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.

A Poem and its Parody

Years ago, while reading through an old volume of G. K. Chesterton poetry, I came across this poem:


(With apologies to a Beautiful Poem)

ABOU BEN ADHEM (may his tribe decrease
By cautious birth-control and die in peace)
Mellow with learning lightly took the word
That marked him not with them that love the Lord,
And told the angel of the book and pen
“Write me as one that loves his fellow-men:
For them alone I labour; to reclaim
The ragged roaming Bedouin and to tame

To ordered service; to uproot their vine
Who mock the Prophet, being mad with wine,
Let daylight through their tents and through their lives,
Number their camels, even count their wives;
Plot out the desert into streets and squares,
And count it a more fruitful work than theirs
Who lift a vain and visionary love
To your vague Allah in the skies above.”

Gently replied the angel of the pen:
“Labour in peace and love your fellow-men:
And love not God, since men alone are dear,
Only fear God; for you have Cause to fear.”

I wondered about that apology; later I found that “The Philanthropist” is based off a famous poem by Leigh Hunt called “Abou Ben Adhem”. A Book of Treasured Poems, published in 1928, features Hunt’s poem (but not Chesterton’s, go figure):


Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:-

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ – The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’

‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names who love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

With my own apologies to the beautiful poem, I have to say I like the parody better. Over at Chesterton and Friends, “The Philanthropist” is posted with some interesting thoughts.

The Pardon of Christmas

Here is a Christmas poem by G. K. Chesterton. Comments at the end.

The Pardon of Christmas

Roofed in with the snows of December

It returns, it is left to us yet

    A day: with one day to remember.

    A day: with long days to forget.

Undeterred, recurring, soft-footed

It comes down o’er the world, as today,

To the work, unfulfilled, uncompleted,

The house where the builders delay.

It sinks from the stars and sits throned

On the roofs, as the angel of snow,

Watching pale, as the prophets are stoned

With the stones that were red long ago.

Though our evangel hedges and palters,

Though the earth-land be rooted in hate,

Though Caiaphas stand at our altar

And Lazarus gasp at our gate.

Though the gold still clings for our cursing,

It returns: it remains to us yet

    A day, with one day to remember,

    A day with dark days to forget.

To forget eighteen centuries wasted

Thick squandered in madness and guilt,

With the wine of love standing half-tasted,

The city of promise half-built.

Join hands. Still we surely may gain it.

The King does redeem and renew.

O kings ye have lauded and slain it!

Ye have failed Him: and have we been true?

Ye have shackled and guarded the door,

Ye have hoarded the key in your grips.

Ye have taken the hope from the poor

And the word of God from his lips.

Ye have spat on and stricken the meek,

Ye have fenced in and rented his way.

Ye are red with the blood of the weak—

Join hands; join hands for today.

Though church councils betray and out-vote Him;

Though His little ones gasp for our gain;

Though the rich, that cried “traitor” and smote Him

Cry “Holy”, and smite Him again.

We have all done the sin: we have spoiled Him,

Thorn-crowned Him, and mocked and defiled,

Join hands, join hands—do it softly,

To-night He is glad, and a child.

I know this is a somber poem for a merry season. Yet I think that Christmas is both more serious and more joyful than we usually remember. It is the terribleness of the world, of our own sin, that makes Jesus’ coming so inexpressibly wonderful. The first Christmas is far away, but its promise, and our need, could not be closer. Christmas doesn’t come in spite of our failures and sins; it comes because of them. That our Savior is born is old news, but it is as good and joyful as on the day the angel proclaimed it.