“Brothers at arms,” said Alfred,
“On this side lies the foe;
Are slavery and starvation flowers,
That you should pluck them so?
“For whether is it better
To be prodded with Danish poles,
Having hewn a chamber in a ditch,
And hounded like a howling witch,
Or smoked to death in holes?
“Or that before the red cock crow
All we, a thousand strong,
Go down the dark road to God’s house,
Singing a Wessex song?
“To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,
To drink up infamy?
No, brothers, by your leave, I think
Death is a better ale to drink,
And by all the stars of Christ that sink,
The Danes shall drink with me.
“To grow old cowed in a conquered land,
With the sun itself discrowned,
To see trees crouch and cattle slink—
Death is a better ale to drink,
And by high Death on the fell brink
That flagon shall go round.
“Though dead are all the paladins
Whom glory had in ken,
Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
With proud hearts died among the Danes,
While a man remains, great war remains:
Now is a war of men.
“The men that tear the furrows,
The men that fell the trees,
When all their lords be lost and dead
The bondsmen of the earth shall tread
The tyrants of the seas.
“The wheel of the roaring stillness
Of all labours under the sun,
Speed the wild work as well at least
As the whole world’s work is done.
“Let Hildred hack the shield-wall
Clean as he hacks the hedge;
Let Gurth the fowler stand as cool
As he stands on the chasm’s edge;
“Let Gorlias ride the sea-kings
As Gorlias rides the sea,
Then let all hell and Denmark drive,
Yelling to all its fiends alive,
And not a rag care we.”
When Alfred’s word was ended
Stood firm that feeble line,
Each in his place with club or spear,
And fury deeper than deep fear,
And smiles as sour as brine.
And the King held up the horn and said,
“See ye my father’s horn,
That Egbert blew in his empery,
Once, when he rode out commonly,
Twice when he rode for venery,
And thrice on the battle-morn.
“But heavier fates have fallen
The horn of the Wessex kings,
And I blew once, the riding sign,
To call you to the fighting line
And glory and all good things.
“And now two blasts, the hunting sign,
Because we turn to bay;
But I will not blow the three blasts,
Till we be lost or they.
“And now I blow the hunting sign,
Charge some by rule and rod;
But when I blow the battle sign,
Charge all and go to God.”
– Alfred’s battle speech
“When all philosophies shall fail,
This word alone shall fit;
That a sage feels too small for life,
And a fool too large for it.
“Asia and all imperial plains
Are too little for a fool;
But for one man whose eyes can see
The little island of Athelney
Is too large a land to rule.
“Haply it had been better
When I built my fortress there,
Out in the reedy waters wide,
I had stood on my mud wall and cried:
‘Take England all, from tide to tide—
Be Athelney my share.’
“Those madmen of the throne-scramble—
Oppressors and oppressed—
Had lined the banks by Athelney,
And waved and wailed unceasingly,
Where the river turned to the broad sea,
By an island of the blest.
“An island like a little book
Full of a hundred tales,
Like the gilt page the good monks pen,
That is all smaller than a wren,
Yet hath high towns, meteors, and men,
And suns and spouting whales;
“A land having a light on it
In the river dark and fast,
An isle with utter clearness lit,
Because a saint had stood in it;
Where flowers are flowers indeed and fit,
And trees are trees at last.
“So were the island of a saint;
But I am a common king,
And I will make my fences tough
From Wantage Town to Plymouth Bluff,
Because I am not wise enough
To rule so small a thing.”
– Alfred in the Orchard
But dark and thick as thronged the host,
With drum and torch and blade,
The still-eyed King sat pondering,
As one that watches a live thing,
The scoured chalk; and he said,
“Though I give this land to Our Lady,
That helped me in Athelney,
Though lordlier trees and lustier sod
And happier hills hath no flesh trod
Than the garden of the Mother of God
Between Thames side and the sea,
“I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
“They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
“Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.
“They shall come mild as monkish clerks,
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans still were men.
“The dear sun dwarfed of dreadful suns,
Like fiercer flowers on stalk,
Earth lost and little like a pea
In high heaven’s towering forestry,
—These be the small weeds ye shall see
Crawl, covering the chalk.
“But though they bridge St. Mary’s sea,
Or steal St. Michael’s wing—
Though they rear marvels over us,
Greater than great Vergilius
Wrought for the Roman king;
“By this sign you shall know them,
The breaking of the sword,
And man no more a free knight,
That loves or hates his lord.
“Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And Man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.
“What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them,
That they ruin and make dark;
“By all men bond to Nothing,
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed,
Too blind to be abhorred;
“By terror and the cruel tales
Of curse in bone and kin,
By weird and weakness winning,
Accursed from the beginning,
By detail of the sinning,
And denial of the sin;
“By thought a crawling ruin,
By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
And the end of the world’s desire;
“By God and man dishonoured,
By death and life made vain,
Know ye the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again—
“When is great talk of trend and tide,
And wisdom and destiny,
Hail that undying heathen
That is sadder than the sea.
“In what wise men shall smite him,
Or the Cross stand up again,
Or charity or chivalry,
My vision saith not; and I see
No more; but now ride doubtfully
To the battle of the plain.”