Wow, four hundred and twenty words a week really piles up....it's been a while since I posted my 'Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton' columns from The Open Door magazine here. Well, here are they are, right up to the current one.
Last week, we looked at Chesterton’s earliest publications— two volumes of verse, one comic and one (more or less) serious. His first book in prose appeared in 1901, when he was twenty-seven. The title, The Defendant, is perhaps a surprising one for a young writer. Most young writers, then as now, are more interested in attack than defence. Young people have always had a taste for trying to knock down what their elders have built up. But the paradox is that, in Chesterton’s day—and this trend has only accelerated in our own—the passion for knocking things down had become so universal, amongst both the young and the old, that the real rebel was the one who came to the protection of old institutions and traditional morality. As Chesterton put it (in The Defendant itself) “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.”
Chesterton, however, was not just rebelling against rebellion. In this book, his first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous intellectual fashions of his day, he strikes a note that he kept up throughout his entire career. There is nothing in The Defendant that would contradict anything Chesterton wrote later in life.
The book is also extraordinary for its confidence. All through his writing career, Chesterton wrote “not as the Scribes, but as one who had authority.” Here, for instance, is the paragraph that sums up the theme of The Defendant:
For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
Not for Chesterton the plodding business of quoting authorities and examples, or laboriously weighing up the ‘For’ and ‘Against’. He made bold and dazzling claims from the very first—and defended them. More on The Defendant next week.
Having a favourite author is a funny thing. I’ve written many thousands of words, in this column and elsewhere, about my deep love and admiration for Chesterton. But sometimes I feel I could write a fairly thick pamphlet dedicated to all the things that irritate me about him, too. Who doesn’t have pet peeves about their loved ones?
Last week I was writing about The Defendant, Chesterton’s first book of prose. I rhapsodized about the confidence with which it was written, the remarkable maturity of the views that Chesterton adumbrates in it. Today, I browsed it again, for the purposes of writing this article, and I was struck like a shower of hailstones by the silliness of some of Chesterton’s particular arguments. His general theme—the defence of traditional morality and the need to recapture a sense of wonder before the very fact of our existence—is a sublime one. Unfortunately, his desire to surprise his reader often leads him astray.
Perhaps the most famous essay in The Defendant is ‘A Defence of Skeletons’. “The importance of the human skeleton”, Chesterton writes, “is very great, and the horror with which it is commonly regarded is somewhat mysterious. Without claiming for the human skeleton a wholly conventional beauty, we may assert that he is certainly not uglier than a bull-dog, whose popularity never wanes, and that he has a vastly more cheerful and ingratiating expression. But just as man is mysteriously ashamed of the skeletons of the trees in winter, so he is mysteriously ashamed of the skeleton of himself in death.”
Well, I’ve never met anyone who regarded a skeleton with horror, or with shame. It seems to me that the skeleton holds an esteemed place in our culture—indeed, it’s considered rather sublime and poetic as an image. And I don’t think much of Chesterton’s defence of the skeleton—“however much my face clouds with sombre vanity….the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever”. To defend the skull as a smiley-face is rather banal. Why rob skeletons of their traditional mystique, their macabre glamour?
In another essay, one which contains one of Chesterton’s greatest aphorisms—“literature is a luxury, fiction a necessity”— the pudding is over-egged: “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things.” This is surely going too far.
Chesterton’s later books contain less of this enfant terrible silliness, but he never entirely overcame it. Thankfully, he had more than enough genius to spare a little silliness.
We’ve spent a couple of weeks looking at The Defendant, Chesterton’s first book of prose. His next book, Thomas Carlyle, appeared in 1902, when he was twenty-nine years old.
It’s not at all surprising that Chesterton should choose to write about Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a Victorian writer, social critic and philosopher. In fact, he occupied in the Victorian era the kind of role that Chesterton occupied in his time—some have described this as being a ‘wisdom writer’ or a ‘prophet’. Like Chesterton, he was a gadfly—he stung the Victorians for their supposed utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the belief that only what is useful and profitable is good. (We may note in passing that there were so many Victorians who attacked the Victorians for their utilitarianism, and who did very well out of it, that we have to wonder how utilitarian the Victorians really were.)
Thomas Carlyle is a short book, only thirty-six pages long, but one containing many interesting passages. Chesterton’s introductory remarks are well worth quoting:
Rationalism is, of course, that power which makes people invent sewing machines, understand Euclid, reform vestries, pull out teeth, and number the fixed stars. Irrationalism is that other force, if possible more essential, which makes men look at sunsets, laugh at jokes, go on crusades, write poems, enter monasteries, and jump over hay-cocks. Rationalism is the beneficent attempt to make our institutions and theories fit the world we live in, as clothes fit the wearer. Irrationalism is the beneficent reminder that, at the best, they do not fit. Irrationalism exists to point out that that eccentric old gentleman, "The World," is such a curiously shaped old gentleman that the most perfect coats and waistcoats have an extraordinary way of leaving parts of him out, sometimes whole legs and arms, the existence of which the tailor had not suspected.
Somebody once said, “If you come up with an idiot-proof system, they’ll come up with a better idiot.” And maybe that is not such a bad thing. Certainly, there is something in the soul of man that will always rebel against any Perspex prison of perfect rationalism, to the despair of all utopian reformists.
This was a subject to which Chesterton was to return again and again; the need for a philosophy of life which found room for both the rational and the irrational (or, rather, the mystical). This, of course, he would ultimately find in the Catholic faith. More on Thomas Carlyle next week.
Today we are going to resume our look at Chesterton’s early (and brief) biographical study, Thomas Carlyle. I find the following passage particular interesting, and important:
Carlyle was patient with facts, dates, documents, intolerably wearisome memoirs; but he was not patient with the soul of man. He was not patient with ideas, theories, tendencies outside his own philosophy. He never understood, and therefore persistently undervalued, the real meaning of the idea of liberty, which is a faith in the growth and the life of the human mind….He was something of a Tory, something of a Sans-culotte, something of a Puritan, something of an Imperialist, something of a Socialist; but he was never, even for a single moment, a Liberal. He did not believe, as the Liberal believes, first indeed in his own truth, which in his eyes is pure truth, but beyond that also in that mightier truth which is made up of a million lies.
G.K. Chesterton was a liberal. In our own era, when being a liberal all-too-often means believing in things which are fundamentally insane—for instance, that a man can be married to another man, or that the murder of the unborn child is a victory for choice and freedom—it is hard to realise that liberalism was not always a decadent philosophy. There was a time when liberalism simply meant a belief in freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association and similar freedoms. It meant, as well, a generally respectful attitude to other peoples’ views and ways of life—which is not the same as “the dictatorship of relativism” against which Pope Benedict XVI spoke so often. The “dictatorship of relativism” assumes that there is no ultimate, absolute truth, and that every point of view and every way of life is equally legitimate. The kind of liberalism to which Chesterton subscribed would simply hold that there are nearly always elements of truth in every viewpoint, and elements of merit in every way of life. As Chesterton said, a heresy is not so much a lie as a half-truth, a half-truth that has broken loose and gone on the rampage.
In fact, liberalism was already beginning to go mad in Chesterton’s time, and he eventually left the British Liberal party that he had once supported. As he once wrote: “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”
After Thomas Carlyle, we come to Twelve Types, which is a book of considerable interest. It comprises twelve biographical sketches, most of them of literary figures, but not all; King Charles II and St. Francis also appear. The biographical sketch was certainly one of Chesterton’s strengths. He was a man of such imagination that he did not find it difficult to enter into the mental world of others, even when he passionately disagreed with them. There are several essays in Twelve Types that are worth our attention.
The first is the essay on the romantic poet Lord Byron, entitled (in suitably paradoxical manner) ‘The Optimism of Byron’. Byron, of course, is typically seen as a brooding, melancholy figure, the type of fellow who haunts moonlit ruins while ruminating bitterly on unrequited love, or on his world-weariness— even the adjective ‘Byronic’ conjures such an atmosphere.
But this is what Chesterton has to say: Surely it is ridiculous to maintain seriously that Byron's love of the desolate and inhuman in nature was the mark of vital scepticism and depression. When a young man can elect deliberately to walk alone in winter by the side of the shattering sea, when he takes pleasure in storms and stricken peaks, and the lawless melancholy of the older earth, we may deduce with the certainty of logic that he is very young and very happy. There is a certain darkness which we see in wine when seen in shadow; we see it again in the night that has just buried a gorgeous sunset. The wine seems black, and yet at the same time powerfully and almost impossibly red; the sky seems black, and yet at the same time to be only too dense a blend of purple and green. Such was the darkness which lay around the Byronic school. Darkness with them was only too dense a purple. They would prefer the sullen hostility of the earth because amid all the cold and darkness their own hearts were flaming like their own firesides.
How true this is! It applies just as well to the various ‘brooding’ sub-cultures of youth that have come and gone over the years; Teddy boys, punk rockers, Goths, emos (yes, that is really a word), heavy metal fans, and so on. Darkness and negativity only seem attractive when we have high spirits and exuberance to spare. Pessimism is a luxury of the young, and they should be allowed to indulge it—as long as they do their homework.
This week I would like to return to Twelve Types, Chesterton’s early volume of biographical essays, as I find it particularly interesting. As I said last week, most of the essays are about literary figures. One exception is the essay on King Charles II of England.
Charles II fascinates me. Even though he lived rather a dissolute life and became a Catholic only on his death-bed, there is something very Catholic about his whole story, his whole personality. He was the ‘Merry Monarch’; he was renowned for his tolerance, his willingness to forgive enemies, and his dislike of bloodshed; he had considerable scientific curiosity; he had many mistresses; and his reign closes a period of intense religious conflict, and religious fanaticism, in English history. (Catholicism always seems to stand at the end of things; and though England remained a firmly Protestant country for centuries after the Civil War, this Protestantism was political rather than spiritual. The English Reformation died with Cromwell, and English Catholicism began its slow revival.) Strangely enough, the Faith seems to have a special appeal to both the otherworldy and the intensely worldly type of person; as Oscar Wilde (another death-bed convert) put it, it is a religion for saints and sinners, but not for the respectable. (This is an overstatement, but there is some truth to it.)
Chesterton hits the nail on the head; Charles II seems to be one of those men who, even as they are revelling in the things of this world, look upon it all with a certain good-humoured scepticism:
Among other things Charles II. represented one thing which is very rare and very satisfying; he was a real and consistent sceptic. Scepticism both in its advantages and disadvantages is greatly misunderstood in our time. There is a curious idea abroad that scepticism has some connection with such theories as materialism and atheism and secularism. This is of course a mistake; the true sceptic has nothing to do with these theories simply because they are theories. The true sceptic is as much a spiritualist as he is a materialist. He thinks that the savage dancing round an African idol stands quite as good a chance of being right as Darwin. He thinks that mysticism is every bit as rational as rationalism. He has indeed the most profound doubts as to whether St Matthew wrote his own gospel. But he has quite equally profound doubts as to whether the tree he is looking at is a tree and not a rhinoceros.
For the past few weeks, we have been looking at the very interesting book Twelve Types, one of Chesterton’s early works, and seeing what he had to say about a few of the dozen people he wrote about in it. This week we turn to Saint Francis.
Saint Francis is undoubtedly the most popular saint of modern times, and he was always a favourite with Chesterton. Even before Chesterton became a Christian, never mind a Catholic, he had a devotion to Saint Francis. Later in life, he was to write a biography of the great saint, which is considered one of his masterpieces.
Why is Saint Francis so popular today? Because the world sees him as a model of practical charity, and of solidarity with the poor. This seems a bit of an enigma, when the modern world is at least as keen on making money and on living the good life as any previous generation ever was. With all our smartphones and laptops, we may have more worldly goods than ever before, in one way. (Though, as Chesterton would point out, we are rather less likely to have property in the sense of a house, or a farm, that we own.)
Saint Francis’s solidarity with the poor is certainly celebrated today, but another side to him—that is, his severe asceticism—is rather less celebrated. Indeed, this is an ideal that our contemporary world finds baffling.
Chesterton had this to say: Asceticism is a thing which in its very nature, we tend in these days to misunderstand. Asceticism, in the religious sense, is the repudiation of the great mass of human joys because of the supreme joyfulness of the one joy, the religious joy. But asceticism is not in the least confined to religious asceticism: there is scientific asceticism which asserts that truth is alone satisfying: there is aesthetic asceticism which asserts that art is alone satisfying: there is amatory asceticism which asserts that love is alone satisfying. There is even epicurean asceticism, which asserts that beer and skittles are alone satisfying. Wherever the manner of praising anything involves the statement that the speaker could live with that thing alone, there lies the germ and essence of asceticism. When William Morris, for example, says that 'love is enough,' it is obvious that he asserts in those words that art, science, politics, ambition, money, houses, carriages, concerts, gloves, walking-sticks, door-knockers, railway-stations, cathedrals and any other things one may choose to tabulate are unnecessary.
We’ve been taking a tour through the books of G.K. Chesterton’s (in order of publication), but I think it’s time for a break. There’s been too much wisdom and too little wit in recent columns! So this week, let’s sample some more of Chesterton’s funniest witticisms.
One the women’s liberation movement: Ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting, 'We will not be dictated to,' and went off and became stenographers.
On controversy: I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean. (It should be noted that Chesterton was rather less enthusiastic about real hot water than about metaphorical hot water! His wife had to remind him to take baths. But as he said himself: “saints can afford to be dirty, seducers have to be clean.”)
On the link between religion and festival: Faith exhibits itself in works, and above all in fireworks. And again on the same subject: Take away the Nicene Creed and similar things, and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.
Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.
The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.
Humanity as a whole is changeful, mystical, fickle, delightful. Men are men, but Man is a woman.
The most comic things of all are exactly the things most worth doing--such as making love. (Of course, ‘making love’ meant courtship in Chesterton’s day.)
The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to stop the mistakes from being corrected.
The modern man wants to eat his wedding cake and have it, too.
Intelligence does exist even in the Intelligentsia.
It is unpardonable conceit not to laugh at your own jokes. (I heartily agree with this one. I always laugh at my own jokes, which are usually terrible.)
Here is a very prescient prediction, especially with regard to ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘transexuality’: We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.
There is no accounting for taste, as the saying goes, and I am afraid that I feel the weight of that proverb in writing this week’s column. In our trek through Chesterton’s published writings, we now come to his first really successful book, and the first of his critically-lauded biographies. The book’s title is Robert Browning, and it was part of a series of major literary biographies which were themselves written by famous writers of the time. The fact that the young Chesterton was invited to write this book was seen as an honour, and a recognition of how quickly his star had risen.
His publishers were startled by the manuscript he submitted. As Chesterton himself put it, towards the end of his life: “I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong.”
This is a comic exaggeration, but it reflects a certain truth. Robert Browning is, indeed, a book about Robert Browning. But it is written in a manner very different from most biographies, even literary biographies. One might almost call it a series of reflections on life and letters, inspired by the life and works of the Victorian poet. Despite the early dismay of its publishers, it was a huge success.
Your correspondent must here admit that he has little taste for the works of Robert Browning, apart from some of his more anthologised short verses. As Chesterton wrote in this very book: “The words "tail foremost" express Browning's style with something more than a conventional accuracy. The tail, the most insignificant part of an animal, is also often the most animated and fantastic. An utterance of Browning is often like a strange animal walking backwards, who flourishes his tail with such energy that everyone takes it for his head”. Chesterton, and Browning’s fans, find this charming. I don’t. Perhaps this is why I only read Robert Browning once, and why I was glad to finish it.
But it has some noteworthy passages, which I will discuss next week.
Chesterton was an ardent lover of Christmas. One of his aphorisms that I most often quote relates to Christmas: “There’s nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas. The modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die.” That is the least of what Chesterton had to say about Christmas though. As we celebrate the Twelve Nights until Epiphany, Chesterton tells us to remember that a world with Santa Claus is a world that is filled with innocence and wonder that multiplies.
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
I am writing this on the 30th of December, the penultimate day of the year. Shops have already started taking their Christmas stock off the shelves while friends, acquaintances and television presenters are wishing us all a Happy New Year. We might think that the ‘front-loading’ of Christmas so that it began in September and ended on Christmas Day is a new thing. But it was a phenomenon that G.K. Chesterton denounced in his own day, all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
The old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper.
It wasn’t just the premature anticipation of Christmas that Chesterton bemoaned. It was that even worse habit: the abrupt termination of the festival (and of the festivities). As readers of The Open Door will know, the Christian tradition of Christmas is a season that begins with Advent and ends in the Epiphany (or Twelfth Night as it was called in England). As Chesterton said: “While Progressives are already looking forward to the New Year, Christians should still be looking back to Christmas. It is all the difference between looking back with enthusiasm to something and looking forward with earnestness to nothing. People praise the future because it is blank and featureless; they are afraid of the past because it is full of real and living things.”
So a continued Happy Christmas to all my readers—right up to Epiphany!
Last week I promised to get back to Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning. This week I am going to break that promise, though I do promise we will soon return to our leisurely chronological tour through Chesterton’s works.
Today, however, I want to talk about Chesterton’s views on dogma. This is prompted by a Chesterton piece that I’ve just read for the first time, one called ‘Philosophy for the Schoolroom”. It is also prompted by a rather silly opinion piece which appeared in The Irish Times last week and has generated a fair bit of debate.
The Times article describes the author’s return to Mass after many years of absence. (She isn’t impressed.) She also has this to say about Catholic education: “A Catholic education changes a person. At worst, it is designed to narrow intellectual scope. At best, it discourages objective inquiry; whichever questions a precocious young person may have, the answers are set for them. Genuine examination of issues just isn’t allowed to happen. I felt permanently tense and stunted at school. Questions weren’t encouraged. Opting out of religious services wasn’t allowed. I wrestled internally with the supernaturalism that permeated everything. I felt trapped and couldn’t understand why it was that I felt permanently out of place."
This is a common critique. Schools are to be centres of enquiry, and telling a pupil (or anybody else) what they must believe is putting intellectual blinkers on them.
Against this, Chesterton writes: “What modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking. And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard.
Simple? Of course! So why do so few people ‘get it’? We need more Chesterton!
It seems a long time since I promised to return to Robert Browning, Chesterton’s biography of the great Victorian poetry. Since then, Christmas and the New Year has intervened. But here I am, finally returning to the topic of Chesterton’s first celebrated biography.
As I said before, I only read Robert Browning once, and it made less of an impression on me than most of Chesterton’s books. But one passage I did remember is the passage in which Chesterton describes Browning’s incurable amateurism:
The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for a moment expected to succeed. The story of his life is full of absurd little ingenuities, such as the discovery of a way of making pictures by roasting brown paper over a candle. In precisely the same spirit of fruitless vivacity, he made himself to a very considerable extent a technical expert in painting, a technical expert in sculpture, a technical expert in music. In his old age, he shows traces of being so bizarre a thing as an abstract police detective, writing at length in letters and diaries his views of certain criminal cases in an Italian town. Indeed, his own Ring and the Book is merely a sublime detective story. He was in a hundred things this type of man; he was precisely in the position, with a touch of greater technical success, of the admirable figure in Stevenson's story who said, "I can play the fiddle nearly well enough to earn a living in the orchestra of a penny gaff, but not quite."
Chesterton put it more epigrammatically, and famously, when he wrote: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
This week, as I have no digressions, we continue our chronological tour through the works of G.K. Chesterton. (Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before.)
At this point, the G.K. Chesterton dynamo was revving up in earnest. He wrote a hundred books in his life-time, not to mention innumerable newspaper articles, introductions, and so forth. Biographies and reminiscences of Chesterton are full of references to his heroic work schedule. For a man who never valued work for its own sake, and who was quite a champion of leisure—“the inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn”—he was quite a workhorse himself, spending most of the day writing (and later on, dictating), always struggling to meet deadlines (his articles often had to be sent by cab to newspaper office, at the last minute) and to fulfil the excessive commitments into which he entered. To a great extent, it was idealism which caused him to push himself so hard—he was, after all, not only writing to entertain, but to advance the various causes he believed in. In later years, he poured huge amounts of energy and money into The New Witness, a crusading newspaper that his brother Cecil had edited before he died in the First World War. (It later became G.K.’s Weekly.)
In 1903, he wrote (or contributed to) a succession of short books on various figures. The first was Charles Dickens, and is especially interesting because Chesterton was to become a very respected Dickens critic, contributing introductions to an edition of Dickens’s work which, when collected in one book, became one of Chesterton’s own most celebrated writings. We will have plenty of opportunity to discuss Chesterton’s thoughts on Dickens when we reach that masterpiece. But, from this “minor piece” of 1903, here is an interesting reflection on optimism and pessimism, a theme that would preoccupy Chesterton all through his writing career: “The truth about life is that joy and sorrow are mingled in an almost rhythmical alternation like day and night. The whole of optimistic technique consists in the dodge of breaking off the story at dawn, and the whole of pessimistic technique in the art of breaking off the story at dusk. But wherever and whenever mere artists choose to consider the matter ended, the matter is never ended, and trouble and exultation go on in a design larger than any of ours, neither vanishing at all.”
Next week, we continue our tour through Chesterton’s works.
Let us press on through our chronological tour of Chesterton’s works, and look at his slim book about Lord Alfred Tennyson— little more than an essay, in fact-- published in 1903.
I read this ‘book’ for the first time for the purposes of writing this column, and I must admit that I was not impressed. I happen to be a big fan of Lord Alfred Tennyson. I think he is one of the greatest poets who ever lived. In my view, several of his poems—‘Ulysses’, ‘Locksley Hall’, “The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters’, ‘The Passing of Arthur’—rank amongst the very greatest poems ever written. They are not only magnificent in their use of language, they are full of magnificent and lofty philosophy. Take this passage from ‘Ulysses’:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever as I move.
Even the solitary line ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ expresses a deep idea with such simplicity and elegance that it is still quoted all the time. Or take a line from 'Locksley Hall': “Let the great world wheel forever down the ringing grooves of change.” Chesterton himself liked to quote this line, in order to argue against the idea contained in it. In our own time, a novel has been entitled Let The Great World Wheel Forever. Again, the line brilliantly expresses a particular idea, one which we would surely consider philosophical—the idea that constant, rapid social change is desirable. (Tennyson was not endorsing this idea, necessarily; ‘Locksley Hall’ is written from the point of view of a fictional character.)
And yet this is the thesis of Chesterton’s booklet, as expressed in the first line: “It was merely the accident of his hour, the call of his age, which made Tennyson a philosophical poet.” And later: “Tennyson had not a special talent for being a philosophical poet.” And later: “Perhaps he might be something more of a poet if he had not sought to be something more than a poet.” Chesterton thought Tennyson was a spoiled nature poet, a fine purveyor of pure beauty, who overreached himself in trying to write a poetry of ideas. Chesterton, on this occasion, was talking out of his hat!
We continue our tour next week.