Friday, June 3, 2016

I have not / a Poet’s / Eye - later G. K. Chesterton poems

I have dithered about writing about G. K. Chesterton’s Collected Poems – maybe not interesting enough – but then maybe it is.  You may for some reason remember that I wrote about The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) not long ago, young Chesterton as mythographer and metaphorist, and also about The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), the last of the great verse epics – no, not really last but the Catholic allegory about King Alfred felt like a brilliant anachronism.

With the first book, Chesterton was a young poet, by the second he was already Chesterton, author of a library of books of all kinds and a public figure, expert on everything.  Poetry was still part of “everything” but his role as a public intellectual ruined Chesterton as a poet.  Thus my doubts, and thus my reading of the later part of Collected Poems, poems from the 1910s through the 1930s, becomes even more of a salvage expedition than usual.

The great problem is topical verse.  Politics of the day.  Church politics of the day.  Of historical interest, if that.

More promising: comedy.  Bab Ballads:

  No more the milk of the cows
  Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian;
  I will stick to port and sherry,
  For they are so very, very,
So very, very, very Vegetarian.  (“The Logical Vegetarian”)

Or, similarly, the “Songs of Education” that sound like they are from a lost Gilbert and Sullivan satire of education bureaucrats:

The Roman threw us a road, a road,
And sighed and strolled away:
The Saxon gave us a raid, a raid,
A raid that came to stay;
The Dane went west, but the Dane confessed
That he went a bit too far;
And we all became, by another name
The Imperial race we are.

The Imperial race, the inscrutable race,
The invincible race we are.  (from “I. History”)

Chesterton has a terrific ear for parody, and he takes some good, fair swipes at Browning, Swinburne, and others, the cheapest of which (yet still funny) is “To a Modern Poet”:

But I am very unobservant
                 I cannot say
I ever noticed that the pillar-box
        was like a baby
               skinned alive and screaming.
               I have not
               a Poet’s
        which can see Beauty

Every once in a while, Chesterton also wrote a great poem, the highest concentration of which are in The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Poems (1922), which has too much topical stuff but also has, for example, a sequence titled “For Four Guilds” where medieval labor is worked for its symbolic meaning.  “The Glass-Stainers” is especially effective as a poem where the language and the subject merge perfectly:

To every Man his Mystery,
A trade and only one:
The masons make the hives of men,
The domes of grey and dun,
But we have wrought in rose and gold
The houses of the sun.

Chesterton borrows not just the meaning of medieval stained glass, but the form, with each stanza in the poem, and then each poem in the “Guilds” sequence, placed like a panel in the cathedral windows.  In the last panel and poem, “The Bell-Ringers” summon us to see the work:

And we poor men stand under the steeple
Drawing the cords that can draw the people,
And in our leash like the leaping dogs
Are God’s most deafening demagogues…

If it were not perverse to wish that Chesterton had written more of anything, I would wish that he had written more poems like these.


  1. The parody of Modernism is pretty good. All three comic poems are pretty good.

  2. I'll betcha the topical poems are all hilarious, too, or would be if I knew what the heck they were about.

    Maybe the ones I picked out are topical poems where I recognize the topic.

    1. that last citation was obscure to me... especially the last two lines. the first two were like that old children's hand game, with a string: "here's the church and here's the steeple, and here's the cord that pulls the people"... or something like that... but leaping dogs being demagogues i don't get. GKC in his lucidity(most times) reminds me of macaulay; he has that sort of easily understandable prose that flows along...

    2. The bell-ringers are ringing the church bells. The bell-ropes are like leashes. The vigorous action of pulling the ropes makes the bell-ringers look like leaping dogs.

      The bell-ringers are the demagogues, not the dogs. "We poor men [skip the rest] are [] demagogues." Although both the bell-ringers and the dogs are loud.

    3. Surely the bells are the demagogues, but the bell-ringers control them through the bellropes. The bell-ringers control the bells as the man holding the leash controls a leapng dog.

    4. Oh yes, you're right, the bells are the leaping, barking dogs in the leashes. "The demagogues... are.. in our leash," that's the inversion.

    5. If I knew how to diagram sentence within blog comment, I'd do it.

    6. The full poem has some confusion of metaphor and imagery, but the verse before the one you quote speaks of "The bells that bay like the hounds of heaven", with more hound images to follow.

    7. Yes, it's clear enough there, and that extended metaphor is a good part of the excitement of the poem. I don't know how I got myself turned around.

    8. - Diagram a sentence elsewhere (e.g. Word)
      - Take a screenshot
      - Upload the picture somewhere (e.g. postimage/ imgur...)
      - Paste the link here

    9. I suppose there is a sentence-diagramming program out there somewhere.

  3. Borges and Gracq were fond of these lines from the St. Barbara book:

    Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
    The first surprises stay;
    And in my dross is dropped a gift
    For which I dare not pray:
    That a man grow used to grief and joy
    But not to night and day.

    Men grow too old for love, my love,
    Men grow too old for lies;
    But I shall not grow too old to see
    Enormous night arise,
    A cloud that is larger than the world
    And a monster made of eyes.

  4. I've tried many times to approach Chesterton's poems and always bounced off them. I don't mind variation in quality in a poet, but the chasms of quality between that abomination the *obscure* light verse (which, as you say, is often simply incomprehensibly topical) and his occasional gems were too much for my enthusiasm to bridge...

    (Chesterton in general is apparently the counterweight to Samuel Johnson in the chart of my heart. I began as a teenager abominating Johnson and adoring the Chesterton of essays and mystery stories and autobiography, but then as I get older I see more and more to admire and enjoy in Johnson, and Chesterton seems more and more facile, and the steps in both transitions seem to mirror each other.)

    What we need for Chesterton (perhaps it already exists; I just never found it in my days of Chesterphilia) is a long, extremely detailed biography that sets all his polemic and topical writing in historical context. Something like Jenkins's Gladstone.

  5. Yes, first I thought, "I need annotations," but pretty soon I thought "I need a biography."

    The move from Chesterton to Johnson is entirely understandable.

  6. I cannot tell from your posting, except in a small way, but perhaps Chesterton's poetry succeeds more when he stays within "his wheelhouse" -- i.e., his passion for Christianity. Do you detect that difference in what you've read by him?

  7. No, I do not think that is a difference. None of the poems I mentioned are especially Christian, nor is "A Second Childhood."

    Some of the most explicitly Christian poems are among the most incomprehensible, although they are less about "passion" than topical doctrinal issues.

    1. I sense my question is an annoyance. You know, I meant no harm or waste of your time.

  8. No, not an annoyance, but I do not think your premise is right. I am probably not the person to ask about anyone's "passion for Christianity," though. That is not in my wheelhouse, so to speak.