Archive for the 'Chesterton' Category

With his rumpty-iddity, rumpty-iddity

October 12, 2016

Chesterton was much interested in popular song in the modern world, where “popular song” is understood in the sense of “songs the people sing”. It is true that this was, already in his time, something of an antiquarian interest, with popular song, in this sense, having nearly disappeared from public life, and matters have not much improved in the meantime, to say the least.

He wrote a rather wonderful essay on the topic, “The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing”, in which he noted the disappearance of singing in modern employments, and proposed anthems for contemporary urban workers (bankers, mailmen, and so forth). It is always fun to revisit it.

I recently came across another, lesser-known essay (from Alarms and Discursions) in which he treated the same topic from another angle: he imagines modernist works of art, those “bewilderments of the solitary and sceptical soul”, re-cast in the model of folk songs, complete with “rumpty-iddity” refrains.

But the chorus of the old songs had another use besides this obvious one of asserting the popular element in the arts. The chorus of a song, even of a comic song, has the same purpose as the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It reconciles men to the gods. It connects this one particular tale with the cosmos and the philosophy of common things, Thus we constantly find in the old ballads, especially the pathetic ballads, some refrain about the grass growing green, or the birds singing, or the woods being merry in spring. These are windows opened in the house of tragedy; momentary glimpses of larger and quieter scenes, of more ancient and enduring landscapes. Many of the country songs describing crime and death have refrains of a startling joviality like cock crow, just as if the whole company were coming in with a shout of protest against so sombre a view of existence.

It’s a nice little piece, recommended and made available courtesy The Hebdomadal Chesterton. Read the whole thing.

Chesterton: What I Saw in America

May 29, 2016

In celebration of Chesterton’s 142nd birthday, here are some notes on one of his lesser-known books.

What I Saw In America
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1990) [1921]
230 p.

This book was the fruit of a speaking tour of America which Chesterton undertook in 1921. He visited New York, Washington, and a few other cities, including a number of small towns, if I am not mistaken. Being a famous person on tour, his experience of America was a peculiar one, and he was the first to admit it. Yet the book contains a number of interesting observations about the differences between England and America, as he saw them, along with (of course!) interesting asides and diversions.

Two of Chesterton’s most beloved witticisms are to be found in this book. Upon being asked by a customs official (as visitors to the US are still asked) whether he intended to overthrow the government, he responded with good humour that “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.” And later, upon reaching New York and being shown the neon lights of Broadway, he wrote:

I had looked, not without joy, at that long kaleidoscope of coloured lights arranged in large letters and sprawling trade-marks, advertising everything, from pork to pianos, through the agency of the two most vivid and most mystical of the gifts of God; colour and fire. I said to them, in my simplicity, “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

Even apart from these chestnuts, there is a good deal to like about the book. Chesterton is much interested in the differences between American and English national tempers, and between American and English ways of life. He remarks on the skyscrapers of New York with evident appreciation, and professes astonishment at seeing whole towns constructed from wood. He spends some time exploring the differences between British and American English, and he takes one chapter to critically examine Dickens’ portrait of American in Martin Chuzzlewit (which, to infer from what he wrote, was a kind of cultural touchstone for the English at the time vis-à-vis America).

It is evident that, in some respects, a great deal has changed in the century since Chesterton wrote. There are still many differences between the two nations, of course, but I think there is greater familiarity on each side. It is doubtful that a modern Englishman visiting America would be astounded at wood construction. But a modern visitor to New York might well encounter attitudes just like those Chesterton encountered:

I heard some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia or Baltimore as ‘dead towns.’

You don’t say? He goes on to explain:

They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive, just as they are now astonished, and will be increasingly astonished, to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation still alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead…

Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive.

That last bit is a good example of Chesterton’s aphoristic powers, not quite as powerful in What I Saw In America as a decade earlier, but still pretty potent. Numerous quotations from the book will eventually make their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

A missed opportunity

May 18, 2016

My other weblog is The Hebdomadal Chesterton, at which, as the name indicates, I post an excerpt from Chesterton once each week.

I have long noted, with some regret, that surprisingly few people search online using the string “Hebdomadal Chesterton”, which I surmise limits the readership of that weblog.

It occurs to me now that I ought to have called it “G.K. Weekly”, catching the resonance with G.K.’s Weekly, the publication over which Chesterton presided during the last decade of his happy life. This was a missed opportunity.

And it only took me nine years to think of it…

Here and there

September 4, 2015

Links to a few interesting things that have come my way in the past few weeks:

  • An unexpectedly deep and moving interview with Stephen Colbert from the pages of, of all things, GQ magazine. I don’t count myself a “fan” of Colbert, exactly, having not really seen enough of him to feel strongly one way or another, but this interview has certainly increased my respect for him.
  • Two years ago in my annual “best films” summation I praised the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Steven Greydanus has recently written a longer, more informed essay on their work, and I recommend it.
  • The 52 Authors project continues to roll at Light on Dark Water, and one of the most recent entries is on G.K. Chesterton. Louise did a nice job with it, and it is well worth reading.
  • Those undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood have been creating quite a stir, at least in certain quarters. Writing in Crisis, Monica Miller defends the tactics used to obtain the videos. I understand the argument that the videos are morally tainted because the sting involved deception and lies and lying is a great evil. I understand the argument that pro-lifers, who already occupy the moral high ground, should not stoop to unethical means to advance their good cause. On the other hand, my moral intuition is that David Daleiden has done something heroic, worthy of praise and not blame. It is not clear to me that in making that judgement I am guilty of letting the end justify the means. Miller helps me to reflect on that moral intuition.
  • If you haven’t heard about the Planned Parenthood videos, it could be because your favourite news source is in bed with the organization. Also at Crisis, Joseph Schaeffer has written a detailed examination of apparent conflicts of interest within major media companies. This essay, I believe, deserves to be widely read because it addresses an aspect of the coverage that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
  • Meanwhile, at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has been doing yoeman’s work defending the pro-life cause against objections and misunderstandings: Part I and Part II.
  • Finally, to end on a happy note, let’s have some music. The cello is my favourite instrument, and I’ve amassed quite a collection of music written for it, but only today did I discover Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.1, written not just for the cello, but for a whole ensemble of cellos! Here is the final fugue:

A poem for Elizabeth

April 1, 2015

Lines written to a young girl
born before April Fool’s Day

When March went out a lion or a lamb,
And you came in, a lamb or lioness
(For which you were, when in the cot or pram,
I do not know although I partly guess),
They gave you that strong name, with other mercies,
Especially no doubt to suit my verses.

My verses, which were then, as you are, young,
More numerous than now and even worse,
But then were things less glorious to be sung,
And several things more damnable to curse;
And so in rhymes I now find crude and scrappy,
I kicked the pessimists to make them happy.

Thank Heaven you missed, and men need tell you not,
What tosh was talked when you were very small,
When Decadence, which is the French for Rot,
Turned life to an irreverent funeral.
The leaden night of that long peace is dead
And we have seen the daybreak, very red.

England, unbroken of the evil kings,
Whose line is breaking in the breaking snow,
Open your ways to large and laughing things
And the young peace be with you where you go,
And far on that new spire, new sprung in space,
St. Michael of the morning give you grace.

The Spring is with us, whose new-made election
Leaps in the beeches that baptised our Field,
Walks in the woods the ways of resurrection
In a new world washed in the wind and healed;
Young as your ancient name, more strong than death,
Strength of the House of God, Elizabeth.

— G.K. Chesterton, March 1916.

 (Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

Chesterton: The Flying Inn

January 18, 2015

The Flying Inn
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2001) [1914]
320 p.

There are people who judge The Flying Inn to be one of Chesterton’s better works of fiction — and perhaps it is, though that would not be saying all that much. Is it a philosophical comedy? A farcical dystopian vision? A profound cultural critique? A mere excuse to string together drinking songs? It’s a little difficult to get a clear reading, because the dang thing won’t sit still. My view is that Chesterton was going for something like the good-natured adventuring of Pickwick, but this time through a landscape in which everyone but Pickwick and friends — sorry, Dalroy and friends — have forgotten what England is all about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, in which English society, and in particular the elite class, has fallen under the exotic sway of Islam. It’s simplified theology, the sumptuous aesthetic appeal of Arabic carpets and purfumes, and the ascetic appeal of teetotalism have endeared it to people who matter. The kinds of arguments on behalf of Islam that appeal to them are superbly half-witted (much more so than any such real-world arguments would be). Most significantly for the story, the English Parliament has passed laws shuttering all pubs that do not have a sign in front, and the signs have been confiscated — mostly. Captain Dalroy and his friends still have one, and the book is a record of their wild romps over rolling English roads with a sign, a barrel of rum, and an armful of cheese. They plant their sign in the unlikeliest of places, serve up warm cheer to the common folk who gather around them, and then abscond again before the authorities catch up with them.

The story is punctuated by spontaneous song-making on the part of the characters, and some of Chesterton’s better-known warm-hearted poetry comes from this book: “The Rolling English Road”, “The Logical Vegetarian”, “The Song against Songs”, “The Song of Right and Wrong”, and “Wine and Water”, among others. It’s not great poetry, but it is the sort of thing one would enjoy singing while drinking rum and running from the police (or so I imagine).

Considered as cultural criticism, The Flying Inn is vexing. The face of Islam presented in the book is a largely aesthetic one: only those aspects which appeal to the “progressives” have been adopted, and it seems to me that the real target of his satire is modern secularism. The character of the novel’s central villain, Lord Ivywood, bears this out; in his notes on the book, Dale Ahlquist summarizes Ivywood well:

Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”

As such, it is not really clear what the quasi-Islamic background adds, unless it be simply its value as a foil. Maybe Chesterton needed something to oppose the traditionalism of his protagonists, and an unadulterated secularism was just too bland. Certainly the prospect of a marriage of progressivism and Islam has comedic value. Oh, did I mention that the book lies well out of the political correctness safety zone?

As a road novel, the book inherits the weaknesses inherent to its genre: a general shapelessness, haphazard action, and transient characters. I imagine Chesterton writing his episodes on napkins in pubs, puffing on a cigar and laughing to himself, and finally delivering the stack of napkins to his publisher. The book is witty, disorganized, genial, tedious, and sort of fun. I’m glad I read it, and please God I’ll not read it again.

Chesterton Mini-Festival, Farewell!

June 14, 2014

g-k-chesterton5

Today, which marks the anniversary of Chesterton’s death in 1936, also marks the end of my Chesterton Mini-Festival for this year. I’ve had a good time; finding time for the blog is challenging these days, and it has been good to see a little project like this, however modest, through to its conclusion. Many happy returns!

As a way of wrapping up, let me direct you to this interesting page which compiles a list of writers and otherwise notable figures who have, in one way or another, acknowledged Chesterton as an influence upon them. You might be surprised at some of the names.

The set of posts which comprised the festival this year can be summoned up by clicking here.

Oddie on Chesterton

June 13, 2014

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy
The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
William Oddie
(Oxford, 2008)
411 p.

In this book William Oddie examines Chesterton’s early life, from his birth in (so we are told) 1874 through his boyhood, schooling, and eventual emergence into the journalistic and literary world of England in the early years of the new century, culminating in the watershed year of 1908 in which Chesterton, still in his early 30s, published two of his most enduring and widely read books, The Man who was Thursday and Orthodoxy, and had reached a point at which, in Oddie’s words, “he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” Oddie’s purpose is to trace the development of his mind and his talents, in an effort to understand how Chesterton came to be Chesterton.

He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.

Chesterton came from a lively home. He had an argumentative younger brother, Cecil, and a creative father much devoted to a variety of hobbies: painting, drawing, writing, and theatre. (Chesterton’s life-long love of toy theatres was an inheritance from his father.) It was a fine home for the cultivation of a young writer, but it was not the sort of home from which one might expect a noted establishment critic and Christian apologist to arise. He had little in the way of religious formation, and that he did have was at odds with his later views: he was anti-clerical and anti-dogmatic as a teenager and young man, though these tendencies were counter-weighted by a longstanding fascination with the Blessed Virgin and an enduring admiration for medieval culture, both of which would eventually have a hand in moving him toward Catholicism.

While still in grade school Chesterton formed, together with several friends, the Junior Debater’s Club (JDC), of which he was the official chair and the unofficial heart. It was in the context of this club that he really began to stretch his intellectual wings as a critic, a moralist, and a debater. It was here that we first begin to hear his distinctive voice. (“A dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities,” began one paper, given at age 16 but already characteristically “Chestertonian”.)

After his graduation from high school, when his friends went off to university, Chesterton chose instead to enrol at the Slade School of Art. The time he spent there was probably the most unhappy of his life. This period is usually characterized as something like his “dark night of the soul,” and though Oddie cautions against overstating the case, it is true that it was during this time that he confronted, in his heart, as it were, a moral and intellectual darkness that he saw gathering around him, and indeed around Western society as a whole. “I dug quite deep enough to discover the devil,” he later wrote. He was particularly troubled by the decadents in the English artistic world, represented by Oscar Wilde, with their cry of “art for art’s sake”, a formula that filled Chesterton with dismay, and even horror, for he always saw art as having a moral purpose.

It was Walt Whitman who had a large hand in helping Chesterton through this trial. Under Whitman’s influence he was fortified in a basic belief in the goodness of all things, in the equality and solidarity of men, and in “the redemption of the world by comradeship”. He emerged from this bleak period with a fresh sense of gratitude for life and art, as captured in the famous quotation from his Autobiography:

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

Oddie argues that he began at this time to take a greater interest in theological questions, and even described himself as “becoming orthodox” because “heresy is worse even than sin”. At this time Christian theology began to be for him a point of reference. But it was only when he met Frances Blogg, his future wife, that his interest in religion and doctrine was really catalyzed. Frances was a devout Anglican, and in her social circle Chesterton met, for the first time, a group of intelligent and articulate Christians. Interestingly, the influence of this group on Chesterton’s thought is largely hidden from view to the biographer; we simply do not know very much about the arguments and ideas which Chesterton found persuasive at this time.

We do know that by 1903, being by now a well-established columnist with The Daily News and having published a well-received study of Robert Browning (which really marked his entrance into the world of serious English letters) he was ready to enter public debate in defence of traditional religious ideas — these are the so-called “Blatchford controversies,” after his principal opponent, Robert Blatchford.

There are many other threads to Chesterton’s intellectual and literary development during these years: his talent for posing fruitful paradoxes, his social and economic advocacy (in which an early socialism eventually turned into distributism), his love of the Middle Ages (in Oddie’s words, “a parallel dimension…in which truthfulness and humanity perpetually and exuberantly flourish”), his belief in the wisdom of fairy tales (in which “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”), and many others. Oddie does a very good job of pulling them together into a unified portrait of the man.

As already mentioned, the two great books Chesterton published in 1908 mark, for Oddie, his maturity as a thinker and write, and he closes the book with an interesting analysis and appraisal of each.

Over the years I have read quite a few books about Chesterton; this is among the best. It is certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of Chesterton’s life and thought that I have encountered, but never at the expense of accessibility. What sets it apart from other biographies — of which there are quite a few now — is, first, the thoughtful detail in which these early years are treated, and, second, the access Oddie had to previously unavailable papers. The story of Chesterton’s life comes alive in these pages. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

Chesterton: The Defendant

June 12, 2014

The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2012) [1901]
112 p.

One of Chesterton’s first writing gigs was an occasional column in the Speaker paper in London. The Defendant is a collection of those early essays, issued when he was just in his mid-20s, and the collection is so called because each of the essays bears a title of the form “A Defense of [Something]”.

Despite its early date, I was a little surprised to find that his voice in these short pieces is already recognizably his own: the wit, the playfulness, and the splendid, quixotic joy in sallies against received wisdom were already well evident. For Chesterton came bounding to the defence not of great things like beauty, art, or friendship, but overlooked or snubbed things like juvenile fiction (“A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”), plumbers and mailmen (“A Defence of China Shepherdesses”), lower-class entertainments (“A Defence of Farce”), and trivia (“A Defence of Useful Information”). I am told that while the book was fairly well received on first publication, many readers took it as a kind of facetious provocation, a novelty item in which he defended the indefensible for mere amusement. The prevalence of paradox in these pages led one early reviewer to remark, “Mr Chesterton’s salad is all onions.” Only with time, as Chesterton’s views were reiterated and extended in his many books and articles, could his initial seriousness be fully appreciated. For the happy truth is that Chesterton really did love these unloved things, he really did regard them with gratitude, and he really did think them worthy of praise. That “Chestertonian spirit” was the gift which he was, in these essays, just beginning to bestow upon the world, and they make for good reading still.

Choice excerpts from The Defendant can be read at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; the full text is also freely available.

“So tiny a thing”

June 11, 2014

“The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.”

— G.K. Chesterton
The Defendant (1901).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)