Week 343: Gold Leaves, by G.K.Chesterton

I turned 75 last Sunday, and have been casting around for something to put a positive spin on this – OK, I now get a free TV licence but otherwise compensations seem thin on the ground. But I do take some heart from this poem of old age by G.K.Chesterton, that combines serenity with a typically Chestertonian sense of how extraordinary and precious the ordinary is.

Gold Leaves

Lo! I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I am old.

In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,
Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold.


Week 327: The Rolling English Road, by G.K.Chesterton

I have always had a soft spot for this G.K.Chesterton poem. OK, it may take a somewhat romantic view of intoxication – Chesterton took a somewhat romantic view of everything – but it is fun, and underneath the fun can be seen a more serious dialectic about individual freedom versus civic responsibility that has been ongoing since the days of Falstaff and Prince Hal, and that finds a kind of serene balance in the closing stanza.

The poem has, so far as I know, been mercifully spared the attention of composers, but Maddy Prior does a fine folk version of it on her album ‘Flesh and Blood’.

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.


Week 174: The Secret People, by G.K.Chesterton

Maybe I really should not like G.K. Chesterton as much as I do. Wilfred Owen said of Tennyson, ‘He was always a great child, and so should I have been but for the battle of Beaumont Hamel’, and it has always seemed to me that these words could equally be applied to Chesterton, with his cloak and his swordstick and his rather romantic view of human violence bred, as Orwell noted, from a long age of civilian peace. Yes, a great child, and yet he could be such a wise and eloquent child…. And he was on our side, where by ‘our’ I mean the ordinary working man or woman whose greatest desire is to be left in peace to live their lives, raise their children and pursue their own interests, and who will forgive politicians most things out of gratitude that anyone should be prepared to take on the boring business of actually running the country but who do not like lies and broken promises. It will be fascinating to see what the ‘secret people’ do in the forthcoming European Union referendum. Personally I am all in favour of trade and cultural exchange as far as it goes, but those of us who can’t help feeling that history took a bit of a wrong turn in 1066 may like to recall that the battle-cry of King Harold’s house-carls on that fateful day at Senlac Hill was ‘Ut! Ut!’ – ‘Out! Out!’

The Secret People

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.


Week 145: From ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, by G.K.Chesterton

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.


Week 37: The Two Maidens, by G.K.Chesterton

The Two Maidens

‘Robin loved Our Dear Lady
And for doubt of deadly sin
Would never hurt a company
That any woman was in’

– Old Ballad of Robin Hood

The wind had taken the tree-tops
Upon Sherwood, the noble wood,
Two maidens met in the windy ways
Held speech of Robin Hood.

And the first maid to the second said,
‘He keeps not tryst today’.
And the second said to the first maiden,
‘Mayhap he is far away.’

And far away on the upland
The last trees broke in the sky
As they brought him out of grey Kirkleas
To bend his bow and die.

High on the moors above Kirkleas
The mighty thief lay slain,
The woman that had struck him down
He would not strike again.

And the maid cried as the high wind
In the broken tree-top cries,
‘They have taken him out of the good greenwood
And I know not where he lies.

‘The world is a wind that passes
And valour is in vain
And the tallest trees are broken
And the bravest men are slain.

‘Deep in the nettles of a ditch
He may die as a dog dies
Or on the gallows, to be the game
Of the lawyers and the lies.

‘The wood is full of wicked thieves,
Of robbers wild and strong,
But though he walked the gallows way
Of him I had no wrong.

‘Because he scorned to do me scathe
I walked forth clean and free
And I call my name Maid Marian
Because he honoured me.’

‘I too am only a simple maid,
Our stories are the same.
As your green gown to my blue gown
Your name is like my name.

‘The world is full of wicked men,
Of robbers rich and strong,
To plot against my maiden fame,
But of him I had no wrong.

‘And because he scorned to do me scathe
I have travelled many a mile
To bring you a word out of his mouth
To lift your face and smile.

‘He is not dead in the ditch-nettles
Or on the gallows-tree;
But a great king has taken him
To ride with his chivalry.

‘And made him a master of bowmen
For the memory of the day
When one that died at the king’s right hand
Was a thief on the king’s highway.

‘And I have travelled many a mile
From a city beyond the sea
To give you news of your true-love
Because he honoured me.


Sometimes about a poet’s work the head may say ‘This won’t quite do’ but the heart goes its own way regardless. I feel this way about the wildly romantic but oddly compelling figure of G.K.Chesterton, whose long narrative poem about Alfred the Great,‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, was the first poem I ever loved. This shorter piece puts the unique Chestertonian spin on another staple of the English imagination. I find the stately restraint of its metric fascinating.