The Ballad of Richard John – A Reworking and Shameless Borrowing of Chesterton’s “Lepanto”
Published by Michael Novak at Patheos.com on March 1
In celebration of the publication of the new biography of Father Richard John Neuhaus by Randy Boyagoda (Image, 2015). As one who worked intimately with Richard Neuhaus since 1965, I want to say how thrilling it is to read this new volume.
These lines are based on “Lepanto” by the inimitable, incomparable G. K. Chesterton, and were originally delivered to honor Father Neuhaus when he received the Youth for the Third Millennium Award in 1999.
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Dim drums throbbing on the hills half heard, At one-five-six Fifth Avenue a balding prince has stirred And, risen from his swivel chair and editorial stall, The last knight of America takes weapons from the wall. The last and lingering troubadour (for whom the Pope has rung), That once grew up in Canada when all the world was young. In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid, Comes down along the Avenue a new type of Crusade. Strong gongs groaning as his fax booms far, Richard John of First Things is marching down to war, Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold, In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold, Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums, Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then computer, and he comes. Richard John laughing with his brave hair curled, Rising in his stirrups ’gainst the thrones of all the world, And holding up his head as if the flag of all the free. Love-light of Neo-cons! Pen pal of Schindler’s dons! Death-light to Naked Squares! Paragon of Brian Hehir’s! Richard John of First Things Is riding to the sea.
St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue but twenty blocks to north (Richard John of First Things is girt and going forth.) Times Square’s aglitter and the sharp tides shift As the journalists catch breezes and their red sails lift. He fills his pen with deadly ink and he claps his laptop closed; The noise has rung through Gotham; indifferent Gotham dozed. That City’s full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes, And dead are all its innocents, all slain before they rise, As Christian killeth Christian in a well-lit clinic room, And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom, And they abandon Mary, that God kissed in Galilee – The God who stooped to pick up dust and blow into it breath, For they have stomped their feet on life, and made their culture Death. So Richard John of First Things is riding to the sea. Richard John is calling through the blast and the eclipse Crying through the trumpet, the trumpet of his lips, And his trumpet cryeth “Ha! Domino sit gloria!” Richard John of First Things Is pointing to the ships.
The Cardinal’s in his office with his cross about his neck (Richard John of First Things is armed upon the deck.) His prayers are with his brother priest out on the salty sea, The Pope has urged the world around to pray the rosary, To say the beads both night and day for no man can tell how The Christian fleet can conquer Death, whose fleet from prow to prow Now fills the sea around in numbers two to one, And taller, faster, better armed, two guns per Christian gun. And murder’s on the Sultan’s lips and gleam lights up his eyes. In emeralds and silks he thinks, “No Christian is our worth. Put down our feet upon their throats that peace be on this earth.” And so begins October day, and so begins his work, As Richard John of First Things now fires on the Turk. Richard John is hunting, and his hounds they now have bayed – Booms away to Italy the rumor of his raid. Gun upon gun, ha! ha! Gun upon gun, hurrah! Richard John of First Things Has loosed the cannonade.
The Pope was in his chapel as day and battle broke (Richard John of First Things is hidden in the smoke.) That hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year, The secret window where the world looks small – and very dear. He sees as in a mirror in the monstrous morning’s breath The crescent of the hostile ships whose culture’s name is Death; They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and First Thingsdark, They veil the pluméd lions on the galleys of St. Mark. Aboard their hostile ships are learned, educated chiefs, Below the decks are prisoners with multitudinous griefs, Infant captives sick and sunless, all a laboring race repines Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines. They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung The stairways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young. They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen fleeing on The distant granite pavements of their exile Babylon. And many a one will struggle in his quiet room in hell As a surgeon’s face looks grimly through the lattice of his cell, As he finds his God is silent, as he seeks no more a sign – (But Richard John of First Things has burst the battle line!)
They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn From temples where the gods of Death shut up their eyes in scorn And the wind puffs up the Sultan’s sails and his aggressive pride – Oak oars straining on the groaning Christian side. Straining, too, the warriors’ eyes Study foe ahead Closing seas, blood-red skies, At last mad cries of battle rise – …The wind stops dead. Turns, now fills the Christian weal, Clatter down the Sultan’s sails, Back the Sultan’s sailors reel. (Boom! go the Christian guns, let fly the Muslim bow) Below the decks roar sergeants’ shouts, “Row, ye Christian slaves from hell! Row! These lashes tell ye, row!” Slaves have shaken shackles free Swinging chains, girt at the loin, They burst out of the stinking hold As with a clatter and a fury the wild ships of Venice join. Blood flows purple as the flesh grows cold. Undone, Mohammed’s right, As ship by ship yields up the will to fight. Ten thousand turbans float upon the sea As on th’embattled Sultan’s flagship Don Juan slays Ali.
So Richard John goes pounding on the slaughter-painted poop, Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop, Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds, Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds, Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. Life a Te Deum sings! Praise all the King of Kings! Richard John of First Things Has set his people free!
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath (Richard John of First Things rides homeward with a wreath.) He sees across a weary past a straggling road in Spain, Up which a lean and foolish knight Quixote rides in vain. Cervantes smiles, as writers smile, and settles back the blade…
And Richard John of First Things rides home from his Crusade. He tells his crews this message, which I mark down in my book: “We’ll turn this thing around, my friends – Just turn your head and look. Our foes are fierce, and o! they boast! But you can tell them now, my friends, In Richard’s eyes, they’re toast!”
And so it is throughout the world Where Richard’s flag’s unfurled, The word goes out from his Crusade, “My friends, BE NOT AFRAID!”
Pius V pronounced these words as Prince Don Juan of Austria entered before him at the Vatican after the victory: “Fuit Homo missus a Deo cui nomen erat Joannes.” I will translate this freely, to reflect our collective judgment about our friend and honoree: In our time of need, “There was a man sent by God whose name was Richard John.”