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
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.