Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Stocking of Seasonal Chesterton Quotations

What? You're hungry for more of GKC's reflections on Christmas?

Yeah, me too. So I went through my Chesterton books and plucked these out for your delectation, mostly from his Illustrated London News column. Enjoy-- and Merry Christmas to you all!

All Dickens's books are Christmas books. But this is still truest of his two or three famous Yuletide tales -- The Christmas Carol and The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. Of these The Christmas Carol is beyond comparison the best as well as the most popular. Indeed, Dickens is in so profound and spiritual a sense a popular author that in his case, unlike most others, it can generally be said that the best work is the most popular. It is for Pickwick that he is best known; and upon the whole it is for Pickwick that he is best worth knowing. In any case this superiority of The Christmas Carol makes it convenient for us to take it as an example of the generalisations already made. If we study the very real atmosphere of rejoicing and of riotous charity in The Christmas Carol we shall find that all the three marks I have mentioned are unmistakably visible. The Christmas Carol is a happy story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity.

Again, The Christmas Carol owes much of its hilarity to our second source -- the fact of its being a tale of winter and of a very wintry winter. There is much about comfort in the story; yet the comfort is never enervating: it is saved from that by a tingle of something bitter and bracing in the weather. Lastly, the story exemplifies throughout the power of the third principle -- the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque. Everybody is happy because nobody is dignified. We have a feeling somehow that Scrooge looked even uglier when he was kind than he had looked when he was cruel. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top-heavy happiness of the stories.

Charles Dickens, 1906

One of the first reforms of Lenin and Trotsky was, I believe, to abolish Christmas. It is not the only point on which the prejudices of the most emancipated Progressives are an exact copy of the prejudices of the most antiquated Puritans.

A Christmas of Peace, 1918

Some of our more advanced ethical teachers might well write a new version of “The Christmas Carol”—a sort of Anti-Christmas Carol. For the drama of Dickens might well appear to them not a comedy of conversion, but a tragedy of apostasy. The story would start with Scrooge as a lofty and idealistic vegeterian, partaking of a pure and hygienic diet of gruel. It would end with the same Scrooge, now degraded by superstition, and engaged in a cannibal conspiracy for the assasination of a turkey…Eugenics, which often form a part of such ethics, might here suggest a thoughtful passage about the mistake made in the birth of Tiny Tim, and the desirability of correcting that mistake with all speed in some timely and quiet fashion.

The New Attack on Christmas, 1919

This is written amidst fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when I last saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem. The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, though it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing, under the extreme test of realism. It is the sceptical and even the rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary. Everything I had been taught or told led me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rationalism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had led me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a sort of semi-tropical place, with nothing but palm trees and parasols. It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card. It was only by the sight of my bodily eyes, and against all my mental training, that I realised how true is the tradition handed down in a Christmas carol…the whole background was so mountainous as to be in many ways Northern.

Now this nameless northern element in the first landscapes of Christianity has had a certain effect on our own history. As the great creed and philosophy which united our fathers swept westwards over the world, it found its different parts peculiarly fitted to different places….while the Latins more especially preserved the legends about the soldiers, we in the north felt a special link with the legend of the shepherds. We concentrated on Christmas, on the element of winter and the wild hills in the old Christian story. Thus Christmas is, in a special sense, at once European and English. It is European because it appeals to the religion of Europe. It is English because it specialises in those religious customs that can make even our own landscape a holy land.

A Progress from England, 1920

Christmas belongs to an order of ideas which never really perished, and which is now less likely to perish than ever. It had from the first a sort of glamour of a lost cause; it was like an everlasting sunset. It is only the things that never die that get the reputation of dying.

Christmas and the Peasant Traditions, 1921

Mr. Arnold Bennett began, indeed, by eliminating the more mystical elements in Christmas by a device of curious and almost creepy simplicity. He alluded to the fact that the 25th of December was the traditional date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and then thought it was enough to say that it probably was not the historical date at all. There is a sort of innocence in this which I cannot but feel as faintly amusing, despite the seriousness of this aspect of the subject. Some light on the logic of the process may be thrown by merely imagining it applied to any other festival, even the most strictly secular and social festival. Suppose it were found that by some error in an official document the Battle of Trafalgar had been attributed to Oct. 21 when it was really fought on Oct. 23. It would be surely a rather extraordinary argument to deduce from this that Trafalgar Day need have nothing to do with Nelson, nothing to do with naval glory, nothing to do with patriotism, nothing to do with England. It would be rather odd to argue that because of this shuffling of dates any Cosmopolitan, any Continental enemy of England, any Internationalist who hated all flags, any Pacifist who hated all fighting, had just as much to do with Trafalgar as an English sailor.

…You cannot select a particular day without selecting a particular subject. You cannot have a day devoted to everything; it is contradicted by the very word devotion. You cannot have a festival dedicated to things in general; it is contradicted by the very idea of dedication. No religion, as far as I know, has ever had a Feast of the Universe; and Robespierre did not really get very far even with a Feast of the Supreme Being.

On Generalizing Christmas, 1922

The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly surive any attempt by modern artists, idealists or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticise or destroy. All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises, promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified. All the men in William Morris are dignified. All the men even in H.G. Well are dignified, when they are men at all. But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation.

The Survival of Christmas, 1908

Thus, by talking a great deal about the solar solstice, it can be maintained that Christmas is a sort of sun-worship; to all of which the simple answer is that it feels quite different. If people profess to feel the “spirit” behind symbols, the first thing I expect of them is that they shall feel how opposite are the adoration of the sun and the following of the star.

Christmas and the Progressive Movement, 1910

Most men need institutions to make them distinguish themselves; and they also need institutions to make them enjoy themselves. For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink back from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement. It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

The Alleged Decline of Christmas, 1910

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Tis the season...

....to revive a festive Chesterton passage that, back in September, I couldn't help quoting out of season. Chesterton wrote lots of good stuff about Christmas; it was a favourite topic with him. But I especially like this because it expresses wonderfully how salubrious Christmas is; a blast of fresh Winter air in a world, and an era, that is all too often sickly and fevered. Chesteton was never better than when he was bashing morbidity and championing simple and innocent joys.

There is 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. Those who will not rejoice in the end of the year must be condemned to lament it. We must accept the New Year as a new fact; we must be born again. No kind of culture or literary experience can save him who entirely refuses this cold bath of winter ecstasy. No poetry can be appreciated by him who cannot appreciate the mottoes in the crackers. No log-rolling can rescue him who will not roll the Yule-log. Christmas is like death and child-birth—a test of our simple virtue; and there is no other such test left in our land to-day.

"The Wrong Books at Christmas", Illustrated London News, January 9, 1909

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Shameless Self-Indulgence

A festive poem, not by Chesterton, but by yours truly. But it does use the phrase "world-creating frame" for windows, and Chesterton did write "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window." So there's kind of a link, yeah?

A Christmas Bauble

Gaze into the flickering flame
Of a homely hearth
Gaze through the world-creating frame
Of any window on the Earth.
Gaze in a grey or a hazel eye;
Gaze all night at the spangled sky;
But gaze at last, for a greater joy,
In the glow of a Christmas bauble.

This is the very mirror of mirth;
A light to proclaim
A winter's tale of a Virgin Birth
Making the world a fantastic game.
God is the giddiest thought of all,
Says the tinsel hanging on the wall
And the twinkling of that happy ball
The glow of a Christmas bauble.

The season that bears the Holy Name
Is sending forth
The tidings we were born to proclaim;
The infinite worth
Of the soul of man, and the world of things;
The wild delight of all carollings
But the homeliest hymn to the King of Kings
Is the glow of a Christmas bauble.

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

Beautiful meditation on the Nativity...

...from The Everlasting Man, quoted in the Hebdomadal Chesterton. Surely one of Chesterton's loftiest flights of eloquence. And a good example of how Chesterton's best passages defy classification; not simply devotional, not strictly philosophical, partly poetical, but perhaps most accurately described as a combination of all three.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Ballade of Suicide

I was reminded of one of Chesterton's funniest poems today by reading about the Season Six DVD of the Office, my favourite TV show (the US version, which is even better than the British version). Apparently fans were up in arms because one scene-- a pre-credits sequence which was wildly popular-- has been dropped from the DVD. The reason? It features Steve Carell's character, Michael Scott, play-acting a suicide for the benefit of some schoolchildren. (The fact that it's spectacularly inappropriate is part of the joke-- the office workers are arranging a Halloween surprise for the kids.)

I don't necessarily think NBC were wrong to drop the scene, but it made me think of Chesterton's willingness to joke about almost anything. In Orthodoxy, he wrote: "Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil". And yet he could pen a blithe ditty like this on the same subject (my favourite line is "rationalists are growing rational").

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.


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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Scruton vs. Chesterton: Round Two!

I have been reading Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy, a gentle lament for a centuries-old tradition that now seems moribund. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain, which was more robust and less preoccupied with high culture. But both books are worth reading.

Nearly everybody who writes about the English agree that they cherish a pastoral idyll deep in their soul; that, even when they are packed into suburb and megalopis, their heart is still amongst the hedgerows. It is there in Constable, The Faerie Queen, the country house detective novel, the Shire, the poetry of Wordsworth and Housman. Scruton has this to say about it:

English loyalty was loyalty to a place domesticated by indigenous law. Hence, when war or other crises forced the English into consciousness of their historic ties, it was the country that was the object of their intensest feelings of community. In and around the two world wars books began to appear, addressed to the general reader, devoted to this or that aspect of the rural way of life. In almost all of them the assumption prevailed that somehow rural England was the essential England, and urban England, by contrast, an accident, a concession to progress or even a spiritual sham.

Stanley Baldwin was even more emphatic in a speech given to the Royal Society of St. George in 1924:

To me, England is the country, and the country is England….the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England.

This focus on country life was especially strong amongst the Distributists and those allied to them, such as H.J. Massingham. So it is perhaps surprising that it is not an ideal shared by Chesterton; that he was, in fact, a confirmed city-dweller and urbanist. I sometimes think that this is the least remarked upon and most surprising strand of his thought.

Many quotations could be given to illustrate Chesterton’s urbanism—which verged on anti-ruralism at times—but perhaps none are more arresting than his poem, The Lamp Post:

Laugh your best, O blazoned forests,
Me ye shall not shift or shame
With your beauty: here among you
Man hath set his spear of flame.

Lamp to lamp we send the signal,
For our lord goes forth to war;
Since a voice, ere stars were builded,
Bade him colonise a star.

Laugh ye, cruel as the morning,
Deck your heads with fruit and flower,
Though our souls be sick with pity,
Yet our hands are hard with power.

We have read your evil stories,
We have heard the tiny yell
Through the voiceless conflagration
Of your green and shining hell.

And when men, with fires and shouting,
Break your old tyrannic pales;
And where ruled a single spider
Laugh and weep a million tales.

This shall be your best of boasting:
That some poet, poor of spine.
Full and sated with our wisdom,
Full and fiery with our wine,

Shall steal out and make a treaty
With the grasses and the showers,
Rail against the grey town-mother,
Fawn upon the scornful flowers;

Rest his head among the roses,
Where a quiet song-bird sounds,
And no sword made sharp for traitors,
Hack him into meat for hounds.

What made Chesterton write something like that? Perhaps it was a suspicion that, within the rural idyll, there lurks the seed of anti-natalism; a holding of the nose before the sight of suburbs and supermarkets and holiday resorts, a foreshadowing of the Nietzschean contempt for the “many-too-many”. But surely that is not a necessary accompaniment of the Arcadian dream. Furthermore, it seems a confirmed fact that all the things Chesterton cherished—faith, family, tradition, amateurism-- flourish in rural life, while fads and freaks and secularism thrive in the lands of tarmac and concrete.

All my life I have been an anglophile, and in recent years, I have become a Chestertonian. I love England and I love Chesterton, and I don’t doubt Chesterton’s patriotism or Englishness. But I often feel he stands rather outside the great tradition of English national feeling; his radicalism, his impatience with the Burkean suspicion of ideas and abstract thought (a theme much pondered and praised in Scruton’s book), his very un-Johnsonian lack of regard for monarchy and inherited rank, all of these make Chesterton’s Englishness (historically speaking) rather an unconventional kind. And I must admit that, on all these matters, my heart beats not with Chesterton’s, but with John Bull’s.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The American Chesterton Society...

...which must fairly be considered the mother of all Chesterton Societies, has a swanky new website.

I haven't had a close look myself yet, but I have no doubt it's well worth checking out-- even if the "international Chesterton societies" page makes no mention of the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland!