Posts Tagged ‘G.K. Chesterton’

William Blake biographies

February 23, 2023

A Biography
Peter Ackroyd
(Knopf, 1996)
416 p.

William Blake
G.K. Chesterton
(House of Stratus, 2001) [1910]
76 p.

My interest in William Blake first came to life, as far as I recall, in a peculiar way. I bought a folk music record devoted to musical settings of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I played the life out of it; I love it still, and it is fair to say that those poems remain the center of gravity of my Blakean universe. But I also learned, some few years later, that he was a philosophical opponent of Newton and Locke and other early theorists and architects of modernity, and that made me curious, for I too looked on aspects of modernity with a wary eye (though I could not predict why, or on what grounds, he would object to Newton, who seemed, to my undergraduate mind, immune to opposition). Then I encountered the hymn “Jerusalem”, which I adored, and was surprised to find the text was by Blake. I was intrigued.

On the strength of this curiosity I bought a handsome edition of his works: Poems and Prophecies, and I read not only the poems but the prophecies. The latter I found so vexing, so feverish and outlandish, so wild, and so bewildering that I backed gently away. And so this biography sat on my shelf for over twenty years until I decided, this year, to revisit Blake’s poetry, and to invest some effort to get to know him better.


There was much that I did not know. I did not appreciate that he was largely neglected and unappreciated in his own lifetime, living in humble circumstances, sometimes barely clear of poverty, and was engaged as a craftsman for most of his life. (One of his late prophetic books, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, which was in some sense the culmination of his artistic life’s work, had a production run of only six copies in his lifetime.) To the extent that he was known, it was mostly as an engraver and a visual artist, not as a poet, and these aspects of his creative life were almost entirely new to me. He was an outsider in London society, at war with his times in many respects, and viewed by many of his contemporaries as a madman. His life began when the French Revolution was raging across the Channel, and ended when the young Charles Dickens was working a factory job around the corner from his house.

He grew up in London. As a boy he did not go to school. Even at that age, it seems, he was distrustful and resentful of authority and disliked being subject to rules — characteristics he was to retain throughout his life. He professed a moral objection to education (“I hold it wrong. It is the great Sin. It is eating of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”), though there might be some exaggeration in these statements, for he read voraciously, and eventually, as a young man, did enroll in art school before finally beginning an apprenticeship in the trade that he was to practice throughout his life: engraving. “”It bears repeating,” says Ackroyd, “that he remained just such a workman all his life, mixing inks and varnishes, buying paper and copper plates, engaged in hard and continuous physical labour.”

In his poetry, the Bible is the great source of his sensibility; he was saturated in its cadences. But in visual art he was devoted to the medieval and Renaissance masters of Europe. He never travelled to the continent, having narrowly missed a chance in his early manhood, but from woodprints he knew and loved the art of Michelangelo, of Raphael, and of Durer, and, behind them, the Gothic, which he called “true Art”, a sacred art of vision, not realism. “Grecian is Mathematic Form Gothic is Living Form,” he wrote.  During his apprenticeship he spent much of his time in Westminster Abbey, sketching, and, says Ackroyd,

“for him it was as much a spiritual as a national or antiquarian revelation; he engaged in a communion with the dead, with the passage of the generations, and thereby was granted a vision of the world that never left him.”


Blake was a non-conformist by either temperament or conviction, and in this he never wavered. Politically he was loosely associated with radicals who rejected, or at least opposed, the establishment and the legitimacy of the reigning powers, but this seems for him to have been a consequence of his reflexive opposition to authority, and not much more. He had little interest in politics, and professed that “Princes appear to me to be Fools Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.” It’s a statement that one wishes could be printed on a very wide bumper sticker.

His religious views, while also nonconformist, were fiercely held, highly important to him, and complicated. He grew up outside the established church, in a garden of religious radicalism, and seems to have fallen early under the influence of Swedenborg, an influential religious figure at the time whose fortunes have faded in the meantime. He was never an “orthodox” Swedenborgian, as this would have run counter to his anti-authority convictions, and indeed Ackroyd suggests that “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” may be a parody of Swedenborgianism, but the supernaturalism of Swedenborg dovetailed in certain respects with his own experience. For much the same reason he was drawn to St Teresa of Avila. (Blake may be the only person in history who could form a pairing of those two.)

He was a sometime heretic. “Active Evil is better than Passive Good,” he said. He was an advocate, apparently throughout his life, of open marriage and free love. He claimed that “What are called vices in the natural world, are the highest sublimities in the spiritual world,” and he denied the reality of sin. This implied, of course, a denial of Original Sin, and there is a story that he and his wife were once discovered naked in their garden, relaxing with drinks.

Throughout his life he experienced visions of spirits. His great image of the Ancient of Days was, according to one of his contemporaries, taken from “the vision which he declared hovered at the top of the staircase.” In his garden in Lambeth he saw an angel stand in the sun and move the universe. At various times in his life, he saw, among others, King Herod, King Edward I, Socrates, Muhommad, Voltaire, Milton (on many occasions), his dead brother, and even Joseph and Mary. (He drew a portrait of the holy couple.) Partly on the basis of these visions there were those in London society who considered him “singular, probably a little mad”. Many modern critics treat him in the same way, of course, and Chesterton has some words for them:

To call a man mad because he has seen ghosts is in a literal sense religious persecution. It is denying him his full dignity as a citizen because he cannot be fitted into your theory of the cosmos. It is disfranchising him because of his religion. It is just as intolerant to tell an old woman that she cannot be a witch as to tell her that she must be a witch. In both cases you are setting your own theory of things inexorably against the sincerity or sanity of human testimony.

With all this in mind, we can begin to appreciate why he was such a staunch opponent of many of the early architects of secularism, of empirical science, and of the entire modern project of making the world submit to systematic reason. He disbelieved in determinism. He distrusted those who preferred to solve a puzzle than to apprehend a mystery. In his art he paired Isaac Newton with King Nebuchadnezzar, both being, as he saw it, subject to unhealthy obsessions.  Against such things he championed what he called “Imagination” or “Vision”, which for him seems to have meant something akin to Platonic Forms: eternal images of things, more real in their particularity than any empirical finding. Of Bacon and Locke, for instance, he wrote that

“They mock Inspiration & Vision. Inspiration & Vision was then & now is & I hope will always Remain my Element my Eternal Dwelling place. how can I then hear it Contemnd without returning Scorn for Scorn.”

From his punctuation we see that his scorn for systematization was thorough and sincere. But the point is a serious one, and we are here drawing close to a reason why Blake is a figure of enduring importance in our tradition. Ackroyd puts it rather well when he writes that Blake

…laments the occlusion of the Imagination, and of the Divine Vision, which has led to a narrowing of human faculties; he denounces the mills and wheels of industrialism, which are for him intimately related to the cruel religion of Jehovah; he attacks the precepts of rational morality and the moral law that names ‘good’ and ‘evil’… What is present in work such as this is … a general sense of loss and attenuation, of faculties dimmed, or possibilities and energies unrealized.

To me this comprehensive opposition to rational systematization is too simple, and maybe you think so too, but there is surely a danger of going too far in the direction against which he warns us, and who can be sure that we’ve struck the right balance? By staking out his position at one end of a spectrum, he has become a reference point from we can take our bearings, a critic to whom we must be ready to give an account.

It is important to understand that his opposition was not a preference for subjectivity over objectivity. He adhered to what he saw as more real, not less. The hard kernel of his philosophy, according to Chesterton, is that he “denied the authority of Nature”, and asserted instead that “the ideal is more actual than the real”, as an ideal triangle is more real than any particular instantiation of one.

Whereas, as I’ve already said, I have known Blake as a poet, he saw himself as both poet and visual artist, or, rather, he saw himself as practicing an art that united the two. His books of poetry were always illustrated, and he pioneered technical methods of painting on engraved copper plates to make this double-art possible. His pictures were mostly unknown to me, and getting to know his style has been one of the pleasures of spending this time with him. I’ve already mentioned that he saw himself as continuing the tradition of Michelangelo, and his figures bear this out, though, as Ackroyd notes, it is as though “the heroic or terrible figures of Michelangelo have fallen into an abyss”. The human form nearly always dominates his pictures, and they are monumental forms. For Chesterton, their characteristic note is their boldness:

Many of them are hideous, some of them are outrageous, but none of them are shapeless; none of them are what would now be called “suggestive”; none of them (in a word) are timid. The figure of man may be a monster, but he is a solid monster. The figure of God may be a mistake, but it is an unmistakable mistake.

His is a “grave and ceremonial art,” says Ackroyd, in which “”the more amiable or elusive aspects of human feeling are never registered.”  The images linked above to the Ancient of Days, or Newton, or Nebuchadnezzaar, illustrate the point well.

As we would expect, the medieval influence is strong, and this comes through especially clearly, I think, in his sacred art, of which there is a surprising amount, not much of it well-known, and some of it strikingly creative and original. Consider, for example, his image of “The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross”, or, more traditionally, of “The Fall of Man”.

Chesterton singles out for special notice one particular picture, a harrowing, nightmarish picture of a demon, to which Blake attached the oddly impertinent title “The Ghost of a Flea”. But, keeping in mind what was said above about his focus on the ideal or form rather than its physical manifestation, the picture comes into focus:

For Blake the ghost of a flea means the idea or principle of a flea. The principle of a flea (so far as we can see it) is blood-thirstiness, the feeding on the life of another, the fury of the parasite. Fleas may have other nobler sentiments and meditations, but we know nothing about them. The vision of a flea is a vision of blood; and that is what Blake has made of it. This is the next point, then, to be remarked in his make-up as a mystic; he is interested in the ideas for which such things stand.

Late in his life he made a series of paintings on sacred themes that stand out for their luminous beauty, such as “The Sepulchre of Christ”, or “The Resurrection”. In these pictures Ackroyd finds “splendour and nobility in the conception of the human figures, who seem touched by some mystery”.


Much of his visual art, however, was made to accompany his “prophetic” poems, about which I’ve written briefly before. These works unfold a mythology of his own creation (or, perhaps, apprehension), and constitute, says Ackroyd, “an enormously complicated, and in certain respects incomprehensible, summa theologica.” In these books he seems to have undertaken a dialectical engagement with the Biblical book of Genesis and Exodus, in which he tried to replace Biblical theology with his own.

It was at best a quixotic endeavour, but at worst had the distinctive stench of the diabolical. In his poem, for instance, Creation itself is portrayed as a Fall, an evil rather than a good, and the God of this world as a demon. In “Milton” (which has the poet, Blake’s frequent ghostly house-guest, as a character) he said he wanted to “reclaim Satan as part of his own self”. Granted, the interpretation of these sayings, and the poems in which they appear, is not simple. Nonetheless, in his prophetic books I find him at his least attractive; it is hard for me to connect all this with the man who wrote “Songs of Innocence”. In his own time the prophetic books were called “a Madman’s Scrawls”, and Blake, granting the challenge they posed, perhaps, merely asked that readers “do me the justice to examine before they decide.” As it happens, most readers have voted against them, both now and then.


The general trajectory of his public reception during his lifetime was one of descent and disappointment. The “Songs of Innocence and Experience” were published, to moderate acclaim, while Blake was in his 30s, but he was never to attain a great success. He was supported, barely, by a series of benefactors, and by his engraving business. In middle age, inspired by a London exhibition of paintings of the European masters — possibly, if I have understood things rightly, the only occasion on which he saw the originals — he gave up commissions for a period of 11 years, preferring to devote himself to art in poverty than to be a mere instrument in the hands of others, In 1808 he worked hard to stage a one-man exhibition in London, but almost no-one came, and the show produced no sales.

Such neglect of a great man is poignant, looked at from our vantage point, but perhaps we should not be surprised. Blake was in, but not of, his time. Chesterton saw clearly the incongruity between him and the prevailing prejudices of eighteenth-century England:

It endured the pompous, but hated the fantastic; it had pure contempt for anything that could be called obscure. To a virile mind of that epoch, such as Dr Johnson or Fox, a poem or picture that did not at once explain itself was simply like a gun that did not go off or a clock that stopped suddenly: it was simply a failure, fit for indifference or for a fleeting satire. In spite of their solid convictions (for which they died) the men of that time always used the word “enthusiast” as a term of scorn. All that we call mysticism they called madness. Such was the eighteenth century civilisation; such was the strict and undecorated frame from which look at us the blazing eyes of William Blake.

In later years he again consented to commissions (and he was involved with some good ones, making numerous illustrations for editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Comus, Young’s Night Thoughts, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and, most wonderfully, the Book of Job), and conceded the value of wealth to an artist, saying that “works of Art can only be produced in Perfection where the Man is either in Affluence or is Above the Care of it”.

As the years passed, he fell into greater public neglect, was estranged from his patrons, and faced the possibility that he had failed to make his mark as an artist. Near the end of his life, however, some things began to change for the better. A young group of artists, calling themselves “The Ancients”, befriended him and expressed appreciation of and interest in his work. None of them went on to notable eminence, and they probably had little effect on his public reputation, but they did help his morale. A person really only needs a few friends. Occasionally an eminent man of the younger generation, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, would come to call, and this, too, was an encouragement to him. He never met Wordsworth, but knew his poetry, about which he was characteristically blunt: “Wordsworth loves Nature – and Nature is the work of the Devil”.


He died in 1827, aged 69. His death is among the more beautiful that I know, and it is worth quoting Ackroyd’s account of it:

On the day of his death he stopped work and turned to Catherine, who was in tears; ‘Stay, Kate!’ he said, ‘keep just as you are — I will draw your portrait — for you have ever been an angel to me.’ When he had completed it he put it down, and then began to sing verses and hymns. ‘My beloved, they are not mine,’ he told his wife as she listened to what she later called ‘songs of joy and Triumph’, ‘– no — they are not mine.’ He was singing out of gladness, and no doubt he was happy to leave a world which had treated him so ill. Then he told his wife that they would never be parted, that he would be with her always. At six in the evening, he expired ‘like the sighing of a gentle breeze’.

He was as good as his word. For years afterward “he used to come and sit with her for two or three hours every day. He took his chair and talked to her, just as he would have done had he been alive.”


Of these two biographies, Ackroyd’s is the more sober, careful, and substantial, and Chesterton’s the more bold and improvisatory. Chesterton, I believe, has a greater natural affinity for Blake, but Ackroyd is a professional. Ackroyd gives us a neat, chronological account of Blake’s life, while Chesterton aims at impressions and themes, including the development of a general view of eighteenth-century European civilization, and Blake’s place in it, that is quite wonderful. Both books grapple manfully with this vexing and admirable man. Both I have found worthwhile.

For Ackroyd, the enduring importance of William Blake lies in his conviction that there is more to experience, and to the world, than is dreamt of in our philosophy. For Chesterton, Blake’s significance is grounded in his “placid and positive defiance of materialism”, which perhaps amounts to much the same thing. He was a great artist, and a kind of sage who, it is possible, spoke truths that we hear only as riddles. If his times were to be imagined as a sitting room, with the eminent men sprinkled around, in conversation, Blake is the shabbily dressed man in the corner, with stern countenance and probing eyes, whose doubtfully arched eyebrows suggest he knows too much, and who observes aloud that certain others in the room are spawn of Satan’s loins. All this I have learned, and learned to appreciate. Yet the Blake who sits closest to my heart is still, I confess, the poet who comes piping down the valleys wild.

Christmas Day, 2022

December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas!


Here is a new setting of Chesterton’s Christmas poem “The Christ-Child Lay on Mary’s Lap”, by Mark Nowakowski.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

— G.K. Chesterton —

Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

August 7, 2022

Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2011) [1865]
925 p.

This was the last novel that Charles Dickens completed, and it marked, Chesterton thought, “a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’ life.” It is the story of a man who, thought dead, returns to his former life in disguise and observes the repercussions of his “death” as they reverberate through the lives of his friends and enemies.

The structure of the story reminded me of Les Miserables: a man has a window into his own previous life, and must decide whether and how to reclaim it. For Jean Valjean that former life was one of crime and suffering, whereas for John Harmon it is one of riches and happiness — yet he hesitates, convinced that he must win the heart of the woman he loves on his own merits, before she knows his true exalted station in society.

Having a character appear under false pretenses for much of the novel gives the book a juicy dose of dramatic irony, an aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Our Mutual Friend suffers from too much, much too much, in the way of false pretenses; a late revelation that certain character arcs were wholly feigned struck Chesterton as “highly jerky and unsatisfactory”, and I agree with him. A truly splendid chapter (“The Golden Dustman at his Worst”), which I cheered my way through, turned to ash and dust in the wake of these unwelcome reversals. It would be a shame to allow a book this big and beautiful to be ruined by such a fault, but the temptation is there.

The novel gives us one of Dickens’ least characteristic, but remarkably successful, villains in Bradley Headstone, a desperate third wheel in a love triangle. He is an ordinary man, not a colourful villain in the usual Dickens manner, and noteworthy for being wholly sympathetic; we understand his pain and the actions that follow from it, and nothing about him is lurid or larger than life.

Amusing to me was a subplot involving an interminable reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have myself been reading alongside the novel. Call me Wegg.

I have compared it, above, to Hugo’s masterpiece, but tonally the two books could hardly be more different. Dickens is a humourist, and his humour is irrepressible. Where another author, for example, might be contented to narrate that a character walked from his house to another, Dickens tells us that

He held as straight a course for the house of the dolls’ dressmaker as the wisdom of his ancestors, exemplified in the construction of the intervening streets, would let him.

It’s a small thing, but typical of his penchant to inject humour into even incidental details. Even the moments of high drama are usually accompanied by an absurd or incongruous aspect that winks our way. Or consider this happy passage on a new mother’s joy in her baby:

It was charming to see Bella contemplating this baby, and finding out her own dimples in that tiny reflection, as if she were looking in the glass without personal vanity. Her cherubic father justly remarked to her husband that the baby seemed to make her younger than before, reminding him of the days when she had a pet doll and used to talk to it as she carried it about. The world might have been challenged to produce another baby who had such a store of pleasant nonsense said and sung to it, as Bella said and sung to this baby; or who was dressed and undressed as often in four-and-twenty hours as Bella dressed and undressed this baby; or who was held behind doors and poked out to stop its father’s way when he came home, as this baby was; or, in a word, who did half the number of baby things, through the lively invention of a gay and proud young mother, that this inexhaustible baby did.

Name me another major novelist who could, or would, write this. Dickens can be inexhaustibly happy, and even goofy, when the situation arises, and I love him for it.

About the only thing I didn’t like about the novel — apart from the structural defect already noted — was a cluster of secondary, or tertiary, characters who popped up here and there, usually only loosely connected to the story. All were unlikable figures — self-important, self-conscious, fashionable, snooty, and joyless. I found their scenes hard to follow, and unnecessary, and therefore irritating. I was delighted, and suitably chastised, therefore, to find that Chesterton, in his essay on the book, singled these characters out as being especially praiseworthy. Chesterton always loved the shaggy, unpremeditated Dickens of Pickwick the most, and in this circle of snooty killjoys he saw Dickens making a near approach to his earlier manner. “The whole point of an early Dickens novel,” he writes, “was to have as many people as possible entirely unconnected with the plot,” and in their scenes, which I found simply confusing, he found the characteristic Dickensian humour, “an unfathomable farce—a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe.”

Reading Chesterton’s remarks on Dickens is an essential adjunct to reading Dickens himself, and I invite you to peruse the essay if you are so inclined.


I conclude with a brief personal note: I believe that I have now read all of the novels that Dickens completed. I began 15 years ago with David Copperfield and, in the intervening years, in fits and starts, somehow worked through all of them. I feel good. Perhaps next year I’ll start with David Copperfield again.


[A good word]
burglarious: relating to or involving burglary

[Power and character]
Power (unless it be the power of intellect or virtue) has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures.

[Chesterton on Dickens’ strengths]
He was not good at describing change in anybody, especially not good at describing a change for the worse. The tendency of all his characters is upwards, like bubbles, never downwards, like stones.

Chesterton on Aesop

June 14, 2022

We haven’t had enough Chesterton here of late. Today, being the anniversary of his death, seems a good day for a remedy.

I was recently leafing through a few editions of Aesop’s Fables and I came across one, published in 1912, to which Chesterton contributed a brief introduction. My eyes lit up. A finer pairing would be hard to come by. Here it is in its entirety.


Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not to him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future. The story of Arthur may have been really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of Wales. But the word “Mappe” or “Malory” will always mean King Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the “Idylls of the King.” The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always call the best selection of such tales “Grimm’s Tales”: simply because it is the best collection.

The historical Aesop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like everything else in Herodotus. There are also stories of deformity of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly moral and correct. But there is no kind of doubt that the general legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves. Aesop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old world could be worshipped like Aesop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories about beasts and birds.

But whatever be fairly due to Aesop, the human tradition called Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a precipice; this has remained long after. It is to our advantage, indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Aesop more obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm’s Tales, glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know more about him than we know about a Phrygian slave. The truth is, of course, that Aesop’s Fables are not Aesop’s fables, any more than Grimm’s Fairy Tales were ever Grimm’s fairy tales. But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop’s all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediaeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.



Some Damnable Errors About Christmas

December 26, 2021

G. K. Ch*st*rt*n

That it is human to err is admitted by even the most positive of our thinkers. Here we have the great difference between latter-day thought and the thought of the past. If Euclid were alive to-day (and I dare say he is) he would not say, “The angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another.” He would say, “To me (a very frail and fallible being, remember) it does somehow seem that these two angles have a mysterious and awful equality to one another.” The dislike of schoolboys for Euclid is unreasonable in many ways; but fundamentally it is entirely reasonable. Fundamentally it is the revolt from a man who was either fallible and therefore (in pretending to infallibility) an impostor, or infallible and therefore not human.

Now, since it is human to err, it is always in reference to those things which arouse in us the most human of all our emotions—I mean the emotion of love—that we conceive the deepest of our errors. Suppose we met Euclid on Westminster Bridge, and he took us aside and confessed to us that whilst he regarded parallelograms and rhomboids with an indifference bordering on contempt, for isosceles triangles he cherished a wild romantic devotion. Suppose he asked us to accompany him to the nearest music-shop, and there purchased a guitar in order that he might worthily sing to us the radiant beauty and the radiant goodness of isosceles triangles. As men we should, I hope, respect his enthusiasm, and encourage his enthusiasm, and catch his enthusiasm. But as seekers after truth we should be compelled to regard with a dark suspicion, and to check with the most anxious care, every fact that he told us about isosceles triangles. For adoration involves a glorious obliquity of vision. It involves more than that. We do not say of Love that he is short-sighted. We do not say of Love that he is myopic. We do not say of Love that he is astigmatic. We say quite simply, Love is blind. We might go further and say, Love is deaf. That would be a profound and obvious truth. We might go further still and say, Love is dumb. But that would be a profound and obvious lie. For love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a wind-bag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven.

It is always about the thing that we love most that we talk most. About this thing, therefore, our errors are something more than our deepest errors: they are our most frequent errors. That is why for nearly two thousand years mankind has been more glaringly wrong on the subject of Christmas than on any other subject. If mankind had hated Christmas, he would have understood it from the first. What would have happened then, it is impossible to say. For that which is hated, and therefore is persecuted, and therefore grows brave, lives on for ever, whilst that which is understood dies in the moment of our understanding of it—dies, as it were, in our awful grasp. Between the horns of this eternal dilemma shivers all the mystery of the jolly visible world, and of that still jollier world which is invisible. And it is because Mr. Shaw and the writers of his school cannot, with all their splendid sincerity and, acumen, perceive that he and they and all of us are impaled on those horns as certainly as the sausages I ate for breakfast this morning had been impaled on the cook’s toasting-fork—it is for this reason, I say, that Mr. Shaw and his friends seem to me to miss the basic principle that lies at the root of all things human and divine. By the way, not all things that are divine are human. But all things that are human are divine. But to return to Christmas.

I select at random two of the more obvious fallacies that obtain. One is that Christmas should be observed as a time of jubilation. This is (I admit) quite a recent idea. It never entered into the tousled heads of the shepherds by night, when the light of the angel of the Lord shone about them and they arose and went to do homage to the Child. It never entered into the heads of the Three Wise Men. They did not bring their gifts as a joke, but as an awful oblation. It never entered into the heads of the saints and scholars, the poets and painters, of the Middle Ages. Looking back across the years, they saw in that dark and ungarnished manger only a shrinking woman, a brooding man, and a child born to sorrow. The philomaths of the eighteenth century, looking back, saw nothing at all. It is not the least of the glories of the Victorian Era that it rediscovered Christmas. It is not the least of the mistakes of the Victorian Era that it supposed Christmas to be a feast.

The splendour of the saying, “I have piped unto you, and you have not danced; I have wept with you, and you have not mourned” lies in the fact that it might have been uttered with equal truth by any man who had ever piped or wept. There is in the human race some dark spirit of recalcitrance, always pulling us in the direction contrary to that in which we are reasonably expected to go. At a funeral, the slightest thing, not in the least ridiculous at any other time, will convulse us with internal laughter. At a wedding, we hover mysteriously on the brink of tears. So it is with the modern Christmas. I find myself in agreement with the cynics in so far that I admit that Christmas, as now observed, tends to create melancholy. But the reason for this lies solely in our own misconception. Christmas is essentially a dies iræ. If the cynics will only make up their minds to treat it as such, even the saddest and most atrabilious of them will acknowledge that he has had a rollicking day.

This brings me to the second fallacy. I refer to the belief that “Christmas comes but once a year.” Perhaps it does, according to the calendar—a quaint and interesting compilation, but of little or no practical value to anybody. It is not the calendar, but the Spirit of Man that regulates the recurrence of feasts and fasts. Spiritually, Christmas Day recurs exactly seven times a week. When we have frankly acknowledged this, and acted on this, we shall begin to realise the Day’s mystical and terrific beauty. For it is only every-day things that reveal themselves to us in all their wonder and their splendour. A man who happens one day to be knocked down by a motor-bus merely utters a curse and instructs his solicitor, but a man who has been knocked down by a motor-bus every day of the year will have begun to feel that he is taking part in an august and soul-cleansing ritual. He will await the diurnal stroke of fate with the same lowly and pious joy as animated the Hindoos awaiting Juggernaut. His bruises will be decorations, worn with the modest pride of the veteran. He will cry aloud, in the words of the late W.E. Henley, “My head is bloody but unbowed.” He will add, “My ribs are broken but unbent.”

I look for the time when we shall wish one another a Merry Christmas every morning; when roast turkey and plum-pudding shall be the staple of our daily dinner, and the holly shall never be taken down from the walls, and everyone will always be kissing everyone else under the mistletoe. And what is right as regards Christmas is right as regards all other so-called anniversaries. The time will come when we shall dance round the Maypole every morning before breakfast—a meal at which hot-cross buns will be a standing dish—and shall make April fools of one another every day before noon. The profound significance of All Fool’s Day—the glorious lesson that we are all fools—is too apt at present to be lost. Nor is justice done to the sublime symbolism of Shrove Tuesday—the day on which all sins are shriven. Every day pancakes shall be eaten, either before or after the plum-pudding. They shall be eaten slowly and sacramentally. They shall be fried over fires tended and kept for ever bright by Vestals. They shall be tossed to the stars.

I shall return to the subject of Christmas next week.


This essay was written by Max Beerbohm, and first published in “A Christmas Garland” (1912). It captures Chesterton’s style quite well, and seems to me to be an affectionate parody. I always laugh when I read it.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day, 2019

December 25, 2019


The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

— 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.”


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 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.