"Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly"

"IT IS one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion of modern "force" that the promptest and boldest agencies are also the most fragile or full of sensibility. The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of "levitation." They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, VII. The Eternal Revolution.

Archangel Gabriel Annunciate, by Fra Angelico.
Tempera and gold on panel, 1431-33; Institute of Arts, Detroit.

"The valour of St. Michael"

"HISTORIC Christianity has always believed in the valour of St. Michael riding in front of the Church Militant, and in an ultimate and absolute pleasure, not indirect or utilitarian, the intoxication of the Spirit, the wine of the blood of God."

~G.K. Chesterton: George Bernard Shaw.


Poem: Alliterativism (1914)

(The Latest School)


See the flying French depart
Like the bees of Bonaparte,
Swarming up with a most venomous vitality.
Over Baden and Bavaria,
And Brighton and Bulgaria,
Thus violating Belgian neutrality.

And the injured Prussian may
Not unreasonably say
"Why, it cannot be so small a nationality!
Since Brixton and Batavia,
Bolivia and Belgravia,
Are bursting with the Belgian neutrality.

By pure Alliteration
You may trace this curious nation,
And respect this somewhat scattered principality;
When you see a B in Both
You may take your Bible oath
You are violating Belgian neutrality.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: The New Omar

A book of verses underneath the bough,
  Provided that the verses do not scan,
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and Thou,
  Short-haired, all angles, looking like a man.

But let the wine be unfermented, pale,
  Of chemicals compounded, God knows how—
This were indeed the Prophet's Paradise,
  O Paradise were Wilderness enow.

~G.K. Chesterton

On Political Secrecy

GENERALLY, instinctively, in the absence of any special reason, humanity hates the idea of anything being hidden—that is, it hates the idea of anything being successfully hidden. Hide-and-seek is a popular pastime; but it assumes the truth of the text, "Seek and ye shall find." Ordinary mankind (gigantic and unconquerable in its power of joy) can get a great deal of pleasure out of a game called "hide the thimble," but that is only because it is really a game of "see the thimble." Suppose that at the end of such a game the thimble had not been found at all; suppose its place was unknown for ever: the result on the players would not be playful, it would be tragic. That thimble would hag-ride all their dreams. They would all die in asylums. The pleasure is all in the poignant moment of passing from not knowing to knowing. Mystery stories are very popular, especially when sold at sixpence; but that is because the author of a mystery story reveals. He is enjoyed not because he creates mystery, but because he destroys mystery. Nobody would have the courage to publish a detective-story which left the problem exactly where it found it. That would rouse even the London public to revolution. No one dare publish a detective-story that did not detect.

There are three broad classes of the special things in which human wisdom does permit privacy. The first is the case I have mentioned—that of hide-and-seek, or the police novel, in which it permits privacy only in order to explode and smash privacy. The author makes first a fastidious secret of how the Bishop was murdered, only in order that he may at last declare, as from a high tower, to the whole democracy the great glad news that he was murdered by the governess. In that case, ignorance is only valued because being ignorant is the best and purest preparation for receiving the horrible revelations of high life. Somewhat in the same way being an agnostic is the best and purest preparation for receiving the happy revelations of St. John.

This first sort of secrecy we may dismiss, for its whole ultimate object is not to keep the secret, but to tell it. Then there is a second and far more important class of things which humanity does agree to hide. They are so important that they cannot possibly be discussed here. But every one will know the kind of things I mean. In connection with these, I wish to remark that though they are, in one sense, a secret, they are also always a "sécret de Polichinelle." Upon sex and such matters we are in a human freemasonry; the freemasonry is disciplined, but the freemasonry is free. We are asked to be silent about these things, but we are not asked to be ignorant about them. On the contrary, the fundamental human argument is entirely the other way. It is the thing most common to humanity that is most veiled by humanity. It is exactly because we all know that it is there that we need not say that it is there.

Then there is a third class of things on which the best civilisation does permit privacy, does resent all inquiry or explanation. This is in the case of things which need not be explained, because they cannot be explained, things too airy, instinctive, or intangible—caprices, sudden impulses, and the more innocent kind of prejudice. A man must not be asked why he is talkative or silent, for the simple reason that he does not know. A man is not asked (even in Germany) why he walks slow or quick, simply because he could not answer. A man must take his own road through a wood, and make his own use of a holiday. And the reason is this: not because he has a strong reason, but actually because he has a weak reason; because he has a slight and fleeting feeling about the matter which he could not explain to a policeman, which perhaps the very appearance of a policeman out of the bushes might destroy. He must act on the impulse, because the impulse is unimportant, and he may never have the same impulse again. If you like to put it so he must act on the impulse because the impulse is not worth a moment's thought. All these fancies men feel should be private; and even Fabians have never proposed to interfere with them.

Now, for the last fortnight the newspapers have been full of very varied comments upon the problem of the secrecy of certain parts of our political finance, and especially of the problem of the party funds. Some papers have failed entirely to understand what the quarrel is about. They have urged that Irish members and Labour members are also under the shadow, or, as some have said, even more under it. The ground of this frantic statement seems, when patiently considered, to be simply this: that Irish and Labour members receive money for what they do. All persons, as far as I know, on this earth receive money for what they do; the only difference is that some people, like the Irish members, do it.

I cannot imagine that any human being could think any other human being capable of maintaining the proposition that men ought not to receive money. The simple point is that, as we know that some money is given rightly and some wrongly, an elementary common-sense leads us to look with indifference at the money that is given in the middle of Ludgate Circus, and to look with particular suspicion at the money which a man will not give unless he is shut up in a box or a bathing-machine. In short, it is too silly to suppose that anybody could ever have discussed the desirability of funds. The only thing that even idiots could ever have discussed is the concealment of funds. Therefore, the whole question that we have to consider is whether the concealment of political money-transactions, the purchase of peerages, the payment of election expenses, is a kind of concealment that falls under any of the three classes I have mentioned as those in which human custom and instinct does permit us to conceal. I have suggested three kinds of secrecy which are human and defensible. Can this institution be defended by means of any of them?

Now the question is whether this political secrecy is of any of the kinds that can be called legitimate. We have roughly divided legitimate secrets into three classes. First comes the secret that is only kept in order to be revealed, as in the detective stories; secondly, the secret which is kept because everybody knows it, as in sex; and third, the secret which is kept because it is too delicate and vague to be explained at all, as in the choice of a country walk. Do any of these broad human divisions cover such a case as that of secrecy of the political and party finances? It would be absurd, and even delightfully absurd, to pretend that any of them did. It would be a wild and charming fancy to suggest that our politicians keep political secrets only that they may make political revelations. A modern peer only pretends that he has earned his peerage in order that he may more dramatically declare, with a scream of scorn and joy, that he really bought it. The Baronet pretends that he deserved his title only in order to make more exquisite and startling the grand historical fact that he did not deserve it. Surely this sounds improbable. Surely all our statesmen cannot be saving themselves up for the excitement of a death-bed repentance. The writer of detective tales makes a man a duke solely in order to blast him with a charge of burglary. But surely the Prime Minister does not make a man a duke solely in order to blast him with a charge of bribery. No; the detective-tale theory of the secrecy of political funds must (with a sigh) be given up.

Neither can we say that the thing is explained by that second case of human secrecy which is so secret that it is hard to discuss it in public. A decency is preserved about certain primary human matters precisely because every one knows all about them. But the decency touching contributions, purchases, and peerages is not kept up because most ordinary men know what is happening; it is kept up precisely because most ordinary men do not know what is happening. The ordinary curtain of decorum covers normal proceedings. But no one will say that being bribed is a normal proceeding.

And if we apply the third test to this problem of political secrecy, the case is even clearer and even more funny. Surely no one will say that the purchase of peerages and such things are kept secret because they are so light and impulsive and unimportant that they must be matters of individual fancy. A child sees a flower and for the first time feels inclined to pick it. But surely no one will say that a brewer sees a coronet and for the first time suddenly thinks that he would like to be a peer. The child's impulse need not be explained to the police, for the simple reason that it could not be explained to anybody. But does any one believe that the laborious political ambitions of modern commercial men ever have this airy and incommunicable character? A man lying on the beach may throw stones into the sea without any particular reason. But does any one believe that the brewer throws bags of gold into the party funds without any particular reason? This theory of the secrecy of political money must also be regretfully abandoned; and with it the two other possible excuses as well. This secrecy is one which cannot be justified as a sensational joke nor as a common human freemasonry, nor as an indescribable personal whim. Strangely enough, indeed, it violates all three conditions and classes at once. It is not hidden in order to be revealed: it is hidden in order to be hidden. It is not kept secret because it is a common secret of mankind, but because mankind must not get hold of it. And it is not kept secret because it is too unimportant to be told, but because it is much too important to bear telling. In short, the thing we have is the real and perhaps rare political phenomenon of an occult government. We have an exoteric and an esoteric doctrine. England is really ruled by priestcraft, but not by priests. We have in this country all that has ever been alleged against the evil side of religion; the peculiar class with privileges, the sacred words that are unpronounceable; the important things known only to the few. In fact we lack nothing except the religion.

~G.K. Chesterton: All Things Considered


Poem: Outline of History

A fishbone pattern of flint arrows flattened
A fossil vision of the Age of Stone—
And sages in war-weary empires quarrel
With those quaint quarrels and forget their own.
What riddle is of the elf-darts or the elves
But the strange stony riddle of ourselves?

As by long worms the hills are pierced with holes,
Where long day's journeyings without light of day
Lead to a painted cave, a buried sky,
Whose clouds are creatures sprawling in coloured clay;
And men ask how and why such things were done
Darkly, with dyes that never saw the sun.

I have seen a statue in a London square.
One whose long-winded lies are long forgot
Gleams with the rain above the twinkling bushes,
And birds perch on him in that unroofed plot.
Unriddle that dark image; and I will show
The secret of your pictured rocks below.

As green volcanic skies bury dark sunsets,
Green rust like snakes crawled, and their work concealed
The men who were red shadows in copper mirrors,
When groaned the golden and the brazen shield.
And the slaves worked the copper for their lords,
Stiff swarthy kings holding their yellow swords.

We have written the names of hucksters on the heavens
And tied our pigmy slaves to giant tools,
And chosen our nobles from the mart; and never
Stank to the sky the praise of prouder fools.
And 'mid the blare, the doctors and the dons,
In the Age of Brass brood on the Age of Bronze.

We clothe the dead in their theatric raiment
To hide their nakedness of normality;
Disguise by gilded mask or horned mitre
The accusing faces of such men as we:
Till the last brotherhood of men brings down
Us with the troglodytes in their twilight town.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: Namesake

Mary of Holyrood may smile indeed,
Knowing what grim historic shade it shocks
To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed,
Cluster and sparkle in the name of Knox.

~G.K. Chesterton

A Broad Minded Bishop Rebukes the Verminous St. Francis

If Brother Francis pardoned Brother Flea,
There still seems need of such strange charity,
Seeing he is, for all his gay goodwill,
Bitten by funny little creatures still.

~G.K. Chesterton


On Change

A PROFESSOR, filled with the spirit, has delivered an oracle on the subject of The Future. I do not know what he was a professor of, but I suppose he was a Professor of Prophecy. Anyhow, he belonged to that band of enthusiasts for evolution who seem to know much more about the future than they do about the past or even the present. For he was quite as scornful of the present as of the past. We are still, he said, only half-baked savages. Anyhow, some of us are still rather half-baked philosophers; and no philosopher of this school has ever yet answered the question that must have been put again and again, and which I, for one, have often put. If everything changes, including the mind of man, how can we tell whether any change is an improvement or no?

To take a simple and even crude example. One evolutionist, like Mr. Bernard Shaw, will say he has evolved a higher morality by refusing to eat the flesh of animals; but he does so because he has retained the old ideal of pity. Another evolutionist might just as well say that he had evolved a larger morality in being free to eat the flesh of human beings; though even in talking of being free he would still appeal to the old ideal of liberty. But he could easily talk, in quite a modern manner, about the ancient horror of cannibalism being a mere prejudice, a tribal taboo, an irrational limitation of human experience. The professor’s own phrase will be found charmingly apt. He complains that we are still half-baked savages. He may well look forward to the happy day when we shall be completely baked savages.

Now, nobody can possibly say which of these two evolutionary changes is the better, unless he keeps some standard that cannot be changed. He cannot tell whether he ought to evolve into the higher morality or into the larger morality, unless he has some principle of pity or of liberty that does not evolve at all. The professor gave, among his rather random examples, the suggestion that we must be changing for the better because women were burned three hundred years ago. Suppose I tell him that women will be vivisected three hundred years hence. I have as much right to tell him that as he has to tell me anything else; I also can roll myself in the prophet’s mantle; I also can mount the tripod and deliver the oracle. In other words, I know as much about the future as he does, or as anybody else does; which is nothing at all. But suppose it were true, as it is most certainly tenable, that some of the vivisectionists do eventually propose to extend vivisection from beasts to men; just as I have pictured the intellectuals of the New Cannibalism extending their diet from beasts to men. It will be just as easy to use a scientific jargon in defence of that vivisection as of any other vivisection. It will be just as easy to argue, as men in all ages have argued, that a minority must suffer for the sake of a community, or that such sacrifice is a sort of martyrdom for mankind. What I want to know is, how is the evolutionist to tell whether this is a forward step or a retrograde step, if his ethics are always changing with his evolution? The Vivisectionists will say then, as they say now, that true progress demands a painful but necessary investigation. The Anti-Vivisectionists will say then, as they say now, that true progress is found in increased sensibility to suffering and renunciation of force. But how is the unhappy doubter to decide which of these two versions of true progress is really true? He can only do it if he has the test of some truth that remains true. But it is the very essence of this extreme evolutionary notion of thought that no truth can really remain true. The mind is fluid and changing, as the body is fluid and changing. On this principle we may be able to say of the future that it will be a change. But we cannot say it will be an improvement; for that implies that there will always be something in common between us and our descendants; something that we are all trying to improve. Why should that something not change like everything? Is that outside the laws of evolution? Is that a special creation? Is that a miracle? Is that common standard of conscience a thing of divine origin? Dreadful thought!

I need not say much here of the actual prophecies of the professor. They sound very like a skit or burlesque on the romances of Jules Verne or the earlier romances of H. G. Wells. Only they contain absurdities that nobody would put into a romance, or even into a burlesque. The professor was, of course, bursting with hope and progressive optimism. He thinks that everything is going very well indeed, and the world improving with wonderful rapidity. As an example of this, he says that men are losing their eyes, teeth, hair, and sense of hearing with a rapidity that raises the happiest anticipations in a humane lover of his kind. He explained that when we have got rid of all these rude and extinct organs, we should have mechanical scientific substitutes. In the simple language of our fathers, we shall have false hair, false teeth, false eyes, false ears, and everything else suitable to our false philosophy. He did not explain how soon it will be possible to manufacture that minor part of the machinery which has hitherto escaped so many inquiring mechanics; I mean the little thing that actually sees, hears, smells, speaks, and thinks. For, strange and exasperating as it seems, without that one little thing (which nobody can find anywhere) it will generally be found that telescopes cannot see by themselves, telephones can not hear by themselves, books cannot write themselves or read themselves; and a man cannot even talk entirely without thinking. Though he sometimes comes pretty near it.

~G.K. Chesterton


On Philosophy Versus Fiction

LOOKING back on a wild and wasted life, I realize that I have especially sinned in neglecting to read novels. I mean the really novel novels; for such old lumber as Dickens and Jane Austen I know fairly well. If instead of trifling away my time over pamphlets about Collectivism or Co-operation, plunging for mere pleasure into the unhealthy excitement of theological debates with dons, or enjoying the empty mirth of statistics about Poland and Czechoslovakia, I had quietly sat at home doing my duty and reading every novel as it comes out, I might be a more serious and  earnest man than I am to-day. If instead of loitering to laugh over something, merely because it happened to be laughable, I had walked stiffly and sternly on to the Circulating Library, and put myself under the tuition of our more passionate lady novelists, I might by this time be as intense as they. If instead of leading a riotous life, scrapping with Mr. Shaw about Socialism, or Dean Inge about Science, I had believed everything I was told about marriage by an unmarried young woman in an avowedly imaginary story, I might now have a more undisturbed faith and simplicity. Novels are the great monument of the amazing credulity of the modern mind; for people believe them quite seriously even though they do not pretend to be true.

But it is really true, alas! that I have failed to follow adequately the development of serious fiction. I do not admit that I have entirely failed to follow the development of serious facts. Not only have I discussed Labour with Socialists, or Science with Scientists, but I have argued with myself about other things, so new and true that I cannot get anybody else to argue about them. The world-wide power of trusts, for instance, is a thing that is never attacked and never defended. It seems to have been completed without ever having been proposed; we might say without ever having been begun. The small shopkeeper has been destroyed in the twentieth century, as the small yeoman was destroyed in the eighteenth century. But for the yeoman there was protest and regret; great poets sang his dirge, and great orators like Cobbett died trying to avenge his death. But the modern destructive changes seem to be too new to be noticed. Perhaps they are too enormous to be seen. No; I do not think it can be fairly said that I have neglected the most recent realities of the real world. It seems rather the real world that neglects them.

Nor do I confess, thank heaven, to the more odious vice of neglecting funny or frivolous fiction; whether in the sense of reading everything from the first story of Mr. Jacobs to the last story of Mr. Wodehouse ; or in that richer sense in which the joke consists entirely of a corpse, a blood-stained hat-peg, or the mysterious footprints of a three-legged man in the garden. I have been a munificent patron of fiction of that description; and have even presented the public with a corpse or two of my own. In short, the limitation of my literary experience is altogether on the side of the modern serious novel; especially that very serious novel which is all about the psychology of flirting and jilting and going to jazz dances. I have read hundreds of books bearing titles like Socialism: The Way Out; or Society: the Way In; or Japanese Light on the Paulus Mythus; or Cannibalism the Clue to Catholicism; or Parricide: a Contribution to Progress; or The Traffic Problem: The Example of Greenland; or Must We Drink?; or Should We Eat?; or Do We Breathe? and all those grave and baffling questions. I have also read hundreds of books bearing titles like Who Killed Humphrey Higgleswick?; or The Blood on the Blotting-paper; or The Secret of Piccadilly Circus; or The Clue of the Stolen Toothbrush; and so on and so on. But I have not read with sufficient regularity, diligence and piety all those other books that bear titles like The Grasswidowhood of Grace Bellow; or The Seventh Honeymoon of Sylphide Squeak; or Dear Lady Divorce; or The Sex of Samuel Stubbin; or Harold Hatrack, Soul-Thief; or The Hypnotist of Insomnia Smith. All these grave and laborious, and often carefully written books come out season after season; and somehow I have missed them. Sometimes they miss me, even when hurled at my head by publishers. It were vain to deny that I sometimes deliberately avoid them. I have a reason, of a reasonable sort; for 1 do not think it is a really reasonable reason merely to say that they bore me. For I did once really try to read them; and I got lost. One reason is that I think there is in all literature a sort of purpose; quite different from the mere moralizing that is generally meant by a novel with a purpose. There is something in the plan of the idea that is straight like a backbone and pointing like an arrow. It is meant to go somewhere, or at least to point somewhere ; to its end, not only in the modern sense of an ending, but in the medieval sense of a fruition. Now, I think that many of the less intellectual stories have kept this, where the more intellectual stories have lost it. The writer of detective stories, having once asked who killed Humphrey Higgleswick, must, after all, end by telling us who did it, even by the mean subterfuge of saying it was Humphrey Higgleswick. But the serious novelist asks a question that he does not answer; often that he is really incompetent to answer. The sex of Samuel Stubbin may even remain in considerable doubt, in some of the more emotional passages, and the seventh honeymoon of Sylphide seems to have nothing to do with the probable prospect of her eighth. It is the custom of these writers to scoff at the old sentimental novel or novelette, in which the story always ended happily to the sound of church bells. But, judged by the highest standards of heroic or great literature, like the Greek tragedies or the great epics, the novelette was really far superior to the novel. It set itself to reach a certain goal—the marriage of two persons, with all its really vital culmination in the founding of a family and a vow to God; and all other incidents were interesting because they pointed to a consummation which was, by legitimate hypothesis, a grand consummation.

But the modern refusal both of the religious vow and the romantic hope has broken the backbone of the business altogether, and it is only an assorted bag of bones. People are minutely described as experiencing one idiotic passion after another, passions which they themselves recognize as idiotic, and which even their own wretched philosophy forbids them to regard as steps towards any end. The sentimental novelette was a simplified and limited convention of the thing; in which, for the sake of argument, marriage was made the prize. Of course marriage is not the only thing that happens in life; and somebody else may study another section with another goal. But the modern serious novelists deny that there is any goal. They cannot point to the human happiness which the romantics associated with gaining the prize. They cannot point to the heavenly happiness which the religious associated with keeping the vow. They are driven back entirely on the microscopic description of these aimless appetites in themselves. And, microscopically studied in themselves, they are not very interesting to a middle-aged man with plenty of other things to think about. In short, the old literature, both great and trivial, was built on the idea that there is a purpose in life, even if it is not always completed in this life; and it really was interesting to follow the stages of such a purpose; from the meeting to the wedding, from the wedding to the bells, and from the bells to the church. But modern philosophy has taken the life out of modern fiction. It is simply dissolving into separate fragments and then into formlessness; and deserves much more than the romantic novel the modern reproach of being ‘sloppy'.

~G.K. Chesterton

"Every great literature"

"Every great literature has always been allegorical—allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle." 

~G.K. Chesterton: The Defendant


On Running After One's Hat

I FEEL an almost savage envy on hearing that London has been flooded in my absence, while I am in the mere country. My own Battersea has been, I understand, particularly favoured as a meeting of the waters. Battersea was already, as I need hardly say, the most beautiful of human localities. Now that it has the additional splendour of great sheets of water, there must be something quite incomparable in the landscape (or waterscape) of my own romantic town. Battersea must be a vision of Venice. The boat that brought the meat from the butcher's must have shot along those lanes of rippling silver with the strange smoothness of the gondola. The greengrocer who brought cabbages to the corner of the Latchmere Road must have leant upon the oar with the unearthly grace of the gondolier. There is nothing so perfectly poetical as an island; and when a district is flooded it becomes an archipelago.

Some consider such romantic views of flood or fire slightly lacking in reality. But really this romantic view of such inconveniences is quite as practical as the other. The true optimist who sees in such things an opportunity for enjoyment is quite as logical and much more sensible than the ordinary "Indignant Ratepayer" who sees in them an opportunity for grumbling. Real pain, as in the case of being burnt at Smithfield or having a toothache, is a positive thing; it can be supported, but scarcely enjoyed. But, after all, our toothaches are the exception, and as for being burnt at Smithfield, it only happens to us at the very longest intervals. And most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences—things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter. They also serve who only stand and wait for the two fifteen. Their meditations may be full of rich and fruitful things. Many of the most purple hours of my life have been passed at Clapham Junction, which is now, I suppose, under water. I have been there in many moods so fixed and mystical that the water might well have come up to my waist before I noticed it particularly. But in the case of all such annoyances, as I have said, everything depends upon the emotional point of view. You can safely apply the test to almost every one of the things that are currently talked of as the typical nuisance of daily life.

For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one's hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind? Not merely because it is running, and running exhausts one. The same people run much faster in games and sports. The same people run much more eagerly after an uninteresting, little leather ball than they will after a nice silk hat. There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one's hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love. A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife.

Now a man could, if he felt rightly in the matter, run after his hat with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy. He might regard himself as a jolly huntsman pursuing a wild animal, for certainly no animal could be wilder. In fact, I am inclined to believe that hat-hunting on windy days will be the sport of the upper classes in the future. There will be a meet of ladies and gentlemen on some high ground on a gusty morning. They will be told that the professional attendants have started a hat in such-and-such a thicket, or whatever be the technical term. Notice that this employment will in the fullest degree combine sport with humanitarianism. The hunters would feel that they were not inflicting pain. Nay, they would feel that they were inflicting pleasure, rich, almost riotous pleasure, upon the people who were looking on. When last I saw an old gentleman running after his hat in Hyde Park, I told him that a heart so benevolent as his ought to be filled with peace and thanks at the thought of how much unaffected pleasure his every gesture and bodily attitude were at that moment giving to the crowd.

The same principle can be applied to every other typical domestic worry. A gentleman trying to get a fly out of the milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine often imagines himself to be irritated. Let him think for a moment of the patience of anglers sitting by dark pools, and let his soul be immediately irradiated with gratification and repose. Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it. But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative; it rested entirely upon the assumption that the drawer could, should, and would come out easily. "But if," I said, "you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine that you are tugging up a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine that you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevass. Imagine even that you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English." Shortly after saying this I left him; but I have no doubt at all that my words bore the best possible fruit. I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring.

So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: "Wine is good with everything except water," and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine.

~G.K. Chesterton: All Things Considered


A Ballade of the First Rain

The sky is blue with summer and the sun,
The woods are brown as autumn with the tan,
It might as well be Tropics and be done,
I might as well be born a copper Khan;
I fashion me an oriental fan
Made of the wholly unreceipted bills
Brought by the ice-man, sleeping in his van
(A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills).

I read the Young Philosophers for fun
—Fresh as our sorrow for the late Queen Anne—
The Dionysians whom a pint would stun,
The Pantheists who never heard of Pan.
—But through my hair electric needles ran,
And on my book a gout of water spills,
And on the skirts of heaven the guns began
(A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills).

O fields of England, cracked and dry and dun,
O soul of England, sick of words, and wan!—
The clouds grow dark;—the down-rush has begun.
—It comes, it comes, as holy darkness can,
Black as with banners, ban and arriere-ban;
A falling laughter all the valley fills,
Deep as God's thunder and the thirst of man:
(A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills).


Prince, Prince-Elective on the modern plan
Fulfilling such a lot of People's Wills,
You take the Chiltern Hundreds while you can—
A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills.

~G.K. Chesterton


Poem: Gold Leaves

Lo! I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I are old.

In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,
Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: The Wild Knight

The wasting thistle whitens on my crest,
The barren grasses blow upon my spear,
A green, pale pennon: blazon of wild faith
And love of fruitless things: yea, of my love,
Among the golden loves of all the knights,
Alone: most hopeless, sweet, and blasphemous,
The love of God:
        I hear the crumbling creeds
Like cliffs washed down by water, change, and pass;
I hear a noise of words, age after age,
A new cold wind that blows across the plains,
And all the shrines stand empty; and to me
All these are nothing: priests and schools may doubt
Who never have believed; but I have loved.
Ah friends, I know it passing well, the love
Wherewith I love; it shall not bring to me
Return or hire or any pleasant thing—
Ay, I have tried it: Ay, I know its roots.
Earthquake and plague have burst on it in vain
And rolled back shattered—
        Babbling neophytes!
Blind, startled fools—think you I know it not?
Think you to teach me? Know I not His ways?
Strange-visaged blunders, mystic cruelties.
All! all! I know Him, for I love Him. Go!
So, with the wan waste grasses on my spear,
I ride for ever, seeking after God.
My hair grows whiter than my thistle plume,
And all my limbs are loose; but in my eyes
The star of an unconquerable praise:
For in my soul one hope for ever sings,
That at the next white corner of a road
My eyes may look on Him….
        Hush—I shall know
The place when it is found: a twisted path
Under a twisted pear-tree—this I saw
In the first dream I had ere I was born,
Wherein He spoke….
        But the grey clouds come down
In hail upon the icy plains: I ride,
Burning for ever in consuming fire.

~G.K. Chesterton


"Survival of the fittest"

"I NEVER said a word against eminent men of science. What I complain of is a vague popular philosophy which supposes itself to be scientific when it is really nothing but a sort of new religion and an uncommonly nasty one. When people talked about the Fall of Man, they knew they were talking about a mystery, a thing they didn't understand. Now they talk about the survival of the fittest: they think they do understand it, whereas they have not merely no notion, they have an elaborately false notion of what the words mean."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Club of Queer Trades.


Chesterton on Government and Politicians....

■ "Representative government has many minor disadvantages, one of them being that it is never representative." (Charles Dickens. 1906)

■ "The trouble with modern England is not how many or how few people vote. It is that, however many people vote, a small ring of administrators do what they please." (quoted in the Colonist, Oct. 27, 1909)

■ "I know that most politicians are engaged in trying to imitate the other politicians, which cannot be considered as a school of virtue."
(Illustrated London News, July 9, 1910)

■ "The modern representative not only does not represent his constituents—he does not even represent himself." (Illustrated London News, Aug. 31, 1912)

■ "THE men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged." (interview with the Cleveland Press, 1921)

■ "Politicians have to live in the future, because they know they have done nothing but evil in the past." (Illustrated London News, June 10, 1933)


"Life is frightfully valuable"

"ROMANCE is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed religion, to which it is closely allied. Romance resembles religion especially in this, that it is not only a simplification but a shortening of existence. Both romance and religion see everything as it were foreshortened; they see everything in an abrupt and fantastic perspective, coming to an apex. It is the whole essence of perspective that it comes to a point. Similarly, religion comes to a point—to the point. Thus religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on it. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable—is almost horribly valuable. Pessimism says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby.

The Tragedy of King Lear

THE tragedy of King Lear, on some of its elements perhaps the very greatest of all the Shakespearian tragedies, is relatively seldom played. It is even possible to have a dark suspicion that it is not universally read; with the usual deplorable result; that it is universally quoted. Perhaps nothing has done so much to weaken the greatest of English achievements, and to leave it open to facile revolt or fatigued reaction, than the abominable habit of quoting Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare. It has encouraged all the pompous theatricality which first created an idolatry and then an iconoclasm; all that florid tradition in which old playgoers and after dinner-speakers talked about the Bard or the Swan of Avon, until it was comparatively easy, at the end of the Victorian era, for somebody like Bernard Shaw to propose an Edwardian massacre of Bards and almost to insinuate that the swan was a goose. Most of the trouble came from what are called 'Familiar Quotations', which were hardly even representative or self-explanatory quotations. In almost all the well known passages from Shakespeare, to quote the passage is to miss the point. It is almost needless to note what may be called the vulgar examples; as in the case of those who say that Shakespeare asks, "What is in a name?"; which is rather like saying that Shakespeare says murder must be done, and it were best if it were done quickly. The popular inference always is that Shakespeare thought that names do not matter; there being possibly no man on God's earth who was less likely to think so, than the man who made such magnificent mouthfuls out of mandragora and hurricanes, of the names of Hesperides or Hercules. The remark has no point, except in the purely personal circumstances in which it has poignancy, in the mouth of a girl commanded to hate a man she loves, because of a name that seems to her to have nothing to do with him. The play now under consideration is no exception to this disastrous rule. The old woman who complained that the tragedy of Hamlet was so full of quotations would have found almost as many in the tragedy of King Lear. And they would have had the same character as those from Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet: that those who leave out the context really leave out the conception. They have a mysterious power of making the world weary of a few fixed and disconnected words, and yet leaving the world entirely ignorant of the real meaning of those words.

Thus, in the play of King Lear, there are certain words which everybody has heard hundreds of times, in connections either intentionally or unintentionally absurd. We have all read or heard of somebody saying, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Somehow the very words sound as if they were mouthed by some tipsy actor or silly and senile person in a comic novel. I do not know why these particular words, as words, should be selected for citation. Shakespeare was a casual writer; he was often especially careless about metaphors, careless about making them and careless about mixing them. There is nothing particularly notable about this particular metaphor of the tooth; it might just as well have been a wolf's tooth or a tiger's tooth. The lines quoted only become remarkable when we read them with the rest of the scene, and with a very much more remarkable passage, which is never quoted at all. The whole point of Lear's remark is that, when buffeted by the first insult of Goneril, he breaks forth into a blasting bodily curse upon the woman, praying first that she may have no children, then that she may have horrible and unnatural children, that she may give birth to a monstrosity, that she may feel how, etc. Without that terrible implication, the serpent is entirely harmless and his teeth are drawn. I cannot imagine why only the weakest lines in the speech are everlastingly repeated, and the strongest lines in it are never mentioned at all.

A man might well harden into the horrid suspicion that most people have hardly read the play at all, when he remembers how many things there are in it that are not repeated, and yet would certainly be remembered. There are things in it that no man who has read them can ever forget. Amid all the thunders of the storm, it comes like a new clap of thunder, when the thought first crosses the mad king's mind that he must not complain of wind and storm and lightning, because they are not his daughters. "I never gave you kingdoms, called you children." And I imagine that the great imaginative invention of the English, the thing called Nonsense, never rose to such a height and sublimity of unreason and horror, as when the Fool juggles with time and space and tomorrow and yesterday, as he says soberly at the end of his rant: "This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time." This is one of the Shakespearian shocks or blows that take the breath away. But in the same scene of the storm and the desolate wandering, there is another example of the sort of thing I mean in the matter of quotation. It is not so strong an example, because the words are very beautiful in themselves; and have often been applied beautifully to pathetic human circumstances not unworthy of them. Nevertheless, they are something not only superior, but quite startlingly different, in the circumstances in which they really stand. We have all of us heard a hundred times that some unlucky law-breaker, or more or less pardonable profligate, was "more sinned against than sinning". But the words thus used have not a hundredth part of the point and power of the words as used by Lear. The point of the passage is that he himself challenges the cosmic powers to a complete examination; that he finds in his despair a sort of dizzy detachment of the intellect, and strikes the balance to his own case with a kind of insane impartiality. Regarding the storm that rages round him as a universal rending and uprooting of everything, something that will pluck out the roots of all things, even the darkest and foulest roots of the heart of man deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, he affirms in the face of the most appalling self-knowledge, clear and blasting as the lightning, that his sufferings must still be greater than his sins. It is possibly the most tremendous thing a man ever said; whether or no any man had the right to say it. It would be hard to beat it even in the Book of Job. And it does weaken the particular strength of it that it should be used, however sympathetically, as a cheerful and charitable guess about the weaknesses of other people.

There are certain abstractions very strong in Shakespeare's mind, without which his plays are much misunderstood by modern people, who look to them for nothing whatever except realistic details about individuals. For instance, there runs through the whole play of King Lear, as there runs through the whole play of Richard the Second, an abstraction which was an actuality of awful vividness to the man of Shakespeare's time; the idea of the King. Under the name of Divine Right, a very unlucky name, it was mixed up with Parliamentary and sectarian quarrels which afterwards altogether dwarfed and diminished its dignity. But Divine Right was originally much more human than that. It resolved itself roughly into this; that there are three forms in which men can accept the idea of justice or the authority of the commonwealth; in the form of an assembly, in the form of a document, or in the form of a man. King Lear is a man; but he is or has been a sacramental or sacred man; and that is why he can be a desecrated man. Even those who prefer to be governed by the scroll of the law, or by the assembly of the tribe, must understand that men have wished, and may again wish, to be governed by a man; and that where this wish has existed the man does become, not indeed divine, but certainly different. It is not an accident that Lear is a king as well as a father, and that Goneril and Regan are not only daughters but traitors. Treason, or what is felt as treason, does break the heart of the world; and it has seldom been so nearly broken as here.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Spice of Life and Other Essays


"A battle is more comforting than a truce"

"[Robert Louis Stevenson's] optimism was one which, so far from dwelling upon those flowers and sunbeams which form the stock-in-trade of conventional optimism, took a peculiar pleasure in the contemplation of skulls, and cudgels, and gallows. It is one thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert his mind from personal suffering by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the foul fat face of Long John Silver. And this faith of his had a very definite and a very original philosophical purport. Other men have justified existence because it was a harmony. He justified it because it was a battle, because it was an inspiring and melodious discord. He appealed to a certain set of facts which lie far deeper than any logic—the great paradoxes of the soul. For the singular fact is that the spirit of man is in reality depressed by all the things which, logically speaking, should encourage it, and encouraged by all the things which, logically speaking, should depress it. Nothing, for example, can be conceived more really dispiriting than that rationalistic explanation of pain which conceives it as a thing laid by Providence upon the worst people. Nothing, on the other hand, can be conceived as more exalting and reassuring than that great mystical doctrine which teaches that pain is a thing laid by Providence upon the best. We can accept the agony of heroes, while we revolt against the agony of culprits. We can all endure to regard pain when it is mysterious; our deepest nature protests against it the moment that it is rational. This doctrine that the best man suffers most is, of course, the supreme doctrine of Christianity; millions have found not merely an elevating but a soothing story in the undeserved sufferings of Christ; had the sufferings been deserved we should all have been pessimists. Stevenson's great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist. To Stevenson, the optimist, belong the most frightful epigrams of pessimism. It was he who said that this planet on which we live was more drenched with blood, animal and vegetable, than a pirate ship. It was he who said that man was a disease of the agglutinated dust. And his supreme position and his supreme difference from all common optimists is merely this, that all common optimists say that life is glorious in spite of these things, but he said that all life was glorious because of them. He discovered that a battle is more comforting than a truce. He discovered the same great fact which was discovered by a man so fantastically different from him that the mere name of him may raise a legitimate laugh— General Booth."

~G.K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson. (1906)
h/t Mike Miles

Things to do:
• Read online or download Robert Louis Stevenson by GKC 


"A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success."

~G.K. Chesterton: Heretics.