Alfred the Harper
Excerpt from the John Sterling’s 1839 poem “Alfred the Harper,” a rousing ballad concerning the English king Alfred the Great’s infilitration of the Danish camp disguised as a poor minstrel. The same material is treated at greater length in Book III of G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (1911).
Loud rang the harp, the minstrel’s eye
Rolled fiercely round the throng;
It seemed two crashing hosts were nigh,
Whose shock aroused the song.
A golden cup King Guthrum gave
To him who strongly played;
And said, “I won it from the slave
Who once o’er England swayed.”
King Guthrum cried, “‘Twas Alfred’s own;
Thy song befits the brave:
The King who cannot guard his throne
Nor wine nor song shall have.”
The minstrel took the goblet bright,
And said, “I drink the wine
To him who owns by justest right
The cup thou bid’st be mine.
“To him, your Lord, O shout ye all!
His meed be deathless praise!
The King who dares not nobly fall,
Dies basely all his days.
The King who dares not guard his throne,
May curses heap his head;
But hope and strength, be all his own
Whose blood is bravely shed.”
“The praise thou speakest,” Guthrum said,
“With sweetness fills mine ear;
For Alfred swift before me fled,
And left me monarch here.
The royal coward never dared
Beneath mine eye to stand.
O, would that now this feast he shared,
And saw me rule his land!”
Then stern the minstrel rose, and spake,
And gazed upon the King,–
“Not now the golden cup I take,
Nor more to thee I sing.
Another day, a happier hour,
Shall bring me here again:
The cup shall stay in Guthrum’s power,
Till I demand it then.”
The Harper turned and left the shed,
Nor bent to Guthrum’s crown;
And one who marked his visage said
It wore a ghastly frown.
The Danes ne’er saw that Harper more,
For soon as morning rose,
Upon their camp King Alfred bore,
And slew ten thousand foes.