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


The Scouring of the Horse

In the years of the peace of Wessex,

When the good King sat at home;

Years following on that bloody boon

When she that stands above the moon

Stood above death at Ethandune

And saw his kingdom come —

When the pagan people of the sea

Fled to their palisades,

Nailed there with javelins to cling

And wonder smote the pirate king,

And brought him to his christening

And the end of all his raids.

(For not till the night’s blue slate is wiped

Of its last star utterly,

And fierce new signs writ there to read,

Shall eyes with such amazement heed,

As when a great man knows indeed

A greater thing than he.)

And there came to his chrism-loosing

Lords of all lands afar,

And a line was drawn north-westerly

That set King Egbert’s empire free,

Giving all lands by the northern sea

To the sons of the northern star.

In the days of the rest of Alfred,

When all these things were done,

And Wessex lay in a patch of peace,

Like a dog in a patch of sun —

The King sat in his orchard,

Among apples green and red,

With the little book in his bosom

And the sunshine on his head.

And he gathered the songs of simple men

That swing with helm and hod,

And the alms he gave as a Christian

Like a river alive with fishes ran;

And he made gifts to a beggar man

As to a wandering god.

And he gat good laws of the ancient kings,

Like treasure out of the tombs;

And many a thief in thorny nook,

Or noble in sea-stained turret shook,

For the opening of his iron book,

And the gathering of the dooms.

Then men would come from the ends of the earth,

Whom the King sat welcoming,

And men would go to the ends of the earth

Because of the word of the King.

For folk came in to Alfred’s face

Whose javelins had been hurled

On monsters that make boil the sea,

Crakens and coils of mystery.

Or thrust in ancient snows that be

The white hair of the world.

And some had knocked at the northern gates

Of the ultimate icy floor,

Where the fish freeze and the foam turns black,

And the wide world narrows to a track,

And the other sea at the world’s back

Cries through a closed door.

And men went forth from Alfred’s face,

Even great gift-bearing lords,

Not to Rome only, but more bold,

Out to the high hot courts of old,

Of negroes clad in cloth of gold,

Silence, and crooked swords,

Scrawled screens and secret gardens

And insect-laden skies —

Where fiery plains stretch on and on

To the purple country of Prester John

And the walls of Paradise.

And he knew the might of the Terre Majeure,

Where kings began to reign;

Where in a night-rout, without name,

Of gloomy Goths and Gauls there came

White, above candles all aflame,

Like a vision, Charlemagne.

And men, seeing such embassies,

Spake with the King and said:

“The steel that sang so sweet a tune

On Ashdown and on Ethandune,

Why hangs it scabbarded so soon,

All heavily like lead?

“Why dwell the Danes in North England,

And up to the river ride?

Three more such marches like thine own

Would end them; and the Pict should own

Our sway; and our feet climb the throne

In the mountains of Strathclyde.”

And Alfred in the orchard,

Among apples green and red,

With the little book in his bosom,

Looked at green leaves and said:

“When all philosophies shall fail,

This word alone shall fit;

That a sage feels too small for life,

And a fool too large for it.

“Asia and all imperial plains

Are too little for a fool;

But for one man whose eyes can see

The little island of Athelney

Is too large a land to rule.

“Haply it had been better

When I built my fortress there,

Out in the reedy waters wide,

I had stood on my mud wall and cried:

‘Take England all, from tide to tide —

Be Athelney my share.’

“Those madmen of the throne-scramble —

Oppressors and oppressed —

Had lined the banks by Athelney,

And waved and wailed unceasingly,

Where the river turned to the broad sea,

By an island of the blest.

“An island like a little book

Full of a hundred tales,

Like the gilt page the good monks pen,

That is all smaller than a wren,

Yet hath high towns, meteors, and men,

And suns and spouting whales;

“A land having a light on it

In the river dark and fast,

An isle with utter clearness lit,

Because a saint had stood in it;

Where flowers are flowers indeed and fit,

And trees are trees at last.

“So were the island of a saint;

But I am a common king,

And I will make my fences tough

From Wantage Town to Plymouth Bluff,

Because I am not wise enough

To rule so small a thing.”

And it fell in the days of Alfred,

In the days of his repose,

That as old customs in his sight

Were a straight road and a steady light,

He bade them keep the White Horse white

As the first plume of the snows.

And right to the red torchlight,

From the trouble of morning grey,

They stripped the White Horse of the grass

As they strip it to this day.

And under the red torchlight

He went dreaming as though dull,

Of his old companions slain like kings,

And the rich irrevocable things

Of a heart that hath not openings,

But is shut fast, being full.

And the torchlight touched the pale hair

Where silver clouded gold,

And the frame of his face was made of cords,

And a young lord turned among the lords

And said: “The King is old.”

And even as he said it

A post ran in amain,

Crying: “Arm, Lord King, the hamlets arm,

In the horror and the shade of harm,

They have burnt Brand of Aynger’s farm —

The Danes are come again!

“Danes drive the white East Angles

In six fights on the plains,

Danes waste the world about the Thames,

Danes to the eastward — Danes!”

And as he stumbled on one knee,

The thanes broke out in ire,

Crying: “Ill the watchmen watch, and ill

The sheriffs keep the shire.”

But the young earl said: “Ill the saints,

The saints of England, guard

The land wherein we pledge them gold;

The dykes decay, the King grows old,

And surely this is hard,

“That we be never quit of them;

That when his head is hoar

He cannot say to them he smote,

And spared with a hand hard at the throat,

‘Go, and return no more.’”

Then Alfred smiled. And the smile of him

Was like the sun for power.

But he only pointed: bade them heed

Those peasants of the Berkshire breed,

Who plucked the old Horse of the weed

As they pluck it to this hour.

“Will ye part with the weeds for ever?

Or show daisies to the door?

Or will you bid the bold grass

Go, and return no more?

“So ceaseless and so secret

Thrive terror and theft set free;

Treason and shame shall come to pass

While one weed flowers in a morass;

And like the stillness of stiff grass

The stillness of tyranny.

“Over our white souls also

Wild heresies and high

Wave prouder than the plumes of grass,

And sadder than their sigh.

“And I go riding against the raid,

And ye know not where I am;

But ye shall know in a day or year,

When one green star of grass grows here;

Chaos has charged you, charger and spear,

Battle-axe and battering-ram.

“And though skies alter and empires melt,

This word shall still be true:

If we would have the horse of old,

Scour ye the horse anew.

“One time I followed a dancing star

That seemed to sing and nod,

And ring upon earth all evil’s knell;

But now I wot if ye scour not well

Red rust shall grow on God’s great bell

And grass in the streets of God.”

Ceased Alfred; and above his head

The grand green domes, the Downs,

Showed the first legions of the press,

Marching in haste and bitterness

For Christ’s sake and the crown’s.

Beyond the cavern of Colan,

Past Eldred’s by the sea,

Rose men that owned King Alfred’s rod,

From the windy wastes of Exe untrod,

Or where the thorn of the grave of God

Burns over Glastonbury.

Far northward and far westward

The distant tribes drew nigh,

Plains beyond plains, fell beyond fell,

That a man at sunset sees so well,

And the tiny coloured towns that dwell

In the corners of the sky.

But dark and thick as thronged the host,

With drum and torch and blade,

The still-eyed King sat pondering,

As one that watches a live thing,

The scoured chalk; and he said,

“Though I give this land to Our Lady,

That helped me in Athelney,

Though lordlier trees and lustier sod

And happier hills hath no flesh trod

Than the garden of the Mother of God

Between Thames side and the sea,

“I know that weeds shall grow in it

Faster than men can burn;

And though they scatter now and go,

In some far century, sad and slow,

I have a vision, and I know

The heathen shall return.

“They shall not come with warships,

They shall not waste with brands,

But books be all their eating,

And ink be on their hands.

“Not with the humour of hunters

Or savage skill in war,

But ordering all things with dead words,

Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,

And wheels of wind and star.

“They shall come mild as monkish clerks,

With many a scroll and pen;

And backward shall ye turn and gaze,

Desiring one of Alfred’s days,

When pagans still were men.

“The dear sun dwarfed of dreadful suns,

Like fiercer flowers on stalk,

Earth lost and little like a pea

In high heaven’s towering forestry,

— These be the small weeds ye shall see

Crawl, covering the chalk.

“But though they bridge St. Mary’s sea,

Or steal St. Michael’s wing —

Though they rear marvels over us,

Greater than great Vergilius

Wrought for the Roman king;

“By this sign you shall know them,

The breaking of the sword,

And man no more a free knight,

That loves or hates his lord.

“Yea, this shall be the sign of them,

The sign of the dying fire;

And Man made like a half-wit,

That knows not of his sire.

“What though they come with scroll and pen,

And grave as a shaven clerk,

By this sign you shall know them,

That they ruin and make dark;

“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 —

“When is great talk of trend and tide,

And wisdom and destiny,

Hail that undying heathen

That is sadder than the sea.

“In what wise men shall smite him,

Or the Cross stand up again,

Or charity or chivalry,

My vision saith not; and I see

No more; but now ride doubtfully

To the battle of the plain.”

And the grass-edge of the great down

Was cut clean as a lawn,

While the levies thronged from near and far,

From the warm woods of the western star,

And the King went out to his last war

On a tall grey horse at dawn.

And news of his far-off fighting

Came slowly and brokenly

From the land of the East Saxons,

From the sunrise and the sea.

From the plains of the white sunrise,

And sad St. Edmund’s crown,

Where the pools of Essex pale and gleam

Out beyond London Town —

In mighty and doubtful fragments,

Like faint or fabled wars,

Climbed the old hills of his renown,

Where the bald brow of White Horse Down

Is close to the cold stars.

But away in the eastern places

The wind of death walked high,

And a raid was driven athwart the raid,

The sky reddened and the smoke swayed,

And the tall grey horse went by.

The gates of the great river

Were breached as with a barge,

The walls sank crowded, say the scribes,

And high towers populous with tribes

Seemed leaning from the charge.

Smoke like rebellious heavens rolled

Curled over coloured flames,

Mirrored in monstrous purple dreams

In the mighty pools of Thames.

Loud was the war on London wall,

And loud in London gates,

And loud the sea-kings in the cloud

Broke through their dreaming gods, and loud

Cried on their dreadful Fates.

And all the while on White Horse Hill

The horse lay long and wan,

The turf crawled and the fungus crept,

And the little sorrel, while all men slept,

Unwrought the work of man.

With velvet finger, velvet foot,

The fierce soft mosses then

Crept on the large white commonweal

All folk had striven to strip and peel,

And the grass, like a great green witch’s wheel,

Unwound the toils of men.

And clover and silent thistle throve,

And buds burst silently,

With little care for the Thames Valley

Or what things there might be-

That away on the widening river,

In the eastern plains for crown

Stood up in the pale purple sky

One turret of smoke like ivory;

And the smoke changed and the wind went by,

And the King took London Town.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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