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Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism 1883-1908 . Nesbit, E. (Edith), 1858–1924.
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page: 44

A Ballad of Canterbury

  • ACROSS the grim, gray northern sea
  • The Danish warships went,
  • Snake‐shaped, and manned by mighty men
  • On blood and plunder bent;
  • And they landed on a smiling land—
  • The garden‐land of Kent.
  • They sacked the farms, they spoiled the corn,
  • They set the ricks aflame;
  • They slew the men with axe and sword,
  • They slew the maids with shame;
  • Until, to Canterbury town,
  • Made mad with blood, they came.
  • Archbishop Alphege walked the wall
  • And looked down on the foe.
  • ‘Now fly, my lord!’ his monks implored,
  • ‘While yet a man may go!’
  • ‘Shame on you, monks of mine,’ he cried,
  • ‘To shame your bishop so!
  • ‘What, would you have the shepherd flee
  • Like any hireling knave?
  • What, leave my church, my poor—God’s poor,
  • To a dark and prayerless grave?
  • No! by the body of my Lord,
  • My skin I will not save!’
  • And when men heard his true, strong word,
  • They bore them as men should,
  • For twenty nights and twenty days
  • The foemen they withstood,
  • And, day and night, shone tapers bright,
  • And incense veiled the rood.
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  • The warriors manned the walls without,
  • The monks prayed on within,
  • Till Satan, wroth to see how prayer
  • And valour fared to win,
  • Whispered a traitor, who stole out
  • And let the foemen in.
  • Then through the quiet church there ran
  • A sudden breath of fear;
  • The monks made haste to bar the door,
  • And hide the golden gear;
  • And to their lord once more they cried,
  • ‘Hide, hide! the foe is here!’
  • Through all the church’s windows showed
  • The sudden laugh of flame;
  • Along the street went trampling feet,
  • And through the smoke there came
  • The voice of women, calling shrill
  • Upon the Saviour’s name.
  • And ‘Hide! oh, hide!’ the monks all cried,
  • ‘Nor meet such foes as these!’
  • ‘Be still,’ he said, ‘hide if ye will,
  • Live on, and take your ease!
  • By my Lord’s death, my latest breath,
  • Like His, shall speak of peace!’
  • He strode along the dusky aisle,
  • And flung the church doors wide;
  • Bright armour shone, and blazing homes
  • Lit up the world outside,
  • And in the streets reeled to and fro
  • A bloody human tide.
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  • The mailed barbarians laughed aloud
  • To see the brave blood flow;
  • They trampled on the breast and hair
  • Of girls their swords laid low,
  • And on the points of reeking spears
  • Tossed babies to and fro.
  • Alphege stood forth; his pale face gleamed
  • Against the dark red tide.
  • ‘Forbear, your cup of guilt is full!
  • Your sins are red,’ he cried;
  • ‘Spare these poor sheep, my lambs, for whom
  • The King of Heaven died!’
  • Drunken with blood and lust of fight,
  • Loud laughed Thorkill the Dane.
  • ‘Stand thou and see us shear thy sheep
  • Before thy foolish fane!
  • Hear how they weep! They bleat, thy sheep,
  • That thou mayst know their pain!’
  • He stood, and saw his monks all slain;
  • The altar steps ran red;
  • In horrid heaps men lay about,
  • The dying with the dead;
  • And the east brightened, and the sky
  • Grew rosy overhead.
  • Then from the church a tiny puff
  • Of smoke rose ’gainst the sky,
  • Out broke the fire, and flame on flame
  • Leaped palely out on high,
  • Till but the church’s walls were left
  • For men to know it by.
page: 47
  • And when the sweet sun laughed again
  • O’er fields and furrows brown,
  • The brave archbishop hid his eyes,
  • Until the tears dropped down
  • On the charred blackness of the wreck
  • Of Canterbury town.

    * * * *

  • ‘Now, Saxon shepherd, send a word
  • Unto thy timid sheep,
  • And bid them greaten up their hearts,
  • And to our feet dare creep,
  • And bring a ransom here which we,
  • Instead of thee, may keep.’
  • Archbishop Alphege stood alone,
  • Bruised, beaten, weary‐eyed;
  • Loaded with chains, with aching heart,
  • And wounded in the side;
  • And in his hour of utmost pain
  • Thus to the Dane replied:
  • ‘Ye men of blood, my blood shall flow
  • Before this thing shall be;
  • If I be held till ransom come,
  • I never shall be free;
  • For by God’s heart, God’s poor shall never
  • Be robbed to ransom me!’
  • They flung him in a dungeon dark,
  • They heaped on him fresh chains,
  • They promised him unnumbered ills
  • And unimagined pains;
  • But still he said, ‘No English shall
  • Be taxed to profit Danes!’
page: 48
  • The months passed by; no ransom came;
  • Their threats had almost ceased,
  • When Thorkill held, on Easter‐Eve,
  • A great and brutal feast;
  • And they sent and dragged the Christian man
  • Before the pagan beast.
  • Down the great hall, from east to west,
  • The long rough tables ran;
  • They roasted oxen, sheep, and deer,
  • And then the drink began—
  • At last in all that mighty hall
  • Was not one sober man.
  • ’Twas then they brought the bishop forth
  • Before the drunken throng;
  • And ‘Send for ransom!’ Thorkill cried,
  • ‘You are weak, and we are strong,
  • Or, by the hand of Thor, you die—
  • We have borne with you too long!’
  • The savage faces of the Danes
  • Leered redly all around;
  • The bones of beasts and empty cups
  • Lay heaped upon the ground,
  • And ’mid the crowd of howling wolves
  • The Christian saint stood bound.
  • He looked in Thorkill’s angry eyes
  • And knew what thing should be,
  • Then spake: ‘By God, who died to save
  • The poor, and me, and thee,
  • Thou art not strong enough—God’s poor
  • Shall not be taxed for me!’
page: 49
  • ‘Gold! Give us gold, or die!’ All round
  • The rising tumult ran.
  • ‘I give my life, I give God’s word,
  • I give what gifts I can!
  • Bleed Christian sheep for pagan wolves?
  • Find you some other man!’
  • And, as he spake, the whole crowd rose
  • With one fierce shout and yell;
  • They flung at him the bones of beasts,
  • They aimed right strong and well.
  • ‘O Christ, O Shepherd, guard Thy sheep!’
  • The bishop cried—and fell.

    * * * *

  • And so men call him ‘Saint,’ yet some
  • Deemed this an unearned crown,
  • Since ’twas not for the Church or faith
  • He laid his brave life down;
  • But otherwise men deemed of it
  • In Canterbury town.
  • ‘Not for the Church he died,’ they said,
  • ‘Yet he our saint shall be,
  • Since for Christ’s poor he gave his life,
  • So for Christ’s self died he.
  • “Who does it to the least of these,
  • Has done it unto Me!”
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