The Great Ballad

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?

Chesterton had been dead for nearly five years when these lines from his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, appeared in the Times of London under the heading “Sursum Corda” (lift up your hearts). Devastating news had reached England of the fall of the island of Crete to a combined force of German and Italian troops. More than twelve thousand British Commonwealth soldiers were now prisoners of war, and the nation was trying to come to terms with this, one of the darkest moments of World War II.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 16


In Chapter 16 of Kevin Belmonte’s Defiant Joy, we examine Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse.  Written in 1911, the poem has been compared to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and is considered by many one of the greatest poems in English literature.  This statement precludes one notable detractor, J.R.R. Tolkien, who considered the work a “brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colours) cannot disguise the fact that G. K. C. knew nothing whatever about the “North,” heathen or Christian. That considered others such as Christopher Hollis wrote the poem is “one of the two or three outstanding ballads in modern English literature. . . . certainly, one of the first and the most widely quoted of all such English ballads of this century.”

In Chapter 16 of Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte writes:

The Ballad of the White Horse was a poem unlike any other in the Chesterton canon. It was, as Garry Wills wrote, his “most serious artistic endeavor” as a poet—one that took four years to complete— and an undertaking that called forth his most extended labor and care in composition.

And so, for four years, Chesterton labored over his ballad and revised it. He delayed publication. It was the only time in his career that he took such great pains.9 This underscores both the importance that this subject held for him and his desire to get it right. All his life, the white horse had been his “private symbol of chivalry.” This symbol, and the legends caught up with it, were so much a part of his imaginative life that fragments of the poem came to him in his sleep.

Have you read The Ballad of the White Horse?

D I G  D E E P E R


Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sources & Resources

See Garry Wills, Chesterton (New York: Image/Doubleday Books, 2001)

See Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 282; and also Wills, Chesterton

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life