The time has come once again to honor the South’s patron saint, Alfred the Great of England (+899; celebrated 26 Oct.). It is pleasant and intriguing to see him honored by Southerners in foredays, when his full significance to the South was not quite understood; yet they were attracted to him withal, as to a kindred soul, which he is indeed. And that is how we will honor him today, with a poem by Mrs Margaret J. Preston, a lady of the South’s past, the wife of one of Stonewall Jackson’s staff officers and the sister-in-law of Gen Jackson himself.
‘The Legend of Athelney’
ONE desolate, chill December,
—’Twas hundreds of years ago,—
The moors and the marish fen-lands
Were dreary and waste with snow:
And fiercely the wolfish tempest
Howled on the rock-ribb’d shore,
And the heart of the Saxon people
Was numb to the inmost core.
For the noble and good King Alfred,
Whose prowess and toils and pains
Had shielded and kept the kingdom,
And banished the cruel Danes,—
Discomfited now and reaven
Of province and royal stead,
A nameless fugitive wandered
Seeking his daily bread.
—’Twas a Yule-tide eve; and the fagots
That blazed on the earthen floor,
Flung over the bleak morasses
A glint through the low-brow’d door;—
A glint that across the levels
Flared like a cresset-light,
That beaconed belated footsteps
Over the drifts of white.
Cowering beside the embers,
The King of the Saxon land
Read from the sacred Gospel
Holden within his hand:—
Read how the Eastern mages
Found in the oxen's stall
Jesus the son of Mary,
The Lord and the King of all;—
Read of the Bethlehem shepherds,—
Of the strange and marvellous sights
That greeted their upturned faces
That first of the Christmas-nights.
And the heart of the King was melted,
And he uttered a lonely sigh;
“A Prince,—yet a houseless exile,—
An outcast,—even as I!”
But still as he pondered the pages,
Or ever he was aware,
This tenderest Christmas-story
Softened his sharp despair.
With a cheerier look he lifted
His eyes from the beaten floor,
And behold, a gaunt-limb’d beggar
Sought alms at the wide-set door.
—"Now what is there for bestowal?
Good mother, beseech thee, see;
For sore is the need that seeketh
The succor of Athelney.”
And the goodwife answered quickly,
“There is left no dole to make,
Nor a crumb of bread remaineth,
Save only an oaten cake.
“And the henchmen who seek the forest
Athwart the dismal wold,
May fail of the wished-for quarry,
Or perish amid the cold:
“And belike we shall starve, my master—”
“Good mother, I pray, not so!
Who findeth the finch his berries
When they’re hidden beneath the snow?
“I read in the holy Gospel,—
With the story mine eyes are dim,—
That for us our Lord left heaven;
Is there naught we may do for Him?
“When we know that the cruse is empty,
And hungry and faint, we feel
’Twixt us and death there is only
A morsel of scanty meal,—
“Then is the season for giving;
And so, for the Lord's sweet sake,
Succor His needy kinsman,
Break him the oaten cake:
“Looking to Him to feed us,
Sure that the deed is right;
Thankful an act of mercy
Can hallow our Christmas-night.”
—As asleep on his goat-skin pillow
Next mom King Alfred lay,
He dreamed that he talked with Jesus,
And he hearkened and heard Him say;—
“Now honor be thine, and blessing
And power and great degree;
Inasmuch to the least thou didst it,
Thou didst it even to me.”
And when in the wintry gloaming
The dreamer unclosed his eyes,
The vision that met them, filled them
With a mist of glad surprise.
For there lay on the floor full-antler’d,
A buck in his fairest prime:
So, with plenty and cheer right royal,
They welcomed the Christmas-time.
—When spring from the daisied pastures
Had routed the leaden gloom,
And the reaches of sedgy fen-land
Were green with the gorse and broom,—
At the head of a new-found army
King Alfred rode amain,
And hunted from court and castle
The fierce marauding Dane.
And he hid in his heart the lesson,
Midst the pride of his high degree,
Which the Christmas-tide had taught him
In the fens of Athelney.
Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!
Anathema to the Union!