The Ballad of the White Horse (1911): The Patriotism and Piety of Chesterton’s Hagiography and Historiography

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The Ballad of the White Horse (1911):
The Patriotism and Piety of Chesterton’s Hagiography and Historiography

“That high note of the forlorn hope, of a host at bay and a battle against odds without end, is the note on which the great French epic ends. I know nothing more moving in poetry than that strange and unexpected end; that splendidly inconclusive conclusion. Charlemagne, the great Christian emperor, has at last established his empire in quiet, has done justice almost in the manner of a day of judgment, and sleeps as it were upon his throne with a peace almost like that of Paradise. And there appears to him the angel of God crying aloud that his arms are needed in a new and distant land, and that he must take up again the endless march of his days. And the great king tears his long white beard and cries out against his restless life. The poem ends, as it were with a vision and vista of wars against the barbarians; and the vision is true. For that war is never ended which defends the sanity of the world against all the stark anarchies and rending negations which rage against it for ever. That war is never finished in this world; and the grass has hardly grown on the graves of our own friends who fell in it.”—Introduction to The Song of Roland (1919)
"’Mary and the Convert’ is the most personal of topics, because conversion is something more personal and less corporate than communion; and involves isolated feelings as an introduction to collective feelings. But also because the cult of Mary is in a rather peculiar sense a personal cult; over and above that greater sense that must always attach to the worship of a personal God. God is God, Maker of all things visible and invisible; the Mother of God is in a rather special sense connected with things visible; since she is of this earth, and through her bodily being God was revealed to the senses. In the presence of God, we must remember what is invisible, even in the sense of what is merely intellectual; the abstractions and the absolute laws of thought; the love of truth, and the respect for right reason and honourable logic in things, which God himself has respected. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas insists, God himself does not contradict the law of contradiction. But Our Lady, reminding us especially of God Incarnate, does in some degree gather up and embody all those elements of the heart and the higher instincts, which are the legitimate short cuts to the love of God. Dealing with those personal feelings, even in this rude and curt outline, is therefore very far from easy. I hope I shall not be misunderstood if the example I take is merely personal; since it is this particular part of religion that really cannot be impersonal. It may be an accident, or a highly unmerited favour of heaven, but anyhow it is a fact, that I always had a curious longing for the remains of this particular tradition, even in a world where it was regarded as a legend. I was not only haunted by the idea while still stuck in the ordinary stage of schoolboy scepticism; I was affected by it before that, before I had shed the ordinary nursery religion in which the Mother of God had no fit or adequate place.”—The Well and the Shallows
It is not entirely ironic that English soldiers in both WWI and WWII would reference lines from Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse as a way to encourage themselves, as a way to strengthen their sense of English loyalty, and as justification for their actions. Nor is it surprising that Chesterton shared the assumption of many in the first half of the twentieth century—that England was part of Christendom and that the distance between Christian faith and a cultural polity shaped by it was not that far. Whether he was justified in thinking so, is another question worth asking. Nonetheless, Chesterton did understand that there is a distance, and The Ballad is as much a story of the internal conflict of the Christian in the face of rival ideologies as it is a story of (English) Christendom facing Norse paganism and/or nineteenth-century nihilism and fatalism.
As we’ve seen in his earlier fiction, Chesterton saw in warfare aspects of the freedom and glory of the human person. Indeed, revolution against evil could be understood as something of greatness, especially when this was done on behalf of folk, kin, and family. He held this bravery and artful power to be admirable even if one was less certain of their actual views. “We may find men wrong in what they thought they were, but we cannot find them wrong in what they thought they thought,” he wrote in A Short History of England. Indeed, for Chesterton patriotism was as much moored in heritage and multi-generational life. We are loyal to a place and people because they are ours, and because we are part of them, not just in the now but stretching back into the past. For Chesterton, Alfred stands at the wellsprings of English Christianity. And this very local loyalty taught him to oppose imperialist policy because it sought to violate other local loyalties. The Danes are guilty not only of pagan worldviews, but of seeking to take away Englishness. His trust in direct ownership of property is another manifestation of this impulse. That men owned their own farms, loved them, and protected them for Chesterton was the best kind of parochialism.
Likewise, Chesterton’s views of patriotism as a loyalty to the most local of polities and as faithfulness to a cultural idea are present alongside his understanding of sainthood as a particular kind of person set a part with a special grace for a particular kind, that Alfred is a ruler and a warrior complicates this for modern audiences, but not for Chesterton. Alfred embodies Chesterton’s ideal that a saint is an expression of love, exaggerated to correct the course of the rest in a culture. In a similar, if much stronger, fashion, the particular role of Mary in the poem is bound to put off many, especially Protestants, but for Chesterton her particular role is not to usurp that of Christ and his divinity but to embody the Church and Christian chivalry.
In both Chesterton’s portraits of saints and his portrait of England there is a tendency to exaggerate and generalize that makes his history somewhat Whiggish in character, given to celebrating England and English freedom, even though he discounted the Whig historians, and his saints’ lives somewhat one-sided, standing for an ideal more than a fully-rounded character study. Yet this tendency is also at the heart of Chesterton’s notions of romance, adventure, and Elfland-ethics, for it matches his broad ethical and imaginative impulse: love is possessed of largess, even marked by wastefulness. The ascetic and the epicurean are the same person when and if they act out of love for the Beloved.

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