Friday, September 30, 2011


...for the long hiatus in posting. My reading has taken me away from Chesterton at the moment, though not all that far away (can you get far away from Chesterton?), since I am currently reading Mark Shea's Mary: Mother of the Son trilogy, which (like all of Mark Shea's writing) copiously quotes Chesterton. Indeed, he lists him as his hero in the acknowledgements.

It is interesting that Chesterton (who was naturally chivalrous) felt a life-long devotion to the Blessed Mother, even before he became a Christian, never mind a Catholic. Somewhere he says that he enjoyed Swinburne's blasphemous poem Dolores, which features lines like:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languours of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

However, Chesterton mentally changed the lines to ones more respectful of Our Lady. (I've often found myself mentally changing the lines of song lyrics myself, especially when I find them stupid and petulant, as pop and rock lyrics often are.)

He satirised Swinburne's poem later in these lines:

Cold passions, and perfectly cruel,
Long odes that go on for an hour,
With a most economical jewel
And a quite metaphorical flower.
I implore you to stop it and stow it,
I adjure you, relent and refrain,
Oh, pagan Priapean poet,
You give me a pain.

I am sorry, old dear, if I hurt you,
No doubt it is all very nice
With the lilies and languors of virtue
And the raptures and roses of vice.
But the notion impels me to anger,
That vice is all rapture for me,
And if you think virtue is languor
Just try it and see.

We shall know when the critics discover
If your poems were shallow or deep;
Who read you from cover to cover,
Will know if they sleep not or sleep.
But you say I've endured through the ages
(Which is rude) as Our Lady of Pain,
You have said it for several pages,
So say it again.

"If you think virtue is languor just try it and see". How true that is! My own slow journey towards Christianity began when I accepted, pace Nietzsche and a thousand absinthe-drinking poets and pentagram-wearing heavy metallers, that there was nothing creative or liberating or expansive about evil-- even in the "soft" forms of misanthropy, cynicism, apathy or morbidity, all vices beloved of young aesthetes. Evil narrows. That's what it does, that's what it is. It is a privation, and absence. Whatever adventure we know is all in the striving towards goodness and towards God.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chesterton on the Pull Quote

Things that are really to be read have to be printed for modern maen exactly as they used to be printed for babies. They have to be printed in very plain capital letters; and anything that is to be noticed at all has to be printed very large. Now, this is not what people who really know how to read would ever describe as the pleasure of Reading. It might perhaps be compared in some ways to the modern science of signalling. But it is not knowing how to read connected and cultivated prose, giving to larger and lesser things their due weight in the whole balance of the composition. This is rather an evidence that people are really reading less and less; receding, as it were, further and further from the distant lights of literacy, so that only the very largest signals or widest flashes can read them.

"On Reading, and Not Being Able To", The Illustrated London News, December 8, 1928

Pull quotes, in case you don't know (and why should you?) are the snippets from an article that are printed in larger type to arrest the browsing eye. You know the sort of thing; an article about alcoholism will have the sentence "I sold my daughter's dollies for drink money" in huge black type, tucked between columns of ordinary-sized text. It isn't exactly what Chesterton was writing about-- he was writing about dramatic but trivial excerpts from articles being used for the headline-- but I think it's the same territory.

This kind of thing has spread from newspaper and magazines articles into the world at large. Even museums and exhbitions are now afflicted. Remember when museums used to be full of glass cases, tastefully and unobstrusively labelled? Now we have huge printed wall-length panels, with text superimposed over enormous pictures-- and, of course, dramatic and "punchy" pull-quotes. There is a Beckett "exhibition" (though nothing is exhibited except these panels, and a drawing) in my own library that features such pull-quotes, wrenched out of any context, set against a background of photos of Beckett and the Ireland of his time. The WB Yeats exhibition recently on show in Dublin's National Library, though excelennt in many ways, featured the same blunderbuss techniques.

Presentation, presentation, presentation. That is the catch-cry of the age. And what does it lead to? Everybody screaming louder to be heard over the cacophony. "Shock" advertisements about drugs or road safety that become more and more lurid as we grow more and more blasé about them. Political parties deciding they need to market their policies, and finally reaching the stage where marketing replaces policies. Charities breeding compassion-fatigue by a relentless bombardment of gimmicky proposals ("buy this village a goat!") and "hard-hitting" imagery that hardly makes us blink any more. Viral marketing campaigns that breed a hundred more viral marketing campaigns. Letter-boxes full of junk mail, inboxes full of spam, and even the serenity of the museum and the gallery broken by screaming pull quotes.

As always, Chesterton saw it coming long ago...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Twenty-Five Followers!

Thanks to everybody who reads!

Remember, if you want to contribute a post about Chesterton, Ireland, or any Chestertonian topic at all, just send it to!

Monday, September 5, 2011

That Seventies (Holy) Show

We are often told that the Catholic Church in Ireland has fallen from a zenith that it enjoyed earlier in the century, and whose culmination was the Papal Visit in 1979. I have been reading some old issues of the Irish Catholic magazine Doctrine and Life from 1970, and it makes me wonder if Irish Catholicism is not more robust and healthy today than it was then. (Please bear in mind that Doctrine and Life was, and is, by no means an obscure publication.)

A few quotations will show you what I mean. The first is from the article The Death of God by Colm O'Grady, which I expected to be a rejoinder to the era's trendy (mainly post-Protestant) theology. On the contrary, it was a paen to the Bishop of Woolwich's book Honest to God. Mr. O'Grady says:

We must grow up and shed the illusions of childhood. We must "come of age" and assume the responsibility that goes with matury. The best form of prayer to God to pass an exam is to get down and work for it. Instead of praying for rain or fine weather we should set about controlling the weather and ensuring our crops and pastimes against all weathers. The best prayer for peace is the creation of a just and equitable society. Or as a passenger in a car or plane the true prayer is for the pilot, for greater control and responsibility on his part. God is not going to intervene, even if the worst comes to the worst, and take over the controls.

Never mind the lapse of logic in the last sentence (why is it any more likely that prayer will influence the animate than the inanimate?). The whole thing must make the casual reader, uninformed in avant-garde theology, wonder why we should even bother with the term "prayer" if by prayer we simply mean our own actions.

I skipped the rest of the article, thinking that perhaps the editor was generous to all shades of opinion and orthodoxy would be resumed further on in the magazine. Next I came across a piece headed "Seminarians Discuss Socialism", which contained intriguing passages like the following:

The seminar held recently in Dublin for seminary students revealed serious disquiet over the present institutions of Church life and how they were inhibiting attempts in liturgy and social work to make the church more effective...Many speakers expressed the opinion that there should be no antagonism between socialism and Christianity; not only were they not incompatible but they should be complementary. They were encouraged to see the seminarians and younger clergy interested in socialism...Sister Benventura's paper on the clerical student in the university sparked off a very interesting discussion on how the clerical student is to cope with outdated laws, rules and institutions his superiors expect him to comply with.

It sometimes seems as though laws, rules and institutions are always "outdated". But the most delicious line of the article is:

Somehow I feel that the seminar has been an important "happening" and has revealed tremendous possibilities for common action in the future.

Yeah, man!

I then turned to an article headed "Education versus Inoculation" by Noel Dermot O'Donoghue ODC, which describes how a "certain old priest who was renowned for his lack of education" took shelter from a shower under the awnings of Green's Bookshop in Dublin, and became absorbed in a book he found on the barrow of second-hand books. The book was An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray.

The incident moves Father O'Donoghue to moralise:

The old man had never been inoculated against Gray's Elegy. He had never "done" it in school. he had never "memorized" stanzas chosen by a teacher or tried to explain "mute inglorious Milton" and "animated bust". Neither had he written an appreciation or made a list of the "beauties" of the poem...Clever boys had "got" the poem; it had "taken", and there was perhaps some measure of real appreciation, just as in vaccination there is some measure of infection. The poem could never strike them again in all its freshness and power, as it struck the man who came on it for the first time in his old age on a rainy afternoon.

Our education system has long since abandoned the pedagogical methods of poetic appreciation that the author laments, and children are now presented with free verse and the lyrics of pop songs and asked to describe how the banal lines make them feel. There is no rote learning of poetry-- at least, this had been abandoned by my own secondary school years. Has there been a liberation of poetic taste? Does the freshness of verse now strike our graduates more powerfully? Or is a twenty-year-old, today, a lot less likely to read and quote poetry than her grandmother? The truth is the old plodding methods of teaching poetry-- most importantly, the actual memorizing of verses-- was a discipline which was irksome for the child, but was rewarded many times over in adulthood.

I can't help mentioning a final irony; if he was around today, the uneducated old priest could not discover any book while taking shelter from a shower under the awning of Greene's bookshop. Because Greene's bookshop, which tended to stock more intellectually demanding titles, closed down several years ago. Decades of progressive education and of TV meant that there just wasn't enough demand for serious reading to keep the shop going.

I've read more recent issues of Doctrine and Life. They seem doctrinally orthodox. Certainly no heresies scream for the page. Today's seminarians and young priests, I understand, are also a lot less likely to "go with the flow" of ideas fashionable in secular society-- perhaps because they are in no doubt that they are swimming against the tide, and have made their minds up to it.

Of course we need more vocations. Of course we should pray for our countrymen and women to return to religious observance. But I'm not sure that the Irish Church of the seventies, for all that the seminaries and churches were overflowing, was really in a better state than it is today.