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Daily Poetry Break Commentary by Bob Blair for December 22, 1997

Chesterton's Lepanto is considered by some the finest poem of this century. It describes the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto, a port at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, in 1571, a battle that ended the Moslem threat to Venice and foreshadowed the decline of Turkish domination of southern Europe over the next 250 years. Some of the persons mentioned are Pope Pius V, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry III of France ("the shadow of the Valois") and Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.

This poem cannot be fully appreciated until you read it aloud. (Shut the office door if you have to.)

Field Marshall Viscount Wavell, in his entertaining book of recollected poems Other Men's Flowers introduces "Lepanto" in a way I cannot improve on. With apologies for the lengthy quotation:

A family of my acquaintance is fond of declaiming this poem in chorus on festive occasions. Don John is a great hero of theirs consequentially; but I am afraid he was not always the high-souled crusader of Chesterton's stirring poem; perhaps success at Lepanto turned his head. Certainly in the latter part of his short life he was an ambitious schemer whose favourite plan was to land a Spanish force in Scotland or England, to marry Mary Queen of Scots, and in her name displace Elazabeth on the throne of England. He was a natural son of the famous Emperor Charles V by an amorous lady called Barbara Blomberg, and so half-brother to Philip II of Spain, the Philip of the Armada, who seems to have been jealous of Don John's enterprises and discouraged them. It was not till after Don John's death that he launched the Armada, under the command of a land-lubber. Don John would have been a much better match on the high seas for Drake than the many-syllabled Medina-Sidonia.

Lepanto was the last great battle in which the motive power was supplied by galley slaves.

Cervantes, whom Cheterton mentions in the last stanza, was badly wounded at Lepanto, and had one hand maimed for life. He would therefore have had some difficulty in settling his sword back into his sheath -- certainly in doing so with a smile. If the image of the 'lean and foolish knight', Don Quixote, was in his brain at Lepanto, it ook a long time to emerge; it was more than thirty years later before he and Sancho Panza were created in print. Meantime Cervantes had many adventures which included capture by Barbary Corsairs and imprisonment for some years in Algiers; a government post which entailed fitting out the Armada, and imprisonment in Spain.

--Bob Blair

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