"A promptitude of poetry"

“IT is merely that when a man has found something which he prefers to life, he then for the first time begins to live. A promptitude of poetry opens in his soul of which our paltry experiences do not possess the key. When once he has despised this world as mere instrument, it has become a musical instrument; it falls into certain artistic harmonies around him.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Lunacy & Letters.


Poem: The Sword of Surprise

Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God,
Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;
That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods
May marvel as much at these.

Sunder me from my blood that in the dark
I hear that red ancestral river run,
Like branching buried floods that find the sea
But never see the sun.

Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,
Those rolling mirrors made alive in me,
Terrible crystal more incredible
Than all the things they see.

Sunder me from my soul, that I may see
The sins like streaming wounds, the life's brave beat;
Till I shall save myself, as I would save
A stranger in the street.

~G.K. Chesterton

The Perfect Game

WE have all met the man who says that some odd things have happened to him, but that he does not really believe that they were supernatural. My own position is the opposite of this. I believe in the supernatural as a matter of intellect and reason, not as a matter of personal experience. I do not see ghosts; I only see their inherent probability. But it is entirely a matter of the mere intelligence, not even of the motions; my nerves and body are altogether of this earth, very earthy. But upon people of this temperament one weird incident will often leave a peculiar impression. And the weirdest circumstance that ever occurred to me occurred a little while ago. It consisted in nothing less than my playing a game, and playing it quite well for some seventeen consecutive minutes. The ghost of my grandfather would have astonished me less.
On one of these blue and burning afternoons I found myself, to my inexpressible astonishment, playing a game called croquet. I had imagined that it belonged to the epoch of Leach and Anthony Trollope, and I had neglected to provide myself with those very long and luxuriant side whiskers which are really essential to such a scene. I played it with a man whom we will call Parkinson, and with whom I had a semi-philosophical argument which lasted through the entire contest. It is deeply implanted in my mind that I had the best of the argument; but it is certain and beyond dispute that I had the worst of the game.
"Oh, Parkinson, Parkinson!" I cried, patting him affectionately on the head with a mallet, "how far you really are from the pure love of the sport—you who can play. It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art's sake. If we may see the face of Croquet herself (if I may so express myself) we are content to see her face turned upon us in anger. Our play is called amateurish; and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the French for Lovers. We accept all adventures from our Lady, the most disastrous or the most dreary. We wait outside her iron gates (I allude to the hoops), vainly essaying to enter. Our devoted balls, impetuous and full of chivalry, will not be confined within the pedantic boundaries of the mere croquet ground. Our balls seek honour in the ends of the earth; they turn up in the flower-beds and the conservatory; they are to be found in the front garden and the next street. No, Parkinson! The good painter has skill. It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a pure and hopeless passion do I worship croquet. I love the game itself. I love the parallelogram of grass marked out with chalk or tape, as if its limits were the frontiers of my sacred Fatherland, the four seas of Britain. I love the mere swing of the mallets, and the click of the balls is music. The four colours are to me sacramental and symbolic, like the red of martyrdom, or the white of Easter Day. You lose all this, my poor Parkinson. You have to solace yourself for the absence of this vision by the paltry consolation of being able to go through hoops and to hit the stick."
And I waved my mallet in the air with a graceful gaiety.
"Don't be too sorry for me," said Parkinson, with his simple sarcasm. "I shall get over it in time. But it seems to me that the more a man likes a game the better he would want to play it. Granted that the pleasure in the thing itself comes first, does not the pleasure of success come naturally and inevitably afterwards? Or, take your own simile of the Knight and his Lady-love. I admit the gentleman does first and foremost want to be in the lady's presence. But I never yet heard of a gentleman who wanted to look an utter ass when he was there."
"Perhaps not; though he generally looks it," I replied. "But the truth is that there is a fallacy in the simile, although it was my own. The happiness at which the lover is aiming is an infinite happiness, which can be extended without limit. The more he is loved, normally speaking, the jollier he will be. It is definitely true that the stronger the love of both lovers, the stronger will be the happiness. But it is not true that the stronger the play of both croquet players the stronger will be the game. It is logically possible—(follow me closely here, Parkinson!)—it is logically possible, to play croquet too well to enjoy it at all. If you could put this blue ball through that distant hoop as easily as you could pick it up with your hand, then you would not put it through that hoop any more than you pick it up with your hand; it would not be worth doing. If you could play unerringly you would not play at all. The moment the game is perfect the game disappears."
"I do not think, however," said Parkinson, "that you are in any immediate danger of effecting that sort of destruction. I do not think your croquet will vanish through its own faultless excellence. You are safe for the present."
I again caressed him with the mallet, knocked a ball about, wired myself, and resumed the thread of my discourse.
The long, warm evening had been gradually closing in, and by this time it was almost twilight. By the time I had delivered four more fundamental principles, and my companion had gone through five more hoops, the dusk was verging upon dark.
"We shall have to give this up," said Parkinson, as he missed a ball almost for the first time, "I can't see a thing."
"Nor can I," I answered, "and it is a comfort to reflect that I could not hit anything if I saw it."
With that I struck a ball smartly, and sent it away into the darkness towards where the shadowy figure of Parkinson moved in the hot haze. Parkinson immediately uttered a loud and dramatic cry. The situation, indeed, called for it. I had hit the right ball.
Stunned with astonishment, I crossed the gloomy ground, and hit my ball again. It went through a hoop. I could not see the hoop; but it was the right hoop. I shuddered from head to foot.
Words were wholly inadequate, so I slouched heavily after that impossible ball. Again I hit it away into the night, in what I supposed was the vague direction of the quite invisible stick. And in the dead silence I heard the stick rattle as the ball struck it heavily.
I threw down my mallet. "I can't stand this," I said. "My ball has gone right three times. These things are not of this world."
"Pick your mallet up," said Parkinson, "have another go."
"I tell you I daren't. If I made another hoop like that I should see all the devils dancing there on the blessed grass."
"Why devils?" asked Parkinson; "they may be only fairies making fun of you. They are sending you the 'Perfect Game,' which is no game."
I looked about me. The garden was full of a burning darkness, in which the faint glimmers had the look of fire. I stepped across the grass as if it burnt me, picked up the mallet, and hit the ball somewhere—somewhere where another ball might be. I heard the dull click of the balls touching, and ran into the house like one pursued.

~G.K. Chesterton: Tremendous Trifles, IV.

On Keeping a Dog

CYNICS often speak if the disillusioning effects of experience, but I for one have found that nearly all things not evil are better in experience than in theory. I found love with a small I more thrilling than Love with a large one, and when I saw the Mediterranean it was bluer than the colour blue. In theory, for example, sleep is a negative thing, a mere cessation of life. But nothing will persuade me that sleep is not really quite positive, some forgotten refreshment at the ancient fountains of life. If this is not so, why do we cling to sleep when we have already had enough of it; why does waking up always seem like descending from heaven upon earth? I believe that sleep is a sacrament; or, what is the same thing, a food.

Here, however, I only want to maintain that the real experience of things is often much better than our poetic anticipation of them; that peaks are often higher than they look in pictures and truths more terribly true than they appear in copy-books. Take, for example, the innovation which I have of late introduced into my domestic life; he is a four-legged innovation in the shape of an Aberdeen terrier. I have always imagined myself to be a lover of all animals, because I have never met any animal that I definitely disliked. Most people draw the line somewhere. Lord Roberts dislike cats; the best woman I know objects to spiders; a Theosophist I know protects, but detests, mice, and many leading humanitarians have an objection to human beings.

But I cannot recall ever having shrunk from an animal; I do not mind a slug, however slimy he is, nor a rhinoceros, however much his horn is exalted. When I was a little boy I used to keep a pack of snails as representing what I thought the proper pace of hunting. Thus I fell into the mistake common to many modern universalists and humanitarians. I thought that I loved all God’s creatures, whereas the only point was that I did not hate them. I did not dislike the camel for having a hump or the whale for containing blubber.

But I could not seriously have supposed that the time would ever come when a whale’s blubber would move my heart with a quiver of affection; or that I should know a camel’s hump among others as one knows the profile of a beautiful woman. This is the first of the extraordinary effects of having a dog upon one who has never had one before. One loves an animal like a man instead of merely accepting an animal like an optimist.

But then, again, if the dog is loved he is loved as a dog; not as a fellow-citizen, or an idol, or a pet, or a product of evolution. The moment you are responsible for one respectable animal, that moment an abyss opens as wide as the world between cruelty and the necessary coercion of animals. There are some people who talk of what they call “Corporal Punishment”, and class under that head the hideous torture inflicted on unfortunate citizens in our prisons and workhouses, and also the smack one gives to a silly boy or the whipping of an intolerable terrier. You might as well invent a phrase called “Reciprocal Concussion” and leave it to be understood that you included under this head kissing, kicking, the collision of boats at sea, the embracing of young Germans, and the meeting of comets in mid-air.

That is the second moral value of the thing; the moment you have an animal in your charge you soon discover what is really cruel to animals, and what is only kindness to them. For instance, some people have called it inconsistent in me to be an anti-vivisectionist and yet to be in favor of ordinary sports. I can only say that I can quite imagine myself shooting my dog, but cannot imagine myself vivisecting him.

But there is something deeper in the matter than all that, only the hour is late, and both the dog and I are too drowsy to interpret it. He lies in front of me curled up before the fire, as so many dogs must have lain before so many fires. I sit on one side of that hearth, as so many men must have sat by so many hearths. Somehow this creature has completed my manhood; somehow, I cannot explain why, a man ought to have a dog. A man ought to have six legs; those other four legs are part of him. Our alliance is older than any of the passing and priggish explanations that are offered of either of us; before evolution was, we were. You can find it written in a book that I am a mere survival of a squabble of anthropoid apes; and perhaps I am. I am sure I have no objection. But my dog knows that I am a man, and you will not find the meaning of that word written in any book as clearly as it is written in his soul.

It may be written in a book that my dog is a canine; and from this it may be deduced that he must hunt with a pack. Hence it may be argued (in a book) that if I have one Aberdeen terrier I ought to have twenty-five Aberdeen terriers. But my dog know that I do not ask him to hunt with a pack; he knows that I do not care a curse whether he is canine or not so long as he is my dog. That is the real secret of the matter which the superficial evolutionists cannot be got to see. If traceable history be the test, civilization is much older than the savagery of evolution. The civilized dog is older than the wild dog of science. The civilized man is older than the primitive man of science. We feel it in our bones that we are antiquities, and that the visions of biology are the fancies and the fads. The books do not matter; the night is closing in, and it is too dark to read books. Faintly against the fading firelight can be traced the prehistoric outlines of the man and the dog.

~G.K. Chesterton: Lunacy & Letters.


On Newspaper Proprietors

THE weekly organ called the Nation might very well be called the Notion. For it really excels, apart from all the irony, in the suggestion of that sort of half-truth to which the word 'notion’ can be correctly applied. Its present name, I need hardly say, is simply a joke in large letters. It is, quite simply and seriously, as if the Church Times were actually called the Baptist, or as if the Morning Post were actually called the Fenian; as if the chief vegetarian organ took the title of the Butcher, or the chief teetotal organ were called the Bacchanal. There is no doubt about it, and certainly no disguise about it. The editor keeps the word ‘nation’ as a title; but he is almost invariably uses the word ‘national’ as a term of abuse. Nor does he narrowly confine his hatred to his own nationality; with a broader sense of the human brotherhood, he bestows it upon all nationalities, and sometimes rather specially upon certain small nationalities. I doubt whether he could claim to have sneered more persistently at English patriotism than at Polish patriotism. He is truly international; and does not limit his native and sincere loathing to the narrow boundaries of his own land.

But, as I have said, though the Nation has nothing to do with nations, it has a great deal to do with notions; and they are very interesting and valuable notions. I mean by a notion an incomplete idea; and half an idea is better than no intelligence. Mr. Massingham, the editor in question, is a man of great intelligence; and has distinguished himself very often by going further along the path of truth than any of his comrades or rivals, even if he never quite got there. He told too much of the truth about Marconi; and is the only Liberal journalist alive who is now kicking himself for having so successfully whitewashed Mr. George. He has the courage to mention the Secret Party Funds, in the days when nobody else mentioned them except ourselves. And he has recently made a somewhat similar movement in the same direction, in the particular passage with which I am concerned just now. In this case also the Nation got hold of half the truth; even half the truth is important, and this is a very important half. But in this case also what might have been an idea tailed off into a mere notion, which is ultimately fanciful and even false. A recent article, in the paper under discussion, actually recognized that the press is now the private property of an extremely small number of extremely rich men. That is, a newspaper is now about as much a popular organ as a coronet is a popular organ, or a ribbon of the Garter is a popular organ. The writer realizes that controlling journalism is now as narrow as the very narrowest aristocracy; and he proceeds to compare it with other and older forms of aristocracy. It is when he comes to this comparison that he rather abruptly misses the point. He says, truly enough, that there is a certain type of rich man who now tends to own newspapers, and, therefore, to order news. He says that this type resembles the type of the old brutal robber barons. This, it will be agreed, is a rather hard thing to say about the brutal robber barons. Nor do I believe that it would sound convincing to repeat the ballad of Chevy Chase with the names of Harmsworth and Hulton substituted for those of Douglas and Percy. The barons had some superiorities; including the fact that they were willing to be killed sooner. The primary peculiarity of the man who comes to the top, in our own plutocratic time, is that he need not necessarily have passed through any discipline, even a militarist discipline, and need not have any virtue, even a barbaric virtue. Anyhow, the experiment of putting two of our newspaper noblemen on horses in heavy armor, and throwing them at each other like thunderbolts in a tilting yard, is an experiment that has yet to be tried. It is possible that they would enjoy it; it is at least very probable that we should.

But the writer in the Nation not only compares the press monopolists to robber barons, but adds a phrase which interests me even more. He says that the type in question by its nature sees no further than national boundaries. It is by no means altogether true even of the mediaeval lords; and it seems to me singularly untrue of the modern lords. Touching the practical and personal test once more, there is one question that must occur to most people in most cases. If the great plutocrats have grown up only in a narrow patriotism, what is their patriotism, and for what are they patriotic? The Harmsworths, for instance, are of Irish origin, I believe; and if they are Nationalists, they must be Irish Nationalists.  If they are fanatics, we must look for them among the Fenians or Sinn Feiners; though it has hitherto been rather for a family than a nation that they have borne the motto of ‘Ourselves Alone.’ Anyhow, we should expect them to be concentrated on the cause of the Green Island; whereas, in truth, it has rather been Great Britain that has proved an exceedingly green island for their own pasturage. Lord Northcliffe has not concentrated on a national idea or any idea; he has concerned himself with a series of schemes and scoops as fleeting as music-hall songs. The banjo that was once in Tararaboomdeay’s halls the soul of music shed, now hangs silent if not exactly amid silence; and from the offices in Carmelite Street it is really a long way to Tipperary. Lord Beaverbrooke is not very likely to be a narrow Nationalist; but if he is, I suppose he is a Canadian Nationalist, among whom there are many very interesting and enthusiastic people. Indeed, his choice of a title carries picturesque localism to quite a peculiar length; it somehow suggests not so much an American as an American Indian. The beaver seems more fitted for a totem than a crest. Nevertheless, the reader may be surprised to hear, I cannot believe that he is singly sworn to champion the Canadian nation against all the nations of the earth; any more than I believe that he wields a tomahawk for the Ojibways against all the tribes of America; that he would die for the Dakotas, or knows no loves outside the wigwams of the Blackfeet. There are many other cases that could be followed out if space permitted. There are newspaper proprietors who, if they are Nationalists, must be Zionists; and I am sure I hope they are. But I do not believe it of the general types treated above; and I do not believe it because the Nation’s notion of these men, who rule modern journalism, happens to be, from first to last, a hopelessly wrong notion.

The modern newspaper proprietor is much more progressive than the Nation supposes; in fact he is a product of the progress that the Nation supports.  He is generally an uneducated man; but for all that he is an outcome of modern education. Most outcomes of modern education are uneducated men. Our education is uneducation; its whole tendency is to unteach people the traditions of their fathers. And it is this negative character, in the second-hand and second-rate culture of uneducated people in our time, that is more determining than any positive thing, especially so positive a thing a patriotism. The truth is that the mind of a man of this sort has been swept clear of all positive convictions by the skepticism at the end of the nineteenth century. It is true that such a skeptic gets his skepticism from authority; only it is, first, the wrong authority and, second, an authority he has not really consulted. He does not arrive at his free thought by thinking or even by reading, but by rumor. He has not read Darwin; but he has a vague idea that Darwin has shown that men are monkeys who have left their tails behind them. Therefore, you will invariably find that he flings wide his hundred newspapers to receive anything about eugenics or evolution, or the suggestion that men can be bred like beasts. He has not read Ibsen; but he has a vague idea that Ibsen has shown that every house is a doll’s house, and that can be taken to pieces. Therefore, the press plutocrat will always placard the world with the need for divorce, and with every interference with domesticity; especially with those small houses which look most like dolls’ houses and might easily become unglued. Chatsworth or Stafford House were toys rather too big to be broken. He has not read Tolstoi, the prophet of Mr. Massingham’s religion; but he has a vague idea that Tolstoi has shown that the cross-hilted sword is a contradiction in terms; that there is some incompatibility between the cross and the crusade. Therefore, concluding that chivalry is as irrational as Christianity, he decides that war must be unchivalrous. Seeing only a compromise and a contradiction in the straight sword of the crusader, he prefers to conquer with the crooked sword of the Sultan. That notion, and not any national sentiment whatever, is responsible for anything called imperial or piratical in his foreign policy. He is a Jingo, but he is not a patriot; least of all an extreme or an extravagant patriot. For patriotism must at least be a love, even if it as wild a lust. There is nothing so positive as a love or lust in the stale and yawning cynicism of the yellow press. It is wholly negative and even nihilist; what is left in a dull mind after the destructive criticisms of the nineteenth century. Like the men who made a solitude and called it peace, they make an emptiness and call it enlightenment. It has already been noted that an open mind often means an empty mind; and Mr. Massingham will find that the millionaire newspaper proprietors have very open minds. The rich man who rules the world to-day looks like a man with an open mind; that is, he looks very like a man with an open mouth. Some would say he looks like a silly fellow; I am content to say that he does not look at all like a passionate and fanatical patriot. The diagnosis is incorrect; and the error of the newspaper trusts is not identical with the error which destroyed the Zealots in the fall of Jerusalem, or the Sinn Feiners of that awful Easter that was red rather than white.

~G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in The New Witness (Nationalist and Chestertonian Weekly). Republished in The Living Age; Vol. 300, March 1, 1919; pp. 546-548.

Resource pages for names mentioned in this article:
• Marconi
• Mr. George 
• Mr. Massingham

G.K. Chesterton

"To train a citizen is to train a critic"

"TO train a citizen is to train a critic. The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions. If the citizen is to be a reformer, he must start with some ideal which he does not obtain merely by gazing reverently at the unreformed institutions. And if any one asks, as so many are asking: ‘What is the use of my son learning all about ancient Athens and remote China and medieval guilds and monasteries, and all sorts of dead or distant things, when he is going to be a superior scientific plumber in Pimlico?’ the answer is obvious enough...."  Continue reading this essay: On Business Education

~G.K. Chesterton


"There is much more sham wisdom than there is sham wit"

"A JOKE is always a thought; it is grave and formal writing that can be quite literally thoughtless. This applies to jokes when they are not only quite verbal but quite vulgar. A good pun, or even a bad pun, is more intellectual than mere polysyllables. The man, the presumably prehistoric man, who invented the phrase, "When is a door not a door; when it's ajar," made a serious and successful mental effort of selection and combination. But a Prussian professor might begin on the same problem, "When is a door not a door; when its doorishness is a becoming rather than a being, and when the relativity of doorishness is co-ordinated with the evolution of doors from windows and skylights, of which approximation to new function, etc. etc."—and the Prussian professor might go on like that for ever, and never come to the end because he would never come to the point. A pun or a riddle can never be in that sense a fraud. Real wisdom may be better than real wit, but there is much more sham wisdom than there is sham wit."

~G.K. Chesterton: "The Romance of Rostand." (in The Uses of Diversity)

 1905 photo of Chesterton by photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 - 1966).