Thursday, June 01, 2006

I need a good swig of Lepanto

It settles my thoughts to read Lepanto. Here goes:

St. Michael's on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is going through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

Two questions for you Lepanto experts out there.

What is the eclipse?

And what does "dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise" mean?
The word "surprise" caught my attention this reading for the first time, since I have "surprise" on my mind with the conference coming up, and you know how you've read something many times, but suddenly one line just sticks out and looks new? That was this line this time. Now I'm wondering just what does it mean? Ideas?


  1. A total solar eclipse occurred on January 25, 1571. It is probably the eclipse pictured in a painting from the 1570's by Antoine Caron, "Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers". See:

    There was also an annular eclipse on July 22, but because such an eclipse leaves a portion of the sun's disk uncovered, it is less impressive, and less likely to have been on Don John's mind.

    I haven't been able to determine yet whether either eclipse was popularly associated with the battle at the time.

  2. That's very interesting, Beachcomber. Certainly this eclipse would have been in recent memory, especially if it made such a big impression, as they seemed to have back then (and even now).

    Thanks for the info and the link, I hadn't seen that painting before, either.

  3. Answers to these questions can probably found in the annotated Lepanto produced by Dale Ahlquist and Peter Floriani. Copies will be available for sale at the conference, hint hint.

    But the "innocence of anger and surprise" line is a reference to the Reformation. Chesterton always acknowledged that real abuses and crimes committed by Catholic priests and bishops helped bring about the Reformation. There was a lot of corruption then. That's what the "innocence of anger and surprise" was: genuine anger at the corruption, and a desire to end it.

    However, the Reformers kept at it once the Church really did reform, including issuing a Papal Bull concemning the selling of indulgences. The Reformers ignored those genuine reforms, and began denying legitimate, settled dogmas such as Papal supremecy and especially the Sacraments. So the "anger and surprise" became "dead," as the poem says, and gave way to interreligious warfare ("Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room"), Calvin's mosterous doctrine of predestination ("Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom") and, worst of all to Chesterton's mind, hatred of Mary ("Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee"). Chesterton wrote in another poem (forget the title, but it's in The Queen of Seven Swords and is collected in the CW) that Protestant hatred for Mary had a familiar sound, a "hiss out of hell."

    Things had gotten so bad by the time St. Pius V formed the Holy League, that many Protestant monarchs felt a Turkish victory in Italy wouldn't be so bad so long as it got rid of the Catholic Church. But they didn't count on "Don John of Austria...riding to the sea."


  4. Sorry, one final comment: all that explains the first few lines of the stanza, showing St. Michael (on Mont Ste Michele in Normandy) trying in vain to rally the Christian princes of Europe to go and meet the Turkish invader:

    He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
    The noise is going through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;

    It is a bitter betrayal, made all the more so by the previous stanza, which showed Mohammad rallying all the demons of hell to assist the Turks in defeating the Christiains ("It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!"). The demons answer Mohammad's call, but Europe's Protestant north ignores the pleas of St. Michael.

  5. +JMJ+

    Great stuff on Lepanto! Thanks, Chestertonian and Dover Beachcomber--and thanks, Nancy, for asking the questions that set them going.


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