A crawling ruin

Every once in a while, something I read in the news or hear on the radio prompts me to return to one of my favorite poems, GK Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse,” which retells the legendary story of King Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at Ethandune. The whole silly fiasco with Don Imus getting fired for imprudent words when others, who say more imprudent things at less sacrosanct targets, are lauded, is a case in point. Urinate on the Cross, and you’re an artist. Call Mother Teresa a prostitute, and you’re a brave rebel. Label all white men as oppressors, and you’re fighting against the enemy. But, say something crude against a holy minority, and off with your head. We’ve lost our moral compass; it’s hard to keep the virtue of hope in such times.

If you haven’t read the whole thing, please go to that link and do. It isn’t all that long, and it contains some of the more memorable lines in English verse over the past hundred years. But, more than that, it hearkens back to a society where virtue was valued.

After the battle, King Alfred makes a prophecy, which I’ve quoted below in full. One can hear in his words Chesterton’s thoughts about our modern age.

But dark and thick as thronged the host,
With drum and torch and blade,
The still-eyed King sat pondering,
As one that watches a live thing,
The scoured chalk; and he said,

“Though I give this land to Our Lady,
That helped me in Athelney,
Though lordlier trees and lustier sod
And happier hills hath no flesh trod
Than the garden of the Mother of God
Between Thames side and the sea,

“I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.

“They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.

“Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.

“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.

“The dear sun dwarfed of dreadful suns,
Like fiercer flowers on stalk,
Earth lost and little like a pea
In high heaven’s towering forestry,
–These be the small weeds ye shall see
Crawl, covering the chalk.

“But though they bridge St. Mary’s sea,
Or steal St. Michael’s wing–
Though they rear marvels over us,
Greater than great Vergilius
Wrought for the Roman king;

“By this sign you shall know them,
The breaking of the sword,
And man no more a free knight,
That loves or hates his lord.

“Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And Man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.

“What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them,
That they ruin and make dark;

“By all men bond to Nothing,
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed,
Too blind to be abhorred;

“By terror and the cruel tales
Of curse in bone and kin,
By weird and weakness winning,
Accursed from the beginning,
By detail of the sinning,
And denial of the sin;

“By thought a crawling ruin,
By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
And the end of the world’s desire;

“By God and man dishonoured,
By death and life made vain,
Know ye the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again–

“When is great talk of trend and tide,
And wisdom and destiny,
Hail that undying heathen
That is sadder than the sea.

“In what wise men shall smite him,
Or the Cross stand up again,
Or charity or chivalry,
My vision saith not; and I see
No more; but now ride doubtfully
To the battle of the plain.”

And the grass-edge of the great down
Was cut clean as a lawn,
While the levies thronged from near and far,
From the warm woods of the western star,
And the King went out to his last war
On a tall grey horse at dawn.

Indeed, the “heathen” of today, the “post-Christian” sages are thoughtlessly pacifist (“breaking the sword”). They detail the sins of others while denying their own, or even the existence of sin. Reason has gone by the wayside (“thought a crawling ruin”) in favor of solipsism and emotionalism. We don’t reason together; we “dialogue.” We don’t seek to come to a mutual understanding; we strive to be “open-minded.” Instead of being slaves to lords, we are slaves to our own unchecked desires. It’s a sad situation, but let’s pray that, as Chesterton writes, wise men will arise to smite the heathens, and that the Cross will indeed stand tall again.

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4 Responses to “A crawling ruin”


  1. 1 MamasBoy April 14, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    That same line caught my attention, though I thought of it differently, “Accursed from the beginning, By detail of the sinning, And denial of the sin;”

    I took it to mean that men will describe openly their own sins, but then deny that they are evil.

    Thanks for sharing the poem.

    MB

  2. 2 Edmund C. April 15, 2007 at 8:09 am

    MB, I like your reading of that line better… It’s still a pretty damning indictment of modern man, though.

    (how are things over on Brant’s blog–I don’t visit there much anymore?)

  3. 3 MammasBoy April 15, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    I took Lent off from blogging, so I haven’t done much recently until last week. The last few months Brant has been doing at least one post/month on Church issues. He’s pretty into the home church thing, though he doesn’t think of it that way. Before Lent, though, Brant seemed to get PO’d with me for always being contrary. I wasn’t trying to be an angry, contrary jerk, but got accused of it anyway. It was a rather frustrating experience to overlook all the little personal jabs that came with the accusation. Sometimes I didn’t overlook them and it never turned out better for it. Its hard for me to know when to call someone on not arguing fairly or nicely and when to just overlook things. On the group blog I participate in, people are much more likely to correct each other for not arguing fairly or nicely, and I think it makes for a more civil discussion. I know I appreciate the reminder, at least. Anyway, that’s probably more than you wanted to know. How’s the dissertation coming? Are you looking at finishing up by the end of spring semester?

    MB

  4. 4 Edmund C. April 15, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    MB,

    Other than my general hiatus from blogging, you uncovered what I thought would happen if I kept pushing Brant. I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, because we were operating from such radically different basic assumptions.

    I’m defending my dissertation in less than two months–a little after the end of the spring semester.


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