Chesterton was one of the dominating figures of the London literary scene in the early 20th century. Not only did he get into lively discussions with anyone who would debate him, including his friend, frequent verbal sparring partner, and noted Irish playwright George Bernard Prose Home Harriet Blog. Visit Home Events Exhibitions Library. Newsletter Subscribe Give. Poetry Foundation.
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All of Europe rejoiced at the time, even the Christian states that refused help. Now, among the shards and remnants of that civilization which is called the West and extends far beyond Europe, the doubtful heirs reflect upon this event in more diverse and more ambiguous ways. The predominant mode is to ignore it, in the modern sense of acknowledging it on Wikipedia and then rejecting its importance, hand-waving away its unexpectedness, and belittling the idea that Our Lady of the Rosary had anything to do with it.
Another approach takes the event seriously as a landmark in the history of warfare, of economics, and of the West, but still leaves Our Lady out in their attempts at explanation. And finally, there are those who see it as a miracle, and miracles always imply the involvement of our Lady, because she is the greatest miracle of all. It does not belittle the importance of the battle. It does not ignore the supernatural. But it stands, so to speak, on the threshold of an acknowledgement of Our Lady; it is a poem about an unexplainable event brought to flower by an untimely knight.
It pauses at the unlooked-for, brilliant wonder of the event and does not proceed further. But this wonder is an important and necessary step in itself.
It is the kind of wonder that, once arrived at, can only lead to reverence for Our Lady. It is a tribute to knightliness, and a knight means nothing without his lady fair.
It might be helpful to talk about the battle of Lepanto in a broader historical context before discussing the poem itself, if only because the battle must be seen as a real crisis for Europe even to a non-Christian who investigates the event honestly. It is a battle that comprises not only endings but also beginnings. Not all that ended was evil nor all that came out of it good, and appreciating the complexity surrounding the event should not dull but sharpen the appetite for the cosmic drama that it was in essence.
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.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy, They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea, And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss, And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross…. Waged between the Venetian-Spanish Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, the battle of Lepanto was one of the last major encounters between galleys in history and heralded a less chivalric age in naval warfare.
After this, sea battles would be decided more on the basis of sails and cannons rather than rowers and ramming. To oppose both the elite Turkish janissaries think Turkish Navy Seals and the poorly armed masses who manned the Turkish galleys, the Christians were armed with guns produced cheaply and in large quantities. Here one can move on to more uplifting contrasts. For while the whole Turkish army was an army of slaves even Ali Pasha, the admiral of the fleet, was technically the slave of the Sultan , the Christian navy was mostly composed of free men, many of whom had relatives who had been captured or enslaved by the Turks and who were therefore fighting for their freedom as well as for the Cross.
All this, however, is ultimately beside the point; anything looks possible after it is accomplished, but no one could have predicted what would happen before the battle of Lepanto began. The Christians were outnumbered in ships and in men. Their coalition, consisting of a handful of vessels from the Spanish navy, the double-dealing Venetians who would remake their alliance with the Turks two years hence, and the small Papal armada, was fraught with mutual suspicion.
They were up against a Turkish navy that was undefeated in recent history. Material, economic, and social situations can explain why the battle became a rout, but there is no explanation for the initial daring that led up to it. This is not by accident. Chesterton is focused on knight and Cross. Chesterton knew that the greatest test of the knight is his preparation for battle—his watching, praying, and suffering—before, and not in the actual contest itself.
Even with battle joined, Chesterton pays the service of only a few but powerful lines to the progress of the fighting before turning his attention to the freeing of the Christian galley-slaves.
This poem is about freedom after all: freedom versus fatalism, the freedom of the knight, the freedom of the Christian, and the freedom of the Christian knight to fight for the Cross. And this is as far as Chesterton takes us in this poem. One might suggest that it is because he writes this poem when not yet a Catholic. One might also suggest that he is imitating the knight himself, laboring and fighting to quietly, respectfully, and unobtrusively lay a great conquest at the foot of the woman who stands at the foot of the Cross.
Can such an interpretation really be amiss? Though the prayer is not mentioned in the poem, the relevance of the Rosary of Our Lady to its main themes and to the actual event warrants some mention. Pius V had recommended the Rosary to the whole Catholic world as the battle approached, and the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted to thank her for victory.
Considering the poem, the harmony between it and the Rosary is striking and perhaps not coincidental. The Rosary is a most knightly prayer: a persistent prayer, a persevering prayer, the prayer most associated with spiritual warfare, and a prayer that can be said on horseback, on deck, or in battle if need be.
Taking up the Rosary is taking up the Cross, and taking up the Cross is to crusade. The battle of Lepanto was indeed the last crusade. What does Chesterton, then, hope to achieve by writing about a lost cause? Chesterton wrote about Lepanto not only because it was a last crusade, but also because every crusade is the last crusade.
He encourages us to prepare for the last crusade of our own lives. When the Carmelite nuns faced their last crusade at the scaffold during the Reign of Terror, they, like Don John, braved death singing.
Tagged as Battle of Lepanto , G. Chesterton , Poetry. Paul Joseph Prezzia received his M. He now teaches at Gregory the Great Academy and lives in Scranton with his wife and child.
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Why You Should Read G.K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto” Today
Lepanto is a poem by G. Chesterton celebrating the victory of the Holy League in the Battle of Lepanto written in irregular stanzas of rhyming, roughly paeonic tetrameter couplets , often ending in a quatrain of four dimeter lines. The poem was written in and its stirring verses helped inspire soldiers such as John Buchan during World War I. Literary critic Joseph John Reilly described the poem as perfect: "Here Chesterton's vision of life is fulfilled and justified; here the mighty virtues of his world are made glorious anew in the immortal heroism of common men. In Lepanto , Chesterton reveals all his poetic gifts at their best: rhetoric in the high sense which De Quincey defined it; music almost as rich as Tennyson 's, varied by a chant in which the tread of marching men lives again; color varied and brilliant with the splendor of the East.
Lepanto: With Explanatory Notes and Commentary
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Last Crusade Calling Lost Christendom to War! “Lepanto” by G.K. Chesterton
The tradition of English historical epic is neither rich nor fashionable. After the eternal, and occasionally infernal, rhyming pairs of Dryden and Pope, the once admired heroic couplet can often feel rather forced or at worst, slightly schoolboy. For, with a combination of wit and metric mastery, he creates a poem free from unsustainable seriousness, the bane of epic, and yet still capable of soulful sincerity. The poem sets the scene for the battle of Lepanto of As such, the poem swirls around a series of dichotomies generated by this historical milieu: East and West, duty and cowardice, the worldly and the divine. Of these, by far the greatest is between Orient and Occident.
Poem of the Week: ‘Lepanto’ by G.K. Chesterton
Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary , which was commissioned after the pivotal Battle of Lepanto on October 7, , a key turning point in the history of the world. Muslim forces were threatening to attack both Venice and Rome, which would likely have led to the collapse of Christian Europe. If the Islamic forces had won and most people thought they would our world today would likely be majority Muslim. But Pope Pius V called all the faithful to pray the Rosary—including and especially the soldiers—and through the intercession of Our Lady, a miraculous turn of events swayed the battle in favor of the Christians.