suns,
    Like fiercer flowers on stalk,
    Earth lost and little like a pea
    In high heaven's towering forestry,
    —These be the small weeds ye shall see
    Crawl, covering the chalk.
  • "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 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.

    "In what wise men shall smite him,
    Or the Cross stand up again,
    Or charity or chivalry,
    My vision saith not; and I see
    No more; but now ride doubtfully
    To the battle of the plain.
    "

  • In mighty and doubtful fragments,
    Like faint or fabled wars,
    Climbed the old hills of his renown,
    Where the bald brow of White Horse Down
    Is close to the cold stars.
  • Loud was the war on London wall,
    And loud in London gates,
    And loud the sea-kings in the cloud
    Broke through their dreaming gods, and loud
    Cried on their dreadful Fates.

    And all the while on White Horse Hill
    The horse lay long and wan,
    The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
    And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
    Unwrought the work of man.

    With velvet finger, velvet foot,
    The fierce soft mosses then
    Crept on the large white commonweal
    All folk had striven to strip and peel,
    And the grass, like a great green witch's wheel,
    Unwound the toils of men.

    And clover and silent thistle throve,
    And buds burst silently,
    With little care for the Thames Valley
    Or what things there might be—

    That away on the widening river,
    In the eastern plains for crown
    Stood up in the pale purple sky
    One turret of smoke like ivory;
    And the smoke changed and the wind went by,
    And the King took London Town.

Quotes about The Ballad of the White HorseEdit

In its fundamental conception, as well as in many of the significant details of its working out, Lord of the Rings is heavily indebted to G. K. Chesterton's now little read poem of 1911, The Ballad of the White Horse. ~ Cristopher Clausen
  • In its fundamental conception, as well as in many of the significant details of its working out, Lord of the Rings is heavily indebted to G. K. Chesterton's now little read poem of 1911, The Ballad of the White Horse.
    The major theme of both works is the war and eventual victory, despite all odds, of an alliance of good folk against vastly more powerful forces of evil, and the return of a king to his rightful state. Like Lord of the Rings, Chesterton's poem is set in a heroic society after the decay of a highly civilized imperial power — in England, that is to say, in the aftermath of the Roman Empire. (Tolkien's Minas Tirith, built on seven levels, greatly resembles a medieval idealization of Rome.) King Alfred, its hero, is fighting a losing war to save his kingdom from complete conquest by the Danes. As one would expect with Chesterton, it is a war of white against black, of Christianity against a diabolical paganism that has defeated Rome and is now trying to make all good men its slaves. … The enemy is not simply Danes, or barbarians in general, but a wholly malignant and almost irresistible force that stands behind all the enemies of Christianity: This power blights everything it touches — there are repeated references to its distorting effects even on the natural world — and the men who serve it become like Tolkien's Orcs. … To fight against this menace, Alfred, hiding in exile, summons three kindreds of free, Christian peoples as allies. Alfred himself, like Tolkien's Aragorn, is an idealized heroic figure who roams around in humble disguise and is sometimes mistreated by the ignorant. Instead of Dwarves, Elves, and Men of Numenorean descent, he leads an alliance of Saxons, Celts, and Romans.
    • Cristopher Clausen, in "The Lord of the Rings and The Ballad of the White Horse" in South Atlantic Bulletin 39.2 (May 1974)
  • Several books I purchased on my trip, among them G. K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. Ever read it? It's great.
    • Robert E. Howard, in a letter to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith (c. September 1927)

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