In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.
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?" This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs: "I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher." Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.