We would do well to remember The Ballad of the White Horse, his inspiring poem set a thousand years ago.
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And the man was come like a shadow
From the shadow of Druid trees
Where Usk with might murmurings,
Past Caerleon of the fallen kings
Goes out to ghostly seas.
Last of a race in ruins
He spoke the speech of the Gaels;
His kin were in Holy Ireland,
Or up in the crags of Wales …
His harp was carved and cunning
As the Celtic craftsman makes,
Graven all over with twisting shapes,
Like many headless snakes …
Having arranged for the chiefs to meet him as soon as they can gather their forces, Alfred wanders on alone in thought over the “shrill sea-downs”, through the ruined landscape towards the meeting-place, playing his harp in the dusk (“The rook croaked homeward heavily, the West was clear and wan …”). He is captured by a party of relatively good-humored, drunken Danes, who, admiring his harp-playing, bring him before their chief, Guthrum of the Northern Sea, the Emperor of the Great Army, and three of his principal Earls. Each, after listening to Alfred’s playing, takes the harp and makes a song on it, and Alfred learns that despite their power and terror they are actually despairing and terrified of death.
The young Earl Harald consoles himself with the excitement of battle and plunder. He tells Alfred:
“Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers,
When they waded fresh from foam,
Before they were turned to women
By the God of the nails from Rome;
“But since you bent to the shaven men,
Who neither lust nor smite,
Thunder of Thor! We hunt you,
A hare on the mountain height!”
Elf, the Viking minstrel, consoles himself with music and artistic tragedy:
As he sang of Balder beautiful,
Whom the heavens could not save,
Till the world was like a sea of tears
And every soul a wave …
The dreadful Earl Ogier’s consolation in the face of death is destruction (“The barest branch is beautiful, one moment, as it breaks”), but beyond them is Guthrum, who has passed even through that and is staring into a universe of despair too absolute even for Nihilism:
“When a man shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods;
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods …”
The nameless, shabby “rhymester without a home” who is Alfred replies to this Pagan hopelessness:
“Our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
The spirit with which you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars still stand
And the small apples grow …”
Next day the armies meet. Alfred’s makeshift Army, having had their courage raised in the night by Alfred’s inspired speech, despair at the sight of the overwhelming forces against them, and see the “high folly” of what they are attempting. The Vikings march out in savage magnificence:
The Earls of the Great Army
Lay in a long half-moon,
Ten poles before their palisades,
With wide-winged helms and runic blades,
Red giants of the age of raids,
In the thornland of Ethandune.
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