LEAFING idly through the lectionary, I noticed that we had come to King Alfred’s Day, and my mind went back in time to the days of that great king and scholar who strove to preserve the Christian faith, and keep some beacon of light burning against the darkness, against repeated defeats, against wave after wave of invasion.
He is embedded deeply in my imagination, not least because, as a very little boy, I had the Ladybird book about Alfred and loved the pictures, but also because he is the subject of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful poem The Ballad of the White Horse.
I took out my copy, which I hadn’t read for at least a decade, and found, as often happens, that the poem spoke afresh into our own dark times: our apparent defeats amid wave after wave of viral invasion.
And it is not the first time that this poem has come to life again when England was in crisis. Chesterton saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility, which is at the heart of the Christian creed, was the only way to stand and withstand against the odds. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage, kindled not by probable chances of success, but by what he called “the joy without a cause”.
The poem opens with Alfred, alone and defeated, suddenly granted a vision of Mary, whom he asks whether he will finally have victory. She refuses to answer that question; for she says that “if he fail or if he win To no good man is told”.
Indeed, she emphasises the darkness and the odds against which he is struggling:
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?
And, yet, at these very words Alfred takes fresh courage; for there is something in the vision of Mary herself, in the sheer goodness of heaven, which puts everything in perspective, as Chesterton says of that vision:
Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.
The poem proved extraordinarily popular and helpful. Many of those called to combat in the two world wars went out with this poem in their pockets, and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders, each at key points in the Second World War: “Naught For Your Comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete, and Alfred’s great cry “The high tide and the turn” was the headline after the D-Day landings. And, of course, later on, Trevor Huddleston would draw on this poem in the seemingly impossible struggle against apartheid.
Perhaps its time has come again. There is, indeed, “naught for our comfort, and naught for our desire” in our bleak news bulletins, but we may yet summon something of Alfred’s courage, something of the faith that does without hope, something of “the joy of giants, The joy without a cause”, until we get through the worst, and come, at last, as Alfred did, to “the high tide and the turn”.
A Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.