Thursday, February 27, 2014

The End of the World Was Long Ago

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.

For some reason I've been thinking recently of G. K. Chesterton's best poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, which is a serious candidate for the best narrative poem of the twentieth century. The above, which opens Book I, is about the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire, the end of the world long ago, as the barbarians began to march. In the midst of the chaos, the hero of the story, Alfred, becomes King of Wessex in a time of Danish invasion, when it seems that Wessex might not survive. He attempts to stave it off, but then there comes an invasion he cannot hold off. He has a vision of the Virgin Mary and asks her what the fate of his people will be. And she tells him that while the pagans may mark their times and triumphs, the fate of those who drink the blood of God is to go singing to their deaths, to have joy when there is no cause for it, and to have faith when there is no hope.

In Book II Alfred begins to gather his army, and when they ask why they should come, he tells them the truth:

"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."

And they come, to fight and die.

In Book III, Alfred is surveying the territory when he is captured by a band of Danes, who, not recognizing him and seeing that he has a harp, drag him back to the army, vast like the sea, to play for the chieftains. Other bards play, singing songs of ancient defeat and the dark fate of the world, and then Alfred sings his defiant song in response:

"What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

"That 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.

Book IV, after he has escaped, gives the famous story of Alfred and the cakes, and the army of Alfred goes to war. Book V sees preparations for the Battle of Ethandune, which we see in Book VI as the chiefs of Alfred's army fall in battle, one by one; and in Book VII Alfred leads the last desperate charge:

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.

But Alfred sees the Virgin again, and the tide of battle turns. Guthrum the pagan king dies; and Book VII ends lauding him for his greatness and burying him. With Book VIII, we find Alfred prophesying of things to come: heathen will again come to conquer, with new ways:

"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—

But how such barbarians are to be defeated, Alfred does not know; but he rides off to finish his task.


  1. MrsDarwin7:58 AM

    "You are more tired of victory,
    Than we are tired of shame."

    Very powerful lines. I'll be meditating on them all day.

    I have not read any of Chesterton's long poetry, but I will look for this one.

  2. branemrys2:24 PM

    There are lots of good lines. One of my favorites is from the same speech:

    ...only Christian men
    Guard even heathen things.

  3. Enbrethiliel10:38 AM


    This brings back great memories of the week I finally hunkered down to read The Battle of the White Horse! =D Although I read Chesterton's collected poems over and over again in uni, I skipped this one until I was already teaching. And then one day, I fell sick for nearly a week and it seemed like a good time to give this one its due . . . I think I still have a crush on "Mark, the man from Italy."

    My favourite part is when one of Mark's speeches turns into Latin. I memorised it for the pleasure of the rhythm of the words, and later was delighted to learn that Chesterton had borrowed it from the psalms!


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