Naught for Your Comfort

G K Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse is a poem about King Alfred. Alfred the Great. But the ballad begins when Alfred is at his lowest ebb. Having been defeated by the Vikings, he wanders alone.

Except he is not alone because, to his great surprise and joy, he sees Our Lady. What he asks her and what she tells him is very interesting and has, I think, great resonance for our own times.

First, Alfred’s question:

He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.

She spoke not, nor turned not,
Nor any sign she cast,
Only she stood up straight and free,
Between the flowers in Athelney,
And the river running past.

One dim ancestral jewel hung
On his ruined armour grey,
He rent and cast it at her feet:
Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
Men came from hall and school and street
And found it where it lay.

“Mother of God,” the wanderer said,
“I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.

“The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.

“But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?

“When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?”

It’s a big moment. How will the Mother of God reply to this broken and defeated king? What hope, what message, will she give?

This is what she says:

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.

“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 love that. In fact, I love it so much that, to the amusement and bemusement of my colleagues, I used to have this stanza on the wall above my desk at work:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Our Lady gives Alfred an answer but it is neither the answer he expected nor the one he hoped for. But it is enough and more than enough. It becomes the rallying cry that echoes throughout the poem as Alfred travels across his kingdom to find men who will fight again. So why does the rallying cry work?

Not knowing the future, not knowing how the battle will end, forces Alfred and his men back on their own resources. They fall back on courage, that great northern courage which meant so much to Tolkien and Lewis. But there’s more to it than that. King Alfred does not have a blind faith or a whistle-in-the-dark courage: he has faith in a person, a person who would not let him down. Having met Our Lady, he no longer needed to know whether he would come home at last.

And maybe much the same is true for us today. We do not know what the next few weeks, let alone the next few months, will hold. We do not know whether the future will be bright or murky. But there is a great deal we do know. We have a steadfast God and a mother who never lets her children go. That is enough. With that knowledge, we can find the courage we need.

 

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