Jun 19, 2006
With Explanatory Notes and Commentary
Edited by Dale Ahlquist (American Chesterton Society, Minneapolis, 2003)
$11.95 at www.chesterton.org <http://www.chesterton.org>
“People who cannot see the value of Lepanto are half dead. Let them remain so.”
Befittingly enough, G.K. Chesterton wrote his greatest poem, Lepanto, on October 7, 1911, the 340th anniversary of that great battle. He finished it under the pressure of an editor’s deadline as the mailman waited impatiently at his door. Both the poem and the battle were close-run things.
The battle occurred in 1571 between the fleet of the Holy League (Spain, Venice and the Papal States, with recruits from Genoa and Portugal) and the much larger fleet of the Ottoman sultan, Selim II. Selim had just completed the conquest of the isle of Cyprus, formerly an important possession of Venice, and was threatening Europe with invasion by both land and sea. He had concentrated his navy in the Gulf of Patras on the western coast of Greece, in the harbor of the town of Lepanto (present-day Naupaktos). From there, it raided Venetian islands to the north in the Adriatic Sea. His target was Italy and Rome, which his plundering soldiery had greedily nicknamed “the Red Apple.” Under Pope Pius V’s hand-picked commander, Don John of Austria, bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor and half-brother of the King of Spain, the Christian fleet sailed into the Gulf and unexpectedly, even miraculously, smashed the Turkish fleet. In one day of ferocious combat, the outnumbered Christians sank over 200 Turkish ships and killed 30,000 Turks.
While the battle still raged, far away in the Vatican gardens in Rome, Pius V was praying to the Mother of God for his fleet’s success. As the tide of battle turned in favor of the Holy League, the Pope simultaneously had a vision of the victory. He ascribed it to the intercession of the Virgin and, in thanksgiving, subsequently declared October 7th to be the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary. It remains so to this day. The Turks, who had overrun Constantinople and there raised their minarets around the second greatest church in Christendom, the Hagia Sophia, began their long decline. Europe, delivered from the threat of Islam, was left at liberty to tear itself to pieces in the internecine strifes of the Reformation, Enlightenment and Modernity. No one raised minarets around St. Peter’s, at least not until our own lifetimes.
In commemoration, Chesterton begins:
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
Turning from the evil “crescent” grin on Selim’s “blood-red” lips, Chesterton describes how the Pope’s pleas for “swords about the Cross” fell upon the deaf ears of Christian monarchs: “cold” Elizabeth of England, “yawning” Charles of France, and Philip of Spain, preoccupied with his New World adventures. Then the poet’s mood abruptly shifts and, in the rhythym of his words, we hear the beat of drums and the tramping of feet:
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
The scene shifts abruptly again. In language for which our bloodless leaders would apologize today, Chesterton describes “Mahound” - that is, Mohammed - in his “paradise,” summoning up dark angels, genii and giants to the aid of the Turk. For Mohammed knows what is coming out of the West.
The voice that shook our palaces - four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.
Here, Chesterton anticipates those who translate “Islam” as “peace” by equating “peace” with “submission,” which is the literal meaning of “Islam.” But Chesterton submits that the submission required by Islam is not submission to the will of God, but submission to the conqueror’s foot. The “peace” his Mohammed offers is that of the down-trodden.
In rapid succession, he shifts the scene to the north of Europe, where the Protestant powers ignore the deadly danger posed by the Sultan’s fleet; to Spain, whose King Philip hesitates, fearful and sickly, jealous of his half-brother; to the Pope at prayer; to the “countless, voiceless, hopeless” Christian slaves, chained to the oars of the Turkish galleys; and, at last, to the triumphant figure of Don John.