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A Chesterton Poem For Labor Day

Saint Joseph and Christ
King Alfred was but a meagre man,
          Bright eyed, but lean and pale:
          And swordless, with his harp and rags,
          He seemed a beggar, such as lags
          Looking for crusts and ale.

          And the woman, with a woman’s eyes
          Of pity at once and ire,
          Said, when that she had glared a span,
          “There is a cake for any man
          If he will watch the fire.”

          And Alfred, bowing heavily,
          Sat down the fire to stir,
          And even as the woman pitied him
          So did he pity her.

          Saying, “O great heart in the night,
          O best cast forth for worst,
          Twilight shall melt and morning stir,
          And no kind thing shall come to her,
          Till God shall turn the world over
          And all the last are first.

          “And well may God with the serving-folk
          Cast in His dreadful lot;
          Is not He too a servant,
          And is not He forgot?

          “For was not God my gardener
          And silent like a slave;
          That opened oaks on the uplands
          Or thicket in graveyard gave?

          “And was not God my armourer,
          All patient and unpaid,
          That sealed my skull as a helmet,
          And ribs for hauberk made?

          “Did not a great grey servant
          Of all my sires and me,
          Build this pavilion of the pines,
          And herd the fowls and fill the vines,
          And labour and pass and leave no signs
          Save mercy and mystery?

          “For God is a great servant,
          And rose before the day,
          From some primordial slumber torn;
          But all we living later born
          Sleep on, and rise after the morn,
          And the Lord has gone away.

          “On things half sprung from sleeping,
          All sleepy suns have shone,
          They stretch stiff arms, the yawning trees,
          The beasts blink upon hands and knees,
          Man is awake and does and sees—
          But Heaven has done and gone.

          “For who shall guess the good riddle
          Or speak of the Holiest,
          Save in faint figures and failing words,
          Who loves, yet laughs among the swords,
          Labours, and is at rest?

          “But some see God like Guthrum,
          Crowned, with a great beard curled,
          But I see God like a good giant,
          That, labouring, lifts the world.

          “Wherefore was God in Golgotha,
          Slain as a serf is slain;
          And hate He had of prince and peer,
          And love He had and made good cheer,
          Of them that, like this woman here,
          Go powerfully in pain.

GK Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

4 Comments

  1. In watching the fire King Alfred reflected on servitude and the greatness of God’s love for mankind. The exchange of pity between the two reminds me of the widow’s offering at the Temple.
    Giving her all.
    God giving His All.

    May we tend the fire also. May we be worthy of the fire that stirs us to serving others in Jesus’ name.

  2. “And even as the woman pitied him So did he pity her”
    It is the reciprocity, the invisible but felt connectedness that touches me.

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