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.
So opens G.K. Chesterton’s poetic masterpiece, The Ballad of the White Horse, the tale of King Alfred and his war against the invading Norsemen. The ballad is a glorious celebration of hope in the face of despair and of the gallant defense of civilization against the seemingly invincible powers of barbarism. During the First World War, British soldiers in the trenches would shout long passages from it to encourage one another. So, you can see why it’s come to mind today.
The poem is, of course, much too long to quote in full, but I would like to present one of my favorite passages. In it, King Alfred, disguised as a wandering minstrel, has entered the camp of the Danes and has listened to them share their gloomy philosophies around the fire. In a fit of passion, he rises to answer them: an answer that all Christians may use to answer all barbarians:
“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;
“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.
“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.
“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?
“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,
“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord’s broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.
“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.
“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.
“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.
“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;
“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;
“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.
“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.
“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.
“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”