Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

Here are the latest five instalments of my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column from The Open Door magazine.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Last week I started writing about Chesterton’s book What I Saw in America, written after his first lecture tour in that country.  It is perhaps the most well-known of his travel books.
Chesterton liked America and Americans. He did not share the anti-Americanism which is such a common feature of life on this side of the Atlantic. (Being married to an American woman, I am particularly aware of this. So many people who consider themselves liberal and free from prejudice are quite willing to use ‘American’ as a derogatory term).

To me, the most interesting passage in What I Saw in America might be the passage in which Chesterton discusses American excitability and enthusiasm.
To [an American] excitement itself is dignified. He counts it a part of his manhood to fast or fight or rise from a bed of sickness for something, or possibly for anything… he is not only proud of his energy, he is proud of his excitement. He is not ashamed of his emotion, of the fire or even the tear in his manly eye…

Of course, there are dangers in this, and Chesterton was well aware of them.  (He was always insistent on the need for clear thought before action.) But his point here is that such excitability is a good thing in itself. To be excitable is to be receptive to the world, to be outward-looking. It is a close relative to that most Chestertonian of all emotions, wonder.
The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you.' That text has been the stay and support of more Pharisees and prigs and self-righteous spiritual bullies than all the dogmas in creation; it has served to identify self-satisfaction with the peace that passes all understanding. And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.


After writing about G.K. Chesterton’s view of America, perhaps it is time that I turned closer to home, and examined his relationship to Ireland.
Few Englishmen have been as friendly towards Ireland as Chesterton was throughout his entire life. Partly this is explained by his upbringing. His parents were ardent liberals, and supporters of the Liberal Party. Bear in mind that liberalism, at this time, was not the insane philosophy that it has become in our own era. It was, rather, a belief in freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and other basically noble ideas. In Britain, liberals also tended to be supporters of Irish Home Rule.

But it wasn’t just upbringing that made Chesterton a friend of Ireland. Ireland was, in many ways, the embodiment of all he believed in. Ireland was (at the time that he was writing) fervently Catholic—and, although Chesterton only converted to Catholicism in his forties, he had Catholic leanings long before that. As well as this, Ireland was a country of small farmers, a peasant country. This was Chesterton’s social ideal. He believed that the land and wealth of a nation should be owned by its people, rather than being owned by huge corporations. He also admired peasants for their way of life and their folklore. To quote a line I have already quoted in this series, Chesterton believed that the Irish peasant was “close to the heavens because he is close to the Earth.”
 Finally, Ireland was a country famous for its tradition of soldiery. The Wild Geese and other Irish exiles had distinguished themselves in armies all over the world, including the British army. Chesterton always preserved a rather boyish enthusiasm for soldiers and war. (His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which portrays a war between London suburbs, is an example of this. Many readers are taken aback at its almost gleeful scenes of bloodshed.) He carried a swordstick wherever he went, and the very name Swords—the village in Dublin, that is—inspired him to write a poem. (It’s a very bad poem.)

Chesterton was famous for his paradoxes, of course, and in his day there was a particularly Irish form of paradox known as an ‘Irish bull’. This was a humorous contradiction in terms, a slip to which the loquacious Irish were considered prone. (You don’t hear the term much today. More political correctness!) Chesterton often quoted (and, indeed, invented) Irish bulls. His best was: “One man is just as good as another…and a good deal better besides”!

Last week I promised to write more about G.K. Chesterton’s views on Ireland. For that purpose, I have been leafing through Irish Impressions, one of two books he wrote about Ireland. (The second book, Christendom in Dublin, is more of an extended essay than a book. It’s about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.) But I found myself feeling frustrated as I browsed its pages.
The truth is that the Ireland Chesterton wrote about is very different from the Ireland of today. For instance, Chesterton writes that “the whole trend of the modern world is directly opposite to the whole trend of the modern Irish world.” He wrote this in 1919, three years after the Easter Rising (a rebellion that Chesterton regarded as an error on the part of the rebels). Ireland at this time was exuberantly Catholic and nationalist, and was fundamentally a country of small farmers. There were high hopes that, after independence, the Irish nation would develop in a different direction than England had, that it would not copy the industrial cities, irreligion and trashy books and newspapers that—according to Irish nationalists—were typical of the England of that time. As we know, these hopes turned out to be ill-founded. It is rather saddening to read Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin today.

The purpose of the visit which Chesterton describes in Irish Impressions was one which might raise eyebrows amongst my readers. He was seeking to raise volunteers for the English war effort in World War One. Chesterton was an ardent supporter of the Allied cause. He understood why Irish men might not wish to enlist, but this was his reasoning as to why they should:

I entirely sympathise with their being in revolt against the British Government. I am in revolt in most ways against the British Government myself. But politics are a fugitive thing in the face of history. Does anybody want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side at the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten? Does anybody want to be remembered as a friend of Attila, through a breach of friendship with Aetius?  In any case, it was with a profound conviction that if Prussia won, Europe must perish, and that if Europe perished England and Ireland must perish together, that I went to Dublin in those dark days of the last year of the war.

The wrong side? As they say, Homer nods.


In this series so far, we have taken an overview of Chesterton’s fundamental ideas, the history of his spiritual development, his eventual conversion to Catholicism, and his most important relationships. We have sampled some of his writings on particular subjects such as marriage and travel. At this point we will begin a chronological tour of his long (and very industrious!) writing career. Take a deep breath…
Chesterton’s first published writing appeared, as with many writers, during his school years. He was a member of the Junior Debating Club, a club of school-friends with literary and other intellectual aspirations, who produced their own magazine. Another famous member of this club was Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the detective novelist and inventor of the poetic form called the clerihew. You’re probably familiar with clerihews even if you don’t recognise the name. Here is one of the most famous:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said “I am going to dine with some men. 
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
The book in which these breezy little verses made their debut was Biography for Beginners (1905), and Chesterton provided the illustrations to Bentley’s text. Chesterton had a talent for drawing spiky, madcap cartoons. He also illustrated the light verse of his friend Hilaire Belloc.
Chesterton’s first proper book was also a volume of light verse and illustrations, published by his proud father in 1900, and titled Greybeards at Play. Chesterton wrote some masterful humorous verse—but not in this book!

In the same year, Chesterton’s father also financed a collection of his son’s serious poetry, The Wild Knight. The volume contains two of Chesterton’s most famous poems, ‘By the Babe Unborn’ and ‘The Donkey’. The first puts into verse the thoughts of a baby longing to be born and to experience all the wonders we take for granted.
As for ‘The Donkey’, it is Chesterton’s most famous poem and you probably know it already—perhaps even by heart. It has a school-room simplicity which has justly made it a classic. In it, we are given the supposed thoughts of a donkey, who admits to being a ‘parody on all four-footed things.’ But then comes the great final verse when the donkey recalls its finest hour:
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears, 
And palms before my feet.
Chesterton, not yet a professed Christian, was already writing about Christ.

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.


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