National Catholic Register

Education

Weekly Book Pick

Pivotal Battle, Beautiful Poem

BY Stephen Vincent

September 19-25, 2004 Issue | Posted 9/19/04 at 12:00 PM

 

LEPANTO

by G.K. Chesterton

edited by Dale Ahlquist Ignatius, 2003 124 pages, $10.95

To order: (800) 651-1531 or http://www.ignatius.com

This poem, written in 1911 about a largely unknown 16th-century sea battle, speaks directly to the situation of the world today. Decision-makers in the Department of Defense should read it. Soldiers on the front lines in Iraq should memorize it. It should be printed on op-ed pages, and passages should be quoted from the pulpit. Every voter would do well to consider its message before going to the polls.

This is Chesterton's “Lepanto,” a triumph of the English language about a triumph that may have saved that language itself and, in the process, all of Western civilization. In the waters off Greece, in October 1571, a fleet of Christians from a divided Europe faced a larger and more storied fleet of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Led by young Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Spain's Charles V and half-brother of the reigning Philip II, the Christian ships “burst the battle line,” as Chesterton writes, to crush the Turks and reclaim the Mediterranean and historical momentum for the West. It was an epic battle that marked the decline of Ottoman power — yet, if people beyond history buffs know of it today, it is likely because they've heard of Pope St. Pius V's mystical vision of victory while praying the rosary. (The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, Oct. 7, comes from this battle.) The poem itself is almost entirely unknown, even among English-literature majors.

This is more than a shame, writes Dale Ahlquist, editor of this slim volume and president of the American Chesterton Society. Hailing the poem's style, wit and heroic theme, Ahlquist writes, “It should be in every anthology of English literature and part of the standard syllabus in every class of English 101.” Yet the poem “suffers in obscurity because of a combined prejudice against rhyme and meter, against Catholicism, and against G.K. Chesterton.” He also notes an allergic reaction among academics to a poem celebrating war.

In 143 galloping lines, Chesterton sets the stage of the world at the time, with the Pope calling for arms against the Muslim foe. Christian Europe is deeply divided by Protestantism and internecine intrigue, and Sultan Selim II smiles at the prospect of overrunning the West, as Mohammed (or “Mahound,” as Chesterton calls him) guides the galleys from his place in Muslim paradise. The poem does not shrink from blood or the glory of war, and states that God takes sides, as the Holy League raises the cross against the crescent.

Ahlquist reports that “Lepanto” was first published in the Oct. 12, 1911, edition of The Eye-Witness, whose editor, Hilaire Belloc, would say later that the poem “is not only the summit of Chesterton's achievement in verse but in all our generation.” Surprisingly, Chesterton wrote it before he became a Catholic.

The book includes essays by three academics and a retired U.S. Army colonel, who outline the poem's historical background and its significance for our post-9/11 world. Perhaps the people of the West, facing implacable radical Muslims, are ready to read this poem anew.

A further treat for Chesterton fans are two essays, presumably included to flesh out the book to a presentable length, “The True Romance” and the intriguingly titled “If Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots.”

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.