Poets: G K Chesterton

For my part, I was never exposed to the poetry of GK Chesterton when reading about him or his most prominent works (Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, various fiction works, etc) but was exposed to it indirectly through a military blogger – who quoted a section of his poetry.

Chesterton is a well-known “orthodox” Christian writer, like CS Lewis, writing in defense of the classical tenets of Christianity, but also known for his devotion to Distributism (he along with Belloc–) which was an attempt at a third way economic system. I’ll not be treating that subject at the moment, except to say that there is in very large degree, as with Lewis, a great disconnect between Chesterton’s imagination and his politics. It’s also worth noting that in the time they were writing in defense of this system, many other third-way economic systems were being proposed as well (we should recall Pound’s attempts at this as well. Poets cannot help but try to be lawgivers, even if they are ill-equipped) – which was at the beginning of the 20th century.

Chesterton’s real prominence as a writer seems to start¬†with receiving a column at Dicken’s paper, The Daily News, which was a reformist paper. It is unclear exactly how he got this column, though timelines vary slightly: he actually began working for the paper in 1899, and in 1901 or 1902 began the regular column. If you look at his history, it is very yeomanly; he seems to have stepped himself up – not coming from a particularly humble background, but also attending ¬†prominent schools (St. Paul’s School, University College London) where he would no doubt have attracted attention. He never had a particularly prominent position, but seems to have made the right connections and have performed well, a track of life which matches his politics.

He was rather short-lived, living only to 62, (d. 1936) but this is likely because he became very overweight (something he was not afraid to joke about.) It is even a theme that sometimes comes up in his poems.

Most people will not have heard of Chesterton’s poems, I think, in part because his fiction and apologetics tend to, or seem to, overshadow them. One might have heard of Ballad of the White Horse, which is excellent in its own right (I also am a man of the Aelfredian over the Arthurian idea of England, but I digress–) but epic poetry is generally rather inaccessible to the causal reader.

However, those who read Orwell might be familiar with this:

…a silly and vulgar glorification of the actual process of war. Chesterton’s battle poems, such as Lepanto or The Ballad of Saint Barbara, make The Charge of the Light Brigade read like a pacifist tract: they are perhaps the most tawdry bits of bombast to be found in our language.

Orwell of course, was interested in representing every non-socialist thing as “realistically” as possible, a nut he tries hard to crack also in some of his other criticism, here.

Lepanto! Yes, what a poem. Far from the “introsuction” (that’s a neologism for an introduction that sucks all of the goodness out of a book–) Orwell would give us, I can tell you this poem is every way excellent in the old tradition of bombastic war poems. Orwell is clearly uninterested in this role and this aim; but Chesterton is not! The poem is rather long, you can see it here, and for those who wish not to read it, this sample might give you pause:

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed –
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

If that does not set your blood rushing, perhaps you are not alive! He has many poems of differing sorts; like myself he has written quite a few poems about traditional Christian subjects; and many (though it seems not quite all) are available on wikisource here.

I introduced this Poets entry with a mention to a poem which a certain military man himself referenced in his blog – and this poem is one of my favorite poems of all time. It is intriguing as although Chesterton seemed to have claimed to be very liberal politically, his imagination (like Lewis’) was always highly reactionary, almost as reactionary as Evola’s politics (if that is possible!) There is little in this poem to dislike (if you can excuse some of the dactyls [triplets]), which is called The Last Hero:

The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,
There was a wreck of trees and fall of towers a score of miles away,
And drifted like a livid leaf I go before its tide,
Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.
The heavens are bowed about my head, shouting like seraph wars,
With rains that might put out the sun and clean the sky of stars,
Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above,
The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love.
Feast in my hall, O foemen, and eat and drink and drain,
You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain.

The chance of battle changes — so may all battle be;
I stole my lady bride from them, they stole her back from me.
I rent her from her red-roofed hall, I rode and saw arise,
More lovely than the living flowers the hatred in her eyes.
She never loved me, never bent, never was less divine;
The sunset never loved me, the wind was never mine.
Was it all nothing that she stood imperial in duresse?
Silence itself made softer with the sweeping of her dress.
O you who drain the cup of life, O you who wear the crown,
You never loved a woman’s smile as I have loved her frown.

The wind blew out from Bergen to the dawning of the day,
They ride and run with fifty spears to break and bar my way,
I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers,
As merry as the ancient sun and fighting like the flowers.
How white their steel, how bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave,
Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave.
Yea, I will bless them as they bend and love them where they lie,
When on their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky.
The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose,-
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes.

Know you what earth shall lose to-night, what rich uncounted loans,
What heavy gold of tales untold you bury with my bones?
My loves in deep dim meadows, my ships that rode at ease,
Ruffling the purple plumage of strange and secret seas.
To see this fair earth as it is to me alone was given,
The blow that breaks my brow to-night shall break the dome of heaven.
The skies I saw, the trees I saw after no eyes shall see,
To-night I die the death of God; the stars shall die with me;
One sound shall sunder all the spears and break the trumpet’s breath:
You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.

Personally, I had this poem in mind when I wrote an ode to the Falling Man of 9-11, which expresses what to pure materialism would be simply a tragic view of life, but to “spiritually objective” (as Bowden put it) thinkers, is a way to “aim the arrow through the target” of life. It expresses a paradox of life and death; when with think of the dichotomy set up by many 20th century thinkers between “Eros” and “Death”, we can be reminded of St. Ignatius’ of Antioch’s words:

“My Eros is crucified.”

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4 Comments

  1. Chesterton is fascinating to read, a true literary connoisseur. Ballad of the White Horse is a personal favorite of mine. I know he was a Distributist, but I always saw this as somewhat right wing in nature, based on Papal encyclicals at the time. Am I mistaken? Probably worth noting his brother, A.K. Chesterton, was a member of the British Union of Fascists and a good friend of Oswald Moseley.

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    1. Oh I don’t know. I think most liberals, if that’s what they were called, or many on the left at that time would find themselves more aligned with the right today, considering how extremely far the political sprectrum has swung, since the 1st politbyuro was sprung.

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  2. I am intrigued. I need to become more familiar with more of Chesterton’s poetry. Thank you very much.

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  3. I’d like to see a reactionary treatment of Distributism as I don’t know much about it, but like the prior poster was under the impression it was of the Right. Great article on Chesterton and a great photo you chose. Other pieces I’ve seen about the man have included rather unflattering photos of a very overweight Chesterton.

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