“The Harp of Alfred” by G.K. Chesterton

10 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following verses (Book III) are excerpted from The Ballad of the White Horse, by G.K. Chesterton (published 1911).  This fictional confrontation in song between heathenism and Christianity, set in 9th century England during the Viking invasions, strikes themes familiar and inspiring to all who fight for the West today.

          In a tree that yawned and twisted
          The King's few goods were flung,
          A mass-book mildewed, line by line,
          And weapons and a skin of wine,
          And an old harp unstrung.

          By the yawning tree in the twilight
          The King unbound his sword,
          Severed the harp of all his goods,
          And there in the cool and soundless woods
          Sounded a single chord.

          Then laughed; and watched the finches flash,
          The sullen flies in swarm,
          And went unarmed over the hills,
          With the harp upon his arm,
          Until he came to the White Horse Vale
          And saw across the plains,
          In the twilight high and far and fell,
          Like the fiery terraces of hell,
          The camp fires of the Danes—

          The fires of the Great Army
          That was made of iron men,
          Whose lights of sacrilege and scorn
          Ran around England red as morn,
          Fires over Glastonbury Thorn—
          Fires out on Ely Fen.

          And as he went by White Horse Vale
          He saw lie wan and wide
          The old horse graven, God knows when,
          By gods or beasts or what things then
          Walked a new world instead of men
          And scrawled on the hill-side.

          And when he came to White Horse Down
          The great White Horse was grey,
          For it was ill scoured of the weed,
          And lichen and thorn could crawl and feed,
          Since the foes of settled house and creed
          Had swept old works away.

          King Alfred gazed all sorrowful
          At thistle and mosses grey,
          Till a rally of Danes with shield and bill
          Rolled drunk over the dome of the hill,
          And, hearing of his harp and skill,
          They dragged him to their play.

          And as they went through the high green grass
          They roared like the great green sea;
          But when they came to the red camp fire
          They were silent suddenly.

          And as they went up the wastes away
          They went reeling to and fro;
          But when they came to the red camp fire
          They stood all in a row.

          For golden in the firelight,
          With a smile carved on his lips,
          And a beard curled right cunningly,
          Was Guthrum of the Northern Sea,
          The emperor of the ships—

          With three great earls King Guthrum
          Went the rounds from fire to fire,
          With Harold, nephew of the King,
          And Ogier of the Stone and Sling,
          And Elf, whose gold lute had a string
          That sighed like all desire.

          The Earls of the Great Army
          That no men born could tire,
          Whose flames anear him or aloof
          Took hold of towers or walls of proof,
          Fire over Glastonbury roof
          And out on Ely, fire.

          And Guthrum heard the soldiers' tale
          And bade the stranger play;
          Not harshly, but as one on high,
          On a marble pillar in the sky,
          Who sees all folk that live and die—
          Pigmy and far away.

          And Alfred, King of Wessex,
          Looked on his conqueror—
          And his hands hardened; but he played,
          And leaving all later hates unsaid,
          He sang of some old British raid
          On the wild west march of yore.

          He sang of war in the warm wet shires,
          Where rain nor fruitage fails,
          Where England of the motley states
          Deepens like a garden to the gates
          In the purple walls of Wales.

          He sang of the seas of savage heads
          And the seas and seas of spears,
          Boiling all over Offa's Dyke,
          What time a Wessex club could strike
          The kings of the mountaineers.

          Till Harold laughed and snatched the harp,
          The kinsman of the King,
          A big youth, beardless like a child,
          Whom the new wine of war sent wild,
          Smote, and began to sing—

          And he cried of the ships as eagles
          That circle fiercely and fly,
          And sweep the seas and strike the towns
          From Cyprus round to Skye.

          How swiftly and with peril
          They gather all good things,
          The high horns of the forest beasts,
          Or the secret stones of kings.

          "For Rome was given to rule the world,
          And gat of it little joy—
          But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
          The whole huge world a toy.

          "Great wine like blood from Burgundy,
          Cloaks like the clouds from Tyre,
          And marble like solid moonlight,
          And gold like frozen fire.

          "Smells that a man might swill in a cup,
          Stones that a man might eat,
          And the great smooth women like ivory
          That the Turks sell in the street."

          He sang the song of the thief of the world,
          And the gods that love the thief;
          And he yelled aloud at the cloister-yards,
          Where men go gathering grief.

          "Well have you sung, O stranger,
          Of death on the dyke in Wales,
          Your chief was a bracelet-giver;
          But the red unbroken river
          Of a race runs not for ever,
          But suddenly it fails.

          "Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers
          When they waded fresh from foam,
          Before they were turned to women
          By the god of the nails from Rome;

          "But since you bent to the shaven men,
          Who neither lust nor smite,
          Thunder of Thor, we hunt you
          A hare on the mountain height."

          King Guthrum smiled a little,
          And said, "It is enough,
          Nephew, let Elf retune the string;
          A boy must needs like bellowing,
          But the old ears of a careful king
          Are glad of songs less rough."

          Blue-eyed was Elf the minstrel,
          With womanish hair and ring,
          Yet heavy was his hand on sword,
          Though light upon the string.

          And as he stirred the strings of the harp
          To notes but four or five,
          The heart of each man moved in him
          Like a babe buried alive.

          And they felt the land of the folk-songs
          Spread southward of the Dane,
          And they heard the good Rhine flowing
          In the heart of all Allemagne.

          They felt the land of the folk-songs,
          Where the gifts hang on the tree,
          Where the girls give ale at morning
          And the tears come easily.

          The mighty people, womanlike,
          That have pleasure in their pain
          As he sang of Balder beautiful,
          Whom the heavens loved in vain.

          As he sang of Balder beautiful,
          Whom the heavens could not save,
          Till the world was like a sea of tears
          And every soul a wave.

          "There is always a thing forgotten
          When all the world goes well;
          A thing forgotten, as long ago,
          When the gods forgot the mistletoe,
          And soundless as an arrow of snow
          The arrow of anguish fell.

          "The thing on the blind side of the heart,
          On the wrong side of the door,
          The green plant groweth, menacing
          Almighty lovers in the spring;
          There is always a forgotten thing,
          And love is not secure."

          And all that sat by the fire were sad,
          Save Ogier, who was stern,
          And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
          As he took the harp in turn;

          Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
          Was odd to ear and sight,
          Old he was, but his locks were red,
          And jests were all the words he said
          Yet he was sad at board and bed
          And savage in the fight.

          "You sing of the young gods easily
          In the days when you are young;
          But I go smelling yew and sods,
          And I know there are gods behind the gods,
          Gods that are best unsung.

          "And a man grows ugly for women,
          And a man grows dull with ale,
          Well if he find in his soul at last
          Fury, that does not fail.

          "The wrath of the gods behind the gods
          Who would rend all gods and men,
          Well if the old man's heart hath still
          Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
          Like cataracts to break down and kill,
          Well for the old man then—

          "While there is one tall shrine to shake,
          Or one live man to rend;
          For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
          Who are weary to make an end.

          "There lives one moment for a man
          When the door at his shoulder shakes,
          When the taut rope parts under the pull,
          And the barest branch is beautiful
          One moment, while it breaks.

          "So rides my soul upon the sea
          That drinks the howling ships,
          Though in black jest it bows and nods
          Under the moons with silver rods,
          I know it is roaring at the gods,
          Waiting the last eclipse.

          "And in the last eclipse the sea
          Shall stand up like a tower,
          Above all moons made dark and riven,
          Hold up its foaming head in heaven,
          And laugh, knowing its hour.

          "And the high ones in the happy town
          Propped of the planets seven,
          Shall know a new light in the mind,
          A noise about them and behind,
          Shall hear an awful voice, and find
          Foam in the courts of heaven.

          "And you that sit by the fire are young,
          And true love waits for you;
          But the king and I grow old, grow old,
          And hate alone is true."

          And Guthrum shook his head but smiled,
          For he was a mighty clerk,
          And had read lines in the Latin books
          When all the north was dark.

          He said, "I am older than you, Ogier;
          Not all things would I rend,
          For whether life be bad or good
          It is best to abide the end."

          He took the great harp wearily,
          Even Guthrum of the Danes,
          With wide eyes bright as the one long day
          On the long polar plains.

          For he sang of a wheel returning,
          And the mire trod back to mire,
          And how red hells and golden heavens
          Are castles in the fire.

          "It is good to sit where the good tales go,
          To sit as our fathers sat;
          But the hour shall come after his youth,
          When a man shall know not tales but truth,
          And his heart fail thereat.

          "When he shall read what is written
          So plain in clouds and clods,
          When he shall hunger without hope
          Even for evil gods.

          "For this is a heavy matter,
          And the truth is cold to tell;
          Do we not know, have we not heard,
          The soul is like a lost bird,
          The body a broken shell.

          "And a man hopes, being ignorant,
          Till in white woods apart
          He finds at last the lost bird dead:
          And a man may still lift up his head
          But never more his heart.

          "There comes no noise but weeping
          Out of the ancient sky,
          And a tear is in the tiniest flower
          Because the gods must die.

          "The little brooks are very sweet,
          Like a girl's ribbons curled,
          But the great sea is bitter
          That washes all the world.

          "Strong are the Roman roses,
          Or the free flowers of the heath,
          But every flower, like a flower of the sea,
          Smelleth with the salt of death.

          "And the heart of the locked battle
          Is the happiest place for men;
          When shrieking souls as shafts go by
          And many have died and all may die;
          Though this word be a mystery,
          Death is most distant then.

          "Death blazes bright above the cup,
          And clear above the crown;
          But in that dream of battle
          We seem to tread it down.

          "Wherefore I am a great king,
          And waste the world in vain,
          Because man hath not other power,
          Save that in dealing death for dower,
          He may forget it for an hour
          To remember it again."

          And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
          Fell from the lifted lyre,
          And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
          Till Alfred caught it to his knees
          And smote it as in ire.

          He heaved the head of the harp on high
          And swept the framework barred,
          And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
          Of horses flying hard.

          "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."

          And the King, with harp on shoulder,
          Stood up and ceased his song;
          And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
          And the Danes laughed loud and long.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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