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The Ballad of the White Horse

Written by: G K Chesterton | Biography
 | Quotes (94) |
 DEDICATION 

Of great limbs gone to chaos,
A great face turned to night--
Why bend above a shapeless shroud
Seeking in such archaic cloud
Sight of strong lords and light?

Where seven sunken Englands
Lie buried one by one,
Why should one idle spade, I wonder,
Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder
To smoke and choke the sun?

In cloud of clay so cast to heaven
What shape shall man discern?
These lords may light the mystery
Of mastery or victory,
And these ride high in history,
But these shall not return.
Gored on the Norman gonfalon The Golden Dragon died: We shall not wake with ballad strings The good time of the smaller things, We shall not see the holy kings Ride down by Severn side.
Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured As the broidery of Bayeux The England of that dawn remains, And this of Alfred and the Danes Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns Too English to be true.
Of a good king on an island That ruled once on a time; And as he walked by an apple tree There came green devils out of the sea With sea-plants trailing heavily And tracks of opal slime.
Yet Alfred is no fairy tale; His days as our days ran, He also looked forth for an hour On peopled plains and skies that lower, From those few windows in the tower That is the head of a man.
But who shall look from Alfred's hood Or breathe his breath alive? His century like a small dark cloud Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd, Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud And the dense arrows drive.
Lady, by one light only We look from Alfred's eyes, We know he saw athwart the wreck The sign that hangs about your neck, Where One more than Melchizedek Is dead and never dies.
Therefore I bring these rhymes to you Who brought the cross to me, Since on you flaming without flaw I saw the sign that Guthrum saw When he let break his ships of awe, And laid peace on the sea.
Do you remember when we went Under a dragon moon, And `mid volcanic tints of night Walked where they fought the unknown fight And saw black trees on the battle-height, Black thorn on Ethandune? And I thought, "I will go with you, As man with God has gone, And wander with a wandering star, The wandering heart of things that are, The fiery cross of love and war That like yourself, goes on.
" O go you onward; where you are Shall honour and laughter be, Past purpled forest and pearled foam, God's winged pavilion free to roam, Your face, that is a wandering home, A flying home for me.
Ride through the silent earthquake lands, Wide as a waste is wide, Across these days like deserts, when Pride and a little scratching pen Have dried and split the hearts of men, Heart of the heroes, ride.
Up through an empty house of stars, Being what heart you are, Up the inhuman steeps of space As on a staircase go in grace, Carrying the firelight on your face Beyond the loneliest star.
Take these; in memory of the hour We strayed a space from home And saw the smoke-hued hamlets, quaint With Westland king and Westland saint, And watched the western glory faint Along the road to Frome.
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 to-day 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.
BOOK II THE GATHERING OF THE CHIEFS Up across windy wastes and up Went Alfred over the shaws, Shaken of the joy of giants, The joy without a cause.
In the slopes away to the western bays, Where blows not ever a tree, He washed his soul in the west wind And his body in the sea.
And he set to rhyme his ale-measures, And he sang aloud his laws, Because of the joy of the giants, The joy without a cause.
The King went gathering Wessex men, As grain out of the chaff The few that were alive to die, Laughing, as littered skulls that lie After lost battles turn to the sky An everlasting laugh.
The King went gathering Christian men, As wheat out of the husk; Eldred, the Franklin by the sea, And Mark, the man from Italy, And Colan of the Sacred Tree, From the old tribe on Usk.
The rook croaked homeward heavily, The west was clear and warm, The smoke of evening food and ease Rose like a blue tree in the trees When he came to Eldred's farm.
But Eldred's farm was fallen awry, Like an old cripple's bones, And Eldred's tools were red with rust, And on his well was a green crust, And purple thistles upward thrust, Between the kitchen stones.
But smoke of some good feasting Went upwards evermore, And Eldred's doors stood wide apart For loitering foot or labouring cart, And Eldred's great and foolish heart Stood open like his door.
A mighty man was Eldred, A bulk for casks to fill, His face a dreaming furnace, His body a walking hill.
In the old wars of Wessex His sword had sunken deep, But all his friends, he signed and said, Were broken about Ethelred; And between the deep drink and the dead He had fallen upon sleep.
"Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale: Why should my harmless hinds be slain Because the chiefs cry once again, As in all fights, that we shall gain, And in all fights we fail? "Your scalds still thunder and prophesy That crown that never comes; Friend, I will watch the certain things, Swine, and slow moons like silver rings, And the ripening of the plums.
" And Alfred answered, drinking, And gravely, without blame, "Nor bear I boast of scald or king, The thing I bear is a lesser thing, But comes in a better name.
"Out of the mouth of the Mother of God, More than the doors of doom, I call the muster of Wessex men From grassy hamlet or ditch or den, To break and be broken, God knows when, But I have seen for whom.
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God Like a little word come I; For I go gathering Christian men From sunken paving and ford and fen, To die in a battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why.
"And this is the word of Mary, The word of the world's desire `No more of comfort shall ye get, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher.
' " Then silence sank.
And slowly Arose the sea-land lord, Like some vast beast for mystery, He filled the room and porch and sky, And from a cobwebbed nail on high Unhooked his heavy sword.
Up on the shrill sea-downs and up Went Alfred all alone, Turning but once e'er the door was shut, Shouting to Eldred over his butt, That he bring all spears to the woodman's hut Hewn under Egbert's Stone.
And he turned his back and broke the fern, And fought the moths of dusk, And went on his way for other friends Friends fallen of all the wide world's ends, From Rome that wrath and pardon sends And the grey tribes on Usk.
He saw gigantic tracks of death And many a shape of doom, Good steadings to grey ashes gone And a monk's house white like a skeleton In the green crypt of the combe.
And in many a Roman villa Earth and her ivies eat, Saw coloured pavements sink and fade In flowers, and the windy colonnade Like the spectre of a street.
But the cold stars clustered Among the cold pines Ere he was half on his pilgrimage Over the western lines.
And the white dawn widened Ere he came to the last pine, Where Mark, the man from Italy, Still made the Christian sign.
The long farm lay on the large hill-side, Flat like a painted plan, And by the side the low white house, Where dwelt the southland man.
A bronzed man, with a bird's bright eye, And a strong bird's beak and brow, His skin was brown like buried gold, And of certain of his sires was told That they came in the shining ship of old, With Caesar in the prow.
His fruit trees stood like soldiers Drilled in a straight line, His strange, stiff olives did not fail, And all the kings of the earth drank ale, But he drank wine.
Wide over wasted British plains Stood never an arch or dome, Only the trees to toss and reel, The tribes to bicker, the beasts to squeal; But the eyes in his head were strong like steel, And his soul remembered Rome.
Then Alfred of the lonely spear Lifted his lion head; And fronted with the Italian's eye, Asking him of his whence and why, King Alfred stood and said: "I am that oft-defeated King Whose failure fills the land, Who fled before the Danes of old, Who chaffered with the Danes with gold, Who now upon the Wessex wold Hardly has feet to stand.
"But out of the mouth of the Mother of God I have seen the truth like fire, This--that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher.
" Long looked the Roman on the land; The trees as golden crowns Blazed, drenched with dawn and dew-empearled While faintlier coloured, freshlier curled, The clouds from underneath the world Stood up over the downs.
"These vines be ropes that drag me hard," He said.
"I go not far; Where would you meet? For you must hold Half Wiltshire and the White Horse wold, And the Thames bank to Owsenfold, If Wessex goes to war.
"Guthrum sits strong on either bank And you must press his lines Inwards, and eastward drive him down; I doubt if you shall take the crown Till you have taken London town.
For me, I have the vines.
" "If each man on the Judgment Day Meet God on a plain alone," Said Alfred, "I will speak for you As for myself, and call it true That you brought all fighting folk you knew Lined under Egbert's Stone.
"Though I be in the dust ere then, I know where you will be.
" And shouldering suddenly his spear He faded like some elfin fear, Where the tall pines ran up, tier on tier Tree overtoppling tree.
He shouldered his spear at morning And laughed to lay it on, But he leaned on his spear as on a staff, With might and little mood to laugh, Or ever he sighted chick or calf Of Colan of Caerleon.
For the man dwelt in a lost land Of boulders and broken men, In a great grey cave far off to the south Where a thick green forest stopped the mouth, Giving darkness in his den.
And the man was come like a shadow, From the shadow of Druid trees, Where Usk, with mighty murmurings, Past Caerleon of the fallen kings, Goes out to ghostly seas.
Last of a race in ruin-- He spoke the speech of the Gaels; His kin were in holy Ireland, Or up in the crags of Wales.
But his soul stood with his mother's folk, That were of the rain-wrapped isle, Where Patrick and Brandan westerly Looked out at last on a landless sea And the sun's last smile.
His harp was carved and cunning, As the Celtic craftsman makes, Graven all over with twisting shapes Like many headless snakes.
His harp was carved and cunning, His sword prompt and sharp, And he was gay when he held the sword, Sad when he held the harp.
For the great Gaels of Ireland Are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, And all their songs are sad.
He kept the Roman order, He made the Christian sign; But his eyes grew often blind and bright, And the sea that rose in the rocks at night Rose to his head like wine.
He made the sign of the cross of God, He knew the Roman prayer, But he had unreason in his heart Because of the gods that were.
Even they that walked on the high cliffs, High as the clouds were then, Gods of unbearable beauty, That broke the hearts of men.
And whether in seat or saddle, Whether with frown or smile, Whether at feast or fight was he, He heard the noise of a nameless sea On an undiscovered isle.
Lifting the great green ivy And the great spear lowering, One said, "I am Alfred of Wessex, And I am a conquered king.
" And the man of the cave made answer, And his eyes were stars of scorn, "And better kings were conquered Or ever your sires were born.
"What goddess was your mother, What fay your breed begot, That you should not die with Uther And Arthur and Lancelot? "But when you win you brag and blow, And when you lose you rail, Army of eastland yokels Not strong enough to fail.
" "I bring not boast or railing," Spake Alfred not in ire, "I bring of Our Lady a lesson set, This--that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher.
" Then Colan of the Sacred Tree Tossed his black mane on high, And cried, as rigidly he rose, "And if the sea and sky be foes, We will tame the sea and sky.
" Smiled Alfred, "Seek ye a fable More dizzy and more dread Than all your mad barbarian tales Where the sky stands on its head ? "A tale where a man looks down on the sky That has long looked down on him; A tale where a man can swallow a sea That might swallow the seraphim.
"Bring to the hut by Egbert's Stone All bills and bows ye have.
" And Alfred strode off rapidly, And Colan of the Sacred Tree Went slowly to his cave.
BOOK III THE HARP OF ALFRED 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, Then laughed; and watched the finches flash, 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.
BOOK IV THE WOMAN IN THE FOREST Thick thunder of the snorting swine, Enormous in the gloam, Rending among all roots that cling, And the wild horses whinnying, Were the night's noises when the King Shouldering his harp, went home.
With eyes of owl and feet of fox, Full of all thoughts he went; He marked the tilt of the pagan camp, The paling of pine, the sentries' tramp, And the one great stolen altar-lamp Over Guthrum in his tent.
By scrub and thorn in Ethandune That night the foe had lain; Whence ran across the heather grey The old stones of a Roman way; And in a wood not far away The pale road split in twain.
He marked the wood and the cloven ways With an old captain's eyes, And he thought how many a time had he Sought to see Doom he could not see; How ruin had come and victory, And both were a surprise.
Even so he had watched and wondered Under Ashdown from the plains; With Ethelred praying in his tent, Till the white hawthorn swung and bent, As Alfred rushed his spears and rent The shield-wall of the Danes.
Even so he had watched and wondered, Knowing neither less nor more, Till all his lords lay dying, And axes on axes plying, Flung him, and drove him flying Like a pirate to the shore.
Wise he had been before defeat, And wise before success; Wise in both hours and ignorant, Knowing neither more nor less.
As he went down to the river-hut He knew a night-shade scent, Owls did as evil cherubs rise, With little wings and lantern eyes, As though he sank through the under-skies; But down and down he went.
As he went down to the river-hut He went as one that fell; Seeing the high forest domes and spars.
Dim green or torn with golden scars, As the proud look up at the evil stars, In the red heavens of hell.
For he must meet by the river-hut Them he had bidden to arm, Mark from the towers of Italy, And Colan of the Sacred Tree, And Eldred who beside the sea Held heavily his farm.
The roof leaned gaping to the grass, As a monstrous mushroom lies; Echoing and empty seemed the place; But opened in a little space A great grey woman with scarred face And strong and humbled eyes.
King Alfred was but a meagre man, Bright eyed, but lean and pale: And swordless, with his harp and rags, He seemed a beggar, such as lags Looking for crusts and ale.
And the woman, with a woman's eyes Of pity at once and ire, Said, when that she had glared a span, "There is a cake for any man If he will watch the fire.
" And Alfred, bowing heavily, Sat down the fire to stir, And even as the woman pitied him So did he pity her.
Saying, "O great heart in the night, O best cast forth for worst, Twilight shall melt and morning stir, And no kind thing shall come to her, Till God shall turn the world over And all the last are first.
"And well may God with the serving-folk Cast in His dreadful lot; Is not He too a servant, And is not He forgot ? "For was not God my gardener And silent like a slave; That opened oaks on the uplands Or thicket in graveyard gave? "And was not God my armourer, All patient and unpaid, That sealed my skull as a helmet, And ribs for hauberk made? "Did not a great grey servant Of all my sires and me, Build this pavilion of the pines, And herd the fowls and fill the vines, And labour and pass and leave no signs Save mercy and mystery? "For God is a great servant, And rose before the day, From some primordial slumber torn; But all we living later born Sleep on, and rise after the morn, And the Lord has gone away.
"On things half sprung from sleeping, All sleepy suns have shone, They stretch stiff arms, the yawning trees, The beasts blink upon hands and knees, Man is awake and does and sees-- But Heaven has done and gone.
For who shall guess the good riddle Or speak of the Holiest, Save in faint figures and failing words, Who loves, yet laughs among the swords, Labours, and is at rest? "But some see God like Guthrum, Crowned, with a great beard curled, But I see God like a good giant, That, labouring, lifts the world.
"Wherefore was God in Golgotha, Slain as a serf is slain; And hate He had of prince and peer, And love He had and made good cheer, Of them that, like this woman here, Go powerfully in pain.
"But in this grey morn of man's life, Cometh sometime to the mind A little light that leaps and flies, Like a star blown on the wind.
"A star of nowhere, a nameless star, A light that spins and swirls, And cries that even in hedge and hill, Even on earth, it may go ill At last with the evil earls.
"A dancing sparkle, a doubtful star, On the waste wind whirled and driven; But it seems to sing of a wilder worth, A time discrowned of doom and birth, And the kingdom of the poor on earth Come, as it is in heaven.
"But even though such days endure, How shall it profit her? Who shall go groaning to the grave, With many a meek and mighty slave, Field-breaker and fisher on the wave, And woodman and waggoner.
"Bake ye the big world all again A cake with kinder leaven; Yet these are sorry evermore-- Unless there be a little door, A little door in heaven.
" And as he wept for the woman He let her business be, And like his royal oath and rash The good food fell upon the ash And blackened instantly.
Screaming, the woman caught a cake Yet burning from the bar, And struck him suddenly on the face, Leaving a scarlet scar.
King Alfred stood up wordless, A man dead with surprise, And torture stood and the evil things That are in the childish hearts of kings An instant in his eyes.
And even as he stood and stared Drew round him in the dusk Those friends creeping from far-off farms, Marcus with all his slaves in arms, And the strange spears hung with ancient charms Of Colan of the Usk.
With one whole farm marching afoot The trampled road resounds, Farm-hands and farm-beasts blundering by And jars of mead and stores of rye, Where Eldred strode above his high And thunder-throated hounds.
And grey cattle and silver lowed Against the unlifted morn, And straw clung to the spear-shafts tall.
And a boy went before them all Blowing a ram's horn.
As mocking such rude revelry, The dim clan of the Gael Came like a bad king's burial-end, With dismal robes that drop and rend And demon pipes that wail-- In long, outlandish garments, Torn, though of antique worth, With Druid beards and Druid spears, As a resurrected race appears Out of an elder earth.
And though the King had called them forth And knew them for his own, So still each eye stood like a gem, So spectral hung each broidered hem, Grey carven men he fancied them, Hewn in an age of stone.
And the two wild peoples of the north Stood fronting in the gloam, And heard and knew each in its mind The third great thunder on the wind, The living walls that hedge mankind, The walking walls of Rome.
Mark's were the mixed tribes of the west, Of many a hue and strain, Gurth, with rank hair like yellow grass, And the Cornish fisher, Gorlias, And Halmer, come from his first mass, Lately baptized, a Dane.
But like one man in armour Those hundreds trod the field, From red Arabia to the Tyne The earth had heard that marching-line, Since the cry on the hill Capitoline, And the fall of the golden shield.
And the earth shook and the King stood still Under the greenwood bough, And the smoking cake lay at his feet And the blow was on his brow.
Then Alfred laughed out suddenly, Like thunder in the spring, Till shook aloud the lintel-beams, And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams, And the startled birds went up in streams, For the laughter of the King.
And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down, In a wild solemnity, On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf, On one man laughing at himself Under the greenwood tree-- The giant laughter of Christian men That roars through a thousand tales, Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass, And Jack's away with his master's lass, And the miser is banged with all his brass, The farmer with all his flails; Tales that tumble and tales that trick, Yet end not all in scorning-- Of kings and clowns in a merry plight, And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right, That the mummers sing upon Christmas night And Christmas Day in the morning.
"Now here is a good warrant," Cried Alfred, "by my sword; For he that is struck for an ill servant Should be a kind lord.
"He that has been a servant Knows more than priests and kings, But he that has been an ill servant, He knows all earthly things.
"Pride flings frail palaces at the sky, As a man flings up sand, But the firm feet of humility Take hold of heavy land.
"Pride juggles with her toppling towers, They strike the sun and cease, But the firm feet of humility They grip the ground like trees.
"He that hath failed in a little thing Hath a sign upon the brow; And the Earls of the Great Army Have no such seal to show.
"The red print on my forehead, Small flame for a red star, In the van of the violent marching, then When the sky is torn of the trumpets ten, And the hands of the happy howling men Fling wide the gates of war.
"This blow that I return not Ten times will I return On kings and earls of all degree, And armies wide as empires be Shall slide like landslips to the sea If the red star burn.
"One man shall drive a hundred, As the dead kings drave; Before me rocking hosts be riven, And battering cohorts backwards driven, For I am the first king known of Heaven That has been struck like a slave.
"Up on the old white road, brothers, Up on the Roman walls! For this is the night of the drawing of swords, And the tainted tower of the heathen hordes Leans to our hammers, fires and cords, Leans a little and falls.
"Follow the star that lives and leaps, Follow the sword that sings, For we go gathering heathen men, A terrible harvest, ten by ten, As the wrath of the last red autumn--then When Christ reaps down the kings.
"Follow a light that leaps and spins, Follow the fire unfurled! For riseth up against realm and rod, A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod, The last lost giant, even God, Is risen against the world.
" Roaring they went o'er the Roman wall, And roaring up the lane, Their torches tossed a ladder of fire, Higher their hymn was heard and higher, More sweet for hate and for heart's desire, And up in the northern scrub and brier, They fell upon the Dane.
BOOK V ETHANDUNE: THE FIRST STROKE King Guthrum was a dread king, Like death out of the north; Shrines without name or number He rent and rolled as lumber, From Chester to the Humber He drove his foemen forth.
The Roman villas heard him In the valley of the Thames, Come over the hills roaring Above their roofs, and pouring On spire and stair and flooring Brimstone and pitch and flames.
Sheer o'er the great chalk uplands And the hill of the Horse went he, Till high on Hampshire beacons He saw the southern sea.
High on the heights of Wessex He saw the southern brine, And turned him to a conquered land, And where the northern thornwoods stand, And the road parts on either hand, There came to him a sign.
King Guthrum was a war-chief, A wise man in the field, And though he prospered well, and knew How Alfred's folk were sad and few, Not less with weighty care he drew Long lines for pike and shield.
King Guthrum lay on the upper land, On a single road at gaze, And his foe must come with lean array, Up the left arm of the cloven way, To the meeting of the ways.
And long ere the noise of armour, An hour ere the break of light, The woods awoke with crash and cry, And the birds sprang clamouring harsh and high, And the rabbits ran like an elves' army Ere Alfred came in sight.
The live wood came at Guthrum, On foot and claw and wing, The nests were noisy overhead, For Alfred and the star of red, All life went forth, and the forest fled Before the face of the King.
But halted in the woodways Christ's few were grim and grey, And each with a small, far, bird-like sight Saw the high folly of the fight; And though strange joys had grown in the night, Despair grew with the day.
And when white dawn crawled through the wood, Like cold foam of a flood, Then weakened every warrior's mood, In hope, though not in hardihood; And each man sorrowed as he stood In the fashion of his blood.
For the Saxon Franklin sorrowed For the things that had been fair; For the dear dead woman, crimson-clad, And the great feasts and the friends he had; But the Celtic prince's soul was sad For the things that never were.
In the eyes Italian all things But a black laughter died; And Alfred flung his shield to earth And smote his breast and cried-- "I wronged a man to his slaying, And a woman to her shame, And once I looked on a sworn maid That was wed to the Holy Name.
"And once I took my neighbour's wife, That was bound to an eastland man, In the starkness of my evil youth, Before my griefs began.
"People, if you have any prayers, Say prayers for me: And lay me under a Christian stone In that lost land I thought my own, To wait till the holy horn is blown, And all poor men are free.
" Then Eldred of the idle farm Leaned on his ancient sword, As fell his heavy words and few; And his eyes were of such alien blue As gleams where the Northman saileth new Into an unknown fiord.
"I was a fool and wasted ale-- My slaves found it sweet; I was a fool and wasted bread, And the birds had bread to eat.
"The kings go up and the kings go down, And who knows who shall rule; Next night a king may starve or sleep, But men and birds and beasts shall weep At the burial of a fool.
"O, drunkards in my cellar, Boys in my apple tree, The world grows stern and strange and new, And wise men shall govern you, And you shall weep for me.
"But yoke me my own oxen, Down to my own farm; My own dog will whine for me, My own friends will bend the knee, And the foes I slew openly Have never wished me harm.
" And all were moved a little, But Colan stood apart, Having first pity, and after Hearing, like rat in rafter, That little worm of laughter That eats the Irish heart.
And his grey-green eyes were cruel, And the smile of his mouth waxed hard, And he said, "And when did Britain Become your burying-yard? "Before the Romans lit the land, When schools and monks were none, We reared such stones to the sun-god As might put out the sun.
"The tall trees of Britain We worshipped and were wise, But you shall raid the whole land through And never a tree shall talk to you, Though every leaf is a tongue taught true And the forest is full of eyes.
"On one round hill to the seaward The trees grow tall and grey And the trees talk together When all men are away.
"O'er a few round hills forgotten The trees grow tall in rings, And the trees talk together Of many pagan things.
"Yet I could lie and listen With a cross upon my clay, And hear unhurt for ever What the trees of Britain say.
" A proud man was the Roman, His speech a single one, But his eyes were like an eagle's eyes That is staring at the sun.
"Dig for me where I die," he said, "If first or last I fall-- Dead on the fell at the first charge, Or dead by Wantage wall; "Lift not my head from bloody ground, Bear not my body home, For all the earth is Roman earth And I shall die in Rome.
" Then Alfred, King of England, Bade blow the horns of war, And fling the Golden Dragon out, With crackle and acclaim and shout, Scrolled and aflame and far.
And under the Golden Dragon Went Wessex all along, Past the sharp point of the cloven ways, Out from the black wood into the blaze Of sun and steel and song.
And when they came to the open land They wheeled, deployed and stood; Midmost were Marcus and the King, And Eldred on the right-hand wing, And leftwards Colan darkling, In the last shade of the wood.
But the Earls of the Great Army Lay like a long half moon, Ten poles before their palisades, With wide-winged helms and runic blades Red giants of an age of raids, In the thornland of Ethandune.
Midmost the saddles rose and swayed, And a stir of horses' manes, Where Guthrum and a few rode high On horses seized in victory; But Ogier went on foot to die, In the old way of the Danes.
Far to the King's left Elf the bard Led on the eastern wing With songs and spells that change the blood; And on the King's right Harold stood, The kinsman of the King.
Young Harold, coarse, with colours gay, Smoking with oil and musk, And the pleasant violence of the young, Pushed through his people, giving tongue Foewards, where, grey as cobwebs hung, The banners of the Usk.
But as he came before his line A little space along, His beardless face broke into mirth, And he cried: "What broken bits of earth Are here? For what their clothes are worth I would sell them for a song.
" For Colan was hung with raiment Tattered like autumn leaves, And his men were all as thin as saints, And all as poor as thieves.
No bows nor slings nor bolts they bore, But bills and pikes ill-made; And none but Colan bore a sword, And rusty was its blade.
And Colan's eyes with mystery And iron laughter stirred, And he spoke aloud, but lightly Not labouring to be heard.
"Oh, truly we be broken hearts, For that cause, it is said, We light our candles to that Lord That broke Himself for bread.
"But though we hold but bitterly What land the Saxon leaves, Though Ireland be but a land of saints, And Wales a land of thieves, "I say you yet shall weary Of the working of your word, That stricken spirits never strike Nor lean hands hold a sword.
"And if ever ye ride in Ireland, The jest may yet be said, There is the land of broken hearts, And the land of broken heads.
" Not less barbarian laughter Choked Harold like a flood, "And shall I fight with scarecrows That am of Guthrum's blood? "Meeting may be of war-men, Where the best war-man wins; But all this carrion a man shoots Before the fight begins.
" And stopping in his onward strides, He snatched a bow in scorn From some mean slave, and bent it on Colan, whose doom grew dark; and shone Stars evil over Caerleon, In the place where he was born.
For Colan had not bow nor sling, On a lonely sword leaned he, Like Arthur on Excalibur In the battle by the sea.
To his great gold ear-ring Harold Tugged back the feathered tail, And swift had sprung the arrow, But swifter sprang the Gael.
Whirling the one sword round his head, A great wheel in the sun, He sent it splendid through the sky, Flying before the shaft could fly-- It smote Earl Harold over the eye, And blood began to run.
Colan stood bare and weaponless, Earl Harold, as in pain, Strove for a smile, put hand to head, Stumbled and suddenly fell dead; And the small white daisies all waxed red With blood out of his brain.
And all at that marvel of the sword, Cast like a stone to slay, Cried out.
Said Alfred: "Who would see Signs, must give all things.
Verily Man shall not taste of victory Till he throws his sword away.
" Then Alfred, prince of England, And all the Christian earls, Unhooked their swords and held them up, Each offered to Colan, like a cup Of chrysolite and pearls.
And the King said, "Do thou take my sword Who have done this deed of fire, For this is the manner of Christian men, Whether of steel or priestly pen, That they cast their hearts out of their ken To get their heart's desire.
"And whether ye swear a hive of monks, Or one fair wife to friend, This is the manner of Christian men, That their oath endures the end.
"For love, our Lord, at the end of the world, Sits a red horse like a throne, With a brazen helm and an iron bow, But one arrow alone.
"Love with the shield of the Broken Heart Ever his bow doth bend, With a single shaft for a single prize, And the ultimate bolt that parts and flies Comes with a thunder of split skies, And a sound of souls that rend.
"So shall you earn a king's sword, Who cast your sword away.
" And the King took, with a random eye, A rude axe from a hind hard by And turned him to the fray.
For the swords of the Earls of Daneland Flamed round the fallen lord.
The first blood woke the trumpet-tune, As in monk's rhyme or wizard's rune, Beginneth the battle of Ethandune With the throwing of the sword.
BOOK VI ETHANDUNE: THE SLAYING OF THE CHIEFS As the sea flooding the flat sands Flew on the sea-born horde, The two hosts shocked with dust and din, Left of the Latian paladin, Clanged all Prince Harold's howling kin On Colan and the sword.
Crashed in the midst on Marcus, Ogier with Guthrum by, And eastward of such central stir, Far to the right and faintlier, The house of Elf the harp-player, Struck Eldred's with a cry.
The centre swat for weariness, Stemming the screaming horde, And wearily went Colan's hands That swung King Alfred's sword.
But like a cloud of morning To eastward easily, Tall Eldred broke the sea of spears As a tall ship breaks the sea.
His face like a sanguine sunset, His shoulder a Wessex down, His hand like a windy hammer-stroke; Men could not count the crests he broke, So fast the crests went down.
As the tall white devil of the Plague Moves out of Asian skies, With his foot on a waste of cities And his head in a cloud of flies; Or purple and peacock skies grow dark With a moving locust-tower; Or tawny sand-winds tall and dry, Like hell's red banners beat and fly, When death comes out of Araby, Was Eldred in his hour.
But while he moved like a massacre He murmured as in sleep, And his words were all of low hedges And little fields and sheep.
Even as he strode like a pestilence, That strides from Rhine to Rome, He thought how tall his beans might be If ever he went home.
Spoke some stiff piece of childish prayer, Dull as the distant chimes, That thanked our God for good eating And corn and quiet times-- Till on the helm of a high chief Fell shatteringly his brand, And the helm broke and the bone broke And the sword broke in his hand.
Then from the yelling Northmen Driven splintering on him ran Full seven spears, and the seventh Was never made by man.
Seven spears, and the seventh Was wrought as the faerie blades, And given to Elf the minstrel By the monstrous water-maids; By them that dwell where luridly Lost waters of the Rhine Move among roots of nations, Being sunken for a sign.
Under all graves they murmur, They murmur and rebel, Down to the buried kingdoms creep, And like a lost rain roar and weep O'er the red heavens of hell.
Thrice drowned was Elf the minstrel, And washed as dead on sand; And the third time men found him The spear was in his hand.
Seven spears went about Eldred, Like stays about a mast; But there was sorrow by the sea For the driving of the last.
Six spears thrust upon Eldred Were splintered while he laughed; One spear thrust into Eldred, Three feet of blade and shaft.
And from the great heart grievously Came forth the shaft and blade, And he stood with the face of a dead man, Stood a little, and swayed-- Then fell, as falls a battle-tower, On smashed and struggling spears.
Cast down from some unconquered town That, rushing earthward, carries down Loads of live men of all renown-- Archers and engineers.
And a great clamour of Christian men Went up in agony, Crying, "Fallen is the tower of Wessex That stood beside the sea.
" Centre and right the Wessex guard Grew pale for doubt and fear, And the flank failed at the advance, For the death-light on the wizard lance-- The star of the evil spear.
"Stand like an oak," cried Marcus, "Stand like a Roman wall! Eldred the Good is fallen-- Are you too good to fall? "When we were wan and bloodless He gave you ale enow; The pirates deal with him as dung, God! are you bloodless now?" "Grip, Wulf and Gorlias, grip the ash! Slaves, and I make you free! Stamp, Hildred hard in English land, Stand Gurth, stand Gorlias, Gawen stand! Hold, Halfgar, with the other hand, Halmer, hold up on knee! "The lamps are dying in your homes, The fruits upon your bough; Even now your old thatch smoulders, Gurth, Now is the judgment of the earth, Now is the death-grip, now!" For thunder of the captain, Not less the Wessex line, Leaned back and reeled a space to rear As Elf charged with the Rhine maids' spear, And roaring like the Rhine.
For the men were borne by the waving walls Of woods and clouds that pass, By dizzy plains and drifting sea, And they mixed God with glamoury, God with the gods of the burning tree And the wizard's tower and glass.
But Mark was come of the glittering towns Where hot white details show, Where men can number and expound, And his faith grew in a hard ground Of doubt and reason and falsehood found, Where no faith else could grow.
Belief that grew of all beliefs One moment back was blown And belief that stood on unbelief Stood up iron and alone.
The Wessex crescent backwards Crushed, as with bloody spear Went Elf roaring and routing, And Mark against Elf yet shouting, Shocked, in his mid-career.
Right on the Roman shield and sword Did spear of the Rhine maids run; But the shield shifted never, The sword rang down to sever, The great Rhine sang for ever, And the songs of Elf were done.
And a great thunder of Christian men Went up against the sky, Saying, "God hath broken the evil spear Ere the good man's blood was dry.
" "Spears at the charge!" yelled Mark amain.
"Death on the gods of death! Over the thrones of doom and blood Goeth God that is a craftsman good, And gold and iron, earth and wood, Loveth and laboureth.
"The fruits leap up in all your farms, The lamps in each abode; God of all good things done on earth, All wheels or webs of any worth, The God that makes the roof, Gurth, The God that makes the road.
"The God that heweth kings in oak Writeth songs on vellum, God of gold and flaming glass, Confregit potentias Acrcuum, scutum, Gorlias, Gladium et bellum.
" Steel and lightning broke about him, Battle-bays and palm, All the sea-kings swayed among Woods of the Wessex arms upflung, The trumpet of the Roman tongue, The thunder of the psalm.
And midmost of that rolling field Ran Ogier ragingly, Lashing at Mark, who turned his blow, And brake the helm about his brow, And broke him to his knee.
Then Ogier heaved over his head His huge round shield of proof; But Mark set one foot on the shield, One on some sundered rock upheeled, And towered above the tossing field, A statue on a roof.
Dealing far blows about the fight, Like thunder-bolts a-roam, Like birds about the battle-field, While Ogier writhed under his shield Like a tortoise in his dome.
But hate in the buried Ogier Was strong as pain in hell, With bare brute hand from the inside He burst the shield of brass and hide, And a death-stroke to the Roman's side Sent suddenly and well.
Then the great statue on the shield Looked his last look around With level and imperial eye; And Mark, the man from Italy, Fell in the sea of agony, And died without a sound.
And Ogier, leaping up alive, Hurled his huge shield away Flying, as when a juggler flings A whizzing plate in play.
And held two arms up rigidly, And roared to all the Danes: "Fallen is Rome, yea, fallen The city of the plains! "Shall no man born remember, That breaketh wood or weald, How long she stood on the roof of the world As he stood on my shield.
"The new wild world forgetteth her As foam fades on the sea, How long she stood with her foot on Man As he with his foot on me.
"No more shall the brown men of the south Move like the ants in lines, To quiet men with olives Or madden men with vines.
"No more shall the white towns of the south, Where Tiber and Nilus run, Sitting around a secret sea Worship a secret sun.
"The blind gods roar for Rome fallen, And forum and garland gone, For the ice of the north is broken, And the sea of the north comes on.
"The blind gods roar and rave and dream Of all cities under the sea, For the heart of the north is broken, And the blood of the north is free.
"Down from the dome of the world we come, Rivers on rivers down, Under us swirl the sects and hordes And the high dooms we drown.
"Down from the dome of the world and down, Struck flying as a skiff On a river in spate is spun and swirled Until we come to the end of the world That breaks short, like a cliff.
"And when we come to the end of the world For me, I count it fit To take the leap like a good river, Shot shrieking over it.
"But whatso hap at the end of the world, Where Nothing is struck and sounds, It is not, by Thor, these monkish men These humbled Wessex hounds-- "Not this pale line of Christian hinds, This one white string of men, Shall keep us back from the end of the world, And the things that happen then.
"It is not Alfred's dwarfish sword, Nor Egbert's pigmy crown, Shall stay us now that descend in thunder, Rending the realms and the realms thereunder, Down through the world and down.
" There was that in the wild men back of him, There was that in his own wild song, A dizzy throbbing, a drunkard smoke, That dazed to death all Wessex folk, And swept their spears along.
Vainly the sword of Colan And the axe of Alfred plied-- The Danes poured in like a brainless plague, And knew not when they died.
Prince Colan slew a score of them, And was stricken to his knee; King Alfred slew a score and seven And was borne back on a tree.
Back to the black gate of the woods, Back up the single way, Back by the place of the parting ways Christ



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