A “bard,” goes the standard definition, is a “declaimer of heroic or epic verse.” Once a tradition in every culture (think Homer), the bard has all but disappeared. The last to write in English was a rotund, bespectacled Londoner, widely known in his time and deserving of greater recognition today.
G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) enjoyed a fabled career in journalism. It was for witty and incisive columns in the Illustrated London News that he was primarily known, along with some fiction, in particular the Father Brown detective stories. Along the way, Chesterton also managed to pen several volumes of Catholic apologetics, including an urgent plea for religious conservatism in his book-length essay, “Orthodoxy,” and perhaps the finest lay consideration of Saint Thomas Aquinas ever written in English.
Insights and Legends
He also wrote verse. Chesterton’s poetry is today less known than his fiction or his journalism, and yet it is his poems, and in particular the bardic epics, that speak most boldly to us today. The shorter poems address a variety of subjects, from the nature of the devil (“The Aristocrat”) to the meaning of vanity (“Ecclesiastes”) to the modesty of Jesus’s birth (“A Christmas Carol”).
The language is clear and direct, though it sometimes surprises. For example, “Ecclesiastes” concludes with: “One thing is needful everything/ The rest is vanity of vanities.” Thus in 11 words, Chesterton summarizes the Old Testament preacher with a philosophical insight that suggests Parmenides.
By contrast, the longer bardic poems, especially “The Ballad of the White Horse” and “Lepanto,” demand a sacrifice of leisure, the willingness to exchange one’s need to understand for a mighty view of history. A bard sings that strand of tradition known as legend. “It is the chief value of legend,” Chesterton wrote, “to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment, to see all ages in a sort of splendid foreshortening. …[I]t telescopes history.”
The importance of Chesterton as bard is precisely this: that he links the modern world to the Christendom that preceded it. He will not let the past go, because he knows that the present is its issue. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is for him a cultural admonition as well as a filial one.
The Magic of Being Unforgettable
“The Ballad of the White Horse” was Chesterton’s bardic masterpiece, nearly 2,700 lines of verse arranged in 4- to 6-line rhyming stanzas, recounting the battle fought by King Alfred the Great against Danish invaders. Novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene (“The Third Man”) compared it favorably to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and it moved even the anti-Catholic journalist Christopher Hitchens to recognize Chesterton’s “magic faculty of being unforgettable.”
The shorter, more circumspect “Lepanto” seems almost written for our current condition. Its subject is the 1571 naval battle off the coast of Greece that saw a Turkish fleet defeated by a tactically inferior force of Spaniards, Genoese, and Venetians. The hero, minor nobleman Don John of Austria, comes forward to lead the battle when kings and queens choose to stay safe in their palaces. Chesterton introduces him with a riot of color and sound:
“Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.”
Victory and Loss … and Victory
While the poem, like the battle, concludes in victory, there is an underlying sense of loss. The majority of Christian leaders have not even bothered to fight, as if they are indifferent to what belief they serve, provided their wealth goes untouched. The West may have repelled an invader, but the fabric of its culture is unraveling. And then … hope appears in the most unlikely form. It is an oddity of history that Miguel de Cervantes fought in the battle of Lepanto. Chesterton gives him the last verse:
“Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)”
The “lean and foolish knight” is Don John transformed into Don Quixote. The West may wane, yet it lives on in the story of its struggle, even when disguised as the bardic satire of tilting at windmills. While the story lives, the West owns a heartbeat.
The only remaining threat would be the erasure of that story, via the banning of books, the toppling of statues, and the censorship of ideas.
And surely, no one would do that.
Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He is the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).