G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Last Hero’ is a lyrical, narrative poem that tells the story of a seemingly valiant fighter who is on the verge of death. Chesterton makes use of a very consistent rhyme scheme, giving the text a musical quality and suggesting that it should be read out loud.
The poem begins with the speaker explaining the scene and how he came to be there. He’s livid, preparing to charge against those who stole his wife back from him after he took her away against her will. A large section of the poem expresses his love for this woman who always hated him and what his plan is for the battle ahead. He’s going to embrace his foes with his sword and die a valiant death. The last sound anyone is going to hear is that of his laugh.
‘The Last Hero’ by G.K. Chesterton is a four stanza poem that’s separated into sets of ten lines. These lines rhyme in couplets, this means they follow the pattern of AABBCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Unlike many of Chesterton’s poems, there is not a single metrical pattern that unites the verses. That being said, the lines are all of a similar long, paragraph-like length. They range from around thirteen to fifteen syllables.
Chesterton also makes use of a variety of poetic techniques that help to unify the lines. They include alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. A very prominent example occurs in six of the fourth stanza with the phrase “The blow that breaks my brow to-night shall break…” Another example can be found in line nine of that same stanza with: “One sound shall sunder all the spears…”
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There are a number of examples within ‘The Last Hero’. For instance, line four of the first stanza “Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.” As well as line one of the second stanza “The chance of battle changes — so may all battle be;”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique is used less commonly in ‘The Last Hero’ than it is in other works of a similar length, but a good example can be found in the transition between the last two lines of the final stanza, between the phrases “…and break the trumpet’s breath:” and “You never laughed in all your life…”
Analysis of The Last Hero
The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,
There was a wreck of trees and fall of towers a score of miles away,
And drifted like a livid leaf I go before its tide,
Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.
The heavens are bowed about my head, shouting like seraph wars,
In the first lines of ‘The Last Hero,’ the speaker begins by establishing the setting. He’s in “Bergen,” likely Germany. There, he states there “was a wreck of trees and fall of towers”. This all happened “a score of miles away”. These lines are fairly vague but they allude to something violent and overwhelming happening “a score,” or twenty, miles away. Perhaps a battle. In contrast to these large, powerful images, the speaker says that he “drifted like a livid leaf”. The alliteration in this line provides another interesting contrast in that the word “livid” can refer to a colour as well as being incredibly angry.
The speaker went “before” the “tide” of sound and destruction, he headed towards it. In the next lines, he describes himself and how/why he was so angry. In his wake he was leaving behind “the house and stable” he was “Spewed out of” as well as his country and bride. These things have been lost to him and therefore he has nothing else to lose. The power and anger of heaven are with him, circling and encompassing his head as if angels were at war.
With rains that might put out the sun and clean the sky of stars,
Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above,
The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love.
Feast in my hall, O foemen, and eat and drink and drain,
You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain.
The “seraph wars” are depicted in the next lines as containing “rains that might put out the sun and clan the sky of stars” This is also how he feels. There is an anger in his chest that he is ready to aim at someone or something else. It is godlike but at the same time beautiful. Chesterton crafts sublime imagery that imagines the power of divine rain pouring from ruined seas down onto the earth. It belongs to God.
In the last two lines of the first stanza of ‘The Last Hero,’ he asks his “foemen” to come and “Feast” in his hall. These are his armed adversaries, those he’s headed out to find at the beginning of the poem. He asks that they sate themselves. Then, he expresses his embrace of the rain and the powerful “ruined seas from secret worlds above”. He has loved them, and the doom and anger they represent more than the “foemen” have loved the “sun in heaven”.
The chance of battle changes — so may all battle be;
I stole my lady bride from them, they stole her back from me.
I rent her from her red-roofed hall, I rode and saw arise,
More lovely than the living flowers the hatred in her eyes.
She never loved me, never bent, never was less divine;
The second stanza begins with a reference to the battle on the horizon. It changes somewhat, just as all battles do. He explains how he came to be in this position in lines two through ten of this stanza.
The speaker tells the reader that at some point in the past he took his “bride,” the woman he loved (but did not love him), from this other group, the “foemen” he’s about to face. But, they “stole her back from [him]” in retribution. It’s unclear at this point whether he means this literally or if she is at this moment dead.
When he took his wife from these people she was in the “red-roofed hall”. As they rode off, he saw hatred in her eyes that endeared her to him. It was more beautiful than any “living flower”. She was truly stolen from her home and never loved him. Nor was she anything less than he expected. She was always composed and never gave in to him.
The sunset never loved me, the wind was never mine.
Was it all nothing that she stood imperial in duresse?
Silence itself made softer with the sweeping of her dress.
O you who drain the cup of life, O you who wear the crown,
You never loved a woman’s smile as I have loved her frown.
With these things in mind, the speaker expresses his opinion that the elements “never loved” him either. Through a rhetorical question, he tries to emphasize the divine nature of this woman as she was in “duresse” or “duress”.
As has become the custom in ‘The Last Hero’ the speaker uses the last two lines to make a grand statement. This time, he tells his foes, those who have come and reclaimed his wife “drained the cup of life”. They “wear the crown” but never “loved a woman’s smile” as much as he “loved her frown”.
The wind blew out from Bergen to the dawning of the day,
They ride and run with fifty spears to break and bar my way,
I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers,
As merry as the ancient sun and fighting like the flowers.
How white their steel, how bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave,
The third stanza of ‘The Last Hero’ begins with the speaker returning to the image of “Bergen”. He repeats the entire phrase, “The wind blew out from Bergen to the dawning of the day”. This refrain feels musical as if the “hero’s tale” is entering into a new verse.
He explains how the men he’s about to fight against are charging towards him. They’re running and riding with “fifty spears to break and bar” his way. He knows he’s going to die, and he doesn’t seem troubled. In fact, he celebrates the power of those he’s about to face and describes them as “merry” and through a simile, “fighting like the flowers”. They embody the elements of the sun, brightness, and laughter, while all he knows is rain and darkness.
Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave.
Yea, I will bless them as they bend and love them where they lie,
When on their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky.
The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose, —
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes.
In the second half of the stanza, the speaker welcomes those who have come to kill him. They are all about to feast at the “banquet of the brave”. In contrast to the warm imagery, he goes on to describe how he’s going to bless these soldiers with his sword. He’ll swing it and it will fall “shattering from the sky”. The last line of the second stanza is reorganized to conclude this section of lines. He expresses his belief that he loves his “foes,” those he was just describing killing, more than his foes have loved his friends.
Know you what earth shall lose to-night, what rich uncounted loans,
What heavy gold of tales untold you bury with my bones?
My loves in deep dim meadows, my ships that rode at ease,
Ruffling the purple plumage of strange and secret seas.
To see this fair earth as it is to me alone was given,
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Last Hero,’ the speaker expresses through dramatic terms, and another rhetorical question, what is going to be lost tonight. He is speaking about his own life and the “heavy gold of tales untold” that will be buried and lost when he dies. The next lines express some of those stories, all of which deal with his own life experiences. Chesterton utilizes alliteration when he speaks about his past. His “ships” sailed through the ocean, showing off their “purple plumage” as they explored the “strange secret seas”. Via these means, he learned the earth as only he could. These lines read as a self-elegy.
The blow that breaks my brow to-night shall break the dome of heaven.
The skies I saw, the trees I saw after no eyes shall see,
To-night I die the death of God; the stars shall die with me;
One sound shall sunder all the spears and break the trumpet’s breath:
You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.
In the last five lines of ‘The Last Hero’ the speaker utilizes natural imagery to express his singular perspective. When lost, no one will see “the trees” he saw or the “skies” he saw. He fully understands that tonight he’s going to die but in order to emphasize the importance of his own perspective he says that he’s going to die “the death of God”. When he’s gone, the stars will be too.
The ninth and tenth lines are quite alliterative they also mirror the concluding lines of the other stanzas. He expresses the enormity of the moment and how, when his foes are there, there will be “One sound”. His laughter is going to ring out and the foes will never know laughter in life as he’ll know “in death”.