Friday, August 21, 2015

The old frenzy to make some thing - early G. K. Chesterton poems

How about some of those posts where I poke at poets about whom I know nothing?  That’s always fun.  For me.

Since I ran out of British poets of the 1890s whom I wanted to read, I have moved on a bit, to G. K. Chesterton (The Wild Knight, 1900), Walter de la Mare (Songs of Childhood, 1902, and Poems, 1906), and William Butler Yeats (this and that).

The 1900s was Yeats’s decade for Celtic mythological poems.  They mostly bounce of me.  I have read and forgotten them before, and now I have done it again.  By The Green Helmet and Other Poems he is turning into the Yeats I know better.  I’ll set Yeats aside.

Does anyone wandering by have opinions about the plays of Yeats?  I have never read those and am curious.

Chesterton and de la Mare were the same age, and these are early books, poems of poets in their twenties.  Both wrote in a pleasing, straightforward lyrical style, in the line of Housman and Hardy – none of that baroque 1890s stuff for them.  They wrote poems to memorize.  For a time, de la Mare must have been among the most memorized poets in English, his children’s poems, at least.  For both poets, the distinction between poems for children and for adults can be uncertain.  Both poets are explicitly religious, with the difference that Chesterton is Catholic and de la Mare seems to worship fairies.

Early Chesterton at his best:

The Skeleton

Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No: I may not tell the best;
Surely friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
    It was hid so carefully.

The early lines join and parody a long tradition of English nature poetry, the last introduce a note of mystery.  Is the grinning skeleton telling the best or not?  “King” is doubled, yes, a secular king and Christ, with the line taking a different meaning for each.

Tolkien fans should seek out “Modern Elfland,” the Scourging of the Shire in 32 lines:

I filled my wallet with white stones,
   I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
   And so I went to fairyland.
 But lo, within that ancient place
   Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
   That telleth where she takes a town.

Do not worry, the hobbit champions will soon return from the war and Elfland will be restored.

I suppose I prefer the Chesterton of the grand but grounded metaphors, as in “The Skeleton” or “Cyclopean,” in which the planet is turned into a living monster:

But though in pigmy wanderings dull
I scour the deserts of his skull,
I never find the face, eyes, teeth,
Lowering or laughing underneath.

The end of this one has a sublime moment, when the monster looks back:

Then cowered: a daisy, half concealed,
Watched for the fame of that poor field;
And in that flower and suddenly
Earth opened its one eye on me.

The image of the poet staring in astonishment at and into a daisy, thinking it is the earth looking back at him, that and moments like it are the good stuff in these early Chesterton poems.

The title phrase is in the prefatory poem to The Wild Knight, a poet's apology in which his excuse is that if God can be forgiven for making man, surely a poet can be forgiven for writing poems.


  1. Before dinner tonight I read "Cathleen Ni Houlihan," which is all Irish Nationalist symbolism. I think even the historical plays about Cuchulain (like "On Baile's Strand") are political. Brecht and Beckett were fans. They have interesting formal elements, borrowed from Greek and Japanese theater. Masks, dance, etc. I've read some of them, but have never seen one performed.

    1. Sorry, forgot to mention that I'm talking about Yeats' plays.

  2. Alas, even though I read Yeats when I was a theater major in the late 60s, I've forgotten almost everything about the plays except for the key role he played in his passion: the national theater of Ireland. And I recall that practically all of Irish drama in the 20th century owes Yeats a huge debt. But, shame on me, that is the extent of my "knowledge" and recollection. My knowledge of Yeats' poetry is even less substantial, but I have always been intrigued (and baffled) by his unique symbolism/mythology (i.e., the gyre of history). However, your posting serves me well in that I now know that Chesterton was a poet. Even an old dog like me can learn new tricks every now and then. Aarf.

  3. All right, for the Yeats play I am going to need editions with notes, and possibly one with notes on the notes. Celtic mythology and Irish politics, yikes.

    Chesterton wrote so many books that he is a little bit baffling. He was a poet, yes, but he was also everything else. A hard figure to grasp.

    But he was quite a good poet.

  4. Liked the eye!

    I liked the plays when I was young, but the political elements must have flown right over my head for the most part. And I once had a colleague, Richard Londraville, who taught Yeats and spent some time in Japan, where he introduced the plays to Noh theatre performers, as I recall... I think his students there did some of the plays as well.

  5. The plays of Yeats will take some work, that is clear enough. Politics, myth, Noh - help! But some thoughtful scholar will have written something that will help me.

  6. The myth and Noh will be fun to dig up, the politics full of sadness, I expect.

  7. No, I doubt there will be many happy stories in the Irish politics!