Ballad of Glastonbury

Henry Alford

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:
'Tis water here and water there,
And the lordly Parret's 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 j
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 tlie 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 armed form.

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 ciy 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 neighbouring 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 blessed children's hand.

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 vapour, laced with tlireads 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 tlie 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 Glastonbury's crown of towers
Against the sky is seen.

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

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 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 Avalon's green hill,
Her ancient homes and fretted towers
Were lying bright and still;

Apd lower in the valley-field,
Hid from the parting day,
A brotherhood of columns old,
A ruin rough and gray;
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 gray
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.

Glastonbury has been a holy place for time immemorial. It was a pre-christian holy site and legend has it that Jospeh of Arimathea landed here after fleeing Palestine and founded the first church in the British Isles.

Glastonbury, it's striking Tor rising above the flat, marshy landscape, is also famous of course as the Arthurian isle of Avalon. Arthur is said to be buried at Glastonbury. Indeed when the great abbey was being rebuilt in the 12th century after a fire, a grave was discovered which carried the following inscription: Hic jacet Arturus, rex quondam, rexque futurus ("Here lies Arthur, the once and future King"). Needless to say, this helped boost the rebuilding fund considerably.

The Abbey was dissolved in the 16th century and the Abbot executed on the Tor. No more than a few ruins remain, but Glastonbury is still a mystical and holy spot.