Posts Tagged ‘G.K. Chesterton’

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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[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.

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.

MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

June 5, 2016

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
(Everyman’s Children’s Classics, 1993) [1871]
340 p.

Our oldest children are now 4 and 7, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to transition our bedtime reading from picture books to novels. With The Princess and the Goblin I think we might have finally managed it. The kids loved it.

The story is about a princess who lives in a mountainside castle, where the local peasantry are miners, digging tunnels deep into the mountain. Yet there is more activity under the hill than you might expect: long ago a group of disaffected subjects retreated under the mountain, and have nursed a hatred for the royal family for many generations. These goblins — for so they have become, hidden away from the sun and the fresh breezes — are also miners, and it is almost inevitable that at some point their tunnels will encounter those of the kinprincess-grandmotherg’s loyal subjects, and the ancient malice against the royal house break into the open…

This book was a favourite of C.S. Lewis, who was a great admirer of MacDonald. And G.K. Chesterton accounted it one of the books most formative of his whole outlook on life:

But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read … it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…

It really is a beautiful book, informed by courage and faith. On one level it is a rousing adventure story, of secret missions and clashing armies, but it has a mysterious register as well, a spiritual aura of goodness that emanates from Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother, who lives, under enigmatic conditions, in the little-frequented upper passages of the castle.

I do not know much about MacDonald’s theology, but for me the “great, huge grandmother” is redolent of the Blessed Virgin: a loving, maternal figure, clad in blue, surrounded by stars, and possessed of a rare grace and quiet power. She makes an effective contrast with the horrid goblins who dwell under the ground.

MacDonald wrote a sequel to this book, called The Princess and Curdie, which does not seem to be as widely read. But we enjoyed this one so much that we may try it.

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…

Favourites of 2015: Books

December 28, 2015

Today I kick off my annual “favourites of” series of posts, in which I’ll be writing about the best books, music, and movies that I had the good fortune to read, hear, and see this year. These are not “Favourites of 2015” lists in the usual sense, because most of what I’ll be discussing is not of recent vintage. The theme for today is books.

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shakespeare-234x300At the beginning of the year I set myself a modest personal challenge: to read one Shakespeare play each month. I had noticed that years were slipping by in which I hadn’t read even one, and it didn’t seem right. I’m happy to say that I met the challenge, and then some. I treated myself to a few of my favourite plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest), dipped into the historical plays (Richard II through Henry V), read a couple of the great tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet), and also enjoyed several of the less well-known plays (The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, for example). The experiment was such a success that I’m going to continue it in 2016. At this rate, it will only take about 4 years for me to read all the plays. I am also, inspired by this book, going to make an effort to memorize at least a few Shakespearian passages this year.

I know a place where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
All overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine.

Not bad for a start. We’ll see how it goes.

This was also a year in which I made a few tentative steps into the world of e-books. I had noticed, with some dismay, that much, or even most, of my reading time was in the dark. I made the most of it, but my flashlight was waking up the baby and annoying my wife. And so I loaded a few books onto my phone (I use the Marvin reading app); in night mode it seems not to bother anyone, and in consequence I have been able to read more, and sleep less, than I did formerly. I’ve been raiding Gutenberg for free books. I read a lot of Chesterton this year in this format, and some classic novels too.

Speaking of novels, I’m sort of surprised to find that I read only a handful this year: Dostoyevsky (The Adolescent), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Dickens (Dombey and Son), a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and … I think that’s it, leaving aside books for children. The novel I got for Christmas last year, Nabokov’s Pnin, I see is still sitting there. Soon, soon.

sutcliff-arthurI did read a lot of children’s books this year. Untold numbers with the children themselves as bedtime reading, but I also enjoyed a fair number on my own. In my mind, I am “scouting ahead” so as to be in a position to put good books in their paths as they grow up, but to tell the truth I’ve enjoyed these books on their own merits, quite apart from the satisfaction of being a good parent (or my best imitation of one). My focus this year was on medieval- and classical-themed books for kids, and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy along with her novelizations of Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales from Greek mythology in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, other Greek and Roman myths rendered by Padraic Colum and Charles Kingsley, legendary tales about saints from William Canton, and a few collections of fairy tales too, including the Grimm one. It was good stuff, for the most part, and I hope to write in more detail about it in the near future.

Before leaving the topic of children’s books, let me praise the picture books my kids loved most this year: Aaron Becker’s Journey and Quest. They are wordless picture books, so the children take an active role in telling the story, rather than just listening. We’ve read other wordless picture books in the past, but none of them matched — indeed, none of them came close to matching — the incredible enthusiasm that Becker’s books produced in our kids. The stories are about two children transported to another world in which they must … well, just what they must do is one of the things the readers have to puzzle out. Each child is in possession of a magical pen; the things they draw with the pens become real. There are kings, soldiers, mountains, castles, undersea cities, mysterious maps, and all the ingredients of a great adventure. Becker’s watercolour illustrations are enchanting: full of interesting detail, beautiful to look at, and subtly composed to further the story bit by bit. Journey and Quest are the first parts of a projected trilogy, so we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion.

becker-journey

This year the kids also sank their teeth into Super Shark Encyclopedia and Super Nature Encyclopedia. For months on end these were our exclusive bedtime reading, and (mercifully) the books are very well done.

chestertonOn the non-fiction side, I read (as I said above) a lot of Chesterton, going more or less in chronological order, hitting some of the lesser-known books and discovering in most cases that they are lesser-known for a reason. Still, even when Chesterton is not at his peak he’s still pretty good. I think I’ve gleaned enough quotations to keep The Hebdomadal Chesterton going for another couple of years, at least. Inspired by my pop music odyssey I read a few books about Bob Dylan (by Clinton Heylin and Mr. Zimmermann himself) and Van Morrison (Hymns to the Silence, by Peter Mills).

FooteVols1-3I read some history, and among the chief triumphs of my year in reading was the completion of Shelby Foote’s massive The Civil War: A Narrative. I actually started reading this back when the Civil War began — sorry, when the sesquicentennial of the war began, in 2011 — and kept pace with the events of the war as they unfolded, finishing up just in time to mark the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. This was a great way to read this history, and I would recommend it to everyone if it weren’t too late to do so. Foote’s history focuses principally on the military side of the war experience, with occasional forays into politics, and very occasional glances at civilian life during the war. He digs into the tactical details, really putting the reader on the ground and explaining how battles unfolded. Foote is broadly sympathetic to the Confederate side of the war — not to slavery, but to other aspects of Southern life and culture that were destroyed by the war. The fact that Foote is often showing us the war from the Southern perspective helps to complicate an over-simple picture. Anyway, it’s a great book. Sometimes history is written not by the victors, but by the best historians.

boswell-johnsonlifeWhat else? I dipped in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. I relished James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which actually took two years to read). I read a few long-ish format poems, by Goldsmith, Newman, and Dryden. I burrowed into a handful of books on politics and culture (by James Kalb, Richard Weaver, and, by proxy, Charles Taylor); I’ll write more about those at some point. It appears that the only philosophy I read this year was the Gorgias, plus Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, if that counts as philosophy. It was a particularly dismal year for theological reading; only Julian of Norwich qualifies, if she qualifies. Oh, and Edmund Campion at year’s end, if he qualifies. Oh, and The Cloud of Unknowing, if that qualifies.

If you could see the list of books I set for myself at the beginning of the year, you’d be forced to conclude that 2015 was a calamitous failure, reading-wise. But I’m not going to show you that list. All in all, it was a pretty decent year of reading.

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Favourite fiction: Anna Karenina

Favourite non-fiction: The Civil War (Foote)

Favourite biography: Life of Johnson

Favourite play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Books published in 2015 and read by me: 0

Most gruesome children’s book: Jack the Giant-Killer, by Richard Doyle

Most books by a single author: William Shakespeare (14), G.K. Chesterton (12), Rosemary Sutcliff (5), Patrick O’Brian (4).

Least favourite fiction: The Club of Queer Trades (Chesterton)

Least favourite non-fiction: The Appetite of Tyranny (Chesterton)

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Given that I was reading quite a few Gutenberg books this year, all of which are rather old, it’s interesting for me to see if I’ve been able to shift the center of gravity of my reading out of the twentieth century. Here is a histogram of the original publication dates of the books I read this year:

books2015

No. The coverage of the last 500 years isn’t too bad, but still the 20th century emerges triumphant. I did very badly indeed in my classical and medieval reading. (I’ve also been having trouble with my graphics drivers since I upgraded to Matlab 2015b; hence the diagonal lines in each bin of the histogram.) Here’s a closer look at the books published since 1800:

books2015only19th20thc

This looks more promising. There are actually more books in the period from 1840-1940 than in the 75 years from 1940 to the present. I’m going to bend the rules a little and declare this a victory.

I think we’ll look at my 2015 in popular music next time. In the meantime: Tolle, lege, and may many good books come your way in 2016.

Feasting on Chesterton

December 27, 2015

As the end of the year approaches, I am cleaning up my desk. Here are brief notes on an armful of books I read this year, all by Chesterton, and arranged in order of publication.

gkc_saint

Twelve Types
G.K. Chesterton
[1903] 100 p.

These twelve brief biographical studies were originally published as part of Chesterton’s journalistic work when he was in his 20s. These were still his formative years, but the work feels like it comes from the pen of the Chesterton we know and love. He would go on, in fact, to publish whole books on several of the people sketched here, notably Tolstoy, Stevenson, Carlyle, and, most interestingly, St. Francis. We also get enlightening essays on the Brontes, on Walter Scott, on Byron and on Pope, and on historical figures like Charles II and Savonarola, as well as some lesser figures such as William Morris and Edmond Rostand. It’s a very quotable collection, with quite a number of Chesterton’s striking aphorisms:

Humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption.

or

We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech.

or

It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible.

or

The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

and so forth. This is not one of Chesterton’s books that draws a large number of readers these days, and it is true that it should, by his standards, be considered minor, but it is still very much worth getting to know.

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All Things Considered
G.K. Chesterton
[1908] 200 p.

This is another collection of Chesterton’s essays; he seems to have issued one every few years. In the preface he describes the book in this way:

It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.

Naturally this is mere playful self-depreciation. The essays are better than those that you or I would write. The topics are truly all over the map: politics, sport, literature, education. There are about two dozen in total, and they include a few Chestertonian classics: “On Running After One’s Hat” and “Fairy Tales”, and there is also an excellent essay on Henry Fielding. Much to enjoy, as usual. I have reaped a plentiful harvest of quotations which will eventually find their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

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Alarms and Discursions
G.K. Chesterton
[1911] 110 p.

A collection of short essays on a variety of subjects. Presumably these were originally published separately and later collected, but I do not know the story behind it. The essays are of variable quality, and some are very good indeed (“The Chorus”, “The Appetite of Earth”). They are, in general, less polemical than is typical with Chesterton. One gets the impression that they were written at idle moments, when he was day-dreaming, or when alone. There is a relaxed quality to them, and a gentle geniality, that is quite appealing. And he gets in a few good aphorisms too: “The most sentimental thing in the world is to hide your feelings; it is making too much of them.”

***

The Appetite of Tyranny
G.K. Chesterton
[1915] 70 p.

This is the same book as The Barbarism of Berlin, with the addition of some additional material under the heading “Letters to an Old Garibaldian”. Note well the date of publication: it is part of his war-time propaganda campaign against the Prussian forces. I have found it to be among the least interesting of Chesterton’s writings, and for almost the first time I felt that Chesterton was more interested in scoring points than in presenting a balanced and truthful view of a matter. Disappointing.

***

The Crimes of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1916] 75 p.

Another of Chesterton’s wartime propaganda books, The Crimes of England finds him attacking the Germans by attacking all those times and ways in which England has been a friend to Germany:

On many occasions we have been very wrong indeed. We were very wrong indeed when we took part in preventing Europe from putting a term to the impious piracies of Frederick the Great. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the triumph over Napoleon to be soiled with the mire and blood of Blucher’s sullen savages. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the peaceful King of Denmark to be robbed in broad daylight by a brigand named Bismarck; and when we allowed the Prussian swashbucklers to enslave and silence the French provinces which they could neither govern nor persuade. We were very wrong indeed when we flung to such hungry adventurers a position so important as Heligoland. We were very wrong indeed when we praised the soulless Prussian education and copied the soulless Prussian laws.

He proceeds, chapter by chapter, taking the historical material case by case, and arguing that whenever England had sided with Germany it had sided with tyranny, oppression, deviousness, and other German things. Putting it that way gets at my main complaint: this is not nuanced. Chesterton sees the Germans as the clear villains of the war, and (in consequence?) he has nothing good to say about them. They are toxic through and through, and in his eyes England has always been weakened and shamed by its associations with them.

After recounting case after case of England’s simpering acquiescence to German malice, Chesterton takes up in his last few chapters the English response to Germany at the start of WWI, which is the context within which he is writing. Here he sees a break with the historical pattern: here England, and especially the common English people, rose up against Germany. He writes to rally the troops and praise their courage. He is rather good at painting the terror of the German advance:

It is almost impossible to repicture what was, for those who understood, the gigantic finality of the first German strides. It seemed as if the forces of the ancient valour fell away to right and left; and there opened a grand, smooth granite road right to the gate of Paris, down which the great Germania moved like a tall, unanswerable sphinx, whose pride could destroy all things and survive them. In her train moved, like moving mountains, Cyclopean guns that had never been seen among men, before which walled cities melted like wax, their mouths set insolently upwards as if threatening to besiege the sun. Nor is it fantastic to speak so of the new and abnormal armaments; for the soul of Germany was really expressed in colossal wheels and cylinders; and her guns were more symbolic than her flags.

And it was this imposing force that the English and French armies confronted at the Battle of the Marne (known to us, though not to Chesterton at the time of writing, as The First Battle of the Marne), a battle which Chesterton saw as decisive not necessarily for its tactical value, but for its moral value, as a sign that German aggression could be resisted successfully:

Much was to happen after—murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky; but all men knew in their hearts that the third Prussian thrust had failed, and Christendom was delivered once more. The empire of blood and iron rolled slowly back towards the darkness of the northern forests; and the great nations of the West went forward; where side by side as after a long lover’s quarrel, went the ensigns of St. Denys and St. George.

It’s a lovely image, but a premature one, for even Chesterton could not have foreseen just how much murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky was in store.

***

Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 130 p.

This collection of essays is centered around a longer piece which gives the collection its title. Like the title essay, most of the topics treated herein are social and economic, the main target being capitalism.

Attacks on capitalism are not rare in Chesterton’s corpus, but I sometimes wonder just what he meant by it. The fact that he has a tendency to cast specific aspersions at Rockefeller and Ford suggests that his complaint is with “big business”, with millionaires, rather than with (what is equally capitalism) people making a living by starting businesses and providing goods or services. He objects to the power big employers have over their employees and to the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

In “Utopia of Usurers” he sets out

to take, one after another, certain aspects and departments of modern life, and describe what I think they will be like in this paradise of plutocrats, this Utopia of gold and brass in which the great story of England seems so likely to end. I propose to say what I think our new masters, the mere millionaires, will do with certain human interests and institutions, such as art, science, jurisprudence, or religion—unless we strike soon enough to prevent them.

In other words, if wealthy capitalists gain enough power in society, how will they shape society? In our own time, where big businesses are bigger than ever before, when they make substantial financial contributions to university departments, and when they endorse political positions on even social issues, the question seems relevant.

For instance, he predicts that the arts will be assimilated more and more to advertisements:

The improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him.

On the other hand, certain of his speculations (“I think Prison will become an almost universal experience”) sound ridiculous.

Not one of his first, or even second, tier books, “Utopia of Usurers” was nonetheless worth a quick read, if only as a respite from the unrelenting wartime propaganda of these years!

***

A Short History of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 140 p.

Chesterton set out to write a kind of everyman’s history of England, a history “from a standpoint of a member of the public,” a history to treat of the big and obvious features of the nation’s past rather than the minutiae and special interests that might reasonably be thought the preserve of professional historians. Academic histories are just so German.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, his book is almost entirely devoid of dates; I counted, I think, only 2 or 3. In fact, there is a sense in which this history, whether intended for everyman or not, is not intended for those everymen who come to the book innocent of history. One could learn some history from Chesterton, of course, but admixed with so much commentary and (occasional) polemic that one would do better to read Chesterton as a gloss on a more sober survey.

He begins with the Roman influence on England (“The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains.”) and proceeds forward, covering the major epochs and prominent figures (St Augustine of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, St Thomas More, Lord Nelson, and so forth). Round about the 18th century, where my prior knowledge is weakest, I lost the thread for a while.

As in so many of his books written while the Great War raged, Chesterton finally brings his history around to what one suspects may have been its original motivation: an attack on Germany and the Germanic influence on England. That final chapter weakens the book as a whole, not necessarily because the argument it makes is flawed, but because it feels inorganically related to the whole. One sympathizes with his motives, but laments the “topical” intrusion.

***

The New Jerusalem
G.K. Chesterton
[1920] 175 p.

In all my reading about Chesterton over the years, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone make reference to The New Jerusalem; I assumed it was one of his minor books. And, when set against Orthodoxy or Charles Dickens, it is indeed minor, but when set against the average Chesterton book — against the ones described above, for instance — it compares rather favourably. It is an account of a journey he took to Egypt and (as it was then called) Palestine, to visit the Holy City.

The first thing I noticed is that the book is unusually well-written. Chesterton was never — well, rarely — an outright bad writer, unless you have a strong alliteration aversion or pun problem, but he wrote so voluminously that although he is not dull he is often unpolished and a trifle slapdash. Here, however, he sounds more patient, writing quite beautifully at times, and has invested his account with more structure and craft than was typically the case. I suppose it is possible, or even likely, that he was writing as he travelled, and was therefore at some distance from the usual interruptions and pressures of Fleet Street.

The opening sections of the book approximate to a kind of travelogue, a series of impressions about the places he visits — the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, the Holy City itself, Gethsemane, the Dead Sea — and about the people he sees. He takes a keen interest in the close abutment of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations in Jerusalem. The middle section of the book looks back at the history of Jerusalem, and in particular at the era of the Crusades, when the city’s configuration of religions and cultures first took something like its current form, and when the seemingly irresolvable triangular conflicts between them first attained something like their current shape. The final sections of the book, which, from our vantage point a century later, are much the most uncomfortable for the reader, grope toward possible means of resolving the tensions.

I will not dwell here on the travelogue and historical sections of the book; I’ve harvested a host of excerpts for eventual airing at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. There are juicy bits about the hazards — the poetic and spiritual hazards — of sight-seeing, alongside some lovely descriptions of the impressions the sacred sites made on him. The historical material is enlivened by a quite gripping account of the Crusader’s siege of Jerusalem, and again of the eventual fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. (Not that Chesterton gives us any dates, of course.) He speculates that the failure of the Crusades to accomplish their objectives, and in particular the fall of Jerusalem, was so discouraging to Christendom that it deflated the whole cultural project of the High Middle Ages and led, in time, to the collapse of its ambitions and the transition to early modernity. It’s a tough thesis to defend, and he is candid that it is based on little more than intuition. It is perhaps best to leave it at that.

As I said, in the final chapters of the book Chesterton turns his attention to the religious and cultural tensions woven into the fabric of Jerusalem, and in particular to what he calls “the Jewish problem”. Right off, this strikes the modern reader as a most unfortunate choice of words, bearing, as it does, such a close resonance with “the Jewish question” to which the Nazis offered their unconscionable answer. To be sure, for Chesterton “the Jewish problem” is not a problem with the Jews, but a problem for the Jews: namely, how can Jews be a coherent, unified people without having a homeland? He thought that a homeland would make it much easier for them to live as Jews, and so he supported the creation of such a homeland. And he thought it would be good, for their own sake, if Jews would move there. Therefore, by implication, he thought it would be good if Jews would move away from England, France, America, Germany, and wherever else they had been scattered. For this he was at the time, and has continued to be, regarded by some as an Anti-Semite. As luck would have it, in The New Jerusalem he responds to the accusation directly:

There is an attitude for which my friends and I were for a long period rebuked and even reviled; and of which at the present period we are less likely than ever to repent. It was always called Anti-Semitism; but it was always much more true to call it Zionism… It was in substance the desire to give Jews the dignity and status of a separate nation. We desired that in some fashion, and so far as possible, Jews should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews. I am an Anti-Semite if that is Anti-Semitism. It would seem more rational to call it Semitism.

There was nothing unusual in the fact that he advocated for Jews to live together in their own, self-governed state. Against the ambitions of his own country he wanted the same for the Irish. He wanted the same for the Boers in their struggle against England. Readers of his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill will know that in his fancy he would extend this independence and self-rule even to the distinct neighbourhoods of London. So I am inclined to believe him when he says that his support for Zionism was, in his own mind, support for Jews. He understood himself to be supporting what Jews themselves would, naturally, support. And, indeed, as we know, some Jews did support it. But had Chesterton lived to see the founding of the State of Israel, I think he would have been surprised to discover how many Jews did not emigrate there.

In the light of that historical fact, and especially in light of how (rightly) sensitive we are to criticism or stereotyping of Jews, it is undeniable that Chesterton’s comments about how Jews are strangers in European society, and his light-hearted digression on the advantages of Jews wearing distinctive clothing, and his suggestion that Jews live in designated enclaves — well, it all makes the reader cringe. But, in fairness to him, we must do our best to imagine ourselves back to his own day, before anyone imagined the Holocaust, and also do our best to read such comments in the light of his own consistent political ideal of self-governing, religiously unified, and culturally distinctive peoples. I’m not saying it’s easy.

In this connection, I note that a new book, Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender, by Ann Farmer, has recently appeared. I haven’t read it, but it appears to treat this question in some detail.

Apart from these reservations about the closing chapters of the book, I am happy to recommend The New Jerusalem as a delightful read, a very interesting window into the way Jerusalem looked and felt a hundred years ago, and a good opportunity to spend some time on the road with Chesterton.

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:

This and that

May 7, 2015

A few quick notes about items of interest:

Wolf Hall: I mentioned before that a television mini-series dramatizing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being broadcast. I myself haven’t seen any of it, but I have noticed a fair bit of commentary. When I read the book I complained about the slanted characterization of St Thomas More. At medievalists.net, Nancy Bilyeau unpacks the historical accuracies — or lack thereof — of the adaptation. Spoilers abound. (Hat-tip: Supremacy and Survival)

***

Chesterton: An appreciative essay on GKC from an unexpected source: The Atlantic. James Parker writes with a certain cheeky abandon, but with what strikes me as a good understanding of the man:

Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius.

Parker doesn’t try to hide the fact that Chesterton’s prose is something of an acquired taste, but then that is true of many good things in life:

His prose, if you don’t like it, is an unnerving zigzag between flippancy and bombast—and somewhere behind that, even more unnerving, is the intimation that these might be two sides of the same thing. If you do like it, it’s supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) “earthquake irony.” He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.

It’s a funny and enjoyable essay, and I’d like to know more about this James Parker.

***

TS Eliot: Speaking of Eliot, the 52 Authors series continues at Light on Dark Water, and the most recent entry, written by Maclin Horton, is on his poetry. Don’t neglect to read the long comment by Cailleachbhan as well. Meanwhile, at the University Bookman, Martin Lockerd reviews a volume of Eliot’s correspondence, and at The Hudson Review William H. Pritchard reviews a collection of his early prose. So many books, so little time.

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)