Lines to a Don
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
438 years ago today, the Holy League defeated the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.
White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run,
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross…
— G. K. Chesterton, Lepanto
In honor of the good King’s feast day today (in both the Catholic and Anglican calendars), I thought I’d post a bit.
And, of course, my motivation and introduction to King Alfred, G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse:
Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.
Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.
For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
“The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
“The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.
“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?”
“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.
If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
— G. K. Chesterton
Yes, that’s the new tagline for Eclectic Amateur. I’ve had that quote in my mind for years, but it struck me this morning in a new way.
GKC was writing about the things that every man should do for himself, such as blowing his own nose or writing his own love letters (I don’t think he forsaw the latter being usurped by the greeting card industry).
But, there’s a deeper meaning here too. If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. The more it is worth, the more we should dare to do it, even if we will do it badly. Even if, most likely, we will “fail” to do it well.
I”m going to apply GKC‘s advice to our hoped-for family agrarian/distributist adventure (which he bears some responsbility for encouraging me to do). Self-sufficiency, good food, independance — all good ideas, but the how of how to make this all work is rather overwhelming and discouraging sometimes. I flip-flop between wanting to just pitch everything and start right now and wondering if I will ever do anything different from today before being forced by circumstances.
But. If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. If the agrarian way is worth it, it is worth doing even if it is bungled. So what if I fail? I probably will. On my way to “failure”, will I learn more, eat better, be closer to nature and to God, and give my children a better inheritance in the things that matter than if I hadn’t? It seems most likely. How, then, can I really fail? What am I afraid of?
Not that I know what this means yet. Other than “Courage!”
We are not choosing between model villages as part of a serene system of town-planning. We are making a sortie from a besieged city, sword in hand; a sortie from the ruin of Carthage. “Safe! Of course it’s not safe!”
— G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity
I was meditating a bit upon Lepanto, and fell into a moderate case of Catholic envy.
I’m pretty sure as Episcopalians, our corresponding feasts are of Jesus the Really Nice Rabbi and Our Lady of Perpetual Dialogue.
Now that I’m envious and depressed, I think I’ll go read The Ballad of the White Horse as an antidote (“hair of the dog”, perhaps?). At least we haven’t taken Alfred the Great off of the list of feasts yet.
And I am upon the whole hopeful that the faith will recover its intimate and guiding place in the heart of Europe, so I believe that this sinking back into our original paganism … will in due time be halted and reversed.
— Hillaire Belloc, concluding The Servile State, written in 1912
Now you and I have, I hope, this advantage over all those clever new philosophers, that we happen not to be mad.
"By the Babe Unborn"
by G.K. Chesterton
If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,
If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.
In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.
Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.
I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.
They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.
Now the Faith is old and the Devil is bold, Exceedingly bold indeed; And the masses of doubt that are floating about Would smother a mortal creed. But we that sit in a sturdy youth And still can drink strong ale Oh--let us put it away to infallible truth That always shall prevail.
(There’s more. Much more. It’s the funniest bit of theology and Church history that you’re likely to read in this lifetime. Read it. Trust me.)