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

Book VII

Ethandune: The Last Charge

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.

Through the long infant hours like days

He built one tower in vain —

Piled up small stones to make a town,

And evermore the stones fell down,

And he piled them up again.

And crimson kings on battle-towers,

And saints on Gothic spires,

And hermits on their peaks of snow,

And heroes on their pyres,

And patriots riding royally,

That rush the rocking town,

Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,

Seeking to mount where high and higher,

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.

For Eldred fought like a frank hunter

That killeth and goeth home;

And Mark had fought because all arms

Rang like the name of Rome.

And Colan fought with a double mind,

Moody and madly gay;

But Alfred fought as gravely

As a good child at play.

He saw wheels break and work run back

And all things as they were;

And his heart was orbed like victory

And simple like despair.

Therefore is 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.

And as a child whose bricks fall down

Re-piles them o’er and o’er,

Came ruin and the rain that burns,

Returning as a wheel returns,

And crouching in the furze and ferns

He began his life once more.

He took his ivory horn unslung

And smiled, but not in scorn:

“Endeth the Battle of Ethandune

With the blowing of a horn.”

On a dark horse at the double way

He saw great Guthrum ride,

Heard roar of brass and ring of steel,

The laughter and the trumpet peal,

The pagan in his pride.

And Ogier’s red and hated head

Moved in some talk or task;

But the men seemed scattered in the brier,

And some of them had lit a fire,

And one had broached a cask.

And waggons one or two stood up,

Like tall ships in sight,

As if an outpost were encamped

At the cloven ways for night.

And joyous of the sudden stay

Of Alfred’s routed few,

Sat one upon a stone to sigh,

And some slipped up the road to fly,

Till Alfred in the fern hard by

Set horn to mouth and blew.

And they all abode like statues —

One sitting on the stone,

One half-way through the thorn hedge tall,

One with a leg across a wall,

And one looked backwards, very small,

Far up the road, alone.

Grey twilight and a yellow star

Hung over thorn and hill;

Two spears and a cloven war-shield lay

Loose on the road as cast away,

The horn died faint in the forest grey,

And the fleeing men stood still.

“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?

“To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,

To drink up infamy?

No, brothers, by your leave, I think

Death is a better ale to drink,

And by all the stars of Christ that sink,

The Danes shall drink with me.

“To grow old cowed in a conquered land,

With the sun itself discrowned,

To see trees crouch and cattle slink —

Death is a better ale to drink,

And by high Death on the fell brink

That flagon shall go round.

“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.

“The wheel of the roaring stillness

Of all labours under the sun,

Speed the wild work as well at least

As the whole world’s work is done.

“Let Hildred hack the shield-wall

Clean as he hacks the hedge;

Let Gurth the fowler stand as cool

As he stands on the chasm’s edge;

“Let Gorlias ride the sea-kings

As Gorlias rides the sea,

Then let all hell and Denmark drive,

Yelling to all its fiends alive,

And not a rag care we.”

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 the King held up the horn and said,

“See ye my father’s horn,

That Egbert blew in his empery,

Once, when he rode out commonly,

Twice when he rode for venery,

And thrice on the battle-morn.

“But heavier fates have fallen

The horn of the Wessex kings,

And I blew once, the riding sign,

To call you to the fighting line

And glory and all good things.

“And now two blasts, the hunting sign,

Because we turn to bay;

But I will not blow the three blasts,

Till we be lost or they.

“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.

And when the last arrow

Was fitted and was flown,

When the broken shield hung on the breast,

And the hopeless lance was laid in rest,

And the hopeless horn blown,

The King looked up, and what he saw

Was a great light like death,

For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,

As lonely and as innocent

As when between white walls she went

And the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light

He saw Our Lady then,

Her dress was soft as western sky,

And she was a queen most womanly —

But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest

He saw Our Lady stand,

Her eyes were sad withouten art,

And seven swords were in her heart —

But one was in her hand.

Then the last charge went blindly,

And all too lost for fear:

The Danes closed round, a roaring ring,

And twenty clubs rose o’er the King,

Four Danes hewed at him, halloing,

And Ogier of the Stone and Sling

Drove at him with a spear.

But the Danes were wild with laughter,

And the great spear swung wide,

The point stuck to a straggling tree,

And either host cried suddenly,

As Alfred leapt aside.

Short time had shaggy Ogier

To pull his lance in line —

He knew King Alfred’s axe on high,

He heard it rushing through the sky,

He cowered beneath it with a cry —

It split him to the spine:

And Alfred sprang over him dead,

And blew the battle sign.

Then bursting all and blasting

Came Christendom like death,

Kicked of such catapults of will,

The staves shiver, the barrels spill,

The waggons waver and crash and kill

The waggoners beneath.

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.

“The Mother of God goes over them,

On dreadful cherubs borne;

And the psalm is roaring above the rune,

And the Cross goes over the sun and moon,

Endeth the battle of Ethandune

With the blowing of a horn.”

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 Edgar of the Golden Ship

He slew with his own hand,

Took Ludwig from his lady’s bower,

And smote down Harmar in his hour,

And vain and lonely stood the tower —

The tower in Guelderland.

And Torr out of his tiny boat,

Whose eyes beheld the Nile,

Wulf with his war-cry on his lips,

And Harco born in the eclipse,

Who blocked the Seine with battleships

Round Paris on the Isle.

And Hacon of the Harvest–Song,

And Dirck from the Elbe he slew,

And Cnut that melted Durham bell

And Fulk and fiery Oscar fell,

And Goderic and Sigael,

And Uriel of the Yew.

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.

And Hildred the poor hedger

Cut down four captains dead,

And Halmar laid three others low,

And the great earls wavered to and fro

For the living and the dead.

And Gorlias grasped the great flag,

The Raven of Odin, torn;

And the eyes of Guthrum altered,

For the first time since morn.

As a turn of the wheel of tempest

Tilts up the whole sky tall,

And cliffs of wan cloud luminous

Lean out like great walls over us,

As if the heavens might fall.

As such a tall and tilted sky

Sends certain snow or light,

So did the eyes of Guthrum change,

And the turn was more certain and more strange

Than a thousand men in flight.

For 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.

He set his horse in the battle-breech

Even Guthrum of the Dane,

And as ever had fallen fell his brand,

A falling tower o’er many a land,

But Gurth the fowler laid one hand

Upon this bridle rein.

King Guthrum was a great lord,

And higher than his gods —

He put the popes to laughter,

He chid the saints with rods,

He took this hollow world of ours

For a cup to hold his wine;

In the parting of the woodways

There came to him a sign.

In Wessex in the forest,

In the breaking of the spears,

We set a sign on Guthrum

To blaze a thousand years.

Where the high saddles jostle

And the horse-tails toss,

There rose to the birds flying

A roar of dead and dying;

In deafness and strong crying

We signed him with the cross.

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.

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