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Monday, July 20, 2015

Finding Romance in Daily Life....

is made just a little easier when reading the following poems that reveal the magic in the mundane. The first one is by G.K. Chesterton; the second from Dorothy Sayers.

(by G.K. Chesterton)

When we went hunting the Dragon
In the days when we were young,
We tossed the bright world over our shoulder
As bugle and baldrick slung;
Never was world so wild and fair
As what went by on the wind,
Never such fields of paradise
As the fields we left behind:
For this is the best of a rest for men
That men should rise and ride
Making a flying fairyland
Of market and country-side,
Wings on the cottage, wings on the wood,
Wings upon pot and pan,
For the hunting of the Dragon
That is the life of a man.

For men grow weary of fairyland
When the Dragon is a dream,
And tire of the talking bird in the tree,
The singing fish in the stream;
And the wandering stars grow stale, grow stale,
And the wonder is stiff with scorn;
For this is the honour of fairyland
And the following of the horn;

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride:
And the tavern-sign as a tabard blazed,
And the children cheered and ran,
For the love of the hate of the Dragon
That is the pride of a man.

The sages called him a shadow
And the light went out of the sun:
And the wise men told us that all was well
And all was weary and one:
And then, and then, in the quiet garden,
With never a weed to kill,
We knew that his shining tail had shone
In the white road over the hill:
We knew that the clouds were flakes of flame,
We knew that the sunset fire
Was red with the blood of the Dragon
Whose death is the world’s desire.

For the horn was blown in the heart of the night
That men should rise and ride,
Keeping the tryst of a terrible jest
Never for long untried;
Drinking a dreadful blood for wine,
Never in cup or can,
The death of a deathless Dragon,
That is the life of a man.

(by Dorothy Sayers)
Christ walks the world again, His lute upon His back,
His red robe rent to tatters, His riches gone to rack,
The wind that wakes the morning blows His hair about His face,
His hands and feet are ragged with the ragged briar’s embrace,
For the hunt is up behind Him and His sword is at His side, . . .
Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Lie among the bracken and break the barley bread?
We will see new suns arise in golden, far-off skies,
For the Son of God and Woman hath not where to lay His head.”

Christ walks the world again, a prince of fairy-tale,
He roams, a rascal fiddler, over mountain and down dale,
Cast forth to seek His fortune in a bitter world and grim,
For the stepsons of His Father’s house would steal His Bride from Him;
They have weirded Him to wander till He bring within His hands
The water of eternal youth from black-enchanted lands,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Or sleep on silken cushions in the bower of wicked men?
For if we walk together through the wet and windy weather,
When I ride back home triumphant you will ride beside Me then.”

Christ walks the world again, new-bound on high emprise,
With music in His golden mouth and laughter in His eyes;
The primrose springs before Him as He treads the dusty way,
His singer’s crown of thorn has burst in blossom like the may,
He heedeth not the morrow and He never looks behind,
Singing: “Glory to the open skies and peace to all mankind.”

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!”

Hunting of the Dragon
"For the hunting of the dragon...that is the life of a man!"

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Scour the Horse Anew: An Analysis of “The Ballad of the White Horse”

     For years, friends urged me to read The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton, which I proceeded to put on the back burner for far too long. It was the poem said to have been a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and heralded as one of the last epic poems to be written in the English language. But all this had little effect on me. I knew Chesterton was one of those literary names that loomed large on any stage, and was the subject of posh intellectual conversations and scintillating sound-bite quotations. But having already read through some of his prose, I found it hard to relate to his writing style and felt detached from him as an historical figure. His poetry, I feared, would do little good for me.

     I don’t mean to be dismissive here. There is no doubt that Chesterton was among the Greatest Christian Thinkers of his Age, and some would say in the history of Christendom, for his ability to bring freshness and flare to theological deliberation. He was one of those rare and wonderful Catholic converts who sprang up in England in the wake of the Oxford Movement of John Henry Newman, and was marvelously unafraid to proclaim it to the world. Among his distinguished round-about contemporaries were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald, just to name a few, all of whom shared similar beliefs and styles of expression.

     But all this having been said, Chesterton proved to be the hardest nut of the bunch for me to crack in a personal reader-to-writer-relationship context. It was difficult for me to warm up to him and take him into my heart, as much of his prose felt rather heady and academic, long-winded and disorienting, and even a bit cynical and grouchy at times. Some might say these are just the down-sides of “British style”, and yet C.S. Lewis, who had the same penchant for paradox and dry witticism, comes off more fluid and readability, meant to reach out with warmth to the public at large, and not just an exclusive circle of Super-Nerds at Oxford U.

    I have spoken to others who feel similar about Chesterton’s prose style, especially in his biographical works, but they tend to be intimidated to say it out-right, less they be shunned by scholastic literary circles for lacking intelligence. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste and preference, as opposed to any sort of mental keenness or lack thereof. I have heard that one can better adapt to Chesterton over time, and perhaps I will be one of them. But for now, C.S. Lewis is still my main man from the “classic” group, and while I may relish a spangling of Chesterton snippet quotations, I am not quite ready to wade through actual volumes of his musings and meanderings.

     But in spite of misgivings about a Chestertonian plunge, when I found myself with nothing better to do but finally read  The Ballad of the White Horse by the light of a battery-operated lantern during the great black-out of February 2014, I was  immersed by the epic scale and deeply Catholic resonance of the piece. While Chesterton failed to win me with his prosaic ramblings, he was winning me now with his delicious unraveling of poetic romance. Those who have identified The Ballad as one of the last great epic poems to be written in English. Indeed, it does seem to draw the same breath of life as Beowulf, with a panoramic scope for the historical blended with the mythological. It breathes new life into both.

     The main character is Alfred, the King of Wessex, who must battle the invading Pagan Vikings in order to save his kingdom and preserve Christianity in the land. But while Alfred may fit the stereotypical larger-than-life hero from mythology, he also has all the human complexity of real history, with a less-than-admirable past. Indeed, his youthful rowdiness and debauchery is reflected on in the poem, even as Alfred comes to terms with the fact that he must put himself right with God if he wants to truly embrace the sacramental understanding of Christian kingship.

    At the gathering of the chiefs, he shows true sorrow for his past sins and laments: “I wronged a man to his slaying/And a woman to her shame/And once I looked on a sworn maid/That was wed to the Holy Name…People, if you have any prayers,/Say prayers for me/And lady me under a Christian s tone/In that lost land I thought my own/To wait till the holy horn is blown/And all poor men are free.” Indeed, like King David, it is this heart-felt repentance that makes Alfred the leader he is, for he learns to humble himself before God and seek his guidance and grace when raising to a challenge that is far beyond his own strength and abilities to accomplish. He must transformed to become “the Great.”

    Through Alfred’s experiences as a hunted vagrant in the marshes, disguised sometimes as a shepherd, sometimes as a minstrel, he get up close and personal with friends and enemies alike, and learns about his subjects from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. Famously, in one peasant woman’s cottage, he is asked to watch cakes baking on the hearth. When he forgets his task and lets the cakes burn, she promptly strikes him in the forehead with her brand! Although initially infuriated by this assault, he soon realizes it was well-deserved, and uses his “mark” to rally his men and illustrate the vital importance of humility: “Pride juggles with her toppling towers/They strike the sun and cease/But the firm feet of humility/They grip the ground like trees….He that hath failed in a little thing/Hath a sign upon the brow/And the Earls of the Great Army/Have no such seal to show.”

     Hence, it is Alfred’s own flaws, and realization of those flaws, that are embodied in the “red star” on his forehead…and yet also make him a man worth following, in the fullness of his humanity and humility. He has his feet on the ground, and is not blinded by pride. In fact, he bears the mark of a peasant woman’s wrath as a badge of honor, vows that as that “if the red star burn”, he will strike back against the haughty foes that come against him, for the sake of that blow which he did not return. He then urges his men to follow him: “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…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.”

     Chesterton uses this opportunity to introduce a trio of leading characters who stand as symbols of the Saxon, Roman, and Celtic races: Eldred, Mark, and Colan, respectively. All three of them will fight under Alfred at Ethandune, and all three of them die for the cause. It is a fact that by the 9th century when Alfred fought for the throne, these racial differences would not have been as clear cut as depicted in the poem, but Chesterton summed up this period compression in his prologue: “It is the chief value of legend 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.”

    Some of the charactizations may seem rather prejudice…especially with regards to the Colan the Celt, who is imbibed with all the wild-eyed anger and broken-hearted cynicism that the English attributed to the ever wrestles Irish. One famous line runs: “For the great Gales of Ireland/Are the Men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad.” This summary may be seen as profound or stereotypical, depending on the perspective. But still, the combination of Roman, Celt, and Saxon is meant as a symbolic device, demonstrating the complexity of the British identity, and Alfred’s ability to bring together all factions under a common banner.

     The Vikings, too, become symbolic of the enemies of Christianity throughout history, even though at the end of the poem, Alfred makes a prophecy that the Vikings, who at least fought like men, will be replaced by scholarly atheists who will say that life is meaningless, and turn the world upside-down through their teachings: “They shall come mild as monkish clerks/With many a scroll and pen/And backward shall ye turn and gaze/Desiring one of Alfred’s days/When pagans still were men…By this sign you know them/That they ruin and make dark…By all men bond to Nothing/Being slaves without a lord…”

     But still, in spite of all this, the Christian virtues of hope and perseverance, even when all seems lost, are celebrated. One stanza runs: “But you and all the kind of Christ/Are ignorant and brave/And you have wars you hardly win/And souls you hardly save.” Christians are able to live by this seemingly absurd, loving the unlovable, having faith in the unseen, and hoping through the darkest night. They may laugh in the face of evil, for they know that, in the end, death has already been conquered by the Victorious King.

    Perhaps Christian gutsiness comes particularly natural to the British, made manifest through their holy gallows humor. This sense of paradox and defiance is epitomized by the lines Alfred speaks to his Viking foes, disguised as a minstrel in their camp: “For our God hath blessed creation/Calling it good; I know/What spirit with you blindly band/Hath blessed destruction with his hand/Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand/And small apples grow.”

     Feminine intuition and spiritual power also play an important role in this poem. Even though all the main characters are male, the Blessed Virgin Mary makes several appearances in the poem, bringing a sense of reassurance to the combatants, and serving as a beacon in the darkness. Like Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, she steels Alfred for the battle to come, even though she does not hide the dire nature of the situation: “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/Yeah, faith without a hope?”

     Though terror hangs heavy as the day of reckoning draws near, Mary does not abandon Alfred to his fears, but reappears to him in the midst of battle, with seven swords in her heart and on in her hand: “One instant in a still light/He saw Our Lady then/Her dress was soft as the western sky/And she was a queen most womanly/But she was a queen of men.” Her presence galvanizes Alfred to launch a final, desperate charge that turns the tide at Ethandune.

     The White Horse on the hill is the main motif, a chalk etching against a grassy backdrop of Wiltshire, continually scoured by the English people so that it would not fade. It lends The Ballad a sense of place and rollicking rhythm, and is also a symbol of the vortex of the human experience both Pagan and Christian, and yet emphasizes the reason why Christianity is bound to outlive Paganism: “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 the fire in Ely fen/Not that your gods are nine or ten/But because it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things.”

     It also brings the themes of perseverance and vigilance to the fore. It is a sign of continuity for the people fighting for their freedom and religion, and it must be maintained by each passing generation if it is to be preserved. It is also the sign of some intangible sense of identity that can never be blotted out, come time and tide. This is immortalized in the famous lines: “And though skies alter and empires melt/This word shall still be true/If we would have the horse of old/Scour ye the horse anew.”

     This, perhaps, is one of Chesterton’s most profound and timeless messages to the Christian world: Fight on, even thought he days grow darker yet, and know that the Great Battle has already been won by Christ the King. Furthermore, for the Christian, there is no such thing as fickle fate, but something with much more rhyme and reason, the stuff that both history and mythology is made of. To quote the real King Alfred, in his addition to Boethius: “I say as do all Christian men, that it is a divine purpose that rules, and not fate.”
     And that, I believe, is a very heartening conviction.

"Scour ye the horse anew..."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th of July!

    The following piece was originally written in 1955, updated in 1976, and republished in our local newspaper today. It encompasses so many different moods of the American spirit and people: our free-spirited nature, optimism, determination, daring, and dedication to pursuing our highest ideals as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice.

     There may be difficulties ahead of us as a nation on any number of fronts, and yet I still remain so blessed be a part of the American Experience and enjoy the freedoms our forefathers fought so hard to obtain and preserve. Without a doubt, I would proudly stand up to be counted among her children, and would gladly defend her still today. God Bless America!

“I Am the Nation”

By Otto Whittaker

     I was born on July 4, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence is my birth certificate. The bloodlines of the world run in my veins, because I offered freedom to the oppressed. I am many things and many people I am the nation.

     I am more than 250 million living souls – and the ghost of millions who have lived and died for me. I am Nathan Hale and Paul Revere. I stood at Lexington and fired the shot heard around the world. I am Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. I am John Paul Jones, the Green Mountain Boys, and Davy Crockett. I am Lee and Grant and Abe Lincoln.

     I remember the Alamo, the Maine, and Pearl Harbor. When freedom called, I answered and stayed until it was over, over there. I left my heroic dead in Flanders Field, on the rock of Corregidor, on the bleak slopes of Korea, and in the steaming jungle of Vietnam.

     I am the Brooklyn Bridge, the wheat lands of Kansas, and the granite hills of Vermont. I am the coalfields of the Virginias and Pennsylvania, the, the fertile lands of the West, the Golden Gate and the Grand Canyon. I am Independence Hall, the Monitor and the Merrimac.

     I am big. I sprawl from the Atlantic to the Pacific – my arms reach out to embrace Alaska and Hawaii. I am more than five million farms. I am forest, field, mountain, and desert. I am quiet villages – and cities that never sleep.

     You can look at me and see Ben Franklin walking down the streets of Philadelphia with his bread loaf under his arm. You can see Betsy Ross with her needle. You can see the lights of Christmas and hear the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” as the calendar turns.

     I am Babe Ruth and the World Series. I am more than 110,000 schools and colleges and more than 330,000 churches where my people worship God as they think best. I am a ballot dropped into a box, the roar of a crowd in a stadium, and the voice of a choir in a cathedral. I am the editorial in a newspaper and a letter to a Congressman.

     I am Eli Whitney and Stephen Foster. I am Tom Edison, Albert Einstein, and Billy Graham. I am Horace Greeley, Will Rogers, and the Wright Brothers. I am George Washington Carver, Jonas Salk, and Martin Luther King Jr. I am Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Paine.

     Yes, I am the nation and these are the things that I am. I was conceived in freedom and, God willing, in freedom I will spend the rest of my days. May I possess always the integrity, the courage, and the strength to keep myself unshackled to remain a citadel of freedom and a beacon of hope to the world.

"A Citadel of Freedom and a Beacon of Hope to the World..."