Tag Archives: White Horse of Uffington

King Alfred’s Day

I didn’t know until just now that October 26 is the traditional day to remember King Alfred. Fr. Malcolm Guite has done us the wonderful favor of reading the whole of G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse on his site.

Once I obtained cassette tapes of Chesterton reading his poem. I thought that would be the most marvelous thing. My history of such recordings and with the White Horse you can read here, but I must hurry and post the important link in case it might please you to be able to listen to the story on the day.

in our places

What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,
modest and willing, and in our places?

– Mary Oliver, from the poem “Stars”

I’m taking these lines out of context, because they are the ones that jumped out at me when I randomly took a book of Oliver’s poems off a shelf this afternoon. If many of my behaviors of late seem random and fruitless and perplexed, at least I do breathe in and out. That is an excellent case of something I do that I can’t really take credit for; God has programmed me to do it. He gives each of us life and breath, and I’m thankful.

One day last week I was given another gift, when Kristi at Thoughts from Thicket House sent me the link to a hymn, “In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful.” She actually linked me to the German “Meine Hoffnung und Meine Freude,” (My Hope and My Joy) which I like even more. I spent two days singing those hymns from morning till night; there is something about the simplicity and redundancy of the lines and melody that I needed as a prayer to carry me along.

I’m in my place, I know it. And I’m working at the willing part.

U horse + G
Wandering on White Horse Hill in England – 2005 (by Pippin)

On the ground with the White Horse.

Last week The Garners posted about G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, which caused me to dig out my cassette tapes of the author reading his own poem — how thrilling! Too bad they were made from a scratchy recording so that it’s very hard to appreciate the poem itself. Still, the directness of the connection to the very voice and person of the poet mean a lot to me.

What made me interested in the Ballad in the first place was taking a trip to Britain with daughter Pippin nine years ago. We both very much wanted to see White Horse Hill in Uffington while we were there, and we found it quite empty of any other humans the day we visited. We hiked up the hill to the chalk art that is thought to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old, and wandered around the horse’s anatomy. We couldn’t pull ourselves away. I just could not get over — here it is again — the earthy material link to ancient peoples and the mysteries of their culture and history.

One thing we share with the ancient people who carved the trenches of this design is human nature, the gifts of the Creator who made us in His image, glorious even in a tarnished condition. The horse reveals the creative aspect of that image, and Chesterton’s ballad shows his own artistry while it tells a human and Christian tale set in King Alfred’s day. The imagery in this stanza, which I think pertinent to the Lenten season, illuminates another aspect of our humanity that we share with our ancestors: the impulse to stand before God in worship, fighting with the desire to be God:

Pride juggles with her toppling towers,
They strike the sun and cease,
But the firm feet of humility
They grip the ground like trees.

–G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse                 

Thinking again about this world history and my history, I want to revisit the horse vicariously, by means of the poem slightly more removed from the poet than my old cassettes. So I just ordered this edition of the book, which I think is the one I bought two copies of in the past for gifts. The American Chesterton Society will be sending me this CD, read by Aidan Mackey, who sounds as though he is very likely, once I put that disk in the player, to send me right back to England and White Horse Hill.
[update: the recording was annoyingly scratchy and almost as bad as the old one of GKC himself. 😦  ]

Linking up to Weekends With Chesterton