447 years ago today, October 7th, a decisive battle was fought which ensured the continuation of Christianity in the Western world. It was commemorated in a famous poem by G. K. Chesterton titled simply “Lepanto”, written in 1911, which some say is his greatest poem:
“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,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.”
Read the rest of the poem here.
One rather interesting bit of trivia about both Chesterton’s poem and the actual battle: we are introduced to a very famous writer as the “lean and foolish knight” who went on to write about a very famous and iconic knight in western literature, Don Quixote. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote actually fought in the Battle of Lepanto…
“The English author G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem Lepanto, first published in 1911 and republished many times since. It provides a series of poetic visions of the major characters in the battle, particularly the leader of the Christian forces, Don Juan of Austria. It closes with verses linking Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, with the “lean and foolish knight” he would later immortalize in Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes lost the use of an arm in this battle and therefore he is known as el manco de Lepanto (the one-armed man of Lepanto) in the Hispanic world.” Chesterton, G. K. Lepanto with Explanatory Notes and Commentary, Dale Ahlquist, ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003). ISBN 1-58617-030-9″ – The Battle of Lepanto, wikipedia
Ahlquist also had this to say about the poem in his lecture Collected Poems:
“But the poems about the dark side of war are utterly overshadowed by another battle poem that is certainly the centerpiece of this collection. It is not only one of Chesterton’s finest poems, it is one of the finest poems in the English language. It is an intricate tapestry of images, an evocative telling of history, a masterpiece of rhyme and rhythm and alliteration that marches with a steady purpose and builds to a crescendo of shouting triumph. I’m speaking, of course, of Lepanto.”
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 battle itself is one of the most important in history. The Islamic forces under Selim II, control the Mediterranean and are very close to conquering both Venice and Rome. The poem brings out the fact that the odds are against Christian Europe in this monumental standoff. Christendom will get no help from Germany, divided and weakened by the Protestant Reformation, or from England, under the self-absorbed “cold queen” Elizabeth I, or from France, under its worthless “shadow of the Valios,” King Charles IX. But a surprise hero rises to the occasion, the Last of the Crusaders, Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, who miraculously leads the outnumbered Christian forces to victory in the pivotal battle fought on October 7, 1571.
Chesterton’s poem not only tells the story, it truly stirs the emotions. He takes a very creative approach, describing different perspectives of the events, from the plotting Sultan of Byzantium, to Mohammed in his paradise, to the Pope in the Vatican, to the Christian slaves chained to their oars in the Muslim galley ships, and finally, to a certain Spanish warrior who was wounded in the victory and later went on to become a rather noted author: Cervantes (see wikipedia entry above). Marching through each of these scenes like a “dim drum throbbing,” is Don John of Austria.