At twelve years old I thought ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ the best poem ever written, though even then I suspected it had little to do with the historical Alfred, and indeed Chesterton himself disowned any claim to historical veracity. Yet when I came to learn more about that remarkable monarch, I became less sure: the incidents of the poem may be fictitious, but its spirit seems not so far from Alfred’s own, and Chesterton would not be the first poet to arrive at a deep truth from the dodgiest of premises.
This excerpt is taken from Book VII: Ethandune, The Last Charge.
Away in the waste of White Horse Down
An idle child alone
Played some small game through hours that pass,
And patiently would pluck the grass,
Patiently push the stone.
On the lean, green edge for ever,
Where the blank chalk touched the turf,
The child played on, alone, divine,
As a child plays on the last line
That sunders sand and surf.
For he dwelleth in high divisions
Too simple to understand,
Seeing on what morn of mystery
The Uncreated rent the sea
With roarings, from the land.
Through the long infant hours like days
He built one tower in vain–
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
And he piled them up again.
And crimson kings on battle-towers,
And saints on Gothic spires,
And hermits on their peaks of snow,
And heroes on their pyres,
And patriots riding royally,
That rush the rocking town,
Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,
Seeking to mount where high and higher,
The child whom Time can never tire,
Sings over White Horse Down.
And this was the might of Alfred,
At the ending of the way;
That of such smiters, wise or wild,
He was least distant from the child,
Piling the stones all day.
For Eldred fought like a frank hunter
That killeth and goeth home;
And Mark had fought because all arms
Rang like the name of Rome.
And Colan fought with a double mind,
Moody and madly gay;
But Alfred fought as gravely
As a good child at play.
He saw wheels break and work run back
And all things as they were;
And his heart was orbed like victory
And simple like despair.
Therefore is Mark forgotten,
That was wise with his tongue and brave;
And the cairn over Colan crumbled,
And the cross on Eldred’s grave.
Their great souls went on a wind away,
And they have not tale or tomb;
And Alfred born in Wantage
Rules England till the doom.