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G K Chesterton and His Poetry

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GILBERT K. CHESTERTON is an essayist, a novelist, a dramatist, a debater and a poet. But many people—his brother, Cecil Chesterton, did for instance—believe that he is first of all a poet. And certainly it is in his poetry that his characteristic style is most easily recognized and defined.

G K Chesterton and the late Henry James are not very often thought of as intellectual or spiritual brothers. And yet there is a startlingly obvious resemblance between these two writers. Both are stylists; both have thoroughly mastered certain peculiar methods of speech, and both are, it must be confessed, hampered by their undeviating loyalty to these methods.

This is not the place to analyze the style of Mr. James. It is sufficient to recall to the reader's mind the fact that the author of "The Golden Bowl" was not concerned so much with the presentation of extraordinary ideas as with the extraordinary presentation of ordinary ideas. And the extraordinariness of his presentation consisted in its thoroughness; he was not content to suggest the thing or to show one aspect of it; he was able, and seemed to feel a certain moral obligation, to present every aspect of the thing, to give all its dimensions, characteristics, origins and possibilities. His method may roughly be indicated by saying that it is the opposite of impressionism.

Gilbert K. Chesterton's method, which is more readily observed and defined in his poetry than in his prose, also consists chiefly of the extraordinary presentation of ordinary ideas. But he does not attempt to give every aspect and shading of an idea. Rather he attempts to present that aspect of an idea which, while true, is sufficiently unusual to surprise the reader; the theory being that the attention attracted by the unusualness will be held by the truth.

This method is admirably suited to the uses of fiction, as "The Ball and the Cross" and "The Man Who Was Thursday" show. It is effective in debate, and in controversial essays on matters ethical and political, as is shown by the writings of Mr. Chesterton himself and of that school of popular apologetics which he may be said to have founded. In poetry it is sometimes almost magically effective, and sometimes grotesquely inappropriate. The perfect, and most lamentable, example of the use of this method is to be found in a poem called "E. C. B." These initials evidently are those of Chesterton's friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the writer of detective stories.

In this serious and, for the most part, beautiful poem, Mr. Chesterton tells us that because of the virtue of one man he finds something to love in every man. Bentley is a man, he says, therefore, for Bentley's sake no man is to be hated. For the sake of Bentley's humanity, Chesterton says that he loves everyone, the murderer, the hypocrite, even—and this is the great climax—himself.

I should say, this was to be his great climax. But the method seizes him, and keeps him from saying anything so strongly simple as "I love myself." Instead, he says:

I love the man I saw but now
Hanging head downwards in the well.

This is, as I said, the Chestertonian method at its worst. Here you find the poet absolutely at the mercy of his method, made to say a simple thing in a complicated manner. But this is, it is only fair to say, an early poem, and not fairly representative of Chesterton as a poet. For it is pleasant to see that, unlike Henry James, Chesterton has been steadily mastering his style, mastering it so thoroughly that he can lay it aside when it is inappropriate. He lays it aside, for instance, in some of the passionate and most effective chapters of "The Crimes of England." And he lays it aside in such of his writings as best deserve the name of poetry.

Like every poet however original, Chesterton has "played the sedulous ape to many masters." In his stirring ballads of warfare, such as "The Battle of Gibson" and "Lepanto" I find echoes of the last of the great ballad makers, Macaulay, whom Francis Thompson himself did not disdain to imitate. In his political controversial poems I find strong suggestions of a poet whose point of view Chesterton is far from sharing—Rudyard Kipling. I find also a curious suggestion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mrs. Browning was Evangelical where Chesterton is Catholic in thought, and she had a fatal knack of taking the wrong point of view in political matters—Italian affairs, for example. But she was genuinely a democrat and genuinely religious, and it is strange to see how often she and Chesterton think alike. There is even a similarity of phraseology, as when Chesterton writes:

The Christ Child lay on Mary's lap.
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up to Him,
And all the stars looked down.

whereas many years before Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem "The Doves" had written of a palm tree:

The tropic flowers looked up to it,
The tropic stars looked down.

Walt Whitman and Gilbert K. Chesterton seem a strange combination. But Chesterton himself has acknowledged that he found in "Leaves of Grass" a great and wholesome inspiration. This seems strange to us, for the American Whitmanite or Whitmaniac is a pale long-haired creature of many 'isms, directly the opposite of a robust Christian like Chesterton. But in the eighteen-nineties when "science announced nonentity and art admired decay" Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp sounding over the roofs of the world" seemed a healthy sound. So in his dedication to "The Man Who Was Thursday," Chesterton writes:

Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
Some giants laboured in that crowd to lift it from the world.
I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain—
Truth out of Tusitala, spoke and pleasure out of pain.
Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.
But we were young; we lived to see God break the bitter charms,
God and the good Republic come riding back in arms:
We have seen the city of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved—
Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.

For some reason, it is difficult to think of Chesterton in love. We can readily think of him fighting or praying, but to think of him making love requires an effort of the imagination. Yet he is happily married, and while his love poems are few, they are noble in thought and beautiful in expression. One of the most personal and characteristic of them is that to which he gives the name "Confessional."

 

CONFESSIONAL

Now that I kneel at the throne, O Queen,
Pity and pardon me.
Much have I striven to sing the same,
Brother of beast and tree;
Yet when the stars catch me alone
Never a linnet sings—
And the blood of a man is a bitter voice
And cries for foolish things.

Not for me be the vaunt of woe;
Was not I from a boy
Vowed with the helmet and spear and spur
To the blood-red banner of joy?
A man may sing his psalms to a stone,
Pour his blood for a weed,
But the tears of a man are a sudden thing,
And come not of his creed.

Nay, but the earth is kind to me,
Though I cried for a star,
Leaves and grasses, feather and flower,
Cover the foolish scar,
Prophets and saints and seraphim
Lighten the load with song,
And the heart of a man is a heavy load
For a man to bear along.

Many poets are writing of war these days. But they write of war too self-consciously, they are too sophisticated, too grown-up. They are so busy getting lessons from the war, describing its moral and social significance, that they have nothing to say about the actual facts of battle. But Chesterton's war poems are splendid primitive things, full of the thunder of crashing arms, of courage and of faith. I think that his "Lepanto" is without an equal among the war poems of the century. It begins as follows:

 

LEPANTO

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea.
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the 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 the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curles,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.
Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war).
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

If any living poet deserves to be called the laureate of democracy, that poet is Gilbert K. Chesterton. I do not base this statement so much on his serious poems in praise of democracy, as on his light verse. In his gay ballades, full of rollicking humor, we find every now and then a bit of shrewd satire, a devastating criticism of the false leaders, of the hypocrites and tyrants who sit in high places. Better than any other writer of our day, Chesterton knows how to drive his rapier of rhyme to the very heart of hypocrisy and injustice. There is sound social and moral criticism back of the irresistible nonsense of "A Ballade of Suicide":

 

A BALLADE OF SUICIDE

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall.
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours—on the wall—
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me.... After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay—
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall—
I see a little cloud all pink and grey—
Perhaps the rector's mother will not call—
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way—
I never read the works of Juvenal—
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H. G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
Rationalists are growing rational—
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
So secret that the very sky seems small—
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
 
envoi
 
Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall—
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

But the poems which most thoroughly justify their author's claim to the title of poet are the religious poems, such poems as "The House of Christmas," "A Hymn for the Church Militant," "The Nativity" and "The Wise Men." In the last-named poem we find Chesterton's love of democracy and his hatred of pretentious scientific dogmatism fully expressed, and we find also the thing which is the basis of these ideas—his deep and abiding faith. He writes:

 

THE WISE MEN

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill,
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The Furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly ... it has hailed and snowed ...
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(... We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone ...)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where tricks of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly; humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

This is indeed the beautiful expression of a beautiful impression; it has in every line the unmistakable glow of noble poetry; it is musical, imaginative, direct, and it is passionately Christian. It is the sort of thing which makes it easy to understand why many people, including, it is said, Mrs. Chesterton, believe that this great humorist, this formidable debater, this brilliant novelist, this sound critic, this accomplished essayist, is, before and above all other things, a poet.


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