By Christopher Yoder  

On a hill in the Berkshire Downs in southern England, there is an enormous, abstract figure of a horse cut into chalk. The white lines of the chalk horse stand out sharply from the surrounding grassland. The White Horse of Uffington, as it is known, is very ancient. Its origins are shrouded in darkness, although archaeologists have dated it to the Bronze Age. It seems the White Horse was cut from the chalk some 3,000 years ago.

Now, the endurance of any artifact of human culture for three millennia is wondrous (perhaps especially from the perspective of a society, such as our own, in thrall to novelty). But what makes the perdurance of the White Horse over the centuries almost miraculous is that it depends entirely on active and persistent maintenance. If the White Horse were neglected, it would soon disappear under the teeming grasses. As it is, countless generations have carefully preserved the White Horse by keeping the weeds at bay. Today the National Trust oversees regular chalking days on which the White Horse is “chalked” or “scoured” to keep its elegant lines white and clear from weeds — just as has been done for three millennia. (See here for images of a contemporary chalking.)

The need to regularly scour the White Horse presents an evocative figure to the imagination. G.K. Chesterton exploited this potential to full effect in his powerful poem The Ballad of the White Horse (1911). In the poem, Chesterton places the image of the White Horse (and of its scouring) alongside the story of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and the Battle of Ethandun (Edington) in 878, in which King Alfred won a decisive victory against the invading Danes (Vikings). It is a generative juxtaposition, which Chesterton uses to illuminate the great themes of the poem: the nature of history, the human vocation, and, especially, the maintenance of a Christian culture in the face of pagan opposition. What follows is a series of brief reflections on several aspects of Chesterton’s poem.

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(Malcolm Guite, the English priest and poet, has given a wonderful reading of the whole of The Ballad of the White Horse, and shared the recordings on his website.)

Chesterton begins his ballad by emphasizing the ancientness of the White Horse. It “was cut out of grass” even “before the gods”: 

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

The White Horse looks on across the millennia, lying solid on the hills as the centuries march by, unmoved by the vicissitudes of human history. In contrast to the stability of the White Horse, the triumphs and the terrors of human history appear as dust in the wind. Indeed, in one of the most arresting phrases in the poem, Chesterton says that the White Horse has witnessed the end of the world:

He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

It seems to me, from context, that Chesterton is here referring to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which means the beginning of the new creation and, therefore, the end of the old order of things:

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Time is, as it were, folded around this central event of history, around this man, Jesus, who says “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). Christ, says, Pope Benedict, is “God’s new day.”[1]

Chesterton uses the antiquity of the White Horse to present a view of history very much in line with that of the prophet Isaiah, for whom “the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance” (Is. 40:15). If the White Horse looks on “peace and war in western hills” and beholds “the world end,” how much more the Lord?

All flesh is grass,
and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isa. 40:6, 8)

The White Horse points to a vision of history chastened of pride and humbled by “the shortness and uncertainty of human life,” as the prayer book puts it. It is, though, a deeply hopeful view of history, because it hinges on the belief that the resurrection of Jesus has already determined the end of history, that Christ has won the victory: “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” the Lord says, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Lord Jesus has conquered, and nothing — not even the darkest terrors and tragedies of history — will dim the light of Christ. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). For “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”

This brings us to “The Scouring of the Horse,” the perennial work of keeping the white lines of the Horse clear of weeds and grasses, and the title of the final section of Chesterton’s poem. The section opens “in the years of the peace of Wessex, / When the good King sat at home,” having seen off the Danes in the Battle of Ethandun. Then, when “Wessex lay in a patch of peace, / Like a dog in a patch of sun,” King Alfred’s court receives the news that the Danes have again come raiding. A young earl bitterly complains “that we be never quit of them,” linking the need to continually fend off invaders with the impossibility of avoiding the ravages of decay and time. King Alfred’s response is worth quoting at length:

Then Alfred smiled. And the smile of him
Was like the sun for power.
But he only pointed: bade them heed
Those peasants of the Berkshire breed,
Who plucked the old Horse of the weed
As they pluck it to this hour.

“Will ye part with the weeds for ever?
Or show daisies to the door?
Or will you bid the bold grass
Go, and return no more?

“So ceaseless and so secret
Thrive terror and theft set free;
Treason and shame shall come to pass
While one weed flowers in a morass;
And like the stillness of stiff grass
The stillness of tyranny.

“Over our white souls also
Wild heresies and high
Wave prouder than the plumes of grass,
And sadder than their sigh.

“And I go riding against the raid,
And ye know not where I am;
But ye shall know in a day or year,
When one green star of grass grows here;
Chaos has charged you, charger and spear,
Battle-axe and battering-ram.

“And though skies alter and empires melt,
This word shall still be true:
If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.

“One time I followed a dancing star
That seemed to sing and nod,
And ring upon earth all evil’s knell;
But now I wot if ye scour not well
Red rust shall grow on God’s great bell
And grass in the streets of God.”

For King Alfred, in this life, we will never be quit of enemies — enemies of our life, liberty, and estate; and enemies of our soul — and so, never free of the responsibility to stand firm, just as “the bold grass” continuously threatens to obscure the proper shape of the White Horse, demanding regular and repeated scouring. Chesterton’s Alfred has in mind several sorts of enemies, both of which threaten to obscure or obliterate the Christian culture of Wessex. Most obvious are the pagan Danes who are burning and pillaging the countryside. More insidious (and more dangerous by far) are the “wild heresies and high” which wave over “our white souls.” Both sorts of enemies call for constant vigilance if the priceless inheritance of a Christian identity is to be preserved.

If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.

It is possible to read the scouring of the White Horse in a more inward and spiritual manner. Notwithstanding the decisive victory Christ has won, until the Last Day, the forces of evil remain, dangerous, and the Christian must remain vigilant against their corrosive effects. In the classic prayer book baptismal liturgy, the newly baptized person is marked with the sign of the cross, “in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.” The scouring of the Horse serves a metaphor for the Christian vocation continually to fight spiritually “against sin, the world, and the devil,” actively resisting evil in its manifold forms. As the Scripture says,

Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph. 6:10-13)

Chesterton’s reading of the scouring of the White Horse has given me a renewed vision for the task of the Christian today, and I hope it does something of the same for you, too.

[Quote]If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.[/end]


[1] Benedict XVI, Homily for Holy Saturday, 2012.

About The Author

The Rev. Christopher Yoder serves as rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.

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