Poetry in Action

IF I were asked why I think our whole industrial society is cursed with sterility and stamped with the mark of the slave, I could give a great many answers, but one will serve for the moment: because it cannot create a custom.  It can only create a fashion. Now a fashion is simply something that has failed to be a custom. It is changed as a fashion because it is a failure as a custom. The rich, who are the most restless of mankind, do one thing after another and prove in the very process that they cannot create anything that is good enough to last. Their succession of fashions is in itself a succession of failures. For when men have made really dignified and humane things they have always desired that they should remain or, at least, that some relic of them should remain.

We have statues of all schools of statuary and buildings of all periods of architecture. But fashion, in the feverish sense that exists today, is a totally different thing, a merely destructive thing; indeed, an entirely negative thing. It is as if a man were perpetually carving a statue and smashing it as soon as he carved it; as if he were always clumsily fumbling with the day and had never modelled it to his liking. It is as if people began to dig up the foundations of a house before they had finished putting the roof on. This is not activity or energy or efficiency; it is certainly not efficiency, for it never achieves its effect; it never regards it as either effective or effectual. It is simply instability and discontent; and one of the marks of it is that it cannot create a custom. It cannot, for instance, create a ceremonial, still less a legend. It can sometimes attempt a rag or a practical joke; it can attempt that very dismal sort of dinner that the millionaires in America call a Freak.  But the thing cannot be repeated; even the stupidest millionaire could not stand that.

When the traveller visits a place like Spain, the first thing that strikes him is a change from this atmosphere of hard and barren frivolity to the atmosphere of grave and solemn festivity. The Spaniards still have customs rather than fashions; and their customs come natural to them. They do not need to be changed, because to fresher minds they are always fresh. This is particularly true, for instance, about the sort of ceremonial that everywhere gathers round childhood. In such places it is not only children who understand childhood. Grown-up people understand it so thoroughly that they themselves become what the wise call childlike and the foolish call childish. It can be seen in a hundred things that make a system of communication between two generations. But it can be seen in this above all; that the grown-up people are still capable of inventing a ceremony, as children invent a game.  The ceremonies vary, not only from place to place, but from century to century. They are not all old, as antiquaries like things to be old; for antiquaries only like things to be antiquated. Just as these living peasantries renew their fields and farms, so they renew their habitations and habits. Just as they restore their churches, by putting new patches on to old buildings, so they renew their games and jokes, putting in many elements in one place which are not found in another.

What is called the Seville procession exists in many different places besides Seville. But as it is done in many different places, so it is done in many different ways. There are often elements that are in their nature new, that are unexpected in the sense that nobody could possibly expect them. I have heard it said that, sometimes, a man will rush out into the path of the procession and pour out a stream of absurdly spontaneous poetry, like an improvisation on a musical instrument; and that sometimes somebody else (also rather abruptly moved by the Muse) will answer him from a window with appropriate poetical repartees. But the point is that the old framework allows of these new things, just as the old orchard bears fresh fruit or the old garden fresh flowers. These old civilizations give us the sensation of being always at the beginning of things; whereas mere modern innovation gives us the sensation, even in its novelty, of drawing nearer and nearer to the end.

There is one custom in Spain, and probably in other southern countries, which might be a model of the popular instinct for poetry in action. It is what corresponds to our idea of Santa Claus, who is, of course, St Nicolas, and in the North the patron of children and the giver of gifts at Christmas. In the South this function is performed by the Three Kings, and the gifts are given at the Epiphany. It is in a sense more logical, which, perhaps, is why it is common among the Latins. The Wise Men are in any case bringing gifts to the Holy Child, and they bring them at the same time to the human children. But there is in connexion with it an excellent example of how people who retain this popular instinct can actually act a poem.

The mysterious Kings arrive at the end of the holiday, which again is really very reasonable. It is much better that the games and dances and dramas, which are fugitive, should come first and the children be left with the presents, or permanent possessions, at the end. But it is also the occasion of a process very mystical and moving to the imagination. The Kings are conceived as coming nearer and nearer every day; and, if there are images of these sacred figures, they are moved from place to place every night. That alone is strangely thrilling, either considered as a child's game or as a mystic's meditation on the mysteries of time and space. On the last night of all, when the strange travellers through time are supposed to arrive, the children carefully put out water and green stuff for the camels and the horses of that superhuman cavalcade out of the depths of the East. Even the touch of putting water, so necessary to purely Eastern animals, is enough to suggest that reach of the imagination to the ends of the earth.

Now, that is only one example, out of hundreds that can be collected in any valley or countryside, of something which people in simpler times had the power to create; a complete and concrete drama perfectly plain and unfathomably profound. What I want to know about modern civilization, which in many ways cares so much for beauty, which in some ways cares far too much for beauty, is why it cannot produce these beautiful things. I do not want it to copy Spain and the Three Kings, or to copy Scandinavia and St Nicolas, or to copy any particular local ritual. But why can it never invent anything of its own? I have long paused for a reply.

~G.K. Chesterton: from The Glass Walking-Stick and Other Essays.

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