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

Book I

The Vision of the King

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 today

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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52