I have been re-reading GK Chesterton’s astonishing poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the story of how, against all odds, King Alfred the Great resisted the seemingly inevitable collapse of England before the Danes. Chesterton intended his poem not so much as an historical work as a comment on his own times, when he was summoning England to resist the nihilism and despair embodied in the writings of Nietzsche and others. But it became again and again a poem of succeeding times, because it is a poem about the courage to begin again when evrything seems lost. When France fell and England seemed open to swift and inevitable invasion by the Nazis, the times leader was headlined by a quotation from this poem “Naught for your Comfort” which expressed at once the bleakness of our situation and a call to hope and resistance, for the lines go on:
“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?”
That same phrase ‘Nought for your Comfor’t was taken up again by Trevor Huddleston in the great struggle against appartheid. Now it sems to me a we come to remember the fall of the twin towers that another part of this great poem can speak to us afresh.
I am reading from a point in the poem where Alfred has been apparently routed at Ethandune and his men are about to give up and accept the inevitability of destruction and defeat. Chesterton suddenly introduce the image of a child patiently building and rebuilding a tower that keeps falling. That child-like capacity to renew and begin again, seems a good thing to remember today
As always you can here me reading the extract on audioboo by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the link in the words ‘beginning again’
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.
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;
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.
And as a child whose bricks fall down
Re-piles them o’er and o’er,
Came ruin and the rain that burns,
Returning as a wheel returns,
And crouching in the furze and ferns
He began his life once more.