Chesterton’s Collected Poems was very nearly his last book. At Christmas, 1914, Chesterton’s huge body suddenly shut down. He suffered a mysterious physical collapse that left him in a coma-like state for several months. Many people thought he would die. But, quite amazingly – and quite appropriately – he came back to life at Easter, 1915. During those months while he remained in his room, completely quiet with a barely flickering consciousness, his wife Frances, gathered and edited his scattered poetry for a volume that she was not sure that her husband would ever live to see. The marvelous collection that she put together was published right after Chesterton’s recovery. The book includes his dedicatory poems to Bentley and Belloc, his magical Christmas poems, such as “The Wise Men” and “The House of Christmas,” his glorious hymn, “O God of Earth and Altar,” several political poems, such as “The Secret People,” and satirical poems such “Ballad of a Book Reviewer,” and his very humorous “Ballad of a Suicide.”
The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall.
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours – on the wall –
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself today.
Amidst these quite familiar poems are some very unfamiliar ones, unnoticed gems, some written in the earliest days of World War I. Although it was a war that Chesterton strongly supported, these poems are moving, unexpected portraits of the pain and misery caused by any war, but especially when it is fought for someone else’s greed and carried on by someone else’s incompetence, while husbands and sons are sent to die. In “The Wife of Flanders” he gets inside a poignant scene of devastation:
Low and brown barns thatched and repatched and tattered
Where I had seven sons until today,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered…
This is not Paris. You have lost your way.
But the poems about the dark side of war are utterly overshadowed by another battle poem that is certainly the centerpiece of this collection. It is not only one of Chesterton’s finest poems, it is one of the finest poems in the English language. It is an intricate tapestry of images, an evocative telling of history, a masterpiece of rhyme and rhythm and alliteration that marches with a steady purpose and builds to a crescendo of shouting triumph. I’m speaking, of course, of Lepanto.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon and he comes.
The battle itself is one of the most important in history. The Islamic forces, under Selim II, control the Mediterranean and are very close to conquering both Venice and Rome. The poem brings out the fact that the odds are against Christian Europe in this monumental standoff. Christendom will get no help from Germany, divided and weakened by the Protestant Reformation, or from England, under the self-absorbed “cold queen” Elizabeth I, or from France, under its worthless “shadow of the Valios,” King Charles IX. But a surprise hero rises to the occasion, the Last of the Crusaders, Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, who miraculously leads the outnumbered Christian forces to victory in the pivotal battle fought on October 7, 1571.
Chesterton’s poem not only tells the story, it truly stirs the emotions. He takes a very creative approach, describing different perspectives of the events, from the plotting Sultan of Byzantium, to Mohammed in his paradise, to the Pope in the Vatican, to the Christian slaves chained to their oars in the Muslim galley ships, and finally, to a certain Spanish warrior who was wounded in the victory and later went on to become a rather noted author: Cervantes. Marching through these each of these scenes like a “dim drum throbbing,” is Don John of Austria.
Chesterton should be placed among the immortals of literature for this poem alone. It deserves to be memorized and studied and discussed and revisited by every student of English poetry and history. It should be part of the standard repertoire in any college English class. But it isn’t. Hardly anyone knows of the poem. It suffers in obscurity because of a combined prejudice against Chesterton, against Catholicism, and against rhyme and meter. I will give the final word to Hilaire Belloc, who said that Lepanto “is not only the summit of Chesterton’s achievement in verse but in all our generation. I have said this so often that I am almost tired of saying it again, but I must continue to say it. People who cannot see the value of Lepanto are half dead. Let them remain so.”