The Ballad of the White Horse – Malcolm Guite’s free audio reading

Here is Chesterton’s epic poem “The Ballad of the White Horse” (Summer 1911), in the best free audio reading I could find. The clear steady British voice of Malcolm Guite, Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, carries the poem far better than Librivox’s worthy-but-flat American reader. Guite kindly offers .mp3 downloads.

If you have $15 there’s also a commercial reading for the American Chesterton Society, “Mackey’s Ballad of the White Horse”, which is by a long-time Chesterton scholar.

Ravilious_Vale_HorsePicture: Eric Ravilious, “Uffington White Horse”, 1939.

“The Ballad” is a grandly ambitious poem and is said to have been a possible inspiration for the general structure and tone of The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien was certainly in tune with Chesterton’s religious and political stances, and he had read the poem by the early 1940s. In 1944, re-reading it with his daughter, he mused in passing that Chesterton’s “Ballad” clearly… “knew nothing whatever of the ‘North’, heathen or Christian” (letter of 3rd Sept 1944). It’s somewhat difficult to know what he meant by this. He may have meant the old Norse/Germanic ‘North’, but I also sense the implication that a London man like Chesterton lacked the grit and deep regional knowledge needed to really ground his poem in Englishness.

“The Ballad” had an equally inspiring literary influence on Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan stories), from 1927 onward. The opinion of R.E. Howard’s friend Lovecraft on “The Ballad” is unrecorded, though doubtless Howard would have mentioned it favourably to the Anglophile Lovecraft. In his youth Lovecraft had certainly admired Chesterton’s incisive and knowing wit and his keen observations on aesthetic matters, as well as a few of Chesterton’s better detective stories. But Lovecraft later found Chesterton’s rejection of Darwin, as late as 1920, to be risible (“when a man soberly tries to dismiss the results of Darwin we need not give him too much of our valuable time”). In early 1930 Lovecraft had the opportunity to hear the elderly Chesterton speak in New England, but he didn’t bother. He felt that Chesterton had turned his back on the unsettling discoveries of the emerging modern world and had become an old fossil trapped in the pungent amber of 1920s Catholicism (“synthetic Popery”) and a fading arts-and-crafts tradition (a “crazy archaism”) which claimed the 13th century to have been the pinnacle of civilisation.

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