Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The Ballad of St. Barbara

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When the long grey lines came flooding upon Paris in the plain,
We stood and drank of the last free air we never could love again;
They had led us back from a lost battle, to halt we knew not where,
And stilled us; and our gaping guns were dumb with our despair.
The grey tribes flowed for ever from the infinite lifeless lands,
And a Norman to a Breton spoke, his chin upon his hands:

"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."

The Breton to the Norman spoke, like a little child spake he,
But his sea-blue eyes were empty as his home beside the sea:
"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."

It seemed the wheel of the worlds stood still an instant in its turning,
More than the kings of the earth that turned with the turning of Valmy mill,
While trickled the idle tale and the sea-blue eyes were burning,
Still as the heart of a whirlwind, the heart of the world stood still.

"Barbara the beautiful had praise of lute and pen,
Her hair was like a summer night, dark and desired of men,
Her feet like birds from far away that linger and light in doubt,
And her face was like a window where a man's first love looked out.

"Her sire was master of many slaves, a hard man of his hands;
They built a tower about her in the desolate golden lands,
Sealed as the tyrants sealed their tombs, planned with an ancient plan,
And set two windows in the tower, like the two eyes of a man."

Our guns were set towards the foe; we had no word for firing;
Grey in the gateways of St. Gond the Guard of the tyrant shone;
Dark with the fate of a falling star, retiring and retiring,
The Breton line went backwards and the Breton tale went on.

"Her father had sailed across the sea from the harbour of Africa,
When all the slaves took up their tools for the bidding of Barbara;
She smote the bare wall with her hand, and bade them smite again,
She poured them wealth of wine and meat to stay them in their pain,
And cried through the lifted thunder of thronging hammer and hod:
'Throw open the third window in the third name of God!'
Then the hearts failed and the tools fell; and far towards the foam
Men saw a shadow on the sands; and her father coming home."

Speak low and low, along the line the whispered word is flying,
Before the touch, before the time, we may not lose a breath.
Their guns must mash us to the mire and there be no replying
Till the hand is raised to fling us for the final dice to Death.

"'There were two windows in your tower, Barbara, Barbara,
For all between the sun and moon in the lands of Africa.
Hath a man three eyes, Barbara, a bird three wings,
That you have riven roof and wall to look upon vain things?'
Her voice was like a wandering thing that falters, yet is free,
Whose soul has drunk in a distant land of the rivers of liberty.

There are more wings than the wind knows, or eyes than see the sun,
In the light of the lost window and the wind of the doors undone;
For out of the first lattice are the red lands that break
And out of the second lattice, sea like a green snake,
But out of the third lattice, under low eaves like wings
Is a new corner of the sky and the other side of things.'"

It opened in the inmost place an instant beyond uttering,
A casement and a chasm and a thunder of doors undone,
A seraph's strong wing shaken out the shock of its unshuttering
That split the shattered sunlight from a light behind the sun.

"Then he drew sword and drave her where the judges sat and said:
'Cæsar sits above the Gods, Barbara the maid,
Cæsar hath made a treaty with the moon and with the sun
All the gods that men can praise, praise him every one.
There is peace with the anointed of the scarlet oils of Bel,
With the Fish God, where the whirlpool is a winding stair to hell,
With the pathless pyramids of slime, where the mitred negro lifts
To his black cherub in the cloud abominable gifts,
With the leprous silver cities where the dumb priests dance and nod,
But not with the three windows and the last name of God.'"

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us ...
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath —
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

"Barbara, the beautiful, stood up as a queen set free.
Whose mouth is set to a terrible cup and the trumpet of liberty;
'I have looked forth from a window that no man now shall bar,
Cæsar's toppling battle towers shall never stretch so far;
The slaves are dancing in their chains, the child laughs at the rod,
Because of the bird of the three wings, and the third face of God.'
The sword upon his shoulder shifted and shone and fell,
And Barbara lay very small and crumpled like a shell."

What wall upon what hinges turned stands open like a door?
Too simple for the sight of faith, too huge for human eyes,
What light upon what ancient way shines to a far off floor,
The line of the lost land of France or the plains of Paradise?

"Cæsar smiled above the gods, his lip of stone was curled,
His iron armies wound like chains round and round the world.
And the strong slayer of his own that cut down flesh for grass,
Smiled, too, and went to his own tower like a walking tower of brass,
And the songs ceased and the slaves were dumb: and far towards the foam
Men saw a shadow on the sands; and her father coming home....

"Blood of his blood upon the sword stood red but never dry,
He wiped it slowly, till the blade was blue as the blue sky:
But the blue sky split with a thunder-crack, spat down a blinding brand,
And all of him lay back and flat as his shadow on the sand."

The touch and the tornado; all our guns give tongue together,
St. Barbara for the gunnery and God defend the right —
They are stopped and gapped and battered as we blast away the weather,
Building window upon window to our lady of the light;
For the light is come on Liberty, her foes are falling, falling,
They are reeling, they are running, as the shameful years have run,
She is risen for all the humble, she has heard the conquered calling,
St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun.

They are burst asunder in the midst that eat of their own flatteries,
Whose lip is curled to order as its barbered hair is curled ...
— Blast of the beauty of sudden death, St. Barbara of the batteries!
That blew the new white window in the wall of all the world.

For the hand is raised behind us, and the bolt smites hard
Through the rending of the doorways, through the death-gap of the Guard,
For the shout of the Three Colours is in Condé and beyond,
And the Guard is flung for carrion in the graveyard of St. Gond;
Through Mondemont and out of it, through Morin marsh and on,
With earthquake of salutation the impossible thing is gone;
Gaul, charioted and charging, great Gaul upon a gun,
Tiptoe on all her thousand years, and trumpeting to the sun,
As day returns, as death returns, swung backward for a span,
Back on the barbarous reign returns the battering-ram of Man.

While that the east held hard and hot like pincers in a forge,
Came like the west wind roaring up the cannon of St. George,
Where the hunt is up and racing over stream and swamp and tarn,
And their batteries, black with battle, hold the bridge-heads of the Marne;
And across the carnage of the Guard by Paris in the plain
The Normans to the Bretons cried; and the Bretons cheered again;
But he that told the tale went home to his house beside the sea
And burned before St. Barbara, the light of the windows three.
Three candles for an unknown thing, never to come again,
That opened like the eye of God on Paris in the plain.

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton