Monday, April 28, 2008

The King's Laughter

from Ballad of the White Horse
~ GK Chesterton (1874–1936)

And the earth shook and the King stood still
        Under the greenwood bough,
And the smoking cake lay at his feet
        And the blow was on his brow.

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
        Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
        For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
        In a wild solemnity,
On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
On one man laughing at himself
        Under the greenwood tree–

The giant laughter of Christian men
        That roars through a thousand tales,
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
And Jack’s away with his master’s lass,
And the miser is banged with all his brass,
        The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
        Yet end not all in scorning–
Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right,
That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
        And Christmas Day in the morning.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

[For context: The story is told of how, weary from a lost battle, Alfred, wandering alone, is mistaken by a poor old woman for a beggar. She offers him some food if he will tend it and not let it burn while she milks her cow. Unfortunately, Alfred becomes lost in thought while tending the cakes and lets them burn. In Chesterton’s version, Alfred, thankful for the poor woman’s pity on him, also pities her and her condition and muses on the incongruities of life — how the Sovereign of the Universe makes himself a servant to his people. When the supper is burned, the old woman takes up a cake in her anger and strikes Alfred on the temple, leaving a painful mark. At first Alfred stands up in fury, ready to return the blow, but the very incongruity of his former pity with current desire for vengeance, his thoughts of the servant-Saviour, cause him to break into hearty laughter instead.]

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