The Ballad of the White Horse: An Epic Poem

The Ballad of the White Horse: An Epic Poem

by G. K. Chesterton

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A rousing ballad based on the true story of legendary Saxon king Alfred the Great

In the dark times before a unified England, warring tribes roved and sparred for territory across the British Isles. The Ballad of the White Horse records the deeds and military accomplishments of Alfred the Great as he defeats the invading Danes at the Battle of Ethandun. Published in 1911, this poem follows the battle—from the gathering of the chiefs to the last war cry—with a care to rhythm, sound, and language that makes it a magnificent work of art as well as a vital piece of English history.
A significant influence on the structure of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, The Ballad of the White Horse transforms the thrilling exploits of a courageous leader into an inspirational Christian allegory.
This ebook has been professionally proofread to ensure accuracy and readability on all devices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504022484
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 92
Sales rank: 566,368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) was a prolific English journalist and author best known for his mystery series featuring the priest-detective Father Brown and for the metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. Baptized into the Church of England, Chesterton underwent a crisis of faith as a young man and became fascinated with the occult. He eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and published some of Christianity’s most influential apologetics, including Heretics and Orthodoxy.
G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) was a prolific English journalist and author best known for his mystery series featuring the priest-detective Father Brown and for the metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. Baptized into the Church of England, Chesterton underwent a crisis of faith as a young man and became fascinated with the occult. He eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and published some of Christianity’s most influential apologetics, including Heretics and Orthodoxy

Read an Excerpt

The Ballad of the White Horse

An Epic Poem

By G. K. Chesterton


Copyright © 2015 G. K. Chesterton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2248-4



    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.

    When the ends of the earth came marching in
    To torch and cresset gleam.
    And the roads of the world that lead to Rome
    Were filled with faces that moved like foam,
    Like faces in a dream.

    And men rode out of the eastern lands,
    Broad river and burning plain;
    Trees that are Titan flowers to see,
    And tiger skies, striped horribly,
    With tints of tropic rain.

    Where Ind's enamelled peaks arise
    Around that inmost one,
    Where ancient eagles on its brink,
    Vast as archangels, gather and drink
    The sacrament of the sun.

    And men brake out of the northern lands,
    Enormous lands alone,
    Where a spell is laid upon life and lust
    And the rain is changed to a silver dust
    And the sea to a great green stone.

    And a Shape that moveth murkily
    In mirrors of ice and night,
    Hath blanched with fear all beasts and birds,
    As death and a shock of evil words
    Blast a man's hair with white.

    And the cry of the palms and the purple moons,
    Or the cry of the frost and foam,
    Swept ever around an inmost place,
    And the din of distant race on race
    Cried and replied round Rome.

    And there was death on the Emperor
    And night upon the Pope:
    And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
    Hardened his heart with hope.

    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 bent them back with spear and spade,
    With desperate dyke and wall,
    With foemen leaning on his shield
    And roaring on him when he reeled;
    And no help came at all.

    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.

    The Northmen came about our land
    A Christless chivalry:
    Who knew not of the arch or pen,
    Great, beautiful half-witted men
    From the sunrise and the sea.

    Misshapen ships stood on the deep
    Full of strange gold and fire,
    And hairy men, as huge as sin
    With horned heads, came wading in
    Through the long, low sea-mire.

    Our towns were shaken of tall kings
    With scarlet beards like blood:
    The world turned empty where they trod,
    They took the kindly cross of God
    And cut it up for wood.

    Their souls were drifting as the sea,
    And all good towns and lands
    They only saw with heavy eyes,
    And broke with heavy hands,

    Their gods were sadder than the sea,
    Gods of a wandering will,
    Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
    Sadly, from hill to hill.

    They seemed as trees walking the earth,
    As witless and as tall,
    Yet they took hold upon the heavens
    And no help came at all.

    They bred like birds in English woods,
    They rooted like the rose,
    When Alfred came to Athelney
    To hide him from their bows

    There was not English armour left,
    Nor any English thing,
    When Alfred came to Athelney
    To be an English king.

    For earthquake swallowing earthquake
    Uprent the Wessex tree;
    The whirlpool of the pagan sway
    Had swirled his sires as sticks away
    When a flood smites the sea.

    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 the God of the Golden Dragon
    Was dumb upon his throne,
    And the lord of the Golden Dragon
    Ran in the woods alone.

    And if ever he climbed the crest of luck
    And set the flag before,
    Returning as a wheel returns,
    Came ruin and the rain that burns,
    And all began once 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.

    In the island in the river
    He was broken to his knee:
    And he read, writ with an iron pen,
    That God had wearied of Wessex men
    And given their country, field and fen,
    To the devils of the sea.

    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.

    It was wrought in the monk's slow manner,
    From silver and sanguine shell,
    Where the scenes are little and terrible,
    Keyholes of heaven and hell.

    In the river island of Athelney,
    With the river running past,
    In colours of such simple creed
    All things sprang at him, sun and weed,
    Till the grass grew to be grass indeed
    And the tree was a tree at last.

    Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
    Like the child's book to read,
    Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
    He looked; and there Our Lady was,
    She stood and stroked the tall live grass
    As a man strokes his steed.

    Her face was like an open word
    When brave men speak and choose,
    The very colours of her coat
    Were better than good news.

    She spoke not, nor turned not,
    Nor any sign she cast,
    Only she stood up straight and free,
    Between the flowers in Athelney,
    And the river running past.

    One dim ancestral jewel hung
    On his ruined armour grey,
    He rent and cast it at her feet:
    Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
    Men came from hall and school and street
    And found it where it lay.

    "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.

    "But for this earth most pitiful,
    This little land I know,
    If that which is for ever is,
    Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
    Seeing the stranger go?

    "When our last bow is broken, Queen,
    And our last javelin cast,
    Under some sad, green evening sky,
    Holding a ruined cross on high,
    Under warm westland grass to lie,
    Shall we come home at last?"

    And a voice came human but high up,
    Like a cottage climbed among
    The clouds; or a serf of hut and croft
    That sits by his hovel fire as oft,
    But hears on his old bare roof aloft
    A belfry burst in song.

    "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 meanest man in grey fields gone
    Behind the set of sun,
    Heareth between star and other star,
    Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
    The council, eldest of things that are,
    The talk of the Three in One.

    "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.

    "The men of the East may spell the stars,
    And times and triumphs mark,
    But the men signed of the cross of Christ
    Go gaily in the dark.

    "The men of the East may search the scrolls
    For sure fates and fame,
    But the men that drink the blood of God
    Go singing to their shame.

    "The wise men know what wicked things
    Are written on the sky,
    They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
    Hearing the heavy purple wings,
    Where the forgotten seraph kings
    Still plot how God shall die.

    "The wise men know all evil things
    Under the twisted trees,
    Where the perverse in pleasure pine
    And men are weary of green wine
    And sick of crimson seas.

    "But 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?"

    Even as she spoke she was not,
    Nor any word said he,
    He only heard, still as he stood
    Under the old night's nodding hood,
    The sea-folk breaking down the wood
    Like a high tide from sea.

    He only heard the heathen men,
    Whose eyes are blue and bleak,
    Singing about some cruel thing
    Done by a great and smiling king
    In daylight on a deck.

    He only heard the heathen men,
    Whose eyes are blue and blind,
    Singing what shameful things are done
    Between the sunlit sea and the sun
    When the land is left behind.



    Up across windy wastes and up
    Went Alfred over the shaws,
    Shaken of the joy of giants,
    The joy without a cause.

    In the slopes away to the western bays,
    Where blows not ever a tree,
    He washed his soul in the west wind
    And his body in the sea.

    And he set to rhyme his ale-measures,
    And he sang aloud his laws,
    Because of the joy of the giants,
    The joy without a cause.

    The King went gathering Wessex men,
    As grain out of the chaff
    The few that were alive to die,
    Laughing, as littered skulls that lie
    After lost battles turn to the sky
    An everlasting laugh.

    The King went gathering Christian men,
    As wheat out of the husk;
    Eldred, the Franklin by the sea,
    And Mark, the man from Italy,
    And Colan of the Sacred Tree,
    From the old tribe on Usk.

    The rook croaked homeward heavily,
    The west was clear and warm,
    The smoke of evening food and ease
    Rose like a blue tree in the trees
    When he came to Eldred's farm.

    But Eldred's farm was fallen awry,
    Like an old cripple's bones,
    And Eldred's tools were red with rust,
    And on his well was a green crust,
    And purple thistles upward thrust,
    Between the kitchen stones.

    But smoke of some good feasting
    Went upwards evermore,
    And Eldred's doors stood wide apart
    For loitering foot or labouring cart,
    And Eldred's great and foolish heart
    Stood open like his door.

    A mighty man was Eldred,
    A bulk for casks to fill,
    His face a dreaming furnace,
    His body a walking hill.

    In the old wars of Wessex
    His sword had sunken deep,
    But all his friends, he signed and said,
    Were broken about Ethelred;
    And between the deep drink and the dead
    He had fallen upon sleep.

    "Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale:
    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.'"

    Then silence sank. And slowly
    Arose the sea-land lord,
    Like some vast beast for mystery,
    He filled the room and porch and sky,
    And from a cobwebbed nail on high
    Unhooked his heavy sword.

    Up on the shrill sea-downs and up
    Went Alfred all alone,
    Turning but once e'er the door was shut,
    Shouting to Eldred over his butt,
    That he bring all spears to the woodman's hut
    Hewn under Egbert's Stone.

    And he turned his back and broke the fern,
    And fought the moths of dusk,
    And went on his way for other friends
    Friends fallen of all the wide world's ends,
    From Rome that wrath and pardon sends
    And the grey tribes on Usk.

    He saw gigantic tracks of death
    And many a shape of doom,
    Good steadings to grey ashes gone
    And a monk's house white like a skeleton
    In the green crypt of the combe.

    And in many a Roman villa
    Earth and her ivies eat,
    Saw coloured pavements sink and fade
    In flowers, and the windy colonnade
    Like the spectre of a street.

    But the cold stars clustered
    Among the cold pines
    Ere he was half on his pilgrimage
    Over the western lines.

    And the white dawn widened
    Ere he came to the last pine,
    Where Mark, the man from Italy,
    Still made the Christian sign.

    The long farm lay on the large hill-side,
    Flat like a painted plan,
    And by the side the low white house,
    Where dwelt the southland man.

    A bronzed man, with a bird's bright eye,
    And a strong bird's beak and brow,
    His skin was brown like buried gold,
    And of certain of his sires was told
    That they came in the shining ship of old,
    With Caesar in the prow.

    His fruit trees stood like soldiers
    Drilled in a straight line,
    His strange, stiff olives did not fail,
    And all the kings of the earth drank ale,
    But he drank wine.

    Wide over wasted British plains
    Stood never an arch or dome,
    Only the trees to toss and reel,
    The tribes to bicker, the beasts to squeal;
    But the eyes in his head were strong like steel,
    And his soul remembered Rome.

    Then Alfred of the lonely spear
    Lifted his lion head;
    And fronted with the Italian's eye,
    Asking him of his whence and why,
    King Alfred stood and said:

    "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."

    Long looked the Roman on the land;
    The trees as golden crowns
    Blazed, drenched with dawn and dew-empearled
    While faintlier coloured, freshlier curled,
    The clouds from underneath the world
    Stood up over the downs.

    "These vines be ropes that drag me hard,"
    He said. "I go not far;
    Where would you meet? For you must hold
    Half Wiltshire and the White Horse wold,
    And the Thames bank to Owsenfold,
    If Wessex goes to war.

    "Guthrum sits strong on either bank
    And you must press his lines
    Inwards, and eastward drive him down;
    I doubt if you shall take the crown
    Till you have taken London town.
    For me, I have the vines."

    "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.

    "Though I be in the dust ere then,
    I know where you will be."
    And shouldering suddenly his spear
    He faded like some elfin fear,
    Where the tall pines ran up, tier on tier
    Tree overtoppling tree.

    He shouldered his spear at morning
    And laughed to lay it on,
    But he leaned on his spear as on a staff,
    With might and little mood to laugh,
    Or ever he sighted chick or calf
    Of Colan of Caerleon.

    For the man dwelt in a lost land
    Of boulders and broken men,
    In a great grey cave far off to the south
    Where a thick green forest stopped the mouth,
    Giving darkness in his den.

    And the man was come like a shadow,
    From the shadow of Druid trees,
    Where Usk, with mighty murmurings,
    Past Caerleon of the fallen kings,
    Goes out to ghostly seas.

    Last of a race in ruin —
    He spoke the speech of the Gaels;
    His kin were in holy Ireland,
    Or up in the crags of Wales.

    But his soul stood with his mother's folk,
    That were of the rain-wrapped isle,
    Where Patrick and Brandan westerly
    Looked out at last on a landless sea
    And the sun's last smile.

    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 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.

    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?

    "But when you win you brag and blow,
    And when you lose you rail,
    Army of eastland yokels
    Not strong enough to fail."

    "I bring not boast or railing,"
    Spake Alfred not in ire,
    "I bring of Our Lady a lesson set,
    This — that the sky grows darker yet
    And the sea rises higher."

    Then Colan of the Sacred Tree
    Tossed his black mane on high,
    And cried, as rigidly he rose,
    "And if the sea and sky be foes,
    We will tame the sea and sky."

    Smiled Alfred, "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.


Excerpted from The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton. Copyright © 2015 G. K. Chesterton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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