While Chesterton’s prose is usually rewarding on the first reading, his poetry often demands two or three readings before it really starts bearing fruit. There is much to miss the first time around and always more to discover upon returning again and again. It is a pity that so much of it is not only not read but only read once, which is almost the same as not at all.
A case in point is the over-looked, underrated “Ballad of St. Barbara,” which is the title piece in a collection of poems Chesterton published in 1922. This poem is in the same vein as his two acknowledged poetic masterpieces, “Lepanto” and “The Ballad of the White Horse.” It is war poetry. It is a mixture of legend and history. It is about a great battle where the good guys are about to go down. But this poem about snatching victory from defeat differs from the other two in that it is more subtle and deeply mystical. It is about “the other side of things.”
St. Barbara is not your everyday saint. She is the patron saint of artillery and of those in danger of sudden death. The action of the poem takes place at the Battle of Marne. Two soldiers, a Norman and a Breton, are in retreat and the situation seems hopeless, and the Norman is ready to admit defeat. But the Breton begins to recite the tale of St. Barbara to encourage his fellow warrior. Chesterton marvelously interweaves St. Barbara’s story with the account of the present battle, a poem within a poem. And he opens “a third window to heaven.” What happens? Read it and find out.
In addition to the St. Barbara poem, there are a few other poems written specifically for this collection, but most are reprints from the New Witness and were penned during and just after World War I. Chesterton pays honor to the fallen English soldiers, which is especially poignant, since one of the war’s casualties was his brother, Cecil. In contrast to the homage paid to the war dead, there is biting satire about the English politicians who “have no graves as yet.” But the poems about the honor of dying for one’s country are also contrasted by poems about the wonder of living, the unimaginable miracle of having a body, of having mornings and evenings, sunlight and starlight, “of the things that are and cannot be.” To the unthinking and unthinking modern world, Chesterton says, “I wonder at not wondering.”
There are also some great Distributist poems in this volume, expressing praise for the shire (Tolkien freaks, take note: he got it all from Chesterton) and contempt for the industrialized city, “built up with penny loaves/and penny lies as well.” The Servile State has seldom been rendered more poetically:
The robbers of the land
We have seen command
The rulers of the land obey.
The most stunning verse in this collection are the poems, “For Four Guilds.” Chesterton is at his lyrical best, with intricate phrasing, and image returning upon brilliant image, like the reflections within a prism, with an even brighter image beyond: the Glass-Stainers who weave with light; the Bridge-Builders who make roads fly; the Bell-Ringers who “draw the cords that draw the people,” and the Stonemasons who carve saints and gargoyles high on the cathedrals.
In the stone that battered him Stephen stands.
And Peter himself is petrified.
But the poem that stands higher than all the rest in this book is shortest one in it. It is also the most personal. This was Chesterton’s first book after his reception into the Catholic Church. And he describes that event in his poem, “The Convert.”
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.