The tradition of English historical epic is neither rich nor fashionable. After the eternal, and occasionally infernal, rhyming pairs of Dryden and Pope, the once admired heroic couplet can often feel rather forced or at worst, slightly schoolboy. All this only makes Chesterton’s achievement worthier of praise. For, with a combination of wit and metric mastery, he creates a poem free from unsustainable seriousness, the bane of epic, and yet still capable of soulful sincerity. It is a rallying cry for nobility and heroism, for the man who will do his duty; Don John of Austria, who begins a ‘crownless prince’ on a ‘nameless throne’, finishes an epic hero, elevated by his feats and by the medium to stride with Achilles and Aeneas.
The poem sets the scene for the battle of Lepanto of 1571. The battle was one of those mythic clashes of East and West which started with Charles Martel’s victory at Tours in 732 and ended when the Ottomans were repulsed from the walls of Vienna for the second and final time in 1683. While the historical significance of the battle has been much debated and revised, its cultural importance is undeniable: coinciding with the calamity of Reformation, it has come to represent the last hurrah for the united European ideal at the heart of Roman Catholicism – united by ‘swords about the Cross’. As such, the poem swirls around a series of dichotomies generated by this historical milieu: East and West, duty and cowardice, the worldly and the divine.
Of these, by far the greatest is between Orient and Occident. This tension gives rise to the poem’s apogee, the truly extraordinary description of the Sultan mustering his forces in the second stanza. The East is the embodiment of mystery, magic and darkness: Mahound resides above the ‘evening star’ and when he walks ‘among the tree-tops’ he is ‘taller than the trees’. So with all eastern despots he has become a demi-god. As if he were Zeus, his voice is ‘thunder’. As if Jehovah, those reverberations can summon the archangels ‘Black Azrael and Ariel’. As if a Pharaoh’s sorcerer, he can call ‘Ammon on the wing’. As if some god-forsaken Pagan deity, his followers are ‘Giants’ and ‘Genii’ – those ancient beasts who ‘broke the sky / When Solomon was king’. Next, every evil spirit or demon is beckoned to his side from the bleakest heights of the ‘red clouds’, from the blackest depths of the ‘green hells of the sea’ and from long-forgotten ‘blue cracks’ in the ground. Out of these primary colours are birthed beings characterised solely by their colour: ‘red and purple’, ‘green’ and ‘sapphire’. ‘They’ (repeated thrice) are far too awful to be named; ‘They’ are so repulsive that the ‘yellow gods’ cannot look at them and ‘shut up their eyes in scorn’. These are the armies of the East, just as Virgil scornfully derided the ‘variis armiis’ of Cleopatra in the Aeneid. All come together to his ‘timeless’ knees, the image of the conjurer and summoner and mystic, whose turban is woven of the ‘sunset and the seas’. So the crescendo: ‘they gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound’. Here, he becomes a Xerxes whipping the sea, the height of all hubris, commanding his men: ‘Break up the mountains where the hermit folk can hide, / And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide’. Even the monuments of nature dare not stand in his way: ‘mountains’ must be reduced to ‘sand’. Yet, this moment of apparent magnitude simultaneously reveals his weakness. The foes, which he fears so greatly, are the bedraggled and poverty ridden hermits, those tattered-clothed followers of St Antony. It is they who have the power over him, as if an elephant driven to distraction by a single fly. Perhaps here some sort of moral message can be drawn out: the antidote to tyranny is humble and dedicated faith.
But the artistry of this stanza is not only set in skin-deep imagery. Rather, Chesterton’s command of metre can also be best exemplified here. The poem is written predominantly in paeonics, a classical metre traditionally reserved for hymns to Apollo. Roughly speaking, this consists of feet which contain one long and three short syllables. Chesterton does not adhere strictly to this scheme but varies it to perfect effect. To take examples, for the crescendo he produces the ideal paeonic line:
u – u u / u – u u / u – u u / u –
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
But in the following line he begins paeonically, before switching to iambics and remaining with them for the duration of the couplet:
u u – u / – u / u – / u – / u – / u – / u –
And he saith: ‘Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
u – / u – / u – / u – / u – / u – / u –
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide.’
In these lines the shift in metre serves to change the tone of the narrative. In particular, by moving to iambics he successfully mimics the rhythm of speech within the framework of the poem. Moreover, Chesterton’s use of metre must be considered in its generic context. Epic poetry has grown out of an oral tradition. As such, the poet who writes epic must be far more conscious of how his verse sounds out loud. Hence, the need to write in such an impactful and pronounced metrical manner, which seems to almost replicate the gentle strumming of the lyre of the Homeric bard.