There was a time in Western literary history when stories were the exclusive domain of poetry; Homer, Virgil, and Ovid all sang their epics in verse and would probably never have dreamed of inventing the novel. Even after the development of prose fiction, Dante travelled through his Divine Comedy in terza rima, Shakespeare wrote his plays in iambic pentameter, and John Milton crafted Genesis into the blank verse of Paradise Lost.
All this is well in the past, and we now sit at the opposite end of the spectrum. The art of narrative poetry in English is buried along with its last major practitioner, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work in the field went almost completely unpublished in his lifetime. Had his mythological lays of Beleriand been completed and seen the light of day, then G.K. Chesterton’s 1911 The Ballad of the White Horse wouldn’t hold the distinction of being the last true epic poem in English.
Divided into seven books, the poem narrates how the Saxon king Alfred the Great defeated an occupying Viking army at the Battle of Ethandune (the true location is debated) in 878. Chesterton refuses to bow to the historians and embraces wholeheartedly the king’s legendary status as a defender of the Christian faith against vast heathen forces. Alfred himself is a pitiable figure, a conquered king of a subjugated kingdom who is given hope by a vision of the Virgin Mary. This “joy without a cause” drives him, in the country’s darkest hour, to gather his chieftans for a final bid to reclaim Wessex from the tyranny of the Danes.
“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…”
The picture of Alfred as a “little word” coming out of Mary’s mouth — both an anointed messenger of God and a humble servant — is an example of the fine poetic touches found throughout the tale, giving heft to Alfred’s character in just a few words, and proving that the powerful tool of brevity can be effective even in a broad, epic landscape. Late in the poem, as Alfred prepares to make his last battle charge on the enemy, Chesterton compares him to a child piling stones for fun on the slopes of White Horse Hill; no matter how many times the tower of stones falls down, the child begins again. Though the other chieftans are brave in war, only “Alfred fought as gravely // As a good child at play.”
Aspects of the poem will no doubt trouble modern readers, particularly going to war with others on religious grounds. That Chesterton intends for us to see this warfare model carried into our modern context is plain when, as Alfred hears of the Vikings’ return in his old age, he predicts a time when they will come again without swords and warships, but with books and ink — because that is how we make war on each other’s opinions today. I was never quite sure what to do with this idea. The poem is, after all, set in the Middle Ages when wars like this were common; the Vikings are not only pagans but also invaders on someone else’s land; and if we are making war with our pens, at least no one is getting killed by swords. It’s perhaps a mark of the poem’s effectiveness that I’m still wrestling with the theme.
The White Horse is both the scene of the battle and the central metaphor of the poem. If left too long, the turf overgrows and obscures the chalk-cut hill figure; to this day, the National Trust and local volunteers participate in regular chalking days to “scour” the White Horse and maintain its presence. The Ballad ends, not with a celebration of victory, but years later during a period of peace and a ceremonial scouring of the Horse, both Alfred and the people remaining vigilant in their defense of the realm and the faith. For even though the Horse is undoubtedly pagan, having been in the hill long before there was even a Britain let alone Christianity, Alfred foretells to the Danes that they will ultimately lose the fight because they think only of their own glory, whereas the Christians believe that God has called all creation good:
“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…”
This dedication to preserving the ancient is also, I think, a metaphor for the poem itself. By ignoring what historians teach with facts, Chesterton works to keep alive the legend, scouring and maintaining it as a source of wonder and meaning for the modern world. “It is the chief value of legend,” he says in a prefatory note, “to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment; to see all ages in a sort of splendid foreshortening. That is the use of tradition: it telescopes history.”
We can carry this theme further to speak of the very mode in which Chesterton wrote the story. Narrative poetry has, for roughly a century now, been left to overgrowth and obfuscation by most of the English literary world. We remember it as belonging solely to the past and, as far as I know, no one scours it back to life anymore. My chief evidence for this is that whenever I have the chance of lamenting this in conversation, someone always points out examples which are themselves older than Chesterton’s ballad. The modern world has forgotten how to tell stories in metre. I cannot explain why.
Reading The Ballad of the White Horse, a final and wonderful hurrah to the art form, has convinced me that it’s time to try again. To get down in the grass and cut away the turf and re-chalk the lines of narrative poetry once more. Despite what might commonly be believed, a story doesn’t need to be epic for the rhythmic imagery and chanting metaphor to illuminate character and excite us with plot twists. Indeed, verse, with its capacity to carry immense weight in few words, may yet find an audience in this modern age of memes and tweets. Perhaps it can even teach us why those things aren’t nearly as clever as they seem by opening our minds to the range of possibilities within four-line stanzas.
All we need is a few brave poets willing to stand on the shoulders of giants like Chesterton, Tennyson, and Robert Service, willing to explore how best to teach a new world some old tricks learned from the legendary masters.