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Poem by Henry Alford


The Ballad of Glastonbury



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 jatet Arturus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.


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.

As from those barriers, gray 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.

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 Parrets way
Hath never a trace on its pathless face,
  As in the former day.

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.

*        *        *        *        *

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 the eastern skies.

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 no more to me
If there ring not out from this realm about,
  Tibi gloria, Domine.

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.

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 arméd form.

It is the winter deep, and all
  The glittering fields that morn
In Avalons 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.

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.

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 blesséd childrens hand.

Slow past the king that seaward brow,
  Whence turning he might see,
Streaming upon Saint Michaels 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.

The cloud comes on,the vision is changed,
  And songs of victory,
And hymns of praise to the Lord of Peace,
  Come 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.

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 Glastonburys crown of towers
  Against the sky is seen.

By the holy thorn and the holy well,
  And Saint Josephs 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.

*        *        *        *        *

The winds are high in Saint Michaels 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 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.

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 Avalons 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 gray;
And over all, Saint Michaels Tor
  Spired up into the sky,
Most like to Tabors 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 gray
  Untroubled shall abide,
Or whether that pile in Avalons isle
  Some pious hand shall raise,
And the vaulted arches ring once more
  With pealing chants of praise.


Henry Alford

Poem Themes: Cities of England, Glastonbury

Henry Alford's other poems:
  1. Ampton, Suffolk
  2. Written at Ampton, Suffolk, January, 1838
  3. Sunset at Burton Pynsent, Somerset
  4. Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, July, 1836
  5. An Evening in Autumn, near Nether Stowey, Somerset


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