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The Ballad of Glastonbury

1 The magnificent views from the Quantock hills above Nether Stowey, where this poem was written, embrace the whole of the moor district of Somersetshire, with the bare hills and wooded capes which bound this singular tract of country, and the Tor of Glastonbury and Mendip hills in the distance.


        Glastonbury, anciently called Avalon, is a place much celebrated both in tradition and history. It was here, according to old legends, when the neighboring moors were covered by the sea, that St. Joseph of Arimathea landed, and built the first church in England. It was here that the glorious king Arthur was buried, with the inscription:   Hic jacet Arturus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.

It was here that the scarcely less glorious King Alfred took sancturary, and hence that he went into voluntary obscurity when the Danes invaded England. Here also was built that magnificent abbey, whose riches and hospitality were known to all Christendom. Its last abbot was murdered on the Tor-hill by order of Henry the Eighth, and the building was sacrificed to the misguided fury of the Reformation. The very ruins are now fast perishing.
        The Quantock Hills, alluded to in the following poem, are in the autumn profusely covered with the mingled blossoms of heath and furze.


[The prospect of the western plains.]

The hills have on their royal robes
        Of purple and of gold,
And over their tops the autumn clouds
        In heaps are onward rolled;
Below them spreads the fairest plain
        That British eye may see--
From Quantock to the Mendip range,
        A broad expanse and free.1


[An invocation of Time, to open the days past.]

As from those barriers, grey and vast,
        Rolled off the morning mist,
Leaving the eyesight unrestrained
        To wander where it list,
So roll, thou ancient chronicler,
        The ages' mist away;
Give me an hour of vision clear,
        A dream of the former day.


[A vision is vouchsafed.]

At once the flood of the Severn sea
        Flowed over half the plain,
And a hundred capes, with huts and trees,
        Above the flood remain:
'T is water here and water there,
        And the lordly Parret's way
Hath never a trace on its pathless face--
        As in the former day.


[The ship of St. Joseph, and how it sped.]

Of shining sails that thronged that stream
        There resteth never a one;
But a little ship to that inland sea
        Comes bounding in alone;
With stretch of sail and tug of oar
        It comes full merrily,
And the sailors chant, as they pass the shore,
        Tibi gloria Domine.


'Nights and days on the watery ways
        Our vessel hath slidden on,
Our arms have never tired of toil,
        Our stores have long been done;
Sweet Jesus hath sped us over the wave,
        By coasts and along the sea,
And we sing, as we pass each rising land,
        Tibi gloria Domine.


'Sweet Jesus hath work for us to do
        In a land of promise fair;
Our vessel is steered by an angel-hand
        Until it bring us there:
To our Captain given, a sign from heaven
        Our token true shall be;
And we sing, as we wait for the Promise-sign,
        Tibi gloria Domine.


[The sign of promise is given to him;]

'When a dark green hill shall spire aloft
        Into the pure blue sky,
Most like to Tabor's holy mount
        Of vision blest and high;
Straight to that hill our bounding prow
        Unguided shall pass and free;
Sweet Jesus hath spoken, and we believe;
        Tibi gloria Domine'


[And fulfilled.]

Thus far they sung, and at once a shout
        Peeled upward loud and clear;
For, lo! the vessel onward ran
        With never a hand to steer;
And full in sight that Promise-hill
        Towered up into the sky,
Most like to Tabor's holy mount
        Of vision blest and high.


Now raise the song, ye faithful crew,
        Let all the uplands hear;
It fitteth Salvation's messengers
        To be of joyous cheer;
For Avalon isle ye make the while,
        By angel-pilot's hand;
Right onward for that pointed hill,
        Straight to the sloping land.


Each arm is resting, and every eye
        With thankful tear is bright;
Thus spake one high upon the prow,
        Feeding his forward sight:
'The word of God is just and true,
        And the mountains green that stand
To the left and right in the morning light
        Lead on to our Promise-land.


'Sweet Jesus hath broken the sepulchre,
        And pours His golden grace,
Clothing the earth with the joy of birth,
        In every fairest place:
His servant asked a token sure,
        And a token sure is given;
And He that lay in the garden-tomb
        Is Lord of earth and heaven.'


[They bless God on the strand of Avalon.]

By this the vessel had floated nigh
        To the turf upon the strand,
And first that holy man of joy
        Stepped on the Promise-land;
Until the rest, in order blest,
        Were ranged, and kneeling there,
Gave blessing to the God of heaven
        In a lowly chanted prayer.


Then over the brow of the seaward hill
        In their order blest they pass,
At every change in the psalmody
        Kissing the holy grass;
Till they come where they may see full near
        That pointed mountain rise,
Darkening with its ancient cone
        The light of eastern skies.


[St. Joseph planteth his staff as a token.]

'This staff hath borne me long and well,'
        Then spake that Saint divine,
'Over mountain and over plain,
        On quest of the Promise-sign;
For aye let it stand in this western land,
        And God do more to me
If there ring not out from this realm about,
        Tibi gloria Domine.'


[The days of the ancient Church of Britain.]

A cloud is on them--the vision is changed,
        And voices of melody,
And a ring of harps, like twinkles bright,
        Comes over the inland sea;
Long and loud is the chant of praise--
        The hallowed ages glide;
And once again the mist from the plain
        Rolls up the Mendip side.


[The mort d'Arthur.]

With mourning stole and solemn step,
        Up that same seaward hill,
There moved of ladies and of knights
        A company sad and still;
There went before an open bier,
        And, sleeping in a charm,
With face to heaven and folded palms
        There lay an armed form.


[St. Joseph's staff hath budded, and bloometh at Christmas-tide.]

It is the winter deep, and all
        The glittering fields that morn
In Avalon's isle were over-snowed
        The day the Lord was born;
And as they cross the northward brow,
        See white, but not with snow,
The mystic thorn beside their path
        Its holy blossoms show.


They carry him where from chapel low
        Rings clear the angel-bell--
He was the flower of knights and lords,
        So chant the requiem well:
His wound was deep, and his holy sleep
        Shall last him many a day,
Till the cry of crime in the latter time
        Shall melt the charm away.


[The chronicle passeth to the pillage by the Danes.]

A cloud is on them--the vision fades--
        And cries of woe and fear,
And sounds unblest of neighboring war,
        Are thronging on mine ear:
Long and loud was the battle-cry,
        And the groans of them that died;
And once again the mist from the plain
        Rolls up the Mendip side.


[The great King Alfred in sorrow avoideth the foe.]

From the postern-door of an abbaye pile
        Passes with heavy cheer
A soldier-king in humble mien,
        For the shouting foes are near;
The holy men by their altars bide,
        In alb and stole they stand;
The incense-fumes the temple fill
        From blessed children's hand.


[The ancient abbaye is burnt and pillaged.]

Slow past the king that seaward brow,
        Whence turning he might see,
Streaming upon Saint Michael's Tor,
        The pagan blazonry;
Then a pealing shout and a silence long,
        And rolling next on high
Dark vapor, laced with threads of flame,
        Angered the twilight sky.


[But better days are near.]

The cloud comes on--the vision is changed--
        And songs of victory,
And hymns of praise to the Lord of Peace,
        Comes over the inland sea;
The waters clear, the fields appear,
        The plain is green and wide;
And once again the mist from the plain
        Rolls up the Mendip side.


[It is the high prime of Glastonbury's glory.]

The plats were green with lavish growth,
        And, like a silver cord,
Down to the northern bay the Brue
        Its glittering water poured:
Far and near the pilgrims throng,
        With staff and humble mien,
Where Glastonbury's crown of towers
        Against the sky is seen.


By the holy thorn and the holy well,
        And St. Joseph's silver shrine,
They offer thanks to highest Heaven
        For the light and grace divine;
In the open cheer of the abbaye near,
        They dwell their purposed day,
And then they part, with blessed thoughts,
        Each on his homeward way.


[But pride cometh]

The cloud drops down--the vision is changed,
        And an altered sound of pride,
And a glitter of pomp is cast athwart
        The meadows green and wide.
The servants of a lowly Lord
        On earth's high places ride;
And once again the mist from the plain
        Rolls up the Mendip side.


[before a fall.]

The strong man armed hath dwelt in peace
        Till a stronger hath sacked his home;
And the Church that married the pride of the earth
        By the earth is overcome:
There hath sounded forth upon the land
        That wicked king's behest,
And Lust and Power from Lust and Power
        A blighted triumph wrest.


[Villanous doings for lucre's sake.]

The winds are high in Saint Michael's Tor,
        And a sorry sight is there--
A dark-browed band, with spear in hand,
        Mount up the turret-stair;
With heavy cheer and lifted palms
        There kneels a holy priest;
The fiends of death they grudge his breath,
        To hold their rapine-feast.


[The judgement of God on England.]

The cloud comes on them, the vision is changed,
        And a crash of lofty walls,
And the short dead sound of music quenched,
        On the sickened hearing falls;
Quick and sharp is the ruin-cry--
        Unblest the ages glide;
And once again the mist from the plain
        Rolls up the Mendip side.


[But in it He hath remembered mercy.]

Low sloping over sea and field
        The setting ray had past,
On roofs and curls of quiet smoke
        The glory-flush was cast.
Clustered upon the western side
        Of Avalon's green hill,
Her ancient homes and fretted towers
        Were lying, bright and still;


And lower, in the valley-field,
        Hid from the parting day,
A brotherhood of columns old,
        A ruin rough and grey;
And over all, Saint Michael's Tor
        Spired up into the sky--
Most like to Tabor's holy mount
        Of vision blest and high.


The vision changeth not--no cloud
        Comes down the Mendip side;
The moors spread out beneath my feet
        Their free expanse and wide;
On glittering cots and ancient towers,
        That rise among the dells,
On mountain and on bending stream
        The light of evening dwells.


I may not write--I cannot say
        What change shall next betide;
Whether that group of columns grey
        Untroubled shall abide;
Or whether that pile in Avalon's isle
        Some pious hand shall raise,
And the vaulted arches ring once more
        With pealing chants of praise.


Speed on, speed on: let England's sons
        For England's glories rise;
And England's towers that lowly lie
        Lift upward to the skies:
Till there go up from England's heart,
        In peace and purity,
From temple-aisle and cottage-hearth,
        Tibi gloria Domine.