The Ballad of the White Horse, by Chesterton, G. K.

Book VI

Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

As the sea flooding the flat sands

Flew on the sea-born horde,

The two hosts shocked with dust and din,

Left of the Latian paladin,

Clanged all Prince Harold’s howling kin

On Colan and the sword.

Crashed in the midst on Marcus,

Ogier with Guthrum by,

And eastward of such central stir,

Far to the right and faintlier,

The house of Elf the harp-player,

Struck Eldred’s with a cry.

The centre swat for weariness,

Stemming the screaming horde,

And wearily went Colan’s hands

That swung King Alfred’s sword.

But like a cloud of morning

To eastward easily,

Tall Eldred broke the sea of spears

As a tall ship breaks the sea.

His face like a sanguine sunset,

His shoulder a Wessex down,

His hand like a windy hammer-stroke;

Men could not count the crests he broke,

So fast the crests went down.

As the tall white devil of the Plague

Moves out of Asian skies,

With his foot on a waste of cities

And his head in a cloud of flies;

Or purple and peacock skies grow dark

With a moving locust-tower;

Or tawny sand-winds tall and dry,

Like hell’s red banners beat and fly,

When death comes out of Araby,

Was Eldred in his hour.

But while he moved like a massacre

He murmured as in sleep,

And his words were all of low hedges

And little fields and sheep.

Even as he strode like a pestilence,

That strides from Rhine to Rome,

He thought how tall his beans might be

If ever he went home.

Spoke some stiff piece of childish prayer,

Dull as the distant chimes,

That thanked our God for good eating

And corn and quiet times —

Till on the helm of a high chief

Fell shatteringly his brand,

And the helm broke and the bone broke

And the sword broke in his hand.

Then from the yelling Northmen

Driven splintering on him ran

Full seven spears, and the seventh

Was never made by man.

Seven spears, and the seventh

Was wrought as the faerie blades,

And given to Elf the minstrel

By the monstrous water-maids;

By them that dwell where luridly

Lost waters of the Rhine

Move among roots of nations,

Being sunken for a sign.

Under all graves they murmur,

They murmur and rebel,

Down to the buried kingdoms creep,

And like a lost rain roar and weep

O’er the red heavens of hell.

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.”

Centre and right the Wessex guard

Grew pale for doubt and fear,

And the flank failed at the advance,

For the death-light on the wizard lance —

The star of the evil spear.

“Stand like an oak,” cried Marcus,

“Stand like a Roman wall!

Eldred the Good is fallen —

Are you too good to fall?

“When we were wan and bloodless

He gave you ale enow;

The pirates deal with him as dung,

God! are you bloodless now?”

“Grip, Wulf and Gorlias, grip the ash!

Slaves, and I make you free!

Stamp, Hildred hard in English land,

Stand Gurth, stand Gorlias, Gawen stand!

Hold, Halfgar, with the other hand,

Halmer, hold up on knee!

“The lamps are dying in your homes,

The fruits upon your bough;

Even now your old thatch smoulders, Gurth,

Now is the judgment of the earth,

Now is the death-grip, now!”

For thunder of the captain,

Not less the Wessex line,

Leaned back and reeled a space to rear

As Elf charged with the Rhine maids’ spear,

And roaring like the Rhine.

For the men were borne by the waving walls

Of woods and clouds that pass,

By dizzy plains and drifting sea,

And they mixed God with glamoury,

God with the gods of the burning tree

And the wizard’s tower and glass.

But Mark was come of the glittering towns

Where hot white details show,

Where men can number and expound,

And his faith grew in a hard ground

Of doubt and reason and falsehood found,

Where no faith else could grow.

Belief that grew of all beliefs

One moment back was blown

And belief that stood on unbelief

Stood up iron and alone.

The Wessex crescent backwards

Crushed, as with bloody spear

Went Elf roaring and routing,

And Mark against Elf yet shouting,

Shocked, in his mid-career.

Right on the Roman shield and sword

Did spear of the Rhine maids run;

But the shield shifted never,

The sword rang down to sever,

The great Rhine sang for ever,

And the songs of Elf were done.

And a great thunder of Christian men

Went up against the sky,

Saying, “God hath broken the evil spear

Ere the good man’s blood was dry.”

“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.

“The God that heweth kings in oak

Writeth songs on vellum,

God of gold and flaming glass,

Confregit potentias

Acrcuum, scutum, Gorlias,

Gladium et bellum.”

Steel and lightning broke about him,

Battle-bays and palm,

All the sea-kings swayed among

Woods of the Wessex arms upflung,

The trumpet of the Roman tongue,

The thunder of the psalm.

And midmost of that rolling field

Ran Ogier ragingly,

Lashing at Mark, who turned his blow,

And brake the helm about his brow,

And broke him to his knee.

Then Ogier heaved over his head

His huge round shield of proof;

But Mark set one foot on the shield,

One on some sundered rock upheeled,

And towered above the tossing field,

A statue on a roof.

Dealing far blows about the fight,

Like thunder-bolts a-roam,

Like birds about the battle-field,

While Ogier writhed under his shield

Like a tortoise in his dome.

But hate in the buried Ogier

Was strong as pain in hell,

With bare brute hand from the inside

He burst the shield of brass and hide,

And a death-stroke to the Roman’s side

Sent suddenly and well.

Then the great statue on the shield

Looked his last look around

With level and imperial eye;

And Mark, the man from Italy,

Fell in the sea of agony,

And died without a sound.

And Ogier, leaping up alive,

Hurled his huge shield away

Flying, as when a juggler flings

A whizzing plate in play.

And held two arms up rigidly,

And roared to all the Danes:

“Fallen is Rome, yea, fallen

The city of the plains!

“Shall no man born remember,

That breaketh wood or weald,

How long she stood on the roof of the world

As he stood on my shield.

“The new wild world forgetteth her

As foam fades on the sea,

How long she stood with her foot on Man

As he with his foot on me.

“No more shall the brown men of the south

Move like the ants in lines,

To quiet men with olives

Or madden men with vines.

“No more shall the white towns of the south,

Where Tiber and Nilus run,

Sitting around a secret sea

Worship a secret sun.

“The blind gods roar for Rome fallen,

And forum and garland gone,

For the ice of the north is broken,

And the sea of the north comes on.

“The blind gods roar and rave and dream

Of all cities under the sea,

For the heart of the north is broken,

And the blood of the north is free.

“Down from the dome of the world we come,

Rivers on rivers down,

Under us swirl the sects and hordes

And the high dooms we drown.

“Down from the dome of the world and down,

Struck flying as a skiff

On a river in spate is spun and swirled

Until we come to the end of the world

That breaks short, like a cliff.

“And when we come to the end of the world

For me, I count it fit

To take the leap like a good river,

Shot shrieking over it.

“But whatso hap at the end of the world,

Where Nothing is struck and sounds,

It is not, by Thor, these monkish men

These humbled Wessex hounds —

“Not this pale line of Christian hinds,

This one white string of men,

Shall keep us back from the end of the world,

And the things that happen then.

“It is not Alfred’s dwarfish sword,

Nor Egbert’s pigmy crown,

Shall stay us now that descend in thunder,

Rending the realms and the realms thereunder,

Down through the world and down.”

There was that in the wild men back of him,

There was that in his own wild song,

A dizzy throbbing, a drunkard smoke,

That dazed to death all Wessex folk,

And swept their spears along.

Vainly the sword of Colan

And the axe of Alfred plied —

The Danes poured in like a brainless plague,

And knew not when they died.

Prince Colan slew a score of them,

And was stricken to his knee;

King Alfred slew a score and seven

And was borne back on a tree.

Back to the black gate of the woods,

Back up the single way,

Back by the place of the parting ways

Christ’s knights were whirled away.

And when they came to the parting ways

Doom’s heaviest hammer fell,

For the King was beaten, blind, at bay,

Down the right lane with his array,

But Colan swept the other way,

Where he smote great strokes and fell.

The thorn-woods over Ethandune

Stand sharp and thick as spears,

By night and furze and forest-harms

Far sundered were the friends in arms;

The loud lost blows, the last alarms,

Came not to Alfred’s ears.

The thorn-woods over Ethandune

Stand stiff as spikes in mail;

As to the Haut King came at morn

Dead Roland on a doubtful horn,

Seemed unto Alfred lightly borne

The last cry of the Gael.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30