I've been meaning all week to write something about the Chesterton conferences in Oxford last weekend. The best laid plans, eh?
But it was a very interesting weekend all told. The fun began on Friday evening with a gathering at St Benet's Hall where Seton Hall University were holding their summer school and had organised a conference to celebrate the centenary of The Ballad of the White Horse. A small but select crowd gathered, therefore, to listen to papers from John Coates on Redemption and Recovery in the Ballad of the White Horse, Sheridan Gilley on whether the Ballad of the White Horse is the English epic, Julia Stapleton on the genesis of the Ballad, and then some dishevelled, rambling academic whose name escapes me talked for what seemed like an eternity about history, memory and forgetting in the Ballad of the White Horse. One Catholic Oxford don of St Benet's has recently written that the failure of GKC readers to spot GKC's essentially heretical mindset says a lot about the state of Catholic education in the 20th Century. So, of course, one is free to regard the conference as the work of ignoramuses and poltroons.
Those that bothered to attend - and our Oxford don naturally did not - might be forgiven for thinking that GKC emerged rather well from the evening's deliberations. In the hands of the four speakers the Ballad appeared in all its polysemic brilliance, its vigour matching that of Chesterton's Lepanto, its religious and political scope matching that of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. My own paper considered how Chesterton plays with time in the poem, casting the events of King Alfred's struggle against the Danes in the context of the end of the world, and against the timeframe of 'the night'. It also considered how the processes of remembering and forgetting shape the moral destinies of Alfred and his foes.
For me, Chesterton's preoccupations in the poem cannot be treated reductively. The poem dances between political, religious, cultural and social concerns, evokes grand moral decisions and stirs up the blood with the kind of thunderous versification which make me want to march around my living room looking for a sofa or a bureau to conquer. Here's a taster from Alfred's address to his soldiers on the brink of the battle of Ethandun:
"Up on the old white road, brothers,
Up on the Roman walls!
For this is the night of the drawing of swords,
And the tainted tower of the heathen hordes
Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,
Leans a little and falls.
"Follow the star that lives and leaps,
Follow the sword that sings,
For we go gathering heathen men,
A terrible harvest, ten by ten,
As the wrath of the last red autumn--then
When Christ reaps down the kings.
"Follow a light that leaps and spins,
Follow the fire unfurled!
For riseth up against realm and rod,
A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod,
The last lost giant, even God,
Is risen against the world."
Roaring they went o'er the Roman wall,
And roaring up the lane,
Their torches tossed a ladder of fire,
Higher their hymn was heard and higher,
More sweet for hate and for heart's desire,
And up in the northern scrub and brier,
They fell upon the Dane.
The rhythms seem to grow ever more martial as the verse rushes towards the conclusion - they fell upon the Dane. You wouldn't want to be Danish at that point.
And then there was the conference of Saturday ... More later.