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.


  1. In GK's wierd and wonderful novel 'The Man Who was Thursday' the anarchist poet Gregory lauds the tree as 'anarchy, splendid in green and gold' and the lamp-post as 'order....ugly and barren'.

    The novel's hero Gabriel Syme seems to reflect Chesterton views in his reply 'All the same....just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp'.

    Frames, lamp-posts, dogma....GK seemed to love his 'order', constraints and limits.

  2. I have to admit I think Chesterton is being rather ridiculous there. To me, the contrast of tree versus lamp-post is not anarchy as opposed to order but variety and life as opposed to monotony and mechanism.

    But, of course, it's probably a mistake to take a dicussion between two of his characters are representing GKC'S thought.

    I do think he loved order and limits but, paradoxically (of course!) because of the freedom they made possible; the freedom for the "virtues to run wild", as with his famous image of the children playing in a walled garden on a mountain-top.