Chesterton: William Cobbett

July 17, 2017

William Cobbett
G.K. Chesterton
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1931) [1925]
277 p.

Following my wild introduction to William Cobbett last year, I decided I’d like to know more about him, and so turned to this relatively slim biography. Now, reading one of Chesterton’s biographies with the aim of learning about the subject of the biography is a risky venture, for often his books are as much about himself, or about everything under the sun, as they are about the name on the cover. However I believe that in this case the risk paid off; at least, I finish the book feeling that in addition to having learned something about Chesterton, and about everything under the sun, I have learned something about William Cobbett.

What struck me most forcefully as I read Cobbett’s History was the fierce force of his rhetoric, “every homely word like a hatchet”. Chesterton remarks that his contemporaries praised him for his command of the language, and often did so instead of listening to what he was saying: “He who was so stuffed with matter has been admired for his manner; though not perhaps for his manners.” It was an understandable diversionary tactic on the part of his targets, but one that Cobbett played into by an habitual excess:

“He was ever ready to urge a wise economy of expenditure with the wildest extravagance of words. He praised prudence in a series of the most appallingly imprudent speeches ever made by man. He howled and bellowed all the beauties of a sober and sensible and quiet life. But he was perfectly sincere; and it was really thrift and forethought and sobriety that he recommended. Only, it was the trouble with his forethought that it was, among other things, thought; and of his foresight that he could see a little further.”

And what did his far-seeing foresight show him? One of Chesterton’s recurring themes in the book is that Cobbett was prescient. He felt the onset of things, discerned the shape of things to come, before his contemporaries did:

“Of all our social critics lie was by far the most fundamental. He could not help seeing a fight of first principles deadly enough to daunt any fighter. He could not help realising an evil too large for most men to realise, let alone resist. It was as if he had been given an appalling vision, in which the whole land he looked at, dotted with peaceful houses and indifferent men, had the lines and slopes of a slow earthquake.”

He lived at a time when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform English society, when banks were becoming large and powerful, when urbanization was accelerating:

“What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there.”

All of this he opposed: “There lies like a load upon him the impression that the whole world is being reformed; and it is being reformed wrong.” In other words, Cobbett was substantially what we should today call a conservative, though he was not an ideologue. He saw, quite rightly, the traditional ways of life being upended, and he saw, more clearly than we can see today, what was likely to be lost in the process, even as we see, more clearly than him, what was to be gained. But both the gain and the loss ought rightly to be considered.

What Cobbett loved was “liberty, England, the family, [and] the honour of the yeoman”. Chesterton described his “single creed” as this: “God made man to plough and reap and sow.” He was concerned with more than just the “welfare” of workers, but with “their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory.” Therefore he wanted to encourage thrift and self-control among the poor, in part by granting them control over their own affairs, and he feared and despised an economic system that should make them dependent on others.

In his early life Cobbett had been a patriot — an instinctive one, rather than an ideological one. And he remained a patriot his whole life, though, in Chesterton’s words, a disappointed patriot, for he came to understand that the political powers in England were dens of corruption, and he himself suffered at their hands. He, as a fairly young man, protested to Parliament over the flogging of British soldiers, and for his trouble he was put on trial, and sentenced to two years in prison. Chesterton marks this period of trial and imprisonment as a turning point in his life, the crucible in which Cobbett the fearsome controversialist emerged for the first time:

“The man who came out of that prison was not the man who went in. It is not enough to say that he came out in a rage, and may be said to have remained in a rage; to have lived in a rage for thirty years, until he died in a rage in his own place upon the hills of Surrey. There are rages and rages, and they ought to have seen in his eyes when they opened the door that they had let loose a revolution. We talk of a man being in a towering passion and that vigorous English phrase, so much in his own literary manner, is symbolic of his intellectual importance. He did indeed return in a towering passion, a passion that towered above towns and villages like a waterspout, or a cyclone visible from ten counties and crossing England like the stride of the storm. The most terrible of human tongues was loosened and went through the country like a wandering bell, of incessant anger and alarum; till men must have wondered why, when it was in their power, they had not cut it out.”

A prime example of that “most terrible of human tongues” at work is Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation, which, judging from the attention he gives it, Chesterton takes to be Cobbett’s masterpiece. In this book Cobbett tried to straighten out the distorted collective memory of the English people:

“The impression was one of paradox; the mere fact that he seemed to be calling black white, when he declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to be white had only been whitewashed.”

Chesterton is able to fill in some details about the reception of this fiery work. Although some historians did quibble with this or that detail in Cobbett’s case, his critique survived substantially intact, being substantially true. The most common response to it was, again, to charge him with being impolitic: “It was not really Cobbett’s history that was in controversy; it was his controversialism. It was not his facts that were challenged; it was his challenge.”

Late in his life Cobbett was honoured with a senatorship, a position that called for a willingness to compromise and to speak in platitudes, and therefore a position to which his “cranky common sense” was ill-suited. Chesterton puts it wonderfully:

“The truth is that he was simply a bull in a china shop. His sort of English, his sort of eloquence, his gesture, and his very bodily presence were not suitable in any case to senatorial deliberations. His was the sort of speaking that may make the welkin ring, but only makes the chairman ring a little bell. His attitude and action had about them the great spaces of the downs or the sweeping countrysides; the lifting of the great clouds and the silent upheaval of the hills. His warnings and rebukes sounded more homely and natural when they were shouted, as a man might shout across a meadow a rebuke to a trespasser or a warning against a bull. But that sort of shouting when it is shut up in a close and heated room has the appearance of madness. The company received the impression of a mere maniac. Yet there was not a man in that room who had a clearer head or a clearer style, or a better basis of common sense.”

**

In the end, then, Cobbett appears as a man at odds with his time, a man who loved greatly and who fought the powerful forces that were threatening the things he loved. He was, says Chesterton, a “model husband and father”, but a difficult friend and a fearsome enemy. He was a man who perceived the shape of things to come, an uneducated man who nonetheless grasped the foundations and never forgot them, a man who seemed paradoxical to his contemporaries because he was wider and larger than they were. (Subtract the fearsomeness from this portrait, and, mirabile dictu, one has a decent portrait of Chesterton himself.)

Chesterton sums up the man and his legacy in a passage worth quoting at some length:

“There was never a Cobbettite except Cobbett. That gives him an absolute quality not without a sort of authority. He was a full man and a ready man, but he was not an exact man. He was not a scientific man or in the orderly and conscious sense even a philosophical man. But he was, by this rather determining test, a great man. He was large enough to be lonely. He had more inside him than he could easily find satisfied outside him. He meant more by what he said even than the other men who said it. He was one of the rare men to whom the truisms are truths. This union of different things in his thoughts was not sufficiently thought out; but it was a union. It was not a compromise; it was a man. That is what is meant by saying that it was also a great man.

[…]

That is the paradox of Cobbett; that in a sense he quarrelled with everybody because he reconciled everything. From him, at least, so many men were divided, because in him so many things were unified. He appeared inconsistent enough in the thousand things that he reviled; but he would have appeared far more inconsistent in the things that he accepted. The breadth of his sympathy would have been stranger than all his antipathies; and his peace was more provocative than war. Therefore it is that our last impression of him is of a loneliness not wholly due to his hatreds, but partly also to his loves. For the desires of his intellect and imagination never met anything but thwarting and wounding in this world; and though the ordinary part of him was often happy enough, the superior part was never satisfied. He never came quite near enough to a religion that might have satisfied him. But with philosophies he would never have been satisfied, especially the mean and meagre philosophies of his day. The cause he felt within him was too mighty and multiform to have been fed with anything less than the Faith. Therefore it was that when he lay dying in his farmhouse on the hills, those he had loved best in his simple fashion were near to his heart; but of all the millions of the outer world there was none near to his mind, and all that he meant escaped and went its way, like a great wind that roars over the rolling downs.”

**

The three principal literary works of Cobbett which Chesterton selects for praise are an English Grammar, the history of the Reformation in England, and Rural Rides, which I gather is a kind of opinionated travelogue. Having already read the second of these, and therefore confronted with a choice between the first and last, I believe I’ll opt for the last.

****

[Cobbett and Johnson]
So many things united these two great Englishmen, and not least their instinctive embodiment of England; they were alike in their benevolent bullying, in something private and practical, and very much to the point in their individual tenderness, in their surly sympathy for the Catholic tradition, in their dark doubts of the coming time.

[Rationalism]
Rationalism is a romance of youth. There is nothing very much the matter with the age of reason; except, alas, that it comes before the age of discretion.

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