Book ReviewsSwords about the Cross

Lepanto, by G.K. Chesterton
With Explanatory Notes and Commentary
Edited by Dale Ahlquist (American Chesterton Society, Minneapolis, 2003)
$11.95 at <>

“People who cannot see the value of Lepanto are half dead. Let them remain so.”
    -Hilaire Belloc

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:

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
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:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
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.

But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
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.
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the slivers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria has set his people free!

Indeed, he did. On that October day in 1571, Don John’s victory set free thousands of slaves. The galleys of both sides used slaves as rowers. The Holy League had promised its slaves, mostly convicts, freedom in the event of victory. As the battle began, they were unshackled from the rowing benches and armed to take part in the fighting. But the Turks offered their Christian slaves chained below decks no more incentive than the fear of a watery death. So desperate were these men for freedom that, at the sound of the great war-cry that went up from Don John’s ships, some managed to tear their shackles free and whip their captors with their chains.

The 143 lines of this miniature epic close with a most interesting miniature. Miguel de Cervantes, who would later write Don Quixote, actually fought and was wounded at Lepanto. Chesterton envisions him aboard a victorious galley, setting his sword back in his sheath,

And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade ….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

So what are we to make of all this in our effeminized and pacifist age? What are we to think of a Pope who organizes a war fleet and prays for its victory and is, nevertheless, a champion of the Rosary and a canonized saint? What do we think of an admiral who requires that Mass be said on each of his ships before battle is joined, who issues a rosary to each fighting man, and who sends boarding parties led by Capuchin monks charging onto his enemies’ ships? What do we think of a poet who glories in all this carnage and unabashedly call it a “Crusade?” Are our times so different from theirs that we can no longer understand them? Do we know so much more about this world and the next that we can dismiss them as ignorant, morally inferior or bigoted?

The American Chesterton Society’s edition of Lepanto includes the full text of the poem, detailed notes which explain all of its references and allusions, four essays on the history of the battle and of the poem, and two ingenious essays on related topics by Chesterton himself. There is more than enough here to help you ponder the answers to my questions and perhaps even some of your own.

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