Review: The Ballad of St. Barbara

There is an old legend of St. Barbara, patron saint of artillery and of those in danger of sudden death. And there are, I suppose, few better places to tell it than in the trenches of World War I.

The Ballad of St. Barbara is written in two parts, both verse, alternating the legend of St. Barbara with a story of the First Battle of Marne. As the English line was driven backward before the German guns, one Englishman spoke to another:

There was an end to Ilium; and an end came to Rome;
And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;
Arch after arch of triumph, but floor beyond falling floor,
That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.

And the other, a Breton, answered:

There are more windows in one house than there are eyes to see,
There are more doors in a man’s house, but God has hid the key:
Ruin is a builder of windows; her legend witnesseth
Barbara, the saint of gunners, and a stay in sudden death.

The verses that tell of Barbara have a simple, lyrical rhythm – four brief lines, the second rhyming with the fourth. The WWI verses are more complex, and not always easy to follow. Both are compellingly written, filled with wonderful phrases and evocative imagery.

“Her face was like a window / Where a man’s first love looked out” – a favorite Chesterton simile. “A seraph’s strong wing shaken out the shock of its unshuttering;” “Dark with the fate of a falling star;” Caesar’s  “iron armies wound like chains / Round and round the world.”

Chesterton connects and mixes the two halves of his poem with great skill, and each strengthens the meaning of the other. They join in fear, triumph, and courage – and in the opening of the third window, in the last name of God. (After Barbara had “riven roof and wall” to make a third window, her father asked, “Hath a man three eyes, Barbara, a bird three wings?” And the answer is no – but God has three names.)

There are those who would point out that even if she ever existed, Barbara is not the patron saint of gunners, or of anyone else. But if it’s historical facts you’re after, you won’t be reading poetry anyway. The Ballad of St. Barbara is beautiful, memorable, touching chords of the heart – as a poem should.

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