“Lepanto”, a poem by G. K. Chesterton, is a dramatic and picturesque view of the Battle of Lepanto as seen through a poet’s eyes overlooking the medieval world at that time. It begins with a comparison of the states of the Christian and Muslim worlds. Islam is strong and unified, ready to engage the forces of the West, while Christendom is divided, with a desperate Pope recognizing the apocalyptic nature of the impending conflict. The rulers of Christian nations, indifferent to the seriousness of the situation, engage in wars that weaken both themselves and each other while Islam laughs. However, one last noble yet forgotten knight, a reincarnation of the spirit of the Crusades, takes up the Christian battle cry and begins his march against the ominous forces of darkness. The phrase echoes once again: “Don John of Austria is going to the war.”
The forces of Islam and the East are portrayed as the fantastic giants and demons of eastern myth summoning their forces to war, preparing for the final overthrow of the Christian dominions of the West. On the side of the Christian West, St. Michael calls the Christian armies, but his summons echo through most of the nations unheeded. All is stale and silent, the fruits of the constant wars, heresies, and treacheries that scourged Europe for so long. In spite of this, Don John of Austria rides to the sea and prepares the ships, leading the last great Christian army to war in spite of the apparent lack of support from the Christian kings.
The battle begins! The spark of Christian chivalry and courage is rekindled, and Don John fires upon the mighty fleet of the Prophet. The scene changes and there is Pope Pius the fifth, whose spiritual efforts have been the sole support of this final Crusading effort, praying for a victory for Christendom. He sees in a vision the forces of the Crescent, and the many evils that exist among their nations, armies, and fleets. Suddenly, with the mighty roar of the cannons, Don John of Austria shatters these evils, freeing Christian captives, smashing the fleet of the infidel, and gaining a triumphant victory. Don John then rides home, the last knight returning from the Crusade.
Editor’s Note: This poem of G. K. Chesterton’s is a stunning panorama of both the political and spiritual state of Christendom leading up to the battle of Lepanto. Pope Pius V, who’s feast day we celebrate today in the traditional latin calendar, saw this battle for what it was – a death struggle for the soul of Christendom. He knew that without a supernatural intervention, the day would be lost. The vivid imagery, brilliant contrasts, and gripping spiritual tension contained within these lines of verse is unmistakably the work of a master. If you have not already read the original work itself, I highly recommend that you do so. You can read Chesterton’s epic for yourself by clicking the link below. You won’t be disappointed.