(navigation image)
Home American Libraries | Canadian Libraries | Universal Library | Community Texts | Project Gutenberg | Children's Library | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Additional Collections
Search: Advanced Search
Anonymous User (login or join us)
Upload
See other formats

Full text of "Gilbert Keith Chesterton"

G. K. CHESTERTON 




BY PATRICK BRAYBROOKE 



Published by 

THE CHELSEA PUBLISHING COMPANY 
1 6 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London, S.W. 



J 








t 




fas 



GILBERT KEITH 
CHESTERTON 



BY THE SAME AUTHOR 

ODDMENTS 
SUGGESTIVE FRAGMENTS 




C/f 





G. K. CHESTERTON 



Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Messrs. Speaight Ltd., London 



I GILBERT KEITH | 

CHESTERTON ft 



* By PATRICK BRAYBROOKE 

!|f WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY 

ARTHUR F. THORN ft 



ft 



ft ft 



ft ft 



ft ft 



ft ft 

9 9 

ft ft 

9 9 

LONDON, MCMXXII Q 

THE CHELSEA PUBLISHING COMPANY Q 

1 6 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea 

9 

^ 



Printed* 

THE CL Rff EN TRESS 

, .13 



Preface 



IT is certain that up to a point in the evolution of Self 
most people find life quite exciting and thrilling. But when 
middle age arrives, often prematurely, they forget the thrill 
and excitements; they become obsessed by certain other lesser 
things that are deficient in any kind of Cosmic Vitality, The 
thrill goes out of life: a light dies down and flickers fitfully; 
existence goes on at a low ebb something has been lost. 
From this numbed condition is born much of the blind 
anguish of life. 

It is one of the tragedies of human existence that the divine 
sense of wonder is eventually destroyed by inexcusable routine 
and more or less mechanical living. Mental abandon, the 
exercise of fancy and imagination, the function of creative 
thought all these things are squeezed out of the conscious 
ness of man until his primitive enjoyment of the mystical part 
of life is affected in a very serious way. 

Nothing could be more useful, therefore, than to write a 
book about a man who has done more than any other living 
writer to stimulate and preserve the primitive sense of wonder 
and joy in human life. Gilbert Keith Chesterton has never 
lost mental contact with the cosmic simplicity of human 
existence. He knows, as well as anybody has ever known, 
that the life of man goes wrong simply because we are too 
lazy to be pleased with simple, fundamental things. 

We grow up in our feverish, artificial civilization, believing 
that the real, satisfying things are complex and difficult to 
obtain. Our lives become unnaturally stressed and tormented 
by the pitiless and incessant struggle for social conditions which 
are, at best, second-rate and ultimately disappointing. 

G. K. Chesterton would restore the primitive joys of 
wonder and childlike delight in simple things. His ideal is 
the real, not the merely impossible. Unlike most would-be 



vi PREFACE 

saviours of the race, he seeks not to merge a new humanity 
into a brand new glittering civilization. He would have us 
awaken once more to the ancient mysteries and eternal truths. 
He would have us turn back in order to progress. 

Science makes us proud, but it does not make us happy. 
Efficiency makes us slaves we have forgotten the truth 
about freedom. Success is our narcotic deity, and weans more 
men into despair than failure ; for, as G. K. C. has said, 
4 Nothing fails like Success. We have yet to rediscover the 
spiritual health that comes with a clear recognition of the 
part that life cannot be great until it is lived madly and wildly. 
We have to learn all over again that grass really is green, and 
the sky, at times, very blue indeed. 

ARTHUR F. THORN 

(Author of Richard Jefferies ), 
Assistant- Director of Studies, 
London School of Journalism. 




^Author s 

THIS book is the outcome of many and repeated re 
quests to the author to write it. While realizing the 
difficulties involved, he feels that the opportunities he 
has enjoyed give him at least some qualifications for the task, 
for not only is he a kinsman of Mr. Chesterton, but also has 
spent much time in his company. 

The book aims to be a popular study of the Writer and the 
Man. It is dedicated to lovers of the works of G. K. C. and to 
the wider public who wish to know about one of the most 
brilliant minds of the day. 



PATRICK BRAYBROOKE. 



46 Russell Square, W.C.I 
1922. 



(Contents 



CHAPTER PAGE 

I THE ESSAYIST I 

II DICKENS 15 

III THACKERAY 2<) 

IV BROWNING 42 
V CHESTERTON AS HISTORIAN 57 

VI THE POET 67 

VII THE PLAYWRIGHT 76 

VIII THE NOVELIST 79 

IX CHESTERTON ON DIVORCE 90 

X THE NEW JERUSALEM 96 

XI MR. CHESTERTON AT HOME 99 

XII HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE IO5 

XIII G. K. C. AND G. B. S. 113 

XIV CONCLUSION 



Chapter One 

THE ESSAYIST 



IT is extremely difficult in the somewhat limited space of 
a chapter to give the full attention that should be given 
to such a brilliant and original essayist (which is not always 
an tpso facto of brilliant essayists) as Chesterton. Essayists 
are of all men extremely elastic. Occasionally they are dull 
and prosy, very often they are obscure, quite often they are 
wearisome. The only criticism which applies adversely to 
Chesterton as an essayist is that he is very often and I 
rather fear he likes being so obscure. He is brilliant in an 
original manner, he is original in a brilliant way; scarcely any 
thought of his is not expressed in paradox. What is orthodox 
to him is heresy to other people; what is heresy to him is 
orthodox to other people; and the surprising fact is that he is 
usually right when he is orthodox, and equally right when he 
is heretical. An essayist naturally has points of view which he 
expresses in a different way to a novelist. A novelist, if he 
adheres to what a novel should be that is, I think, a simple 
tale does not necessarily have a particular point of view when 
he starts his book. An essayist, on the other hand, starts with 
an idea and clothes it. Of course, Chesterton is not an 
essayist in the really accepted manner of an essayist. He is 
really more a brilliant exponent of an original point of view. 
In other words, he essays to knock down opinions held by 
other essayists, whether writers or politicians. It would be 
manifestly absurd to praise Chesterton as being equal to 
Hazlitt, or condemn him as being inferior to J. S. Mill. 
Comparisons are usually odious, which is precisely the reason 
so much use is made of them. In this case any comparison is 

B 



2 G. K. CHESTERTON 

not only odious; it is worse, it is merely futile, for the very 
simple fact that there has been no essayist ever quite like 
Chesterton, which is a compliment to him, because it proves 
what every one who knows is assured, that he is unique. 

There are, of course, as is to be expected, people who do not 
like his essays. The reason is not far to seek, as in everything 
else people set up for themselves standards which they do not 
like to see set aside. Consequently people who had read 
Lamb, Hazlitt, Hume, and E. V. Lucas astutely thought 
that no essayist could be such who did not adhere to the style 
of one of these four. Therefore they were a little alarmed 
and upset when there descended upon them a strange genius 
who not only upset all the rules of essay writing, but was at 
the same time acclaimed by all sections of the Press as one of 
the finest essayists of the day. 

With the advent of Chesterton the essay received a shock. 
It had to realize that it was a larger and wider thing than it 
had been before. As it had been almost insular, so it became 
international; as it had been almost theological in its ortho 
doxy, so it became in its catholicity well-nigh heretical. Which 
is the best possible definition of a heresy r It is the expanding 
of orthodoxy or the lessening of it. Thus Chesterton was a 
pioneer. He gave to the essay a new impetus almost, we 
might say, a sketch form ; it dealt with subjects not so much 
in a dissertation as in a dissection. Having dissected one way 
so that we are quite sure no other method would do, he calmly 
dissects again in the opposite manner, leaving us gasping, and 
finding that there really are two ways of looking at every 
question a thing we never realize till we think about it. 
I have in this chapter taken five of Chesterton s most 
characteristic books of essays, displaying the enormous depth 
of his intellect, the vast range of subject, the unique use of 
paradox. Of these five books I have again taken rather neces 
sarily at random subjects depicting the above Chestertonian 
attributes, with an attempt to give some idea of what it really 
means when we say that he is an essayist. 



THE ESSAYIST 3 

That Chesterton s book of essays, entitled Heretics, 
should have an introductory and a concluding chapter on the 
importance of orthodoxy is exactly what we should expect 
to find. There is a great deal of what is undeniably true in 
this book; there is also, I venture to think, a good deal that 
is undeniably untrue. I do not think it is unfair to say that 
in some respects Chesterton allows his cleverness to lead 
him to certain errors of judgment, and a certain levity in 
dealing with matters that are to a number of people so sacred 
that to reinterpret them is almost to blaspheme. 

I am thinking of the chapter in this book that is a reply 
to Mr. McCabe, an ex- Roman Catholic, who, being a keen 
logician, is now a rationalist. He accuses Chesterton of 
joking with the things de profundis. 

Certain clergymen have also taken exception to Chester 
ton s writings on the ground of this supposed levity. It is 
merely that he sees that the Bible has humour, because it has 
said that * God laughed and winked. I do not think he in 
tends to offend, but for many people any idea of humour in 
the Bible is repugnant, and this view is not confined to 
clergymen. 

In an absolutely charming chapter Chesterton writes 
of the literature of the servant girl, which is really the 
literature of Park Lane. It is the literature of Park Lane, for 
the very obvious reason that it is probably never read there; but 
the literature is about Park Lane, and is read by those who 

J * 

may live as near it as Balham or Surbiton. What he con 
tends, and rightly, is that the general reader likes to hear 
about an environment outside his own. It is inherent in us 
that we always really want to be somewhere else; which is 
fortunate, as it makes it certain that the world will never 
come to an end through a universal contentment. It has 
been said that contentment is the essence of perfection. 
It is equally true that the essence of perfection is discontent, 
a striving for something else. This, I think, Chesterton feels 
when he says of the penny novelette that it is the literature 



4 G. K. CHESTERTON 

to * teach a man to govern empires or look over the map of 
mankind. 

Rudyard Kipling finds a warm spot in Chesterton s heart, 
but he is a little too militaristic, which is exactly what he 
is not. Kipling loves soldiers, which is no real reason why 
he should be disliked as a militarist. Many a servant girl loves 
a score of soldiers, she may even write odes to her pet ser 
geant, but she is not necessarily a militarist. Rudyard Kipling 
likes soldiers and writes of them. He does not, as Chesterton 
lays to his charge, 4 worship militarism. He accuses Kipling 
of a want of patriotism, which is about as absurd as accusing 
Chesterton of a love of politics. But when he says that 
Kipling only knows England as a place, he is on safe ground, 
because England is something that is not bound by the con 
fines of space. 

Not being exactly a champion of Kipling, Chesterton 
turns to a different kind of man, George Moore, and has 
nothing to say for him beyond that he writes endless personal 
confessions, which most people do if there are those who 
will read them. But not only this, poor George Moore 
doesn t understand the Roman Catholic Church, he doesn t 
understand Thackeray, he misunderstands Stevenson, he has 
no understanding of Christianity. It is, in fact, a hopeless 
case, but it is also possible that Chesterton has not troubled 
to understand George Moore. 

Mr. Bernard Shaw is, so Chesterton contends, a really 
horrible eugenist, because he wants to get a super-man who, 
having more than two legs, will be a vastly superior person 
to a man. Chesterton loves men. He tells us why St. Peter 
was used to found the Church upon. It was because he was 
a shuffler, a coward, and a snob in a word, a man. Even 
the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Councils of Trent have 
failed to find a better reason for the founding of the Church. 
It is a defence of the fallibility of the Church, the practical 
nature of that Body, an organization founded by a Man who 
had Divine powers in a unique way and was God. 



THE ESSAYIST 5 

Presumably, then, the mistake of Shaw is that instead of 
trying to improve man he wishes to invent a kind of demi-god. 

Chesterton has a great deal to say for Christmas; in fact, 
he has no sympathy for those superior beings who find 
Christmas out of date. Even Swinburne and Shelley have 
attacked Christianity in the grounds of its melancholy, 
showing a lamentable forgetfulness that this religion was 
born at a time that had always been a season of joy. Chester 
ton is annoyed with them, and is sure that Swinburne did not 
hang up his socks on Christmas Eve, nor did Shelley. I 
wonder whether Chesterton hangs up his socks on the eve 
of Christmas ? 

Heretics is a book that deals with a great number of 
subjects universal in their scope. The writing is at times too 
paradoxical, leading to obscurity of thought. There are splen 
did passages in this book, which is, when all is said, brilliantly 
original, even if at times a little puzzling. 

* Orthodoxy is, I think, one of the most important of 
Chesterton s books. The lasting importance of a book depends 
not so much on its literary qualities or on its popularity, but 
rather on the theme handled. 

There are really two central themes handled in this book. 
One is of Fairyland, the other is of the defence of Christianity; 
not that it is either true or false, but that it is rational, or the 
most shuffle-headed nonsense ever set to delude the human 
race. The method of apology that Chesterton takes is one that 
would cause the average theological student to turn white 
with fear. 

The theological colleges, excellent as they are in en 
deavouring to train efficient laymen into equally efficient 
priests, usually assume that the best way to know about 
Christianity is to study Christian books. It is the worst way, 
because these books are naturally biased in favour of it. It is 
better to study any religion by seeing what the attackers have 
to say against it. Then a personal judgment can be formed. 



6 G. K. CHESTERTON 

This is, I feel, the method that Chesterton adopts in his 
deep and original treatise, 4 Orthodoxy, which is more than 
an essay and less than a theological work. 

The Chestertonian contention is that philosophers like 
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have embarked on the suicide 
of thought, and that a later disciple to this self-destruction 
is Bernard Shaw. 

In the same way these pseudo philosophers have attacked 
the Christian religion, tearing the soul of Christ into silly 
strips labelled altruism and egoism. They are alike puzzled 
by His insane magnificance and His insane meekness. 

As I have said, the method to realize the worth of Chris 
tianity is to read all the attacks on it. This is what Chesterton 
does. In doing so he discovers that these attacks are the one 
thing that demonstrate the strength of Christianity. Because 
the attackers reject it upon reasons that are contradictory to 
each other. Thus some complain that it is a gloomy religion; 
others go to the opposite extreme and accuse it of pointing to 
a state of perpetual chocolate cream; yet again it is attacked 
on grounds of effeminancy, it is upbraided as being fond of 
a sickly sentimentalism. 

Thus it is attacked on opposite grounds at once. It is 
condemned for being pessimistic, it is blamed for being 
optimistic. From this position Chesterton deduces that it is 
the only rational religion, because it steers between the Scylla 
of pessimism and avoids the Charybdis of a facile optimism. 
Regarding presumably the early Church she has also kept from 
extremes. She has ignored the easy path of heresy, she has ad 
hered to the adventurous road of orthodoxv. She has avoided 

f 

the Arian materialism by dropping a Greek Iota; she has not 
succumbed to Eastern influences, which would have made her 
forget she was the Church on earth as well as in heaven. With 
tremendous commonsense she has remained rational and 
chosen the middle course, which was one of the cardinal 
virtues of the ancient Greek philosophers. 

The Christian religion is, then, rational because attacked 



THE ESSAYIST 7 

along irrational grounds; the Church is also reasonable because 
she has not been swayed by the attraction of heresy nor listened 
to the glib fallacies of those who always want to make her 
something more or something less. 

The other and lesser contention of the book is the wisdom 
of the land of the Fairies. This is, Chesterton feels, the land 
where is found the philosophy of the nursery that is expressed 
in fairy tales tales that every grown-up should read at 
Christmas. 

Fairyland is for Chesterton the sunny land of common- 
sense. It is more, it is a place that has a very definite religion; 
it is, in fact, really the child s land of Christ. Take the 
lesson of Cinderella, says Chesterton; it is really the teaching 
of the Prayer Book that the humble shall be exalted, because 
humility is worthy of exaltation. 

Or the Sleeping Beauty. Is it not the significance of how 
love can bridge time ? The prince would have been there to 
wake the princess had she slept a thousand instead of a 
hundred years. 

Yet again the land of the Fairies is the abode of reason. 
If Jack is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of 
Jack. It is no good in Fairyland trying to prove that two and 
two do not make four, but it is quite possible to imagine that 
the witch really did turn the unlucky prince into a pig. After 
all, such a procedure is not a monopoly of the fairies. Lesser 
persons than princes have been turned into pigs, not by the 
wand of a witch, but by the wand of good or bad fortune. 

Orthodoxy is probably the sanest book that Chesterton 
has ever written. It is, I venture to think, the work that 
will gain for him immortality. It is a book on the greatest 
of themes, the reasonableness of the Christian religion. 
There have been many books written to attack the Christian 
religion, equally many to defend it, but Chesterton has 



8 G. K. CHESTERTON 

made his apology for the religion on original grounds the 
contradictories of the detractors of it. Orthodoxy goes alone 
with Christ into the mountain, and the eager multitudes 
receive the real philosophy of Chesterton. 

The child who has eaten too much jam and feels that too 
much of a good thing is a truism is rather like the philosopher 
who, having studied everything, comes to the sad conviction 
that there is something wrong with the world. The child 
finds that large quantities of jam are a delusion; the philo 
sopher discovers that the world is even more wrong than he 
thought it was. 

Sitting in his study, Chesterton, looking out on the garden 
which is the world, discovers that there is something wrong 
with it, and it is caused by the machinations of the 1,500 
odd millions of people who, like ants, crawl about its surface. 
4 What s wrong with the World ? is the result, and a very 
entertaining book it is. Like many other sociological treatises 
it leaves us still convinced that the world is wrong, because 
we don t know what we really want. 

The pessimist is convinced that the world is a bad place, 
the optimist is sure that it can be good. That is the point of 
the book. Chesterton has his own ideas of what is wrong, and 
he says so with astonishing paradox. 

When this book was written, Feminism was demanding 
votes, and, not getting them at once, became naughty, and 
tied itself to the House of Commons or pushed policemen over. 
Chesterton devotes a large section of this book to demanding 
what is the mistake of Feminism. 

* The Feminists probably agree that womanhood is under 
shameful tyranny in the shops and mills. I want to destroy 
this tyranny. They (the Feminists) want to destroy woman 
hood. They do this by attempting to drive women into 
the world and turn them away from the home. This is 
what is wrong with the woman s world: they have it that 
the home is narrow, that the world is wide. The converse 



THE ESSAYIST 9 

is the truth: woman is the star of the home. It is a pity 
if she has to make chains significant word at Cradley 
Heath. 

Education is not for Chesterton an unqualified success; 
there is a mistake about it somewhere. In fact, there is 4 no 
such thing as education. Education is not an object, it 
is a i transmission or an * inheritance. It means that a 
certain standard of conduct is passed on from generation to 
generation. The keynote of education for Chesterton is 
undoubtedly dogma, and dogma is certainly the result of a 
narrowing tendency. 

At this present time there is a controversy about the use of 
our public schools. Whenever a harassed editor in Fleet 
Street cannot think what to put in those two spare columns, 
he works up a stunt on the use or otherwise of the public 
schools. This is always exciting, as the public schools hardly 
ever see the controversy, being blissfully immersed in the 
military strategy of Hannibal or the political intrigues of the 
Caesars. Thus the controversy is conducted by those who 
generally think that commerce is superior to Greek, money- 
grubbing to good manners. 

Even Chesterton must say something about these schools 
that are the backbone of England. Unfortunately he thinks 
that they are weakening the country, that the headmasters 
* are teaching only the narrowest of manners. But the pub 
lic schools manufacture gentlemen; they are factories for 
the making of aristocrats. If he is right, the more of these 
schools there are the better it is for the country. 

It is well that he is not averse to Greek. In these days the 
classics are looked upon as waste of time. Political economy 
and profiteering are more useful. As he says, a man of the 
type of Carnegie would die in a Greek city. I am not sure 
whether this is not unfair. The real use of Greek is that it 
teaches culture. There is use in Plato s philosophy; it is quite 
as useful as the knowledge acquired that results in peers 
made, not born. I don t think Chesterton understands the 



io G. K. CHESTERTON 

public schools at all well; they are both bad and good, but 
at least they are very English. 

He hasn t a great deal to say for Imperialism. Imperial 
ism is a very difficult ethic; it is not easy to say whether it 
is a selfish or an unselfish policy. 

Thus we may quite conceivably pat ourselves on the back 
and say that, as English rule is good for natives, it is only right 
that we should keep India; but we might find that an equally 
good and more popular reason for doing so would be to 
prevent any one else having her. Thus our Imperial policy 
is a little selfish and a little unselfish. 

For Chesterton, Imperialism is something that is both 
weak and perilous. It is really, he contends, a false idealism 
which tends to try and make people locally discontented, 
contented with pseudo visions of distant realms where the 
cities are of gold, where blue skies are never hidden by yellow 
fog. But is it a false idealism? If it is, it is that conception 
which has made men leave their homes in England to build 
up the Imperial Empire which is the daughter of the Great 
Imperial Island. The vision may not be always useful, but 
Imperialism has done much to make England and Empire 
synonymous. 

Business is, according to Chesterton, a nasty thing that 
will not wait. It hates leisure, it has no use for brotherhood, 
it is one of the things that is wrong in the world not, of 
course, that business is wrong in itself, but the method. Thus 
he disagrees that if a soap factory cannot be run on brother 
hood lines the brotherhood must be scrapped He would 
have the converse to be better. 

He contends that it is better to be without soap than 
without society. As a matter of fact, society without soap 
would be an abomination. Society without any brotherhood 
would soon cease to be a society at all. Utopia is a little soap, 
a little society, with a flavouring of brotherhood in each. 

Another and obviously good reason that the world is 
wrong is that it is only half finished. This is a matter for 



THE ESSAYIST n 

extreme optimism; it is the one great thing that makes it 
certain that the world will be found all right if it comes to 
an end. That is, if it delays long enough for the Irish 
question to be settled. 

This is what Chesterton contends in this fine book, that 
reforms are not reforms at all, rather the same things dressed 
up in other clothes. Values are set up on false standards. 
Women in trying to become emancipated are likely to become 
slaves; the fear of the past is given over to a too delicate in 
trospection of the probable vices and virtues of generations 
not yet born. 

Imperialism is liable to a false idealism, drawing men from 
Seven Dials to find Utopia in Brixton. The public schools 
are weakening the country in some respects. Education is 
not education at all; in fact, we really must start the wrong 
world over again. I don t quite see where Chesterton pro 
poses we are to start, or exactly how, whether backwards or 
forwards. Perhaps, as in Orthodoxy, the middle course is 
the happy and safe one. 

Tremendous Trifles is a Chestertonian philosophy of 
the importance and interest of small things. It is a remarkable 
thing that we never see the things that we daily gaze upon. 
Chesterton finds scope for all kinds of subjects in this book, 
from a Piece of Chalk to A Dragon s Grandmother. 
Provided we believe in dragons, there is good reason to 
suppose that they have grandmothers. It is not so easy to 
write a good essay on the subject. Chesterton does so with 
great skill, and it makes it quite certain to be so intellectual 
as to hate fairies is a piteous condition. 

What he brings out in this particular essay is that what 
modern intellectualism has done is to make * the hero ex 
traordinary, the tale ordinary, whereas the fairy tale makes 
4 the hero ordinary, the tale extraordinary. 

In this book of short essays it is only possible to take a few, 
but care has been taken to attempt to show the enormous 



12 G.K.CHESTERTON 

versatility of Chesterton s mind. It has been said quite 
wrongly that Chesterton cannot describe pathos. This is 
certainly untrue. He can so admirably describe humour that 
he cannot help knowing the pathetic, which is often so akin 
to humour. I am not sure that this ability to describe the 
melancholy is not to be seen in one of these essays that 
narrates how he travelled in a train in which there was a 
dead man whose end he never knew. 

Perhaps there is nothing more interesting than turning out 
one s pockets all sorts of long forgotten mementoes cause a 
lump in the throat or a gleam in the eye; but it is very annoy 
ing, on arriving at a station where tickets are collected, to find 
everything that relates to your past twenty years of life and 
be unable to find the ticket that makes you a legitimate rider 
on the iron way. This is what Chesterton describes in a 
delightful essay. 

One day, so Chesterton tells us in the Riddle of the 
Ivy, he happened to be leaving Battersea, and being asked 
where he was going, calmly replied to 4 Battersea. Which 
is really to say that we find our way to Brixton more eagerly 
by way of Singapore than by way of Kennington. In a few 
words, it is what we mean when we say, as every traveller 
says at times, Home, sweet home. I fancy this is what Mr. 
Chesterton means. It is a beautiful thought a fine love of the 
home, a strange understanding of the wish of the traveller 
who once more wishes to see the old cottage before he 
journeys across the Bar. 

The sight of chained convicts being taken to a prison 
causes Chesterton to essay on the filthy torture of our 
prisons, the whole system of which is a relic of sin. Perhaps 
he is right! But is it that the prisons are wrong, or is 
it that society makes criminals ? After all, convicts are chained 
that they shall not endure a worse penalty for attempted 
escape. At present prisons are as necessary to the State as 
milk is to a baby; the thing against them is that they turn 
criminal men into criminal devils. 



THE ESSAYIST 13 

At his home in Beacons field, Chesterton has a wonderful 
toy theatre. He writes in this book a sketch about it. 
This toy theatre has a certain philosophy. It can produce 
large events in a small space; it could represent the earth 
quake in Jamaica or the Day of Judgment. We must take 
Chesterton s word for it. I am not convinced that the toy 
theatre of Chesterton has added to philosophy; I don t think 
it has made any remarkable contribution to thought, nor is 
it, as he claims, more interesting and better than a West- 
end theatre; but I do believe that in having amused a few 
hundred children it has a place in the Book of Life per 
haps near the name of Santa Claus. 

While it is true that Tremendous Trifles is not nearly 
as important as some of the Chesterton books, it is true to 
say that it is a remarkably pleasant book about small things 
that are really tremendous when we come to study them. 

The Defendant is, as the title suggests, a defence of all 
kinds of things that are usually attacked by other people. 

It takes a brave man to defend 4 penny dreadfuls. Ches 
terton assumes this role. He defends them on their re 
markable powers of imagination. One has only to study 
Sexton Blake to discover the intricate psychology of that 
wondrous personality who can solve the foulest murder or 
unravel stones that the divorce courts would quail before. 

There is something to be said for the skeleton so long as he 
doesn t come out of his cupboard. Chesterton defends skele 
tons. The truth is that man s horror of the skeleton is not 
horror of death at all; it is that the skeleton reminds him that 
his appearance is shamelessly grotesque. But he sees no 
objection to this at all. After all, he says, the frog and the 
hippopotamus are happy. Why, then, should man dislike it 
that his anatomy without flesh is inelegant? 

It is to be expected that Chesterton would write a defence 
of baby worship, because they are so 4 very serious and in con 
sequence very happy. The humorous look of children is 



14 G. K. CHESTERTON 

perhaps the most endearing of all the bonds that hold the 
Cosmos together. Probably we are all agreed that the 
defence of baby worship is a desirable thing; possibly it is the 
only point upon which there is universal agreement with 
Chesterton. 

The Defendant is a series of papers that are light, but 
conceal a depth of thought behind them. They demonstrate 
that there is something to be said for everything which may 
be a slight solution of the eternal problem that theological 
professors are paid to try and discover, the problem of evil. 
It may be that there is really no such thing, but it would be 
disastrous to these professors to discover this, so the dear old 
problem goes on from year to year. 

As an essayist, Chesterton is never dull: the philosophy 
contained in his essays is not prosy. The only fault is that he is 
at times so clever that it is a little difficult to know what he 
means. But this really does not matter, as a shrewd critic of 

* J 

one of his books made it public through the Press that 
Chesterton did not know himself what he meant. But I 
wonder if he did really know ? 



Chapter Two 

DICKENS 



IF there is fault to be found in Chesterton s masterly 
study of Charles Dickens it lies in the fact that in parts of 
the book the meaning is not always clear, or, rather, it is not 
always so at a first reading. Whether this may be justly 
termed a fault depends largely upon what the reader of a 
critical study demands. 

If he desires that he shall read Chesterton superficially and 
yet understand, he will be doomed to disappointment. 
Perhaps of all writers Chesterton must be read with the head 
between the hands, with a fierce determination that the 
meaning veiled in brilliant paradox shall be sought out. 

He is not only a keen critic, he is also a deliberate com 
mentator. The difference is fundamental. The commentator 
builds upon the foundation the critic has erected; he does 
not merely state what he thinks about a book or character, 
rather he explains the criticism already made. 

This is the method adopted with regard to Dickens. 
Chesterton has written a commentary on the soul of Dickens, 
he has not in any strict sense written a biography; this was not 
necessary; the difficulty of Dickens lies in the interpretation 
of his work; his life, though having a great influence on his 
writings, has been written so often that Chesterton has re 
frained from building on another s foundation. In a word, 
it is an intensely original work, far more than our critic s 
companion book on Browning. 

As was Browning born to a world in the throes of the 
aftermath of the French Revolution, so was Dickens. 
Chesterton lays great stress on the youth of Dickens; it is only 

15 



1 6 G. K. CHESTERTON 

right that he should do this ; the early life of Dickens was 
probably responsible for the wonderful genius of his art. The 
blacking factory that nearly killed the physical Dickens gave 
birth to the literary Dickens. Dickens was, in fact, born at the 
psychological moment, which is not to say that we are born at 
the unpsychological moment, but that Dickens was born at a 
time that allowed his natural powers to be used to the best 
advantage. 

Chesterton feels this strongly. The background of the 
Dickens era was just that background that was eminently 
suitable to him j it was a background that needed a Dickens 
as much as the pagan world, with all its Greek philosophies, 
had needed a Christ. 

He begins his study of Dickens with a keen survey of the 
Dickens period It was, he says, 4 a world that encouraged 
anybody to anything. And in England and literature its 
living expression was Dickens. It is useless for us to attempt 
to imagine Dickens and his life unless we are able to imagine 
his confidence in common men. 

It is this supreme confidence in common men that was the 
keynote to the wonderful power of Dickens in making 
characters from those who were in a world sense undistin 
guished. On this position Chesterton lays great stress. It was 
this, he thinks, that made him an optimist. It was the same 
position that made Browning an optimist. It is the disbelief 
in the Divine image in Man that makes the cynic and the 
pessimist. 

Swift hated men because they were capable of better things 
but would not realize it. Dickens knew men were kings, 
though ordinary men; the result was that he loved humanity. 
It is a queer point of psychology that with the same wish two 
such minds as Swift and Dickens came to the extremes of the 
emotions of love and hate. 

In some ways Dickens was more than a maker of books, 
he was a maker of worlds ; he tried to make not only a book 
but a cosmos. This may be a curious and obscure kind of 



DICKENS 17 

clericalism that popularly expresses itself as an effort to run 
with the hare and follow with the hounds, but is really an 
heroic attempt to see both sides of the question, and is not 
a cheap pandering after popularity. 

Many critics have disliked Dickens because of this ten 
dency of universalism, a tendency liable to intrude on minds 
of a giant intellect and a ready sympathy. Chesterton does 
not think that Dickens was right in this attitude of universal- 
ism, and says so with, I think, a certain amount of cheap 
disdain. He was inclined to be a literary Whiteley, a 
universal provider. Really Dickens wanted to have a say 
about everything, in which he is strangely like Chesterton. 

The result of this was a result that meant the greatest 
value : it meant and was l David Copperfield. The book was 
for Chesterton a classic, and it was so because it was an 
autobiography. It is in this work that Dickens makes his 
defence of the rather exaggerated situations in some of his 
books, for in this book Dickens proves that his greatest 
romance is based on the experiences of his own life. David 
Copperfield is the great answer of a romancer to the realists. 
David says in effect, What! you say that the Dickens 
tales are too purple really to have happened. Why, this is 
what happened to me, and it seemed the most purple of all. 
You say that the Dickens heroes are too handsome and 
triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever 
so handsome and triumphant as the head boy seemed to me 
walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains 
are too black. Why, there was no ink in the Devil s ink 
stand black enough for my own stepfather when I had to 
live in the same house with him." 

This is the point that Chesterton brings out so well. The 
Dickens characters are not overdrawn because, though they 
move between book covers, their originals have moved on 
the face of the earth ; they have moved with Dickens and he 
has made them his own. His brilliant apology for this alleged 
4 overdrawing is one of the most effective replies ever penned 

D 



1 8 G. K. CHESTERTON 

to superior Dickens detractors. It is effective because it is 
true ; it is true because it is obvious that Dickens created that 
which lay hidden in his own mind, the misery of his factory 
days. 

It is, I think, with this view in mind that Chesterton pays 
so much attention to that period of Dickens life which he 
spent in the blacking factory, with its crude noise, its blatant 
vulgarity, its vile language that left the small boy Dickens 
sick, but with a sickness that discovered his literary genius. 
The factory was the germ that made the great writer. 
Chesterton is a true critic of Dickens because he has this 
somewhat singular insight of seeing the importance of the 
early miseries of Dickens life with regard to their influence 
on his literary output and his queerly favoured delineation of 
common folks, the sort of people we always meet but hardly 
ever talk about because we are foolish enough to think 
them ordinary. 

It is from the account of the early life of Dickens that 
Chesterton gently leads us to the birth of the immortal Mr. 
Pickwick, that supreme Englishman who is a byword 
amongst even those who scarcely know Dickens. The birth 
pangs of the advent of Pickwick was a sharp quarrel 4 that 
did no good to Dickens, and was one of those which occurred 
far too frequently in his life, 

Without any hesitation for Chesterton, * Pickwick Papers 
is Dickens finest achievement, which is a pleasant enough 
problem if we happen to remember that he also wrote David 
Copperfield. Possibly it is really unfair to compare them. 
Pickwick Papers is not in the strict sense a novel ; David 
Copperfield is a novel even if it is an autobiography. At any 
rate Pickwick was a fairy, and as fairies are pretty elastic he 
probably was in that category of beings, but he was even more 
a royal fairy, none other than the 4 fairy prince. 

In Pickwick, Dickens made a great discovery, which was 
that he could write ordinary stuff like the Sketches by 



DICKENS 19 

Boz, and also could produce Mr. Pickwick and write 
David Copperfield, which was to say that Dickens dis 
covered he had a good chance of being the Shakespeare of 
literature. 

4 It is in " Pickwick Papers that Dickens became a 
mythologist rather than a novelist; he dealt with men who 
were gods. That is, no doubt, that they became household 
gods ; in other words, as familiar as the characters of Shake 
speare. 

There is one tremendous outstanding characteristic of 
Dickens which Chesterton brings out with considerable 

V_2 

force. It is that above all things Dickens created characters. 
It is almost as if the setting of his books were on a stage where 
the environment changes but the essentials of the characters 
remain unchanged. 

The story is almost subordinated to the drawing of the 
principal character; it is almost a modern idea of the psycho 
analytical kind of novel that our young novelists love to draw. 
But still there is the great difference that the characters of 
Dickens pursue there own way regardless of the trend of 
events round them. 

Naturally the modern novel is inferior to some of Dickens 
works, but they do not deserve the hard things Chesterton 
says about them. Thus he remarks in passing that the 
modern novel is devoted to the bewilderment of a weak 
voung clerk who cannot decide which woman he wants to 

V C? 

marry or which new religion he believes in; we still give 
this knock-kneed cad the name of hero. 

This is, I think, unfair. The modern novel is very often still 
a good healthy love tale; the hero is more often than not a 
gentleman who has not the brains to be a cad; his trouble 
about marriage is that he wants to marry the right woman 
to their mutual well being; he is neither a cad nor a hero, but 
an ordinary Englishman whom we need not walk half a mile 
to see; he usually marries a girl who can be seen in any 
suburb or at any church bazaar. I have dwelt on this at some 



20 G. K. CHESTERTON 

length, as Chesterton has a tendency to despise modern 
novelists while being one himself. 

At this period, when Pickwick had once and for all 
brought fame to Dickens, it will be interesting to see why 
Dickens attained the enormous popularity he did. He was, 
our critic thinks, a great event not only in literature but 
also in history. 

He considers that Dickens was popular in a sense that 
we of the twentieth century cannot understand. In fact, he 
goes so far as to say that there are no really popular authors 
to-day. 

This is probably not entirely true. When we say an author 
is popular we do not mean that necessarily, as Chesterton 
seems to suggest, he is a best seller ; rather we call him 
popular in the sense that a large number of people find pleasure 
in reading him, even if the subject is not a pleasant one. 
Dickens was popular in a different way: he was read by a 
public who wished his story might never end. They not only 
loved his books, they loved his characters even more. No 
matter that there might be five sub-stories running along 
side of the main one, the central character retained the public 
affection. His characters were known outside their particular 
stories, and not only that, this was by no means confined to 
the principal ones. 

They were known, as Chesterton points out, as Sherlock 
Holmes is known to-day. But even so there is again a dif 
ference. People do not speak of the minor characters of 
Conan Doyle s tales as they do, for instance, of Smike. 

It is now convenient to turn to the Christmas literature 
of Dickens. I am convinced that Chesterton has very 
badly misconstrued the character of Scrooge, that delightful 
person whose one virtue was consistency. 

Above everything, Scrooge was consistent; he hated 
Christmas as we hate anything that does not agree with our 
temperament. Merry Christmas was nonsense to him 



DICKENS 21 

because he did not know how to be merry. He was a cold, 
cynical bachelor, and at that, so far, was perfectly within the 
law, moral and legal. 

But Chesterton, by rather an unfortunate attempt to be too 
original, has turned him into a filthy hypocrite who needed no 
appearances of spirits whatever; for he says of Scrooge, 4 He 
is only a crusty old bachelor, and had, I strongly suspect, 
given away turkeys secretly all his life. 

When Chesterton says that Scrooge gave away turkeys 
secretly all his life it is merely saying that the whole attitude 
of Scrooge to life was a silly and unmeaning pose, which 
makes him ridiculous, and robs the c Christmas Carol of all 
its real worth, that of the miraculous conversion of Scrooge. 

But, then, the actual story does not mean much for Chester 
ton: the repentance of Scrooge is highly improbable. If it 
is true that Scrooge really did give away turkeys secretly, then 
it is quite obvious that Scrooge never did repent; he was past 
it. But I fancy that Chesterton has erred badly here; he has 
attempted without success to put a secret meaning into a 
simple and beautiful story. 

Chimes is, for Chesterton, an attack on cant. It was a 
story written by Dickens to protest against all he hated in the 
nature of oppression. Dickens hated the vulgar cant that only 
helps to bring self-advertisement: the ethic that the poor must 
listen to the rich, not because the rich are the best law-givers, 
but because society is at present so constituted that no other 
method can be adopted. 

Dickens loved the attitude the poor always take to Christ 
mas; it is that attitude which is the proof that at its bedrock 
humanity is extremely lovable. Chesterton is entirely in 
agreement with Dickens on this matter. There is nothing, 
he says, t upon which the poor are more criticized than on the 
point of spending large sums on small feasts; there is nothing 
in which they are more right. 

Dickens did not in any way forget that the real spirit of 
Christmas is to be found in the cheery group round the 



22 G. K. CHESTERTON 

blazing fire. The Cricket on the Hearth is a pleasant tale 
about all that we associate with Christmas, that very thing 
that has made Hearth and Christmas synonymous ; yet 
Chesterton considers this one of the weakest of the Dickens 
stones, which is a surprising criticism for a writer who 
really loves Christmas as he does. 

In a later period of Dickens, Chesterton informs us of his 
brief entry into the complex and exciting world that has its 
headquarters in Fleet Street. For a short period Dickens 
occupied the editorship of the Daily News^ but the environ 
ment was not a very congenial one. Dickens was unsettled 
with that strange restlessness that seizes all literary men at 
some time or other. This was the time that saw the publication 
of Dombey and Son. Chesterton thinks that the essential 
genius found its most perfect expression in this work though 
the treatment is grotesque. This book is almost, so our critic 
thinks, f a theological one: it attempts to distinguish between 
the rough pagan devotion of the father and the gentler 
Christian affection of the mother. 

The grotesque manner of treatment of this work was as 
natural as the employment of the grotesque by Browning. 
Dickens must work in his own way, in the manner that 
suited his inmost soul; he could not be made to write to order. 
In a brilliant paradox Chesterton says of Dombey and Son : 
the story of Florence Dombey is incredible, although it is 
true, which is what many people feel about Christianity. 
4 Dombey and Son was the outlet for that curious psychology 
of Dickens which could get the best out of a pathetic incident 
by approaching it from a grotesque angle. It came, as Chester 
ton points out in his own inimitable way, * into the inner 
chamber by coming down the chimney. Which demonstrates 
the ever nearness of pathos to humour, of the absurd to the 
pathetic. 

It will not be out of place to refer at this time to some of the 
defects with which people have charged Dickens. Chesterton 



DICKENS 23 

does not agree with the critics on these points, but admits 
that these charges have been levelled against Dickens. It 
will be advisable to take one or two examples of these 
alleged flaws. 

There is that most popular thing of which Dickens is 
accused, that of exaggeration. Many people are quite in 
credulous that there could ever have existed such a character 
as Little Nell. Chesterton, however, thinks that Dickens 
did know a girl of this nature, and that Little Nell was based 
on her. Little Nell is not really more improbable than f Eric, 
the famous hero of Dean Farrar, and he was certainly based 
on a living boy. 

People who live in these enlightened days are piously 
shocked at the amount of drinking described by Dickens. 
Well-bred and garrulous ladies have shuddered at the scenes 
described, and have declared that Dickens was at least fond 
of the Bacchanalian element. So he was, but the reason was 
not that he loved hard drinking, but that, as our critic 
brings out, drinking was the symbol of hospitality as roast 
beef is the symbol of a Sunday in a thousand English rectories. 
As Dickens described the social life of England he could not 
leave out its most characteristic feature and shudder in pious 
horror that the red wine dyed old England a merry crimson. 

It would be no doubt an exaggeration to call Dickens a 
socialist. What he saw was that there was a mass of beings 
that was called humanity, that the two ends of the political pole 
were indifferent to this mass. The party to which a man gave 
his allegiance did not matter as long as that party worked for 
man s ultimate good. Chesterton is quite sure that Dickens 
was not a socialist ; he was not the kind that ranted at street 
corners and dined in secret at the Ritz, nor was he of the kind 
who said all men are equal but I am a little better. He was 
a socialist in the sense that he hated oppression of any kind. 

Hard Times strikes a note that is a little short of being 
harsh. The reason that Dickens may have exaggerated 



24 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Bounderby is that he really disliked him. The Dickensian 
characters undoubtedly suffered from their delineator s likes 
and dislikes. 

About this time Dickens wrote a book that was unique 
for him ; it was a book that dealt with the French Revolution, 
and was called The Tale of Two Cities. Chesterton does 
not think that Dickens really understood this gigantic up 
heaval ; in fact, he says his attitude to it was quite a mistaken 
one. Even, thinks our critic, Carlyle didn t know what it 
meant. Both see it as a bloody riot, both are mistaken. The 
reason that Carlyle and Dickens didn t know all about it was 
that they had the good fortune to be Englishmen; a very good 
supposition that Chesterton has still something to learn of 
that Revolution. 

After all, the main point of The Tale of Two Cities is 
the exquisite pathos of it. Whether its attitude to the French 
Revolution is absolutely accurate does not matter very much 
for the reader who is not a keen historical student. 

With * Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities Dickens 
has struck a graver note. This is peculiarly emphasized in 
Great Expectations. This story is characterized by a 
consistency and quietude of individuality which is rare in 
Dickens. It is really a book with a moral that life in the 
limelight is not always synonymous with getting the best out 
of it. Really, the hero behaves in a sneakish manner. Probably 
Dickens doesn t like him, and the writer is still on the stern 
side. 

In 1864, so Chesterton tells us, Dickens was in a merrier 
mood, and published Our Mutual Friend, a book that has, 
as our critic says, a thoroughly human hero and a tho 
roughly human villain. This work is a satire dealing with 
the whims and pleasures of the leisured class. But this is by 
no means a monopoly of the so-called idle rich : the hard 
working middle and poorer classes have whims and pleasures 
in a like manner, but have not so much opportunity in in 
dulging in them. 



DICKENS 25 

As I have indicated, the story is not the principal part of the 
Dickens literature; it is the drawing of characters to which he 
pays so much attention. It will not be out of place at this 
time to see what our critic has to say with regard to this 
tendency of Dickens. It is an essential of Dickens, and is 
therefore of vast import to any critique on him. 

The essence of Dickens, for Chesterton, is that he makes 
kings out of common men: those folks who are the ordinary 
people of this strange, fascinating world, those who have no 
special claim to a place in the stars, those who, when they 
die, do not have two lines in any but a local paper, those who 
are common but are never commonplace. 

There is a vast difference between the common and the 
commonplace, as Chesterton points out. Death is common to 
all, yet it is never commonplace ; it is in its very essence a 
grand and noble thing, because it is a proof of our common 
humanity; it gives the lie that the Pope is of more importance 
than the dustman; it makes the busy editor equal to the 
newsboy shouting the papers under his office windows. 

The common man is he who does not receive any special 
distinction : universities do not compete to do him honour, his 
name is but mentioned in a small cricle. These are those of 
whom Dickens wrote. It is, says Chesterton, in private 
life that we find the great characters. They are too great to 
get into the public world. They are people who are natural 
natural in a sense that the holders of high office never can be. 
Dickens could only write of natural people, so he wrote of 
common men: You will find him adrift as an impecunious 
commercial traveller like Micawber; you will find him but 
one of a batch of silly clerks like Swiveller; you will find him 
as an unsuccessful actor like Crumples; you will find him as 
an unsuccessful doctor like Sawyer; you will always find the 
rich and reeking personality where Dickens found it among 
the poor. 

Not only were the characters Dickens chose common men, 
they were also great fools, because Chesterton will have us 



26 G. K. CHESTERTON 

believe that a man can be entirely great while he is entirely 
foolish. It is no doubt in the spiritual sense so admirably 
expressed in the Pauline Epistles, where foolish in the eyes 
of the world but wise before God is a condition that is of 
merit. 

4 Mr. Toots is great because he is foolish. He is great 
because he has a soul that glorifies his weak and foolish body, 
not that he is great because, ipso facto, he is foolish. 

There is a great and permanent value in the writings of 
Dickens. I cannot do better than quote our critic: ; If we 
are to look for lessons, here at least are the last and deepest 
lessons of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to 
look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not 
merely of the fixed figures of our life, the wife, the husband, 
the fool that fills the day. Every day we neglect Tootses and 
Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. 
This is the real gospel of Dickens, the inexhaustible oppor 
tunities offered by the liberty and variety of man. It is when 
we pass our own private gate and open our own secret door 
that we step into the land of the giants. 

It will now be convenient to consider the question of the 
attitude of our critic to the Mystery of Edwin Drood, that 
tale that has produced one of those literary mysteries that are 
so dear to a number of folks of the kind who would be 
disappointed were the problem to be finally solved. The 
Mystery of Edwin Drood was cut short by the sudden 
death that fell upon Dickens on a warm June night some 
half century ago. 

For Chesterton the book might have proved to be the 
most ambitious that Dickens ever planned. It is non- 
Dickensian in the sense that its value depends entirely on a 
story. The workmanship is very fine. The book was purely 
and simply a detective story. 4 Bleak House was the nearest 
approach to its style, but the mystery there was easy to 
unravel. It was as though Dickens wished in Edwin Drood 



DICKENS 27 

to make one last splendid and staggering appearance before 
the curtain rang down, not to be rung up again until the last 
Easter morning. 

Yes, says Chesterton, there were many other Dickenses, 
an industrious Dickens, a public spirited Dickens, but the 
last one (that is Edwin Drood) was the great one. The wild 
epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea, " Canst thou do likewise ?" should be 
the serious epitaph of Dickens. 

It is more than fifty years since Dickens died. What is the 
future of Dickens likely to be ? At least, Chesterton has no 
doubt of the permanent influence of Dickens; he is as sure of 
immortality as is Shakespeare. The kings of the earth die, yet 
their works remain; the princes pass on but are not entirely 
forgotten; writers write and in their turn sleep; but there is 
that to which in every age we inscribe the word Immortal. 
It is enough to say that Dickens is immortal because he is 
Dickens. There is a further reason, that he proved what all the 
world had been saying, that common humanity is a holy 
thing. To quote Chesterton: He did for the world what 
the world could not do for itself Dickens creation was 
poetry it dealt with the elementals; it is therefore permanent. 

In final words he says, We shall not be further troubled 
with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their 
sorrows and too clear for their delights. But we have a long 
way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant; and 
the passage is a long, rambling English road, a twisting road 
such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. 

But the road leads to eternity, because the inn is at the 

., J 

end of the road, and at that inn is a goodly company of 
common men who are immortal because Dickens made 
them. Here we shall meet Dickens and all his characters, 
and when we shall drink again it shall be from great flagons 
in the tavern at the end of the world. 

What, then, is the essential part of Chesterton s study of 



28 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Charles Dickens? It is certainly not a biography; it is for 
all practical purposes a keen study of what Dickens was, 
what he wrote, why he wrote as he did, why he has a place 
in literature no one else has. 

There are faults in the book it would be a poor book if it 
had none. At times I think Chesterton allows his genius to 
overcome his critical judgment. Particularly is this so in his 
strange misconstruction of the character of Scrooge. But 
this merely demonstrates yet once more that Dickens, like 
Christ, is unique, because no one has ever completely under 
stood him. 

The book is a tribute by a great writer to a greater writer, 
by a great man to a great man, by a complex personality to a 
complex personality; above all it is a tribute by a lover of the 
things of the doorstep to a writer who has made the door 
step and the street the road to heaven, because the beings 
who pass along have been made immortal. 

When the critics of Dickens meet at the inn there will 
be none more worthy of a place close to the Master Writer 
than Chesterton. 



(Chapter Three 

THACKERAY 



THERE are no doubt thousands of people who would 
be annoyed to be thought the reverse of well read who 
nevertheless know Thackeray only as a name. They 
know that he was a really great English novelist they may 
even know that he lived as a contemporary of Dickens but 
they do not know a line of any of his works. 

In lesser manner Dickens is unknown to very many people 
of the present day who could tell you intelligently of every 
modern book that is produced. The reason is, I think, one that 
is not so generally thought of as might be expected. 

It is often said that Thackeray and Dickens are out of date, 
that they have had their day, that this era of tube trains and 
other abominations cannot fall into the background of 
lumbering stage coaches. 

This is, I think, a profound and grave error. It is an error 
because it presupposes that human interest changes with the 
advent of different means of transport: that Squeers is no 
longer of interest because he would now travel to Yorkshire 
by the Great Northern Railway and would have lunch in a 
luncheon car instead of inside a four-horse stage coach. 

The fundamental reason that modern people do not read 
these great authors is that they are not encouraged to do so. 
The very best way to instil a love of Thackeray into the 
modern world is to make the modern world read just so 
much of him that its voracious appetite is sharpened to wish 
for more. 

In an altogether admirable series of the masters of litera 
ture Thackeray finds a place, and treatment of him is left 

29 



30 G. K. CHESTERTON 

to Chesterton, who writes a fine introductory * Biography 
and then takes picked passages from his writings. This is, 
I think, the most useful means possible of popularizing an 
author. It requires a good deal of pluck in these days to sit 
down and steadily pursue a way through a long book of 
Thackeray unless it has been proved, by the perusal of a 
selected passage, that riches in the book warrant the act of 
courage in beginning the work. 

In this chapter it will be convenient to pay special attention 
to the introduction that is so ably contributed by Chesterton. 
It will only be possible to refer to the passages he has selected 
from Thackeray, and the reader must judge of the merit of 
the choosing. It is one of the hardest things possible to choose 
representative passages from a great writer. Shall he choose 
those that display the literary qualities of the writer, shall he 
choose those which depict his powers of drama, shall he select 
those which bring out the humour of the writer, shall he pick 
at random and let the passage stand or fall on its own merits ? 
These are questions that must be faced in a work of the 
nature of Chesterton s Thackeray. What the method has been 
will, I hope, be clear at the end of this chapter. 

It was Thackeray s expressed wish that there should be no 
biography written of him, a position that might indicate 
extreme modesty, colossal conceit, or distinct cowardice. 
Whatever the reason, it has not been entirely obeyed, and 
rightly. A man of the power of Thackeray cannot live without 
the world being in some way better; it is only good that those 
who never knew him in the flesh should at least know him 
in a book. It is not enough that, as Chesterton points out, he 
4 was of all novelists the most autobiographical, which is not 
to say that he wrote unending personal confessions with a 
very large I, but rather that his books were drawn from the 
experiences of his life, a field that is productive of the richest 
literary worth. 

Thackeray was born, we are told, in the year 1 8 1 1, so that 
he was a year old when the world received two babies who 



THACKERAY 31 

were like ten thousand other babies, except that they hap 
pened to be Browning and Dickens. It was the time when 
the world trembled, because that mighty soldier Napoleon 
stood with arms folded, waiting to strike, it knew not where. 
It was the time when military genius reached its height, 
a height that could be only brought low by one thing, and 
that was an English General with a long nose and a cocked 
hat. 

Although Thackeray was born in Calcutta, he was as 
English as he could possibly be. But he did not forget his 
Eastern beginning. 4 A certain vague cosmological quality 
was always mixed with his experience, and it was his favourite 
boast that he had seen men and cities like Ulysses. Which is 
to say that he had not only seen the world, he had felt it; if he 
had not seen a one-eyed giant, he had at least seen a two- 
eyed Hindu. 

His early life followed the ordinary life of a thousand other 
boys born of Anglo-Indian parents; that was, he went to 
school, where 4 a girl broke his heart and a boy broke his nose, 
and he discovered that the nose took longer to mend. 

At Cambridge, Chesterton tells us, Thackeray found that 
it was a quite easy thing to sit down and play cards and lose 
^1,500 in an evening, a fact that very probably was more 
useful to him than twenty degrees. Trinity College was the 
Thackeray College: it has had no more famous son. It was 
said that Thackeray could order a dinner in every language 
in Europe, which is to say he could have dined in comfort 
in any restaurant in Soho. 

From Cambridge, we learn, he made his way to the Bar, 
and at the same time wrote articles in the hope that some 
editor might keep them from the waste-paper basket. Chester 
ton tells us an interesting legend that about this time Thacke 
ray offered to illustrate the books of Dickens. The offer was 
declined, which he thinks was a good thing for Dickens 
books and a good thing for Thackeray s. Whether Thacke 
ray ever really did meet Dickens does not matter much ; it is 



32 G. K. CHESTERTON 

at least picturesque; it affects the imagination as much as 
the meeting with Napoleon. 

There has always been what is for Chesterton a silly 
discussion a controversy as to whether Thackeray was a 
cynic. This was because he happened to write first about 
villains, then about heroes; villains are always more interest 
ing than heroes, and not infrequently are much better 
mannered. A cynic is a person who doesn t take the trouble 
to find the motives for things, or he takes it for granted that 
the motives are never disinterested ones. To say that Thacke 
ray was a cynic because he drew a large number of villains 
is as untrue as to say Swift was a cynic because he wrote 
satire. Thackeray wrote about villains because he wished to 
also write about heroes; Swift was satirical because he had the 
intelligence to see that his contemporaries were fools when 
they might have been wise. The cynics are the people of 
to-day who write books which attribute low motives to 
every one, which turn love into lust, which care not what 
is written so long as it can be made certain that there is 
nothing in the world which has not a hidden meaning. 

The first appearance of Thackeray in literature was in 
* Eraser s Magazine, under the pseudo name of Michael 
Angelo Titmarsh. It is on these unimportant papers that 
Chesterton thinks was based the attack on Thackeray for 
being a cynic. 

In passing, it is not necessary to say more than that 
Thackeray s marriage ended in a horrible manner: Mrs. 
Thackeray was sent to an asylum. I would do it over 
again, said Thackeray; which was a fine thing to say. It 
was really carrying out for better or worse, which often 
enough really means for better only. 

It will now be well at once to plunge into the very heart 
of Thackeray, that heart which beat beneath the huge, gaunt 
frame. The two books which have made his name famous, and 
what Chesterton thinks of them, must be now gone into. 



THACKERAY 33 

The Book of Snobs was one of those literary rarities 
that has genius in its very name. No one probably really thinks 
himself a snob; every one likes to read of one. Thackeray 
brought snobbishness to a classic. There had been books of 
scoundrels, there had been books of heroes, there had been 
books of nincompoops, now there was a book of those people 
who abound in every community, and who are snobs. 

This work was much needed and very admirably done. 
The solemn philosophic framework, the idea of treating 
snobbishness as a science, was original and sound; for snob 
bishness is indeed a disease in our Society. 

Unfortunately Chesterton is not nearly hard enough on 
snobbishness. Were it a disease, it might be excusable as being 
at times unavoidable; it is nothing of the sort, it is a deliberate 
thing that undermines society mpre than anything; it is 
entirely spontaneous, and flourishes in every community, 
from the Church to the Jockey Club. 

Aristocracy does not have snobs any more than democracy ; 
but this Thackeray was too restrained and early Victorian 
to see. There are at the present day a great number of people 
who will not see that Bolshevism is as snobbish as Suburbia, 
that the poor man in the Park Lodge is as much a snob as his 
master, who only knows the county folks. Snobbery is not 
the monopoly of any one set; even also is it, as Thackeray 
says, 4 a mean admiration that thinks it is better to be a 
* made peer than an honest gardener. 

The true source of snobs in England was the refusal to 
take one side or the other in the crisis of the French Revo 
lution. 

The title of * Vanity Fair was an inspiration. It gives 
the ideas of the disharmonies that can be found in any market 
place in any English market town on any English market 
day. It brings out the irrelevancy of Thackeray. A good 
motto for the book is, for Chesterton, that attributed to 
Cardinal Newman : Evil always fails by overleaping its aim 
and good by falling short of it. Our critic feels that the 



34 G. K. CHESTERTON 

critics have been unfair to Thackeray with respect to their 
denouncement of the character of Amelia Sedley as being 
much too soft, whereas Chesterton thinks she was really a 
fool, which is the logical outcome of being the reverse of hard. 

But Amelia was soft in a very delightful way. She was 
open to all emotions as they came in fact, she was a fool 
who was wise because she has retained her power of happiness, 
while the hard Rebecca has arrived at hell, the hell of having 
all outward forces open, but all receptive organs closed. 

It is necessary again to refer to the charge of cynicism that 
is levelled against Thackeray. The mistake is, as our critic 
points out, 4 taking a vague word and applying it precisely. It 
all depends upon what cynicism really means. c If it means a 
war on comfort, then Thackeray was, to his eternal credit, 
a cynic ; f if it means a war on virtue, then Thackeray, to his 
eternal honour, was the reverse of a cynic. His object is to 
show that silly goodness is better than clever vice. As I have 
indicated, the long and the short of the matter is that Thacke 
ray created a lot of villains, and has therefore been called a 
cynic by those who don t even know what the word means, 
or that there is a literary blessedness in the making of villains 
to bring out the more excellent virtues of the heroes. 

From these two monumental works that were original in 
every way and might almost be called propaganda, Thackeray 
passed on to a novel which bore the name of Pendennis. 
It was a novel with nothing else but a hero, only that the 
hero is not very heroic, which makes him all the more 
interesting, for it makes him all the more human. 

But Pendennis is more than a man he is a type or symbol. 
He is the old mystical tragedian of the Middle Ages, Every 
man. It is an epic, because it celebrates the universal man 
with all his glorious failings and glorious virtues. The love 
of Pendennis for Miss Fotheringay is a different thing to 
the ordinary love of man for woman; it is rather the love 
that is in every man for every woman. This is what I think 



THACKERAY 35 

Chesterton means when he says it is the veritable Divine 
disease, which seems a part of the very health of youth. 

The Everyman of the Middle Ages was a symbol of what 
man really was. Chesterton feels that every outside force 
that came to Everyman had to be abnormal for instance, 
4 Death had to be bony so he contends in * Pendennis that 
the shapes that intrude on the life of Arthur Pendennis have 
aggressive and allegorical influences. 

Pendennis is an epic because it celebrates not the strength 
of man but his weakness. In the character of Major Pen 
dennis, Chesterton feels that Thackeray did a great work, 
because he showed that the life of the so-called man of the 
world is not the gay and careless one that fiction depicts. It 
is the religious people who can afford to be careless. 4 If you 
want carelessness you must go to the martyrs. The reason 
is fairly obvious. The worldling has to be careful, as he wants 
to remain in the world; the religious man, of whom the martyr 
was the true prototype, can afford to be careless; he is not 
necessarily careless of life, but he can put things at their 
proper value. The martyr facing the lions in the Roman 
arena knew what life really was; the worldly woman spending 
her life trying to be in the company of titled people has no 
real idea of the value of it. It is the religious people who 
know the world; it is the worldly people who know nothing 
of it. 

With the publication of 4 Pendennis the reputation of 
Thackeray reached that position which is sought by all authors, 
that of being able to write a book that should not, on pub 
lication, be put to the indignity of being asked who the writer 
was. Thackeray was now in the delightful position of being 
well established, a position that very often results in careless 
and poor work. It has been said with some truth that once 
a writer is established he can write anything he likes. This is 
to an extent true, and such work may even be published and 
fairly popular, but he will find sooner or later that his 
influence is on the wane. 



36 G. K. CHESTERTON 

In the Newcomes Thackeray drew a character in 
Colonel Newcome, to whom was given the highest of 
literary honours, that of being spoken of apart from the 
book I mean in the way that people speak of Micawber 
or Scrooge, almost unconsciously, without really having the 
actual work in which the character appears in mind. Of 
this book Chesterton says the public has largely forgotten 
all the Newcomes except one, the Colonel who has taken his 
place with Don Quixote, Sir Roger de Coverley, Uncle 
Toby, and Mr. Pickwick. 

Chesterton feels that Thackeray at times falls into the 
trick common to many writers, that of repeating himself, a 
trick that is natural, as it does seem in some ways that the 
human mind, like history, is apt to move in circles. The 
reason was that in some way Thackeray became tired of 
Barnes Newcome; the result was that from being a con 
vincing villain he develops into a stereotyped one, the type 
who fires pistols into the air and is the squire s runaway son, 
so often found at the Lyceum. 

If Thackeray sprawled in the Newcomes he atones for 
this in Esmond, if any atonement is needed for sprawling, 
which is probably only that Thackeray felt that there is 
nothing so elastic and sprawling as a human person, whether 
he be a villain or the reverse. 

For Chesterton, Esmond is in the modern sense a work 
of art, which is to say that it was a book that could be read 
anywhere. It had no word that might not have been used 
at the court of Queen Anne. It is a highly romantic tale, 
but it is a sad story. It is a great Queen Anne romance ; but, 
there broods a peculiar conviction that Queen Anne is dead. 
The whole tale moves round a complicated situation in 
which a young man loves a mother and her daughter, and 
finally marries the mother. This work is, for Chesterton, 
Thackeray s most difficult task. It is difficult for the reason 
that the situation of the tale is placed between possibilities of 
grace and possibilities even of indecency. It is not hard to 



THACKERAY 37 

write a graceful tale, it is easy to write a loose story; it is 
extremely difficult to write a story that may by a stroke of 
the pen be either beautiful or merely sordid. But Thackeray 
manipulates the keys of the tale so that l it moves like music, 
an extremely apt metaphor, where harmonies can be made 
disharmonies by a single note. 

It is a strange fact that a sequel is seldom to be compared 
to its forerunner: Tom Brown s Schooldays is of a school 
boy who is an eternal type; Tom Brown at Oxford is a 
poor book that does not in the least understand Oxford. The 
fact is, I think, that an author cannot be inspired twice on the 
same subject the gods give but sparingly, their gifts do not 
fall as the rains. 

The sequel to Esmond that Thackeray wrote, The 
Virginians, is an * inadequate sequel, which is not to say that 
it is a poor book, but rather that it is an unnecessary one. 
Yet, as Chesterton says, Thackeray never struck a smarter 
note than when, in " The Virginians," he created the terrible 
little Yankee Countess of Castlewood. In the same way as 
; The Virginians was a sequel to Esmond, so Philip was 
a sequel (also an inadequate one) to the Newcomes. 

It is strange that in two things at least Thackeray s life 
followed the same course as Dickens. Both occupied the 
editorial chair: Dickens that of the Daily News, Thackeray 
that of the Cornhill Magazine. Both left unfinished works: 
Dickens that of 4 The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Thackeray 
that of c Denis Duval. 

Thackeray s last work, Lovell the Widower, is a very 
clever sketch, but as a novel is rather drawn out. The 
Roundabout Papers make very pleasant reading. In one * he 
compares himself to a pagan conqueror driving in his chariot 
up the Hill of Coru, with a slave behind him to remind him 
that he is only mortal. In 1863, suddenly, Thackeray died, 
seven years before Dickens also passed away. 

Chesterton has in the space of a short introduction 
given a very clear account of the chief characteristics of 



38 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Thackeray s works; it is no easy matter to give in a few 
lines the essence of a great novel, and Chesterton is not 
always the most concise of writers. It will now be con 
venient to take a few of the characteristics of Thackeray 
and observe what he says of them. 

At once he is aware of the fact that there is no writer 
from whom it is more difficult to make extracts than from 
Thackeray. The reason is that Thackeray worked by 
4 diffuseness of style. If he wished to be satirical about a 
character he was not so directly; rather he worked his way 
to the inside of the character, got to know all about it, and 
then began to be satirical. This is what Chesterton feels 
about the matter; it is no doubt the fairest way of being 
satirical and the most effective. Many people and writers are 
satirical without first of all demonstrating upon what grounds 
they have the right to be so. Satire is a wholly laudable thing 
if it is directed in a fair minded manner, but if it is only an 
excuse for bitter cynicism it is altogether contemptible. Thus 
he says of the Thackerean treatment of l Vanity Fair, he 
was attacking " Vanity Fair " from the inside. It comes to 
this: if you want to make an extract from Thackeray 
you must dive about all over the place to make apparent 
irrelevancy become relevancy. 

If the use of the grotesque was a strength of Browning 
(as Chesterton contends against other critics), so in the case of 
Thackeray that which some critics have held to be a weak 
ness I mean his 4 irrelevancy is for our critic a strength. 
It was a strength, because it was a very delicate and even 
cunning literary approach. It is the perfect art of Thackeray 
to get the right situation, not by an assumption of it, but by 
so approaching it that there is no way out, which is arriving 
at the situation by the fairest means possible. 

No other novelist ever carried to such perfection as 
Thackeray the art of saying a thing without saying it. Thus 
he may say that a man drinks too much, yet it may be false 
to say that he drinks. What he did was not to say that a man 



THACKERAY 39 

had arrived at such and such a state, but rather that things 
must change. If, as Chesterton says, Miss Smith finds 
marriage the reverse of the honeymoon, Thackeray does not 
say that the marriage is a failure, but that joy cannot last for 
ever ; that if there are roses there are also thorns. It is an 
admirable method, far better than saying a thing straight out. 
It is better to tell a man who is a cad that there is such a 
thing as being a gentleman, than to tell him he is a cad. 

In his later life Thackeray was inclined to imitate himself. 
It is, I think, that the human brain is prone to move in circles. 
In the case of Thackeray, as our critic points out, in later days 
he used his rambling style, and, as was to be expected, he rather 
lost himself. He did not merely get into a parenthesis, he 
never got out of it, which is to say that as Thackeray got 
older he inherited the tendencies of old age. 

I have said earlier in this chapter that the charge against 
Thackeray of cynicism was one that was founded on a false 
premise. The charge that his irrelevancy was a weakness is 
based on another false but popular premise, that the direct 
method is always the best. It is usually the worst. It is the 
worst in warfare, it is the worst in literature, but it is possibly 
the best in literary criticism. 

Thackeray had another quality that has laid him open to 
adverse criticism; that is, his * perpetual reference to the 
remote past. This repeated reference to the past may be a 
matter of conceit, or it may be that the influence of the past 
is genuinely felt. The reason that, as Chesterton points out, 
Thackeray referred so much to the remote past, was that he 
wished it to be known that 4 there was nothing new under 
the sun ; not even, as our critic says, 4 the sunstroke. Ches 
terton admits that at times Thackeray carried this tendency 
to an excess; also Thackeray wanted to show that the oldest 
thing in the world was its youth. Thus in writing of a 
fashionable drawing-room in Mayfair, if he referred to some 
classic, it was to remind people how many debutantes had 
come out since the age of Horace. It was quite a different 



40 G. K. CHESTERTON 

thing to the pompous bishop quoting Greek at the squire s 
house to show that his doctor s degree, though an honorary 
one, had some classical learning behind it, or the small boy 
translating Horace to avoid the headmaster s cane. In the 
case of the bishop and the schoolboy, the use of the classics 
is, on the one hand, pomposity; on the other, discretion. In 
the case of Thackeray it was a reverence for the past, that 
it was a very large part of the present. 

There are, then, roughly three main characteristics of 
Thackeray: his irrelevancy, his rambling style, and his 
frequent reference to the past. All these, Chesterton makes 
it clear, are matters in which the strength of Thackeray lies. 
Not that they are free always from exaggerations. Sometimes 
Thackeray became lost in his irrelevancy, sometimes he 
became almost unintelligible in his rambling style, now and 
then his use of ancient quotation became irritating. Above 
all things, Thackeray was receptive. The world imposed on 
Thackeray, and Dickens imposed on the world. But it 
could not be put more truly than that Thackeray represents, in 
that gigantic parody called genius, the spirit of the English 
man in repose. This spirit is the idle embodiment of all of 
us; by his weakness we shall fail, and by his enormous sani 
ties we shall endure. This is the crux of the matter which 
Chesterton brings out, that the weaknesses of Thackeray are 
his strength. He loved liberty, not because it meant restraint 
from law, but because he was a novelist ; he was open to 
all the influences round him, not because he had no stand 
point, but because he could see merit in selection; he had 
an open mind, but knew when to shut it. 

The passages selected from the various works have been 
chosen with care. It was evidently by no means an easy task. 
The passage chosen to show Colonel Newcome in the Cave 
of Harmony gives in one poignant incident his character; 
the selection from l Pendennis does much the same. In 
the passage from Esmond the story of the duel is a fine 



THACKERAY 41 

selection; the chapter on * Some Country Snobs is an apt 
choosing; the celebrated Essay on George IV demonstrates 
Thackeray in a very different mood. The Fall of Becky 
Sharp, taken from Vanity Fair, has not been included 
without forethought. 

Of Thackeray s poems, Chesterton has included the most 
significant, and not without due The Cane-Bottomed 
Chair finds a prominent place. 

Enough has been said to show that Chesterton is not a 
critic of Thackeray who has no discrimination in choosing 
from his works. He knows what Thackeray was, wherein 
lay his strength and weakness. He has added a worthy com 
panion to his fuller works on Browning and Dickens. 



G 



(Chapter Four 

BROWNING 

IT will be convenient for our purpose to adhere as closely 
as possible to the order of Chesterton s book. It is a 
hard task to do justice to Browning even in a long book; 
the task is not simplified when, in a chapter, it is hoped to 
give a criticism of an intricate criticism of Browning. 

There are two ways to approach such a task: The first is to 
take the book as a whole and write a review of it, which is a 
method liable to a superficiality; the second is to take such a 
work chapter by chapter, and to piece the various criticisms 
into an ordered whole. This I have attempted to do. I make 
no attempt to criticize the method of Chesterton s approach 
to Browning, or his combination of the effect of his life on 
his work; rather I wish to take what the critic says and 
comment on his remarks. 

There is undoubtedly a fundamental difference between 
Browning and Dickens which is at once clear to any critic 
of these two writers. Dickens was, as I have said in an 
earlier chapter, born at the psychological moment. Browning 
happened to be born early in the nineteenth century. I 
cannot see that it would have mattered had he been born 
at the beginning of the twentieth. His early life, unlike 
Dickens, was normal, but it did not affect Browning ad 
versely. Had Dicken s life been uneventful, I think it not 
improbable that his literary output would have been common 
place instead of, as nearly as possible, divine. 

There is no particular account of Browning s family, 
which was probably a typical middle-class family, which is to 
say that they were, like many thousands of their kind, lovers 

42 



BROWNING 43 

of the normal a very good reason why later Browning should 
have acquired a love for the grotesque, which many people 
quite wrongly define as the abnormal. 

The grotesque is a queer psychological state of mind; the 
abnormal is an extreme kind of individualism that is probably 
insane, provided the opposite is sane. 

What is important, as Chesterton feels, is that we shall 
get some account of Browning s home. It is in the home 
that we can usually detect the embryo of future activity. 
The germ, although sometimes hidden, is nevertheless there, 
which is exactly why the commonplace home life of a genius, 
before the public has discovered the fact, is interesting. 

To quote our critic: * Browning was a thoroughly typical 
Englishman of the middle class, and he remained so through 
his life. 

But this middle-class Englishman walking through the 
streets of Camberwell, as the boys played in the gutters, was 
Browning, not then the master poet of the Victorian Era, 
but the young man who could pass a bookstall and find no 
thrill in beholding on a placard the name of Shelley. 

Browning found his early life in an age of inspired office 
boys, an age that emerged from the shadow of the French 
Revolution, that extreme method of optimism which Ches 
terton believes no Englishman can understand, not even 
Carlyle himself. It was an optimism that was so, because it 
held that man was worthy of liberty, which is to say that no 
man is by his nature ever meant to be a slave. 

While Browning was living his daily life in Camberwell, 
Dickens was existing in the blacking factory; yet again it 
was an age of the beginning of intellectual giants. 

The Chestertonian standpoint with regard to the early 
days of Browning is interesting. It is a ready acknowledgment 
of the poetic instinct that was being slowly but surely nur 
tured in the heart of the unknown young man of Camberwell. 

It is in this early period of his life that Browning attempts 
what Chesterton rightly describes as the most difficult of 



44 G. K. CHESTERTON 

literary propositions, that of writing a good political play. 
This Browning essayed to do, and wrote t Strafford, a play 
that dealt with that most controversial part of history, the 
time when kings could be executed in Whitehall under the 
shadow of their own Parliament. 

For our critic, Strafford was one of the greatest men ever 
born with the sacred name of England on his brow. The play 
was not a gigantic success, it was not a failure; it was, as was 
to be expected, popular with a limited public, which is very 
often one of the surest criterions of merit in a book or play. 
The success of the play was sufficient to assure the public 
that Browning had brains and, what was more unusual, 
could put them to a good advantage. 

Browning became then i a detached and eccentric per 
sonality who had arisen on the outskirts; the world began to 
be conscious of him at this time. 

In 1 840 our critic tells us Sordello was published. It 
was a poem that caused people to wonder whether it was 
really deep, or merely pure nonsense, a distinction some 
people cannot ever discover in regard to Browning. 

Of this poem, its unique reception by the literary world 
lies in the fact that it was fashionable to boast of not under 
standing, which, as I have said, was an indication that it 
might be termed extremely clever or extremely stupid. It 
was not a poem, as has been held by some critics, that was a 
piece of intellectual vanity. Browning was far too great a 
man to stoop down to such mere banal conceit. The poem was 
a very different thing. It was a creature created by the ob 
scurity of Browning s mind, which, as Chesterton thinks, was 
the natural reaction for a genius, born in a villa street in 
South London. 

What is the explanation of this poem ? What is its meaning ? 
Wherein lies its soul ? These are questions every lover of 
Browning has constantly to ask. Our critic supplies an 
answer, an answer that is original, and is, I think, true the 
poem is an epic on l the horror of great darkness, that 



BROWNING 45 

darkness that strangely enough seems to attack the young 
more frequently than the old. 

That which is levelled against Browning, his obscurity, is 
a very bulwark protecting a subtle and clear mind. This is 
specially so with a poet who probably of all men so lives in 
his own poetic world that he forgets his ideas, though clear 
to himself, are vague to the world occupied with conven 
tionalities. 

The real difficulty of 4 Sordello lies in the fact that it is 
written about an obscure piece of Italian history of which 
Browning happened to have knowledge the struggles of 
mediaeval Italy. This obscurity is not studied, as in the case 
of academic distinction; it is natural. The obscurity of many 
of the passages of St. John s Gospel is natural because the 
mind of St. John dwelt on the depths, as did Browning s 
dwell on the grotesque. The result is the same. Each needs 
an interpreter, each has an abundance of the richest philo 
sophy, each has an imprint of the Finger of God. 

With all the controversy it has caused, Sordello has had 
no great influence on Browningites; its name has passed into 
almost contempt. Chesterton has done much to give the 
true meaning of this strange work. With his next poem 
Browning spoke with a voice that, as our critic says, proved 
that he had found that he was not Robinson Crusoe, which 
is to say that he had found that the world contained a great 
number of people. Despite the 1,500 millions amongst 
whom we * live and move and have our being we are apt to 
think that we alone are important, which is not conceit but a 
mere proposition demonstrating that man is a universe in 
himself while being but an infinitesimal part of the universe. 

* Pippa Passes is a poem which expresses a love of hu 
manity; it is an epic of unconscious influence which, no 
doubt, Browning felt was the key to all that is best and noble 
in human activity. The whole idea of the poem lies in the 
fact that " Pippa Passes is utterly remote from the grand 
folk whose lives she troubles and transforms. 



46 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Browning s poetry in the poetical sense was now nearing 
its zenith. The * Dramatic Lyrics were published in 1 842, 
possibly about the time that Dickens was returning from his 
triumphant American tour. These showed, Chesterton 
thinks, the two qualities most often denied to Browning, 
passion and beauty. They are the contradiction to critics, other 
than ours, who regard Browning as wholly a philosophic 
poet, which is to say a poet who wrote poetry not for its own 
sake but for purely utilitarian purpose; not that poetry of the 
emotions is not useful it is on a different plane. 

The poems were those that l represent the arrival of the 
real Browning of literary history ; for in these he discovered 
what was, for Chesterton, Browning s finest achievement, 
his dramatic lyrical poems. 

Critics have said that Browning s poetry lacks passion and 
the most poignant emotion of human nature, love. Chester 
ton, on the other hand, considers that Browning was the 
finest love poet of the world. It is real love poetry, because 
it talks about real people, not ideals; it does not muse of the 
Prince Charming meeting the Fairy Princess, and forget the 
devoted wife meeting her husband on the villa doorstep with 
open arms and a nice dinner in the parlour. Sentiment must 
be based on reality if it is to have worth. This is the strong 
point, for our critic, of Browning s love poetry. 

The next work of importance that came from Browning s 
pen was the i Return of the Druses, which shows Browning s 
interest in the strange religions of the East, that queer phan- 
tastic part of the world that gave birth to a Western religion 
which has transformed the West, leaving the East to gaze afar 
off. This poem is, for Chesterton, a psychological one. It is 
an attempt to give an account of a human being; perhaps the 
most difficult task in the world, because it can never hope to 
solve all sides of the question. The central character of this 
splendid poem is one Djubal, a queer mixture of the 
virtues of the Deity with the vices of Humanity. He is for 
Browning the first of a series of characters on which he 



BROWNING 47 

displays his wonderful powers of apologizing for apparently 
bad men. 

He attempted, to quote our critic, to seek out the sinners 
whom even sinners cast out, which Christ always did, and 
which His Church does not always do. 

Again Browning turned his hand to writing plays, but he 
was always a neglected dramatist in the sense that he had 
to push his plays; his plays did not push him. 

His next play, A Blot on the " Scutcheon," is chiefly 
interesting, as it was the occasion of a quarrel between its 
author and that most eccentric of theatrical personalities, 
Macready. The quarrel was, our critic points out, a matter 
of money. But Browning failed to see this; he was a man 
of the world in his poems, but not in his life. 

It is interesting here to see what our critic says of Browning 
about this period before we consider the question of his 
marriage. There were people who called Browning a snob. 
He was fond of wealth and fond of society; he admired them 
as the child who comes in from the desert. He bore the same 
relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the 
Pharisee something frightfully close and similar and yet an 
everlasting opposite. 

It has been left for Chesterton to give the truest definition 
of a Pharisee that has yet been penned, because it is exactly 
what every man feels but has never expressed in so brilliant 
a paradox. 

That Browning had faults Chesterton would be the last to 
deny. Faults are as much a part of a great man as virtues. The 
more pronounced the fault, the more exquisite is the virtue, 
especially in a man of the character of Browning, a character 
that had a certain uncontrollable brutality of speech, to 
gether with a profound and unaffected respect for other 
people. 

Chesterton s chapter on Browning and his marriage is one 
of the most homely chapters of the book ; it gives the lie to 



48 G. K. CHESTERTON 

those critics who have glibly said that he has no way in which 
to reach our hearts or cause a lump in our throats. 

The very method of describing how a great man wooed a 
great woman, how the two loved, married, and disagreed upon 
certain matters, is one that has an essential appeal to the heart. 
The exquisite description of the effect of the death of his wife 
on Browning is pathetic by its very simplicity. 

It is enough to say that Browning s marriage was a success 
ful one, which is not to say that it was entirely free from 
certain disagreements. The domestic relations of great writers 
and poets have not always been of the rosiest. Swift did not 
make an ideal marriage at least, not on conventional lines. 
Milton had a wife who utterly misunderstood that her 
husband was a genius. Dickens was not blessed with matri 
monial bliss. Shelley found faith in one woman hard. 

But Browning and his wife had no disagreements on their 
life interests. They were both poets, though of a different 
calibre. What they really did not see eye to eye upon was 
something which the human race is still much divided about. 
This great point of difference was with regard to spiritualism. 
Browning did not dislike spiritualism; he disliked spiritualists. 
The difference is tremendous. Unfortunately many of the 
interpreters of spiritualism have degraded it into a kind of 
blatant necromancy which is in no way dignified or useful. 
It is entirely opposed to proper psychic research. 

Miss Barrett had been an invalid. Therefore Browning 
feared that spiritualism might have a really bad effect on his 
wife. He was sensible to put a stop to it. 

The theory, on the other hand, held by other critics of 
Browning than Chesterton was that his dislike of spiritualism 
was fostered by a direct disbelief in immortality, which is as 
absurd a statement as is possible to make. Spiritualism and 
Immortality have no necessary connection whatever, though 
to a certain extent Spiritualism is presumed on the belief in 
a future life. 

But this, as Chesterton points out, was not the reason for 



BROWNING 49 

Browning s position; it was entirely that Browning thought 
1 if he had not interposed when she was becoming hysterical 
she might have ended in a lunatic asylum. 

As Browning spent so much of his life in Italy it will be 
well to see what our critic considers he thought of that 
country under the blue skies jutting on to the blue seas of 
the Mediterranean. 

Italy, says Chesterton, to Browning and his wife, was 
not by any means merely that sculptured and ornate sepulchre 
that it is to so many of those cultured Englishmen who live in 
Italy and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type 
and centre of the religion and politics of a continent, the 
ancient and flaming heart of Western history, the very Europe 
of Europe. 

Browning s life in Italy was more or less uneventful. 
It consisted of a conventional method the meeting of 
famous Englishmen visiting Italy, the writing of numerous 
poems, the pleasant domestic life of a literary genius and his 
wife. 

There was only one thing that could break it, and it came 
in 1 86 1. Mrs. Browning died. i Alone in the room with 
Browning. He, closing the door of that room behind him, 
closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon 
earth again but only a splendid surface. 

During his wife s life Browning had planned his great 
work, that of the 4 Ring and the Book. In the meantime 
came the death of his wife, and Browning moved on the 
earth alone. Of this period of his life, shortly after the death 
of Mrs. Browning, Chesterton gives us a clear picture. 
Browning liked social life, he liked the excitement of the 
dinner, the exchange of opinions, the pleasant hospitality that 
is so much a part of our life. He was a good talker because 
he had something to say. 

One of his chief faults, according to our critic, was pre 
judice. Prejudice is probably an unconscious obeying of 

H 



50 G. K. CHESTERTON 

instinct; it may even be a warning. Yet it can be and often 
is entirely unreasonable. 

Browning s prejudice was, Chesterton thinks, the type that 
hated a thing it knew nothing about, a state of mind that is 
comparatively harmless. What is dangerous is disliking a 
thing when we know what it is. The prejudice of Browning 
was synonymous with his profound contempt for certain 
things of which he can only speak in pothouse words. 

About this period Browning produced Prince Hohenstiel- 
Schwangu, Saviour of Society. This is 4 one of the most 
picturesque of Browning s apologetic monologues. It is 
Browning s courageous attempt to allow Napoleon III to 
speak for himself. Yet again Browning took in those sinners 
whom even sinners cast out. 

Two years later, we are told, Browning produced one of his 
most characteristic works, Night-cap Country. It is an 
elegant poem of the sicklier side of the French Revolution 
and the more sensual side of the French temperament. 

This is the period in Browning s life when he produced 
his most characteristic work. It was that time when he 
was nearly middle aged, when the lamp of youth was just 
flickering, and when the lamp of old age was about to be 
lighted. 

Chesterton treats the whole of this period with a calm 
straightforwardness that we are not accustomed to in his 
writings. There is no doubt, I think, of all our critic s books, 
that his work on Browning is the least Chestertonian, which 
is not in any way to disparage it, but rather to state that the 
book might have been written by any biographer who knew 
Browning s works and had the sense to see that his cha 
racteristics were such that many of his critics were unfair to 
him. Chesterton will never allow for an instant that Brown 
ing suffered from anything but an evident naturalness, 
which expressed itself in a rugged style, concealing charity 
in an original grotesqueness of manner. 

It is now convenient to turn to Browning s greatest work, 



BROWNING 51 

* 

The Ring and the Book and see what Chesterton has to 

<j * 

say about it. 

Rumour is really distorted truth, or rather very often 
originates from a different standpoint being taken of the same 
thing. Thus a man may say that another man is a good 
fellow but borrows money too often; another may say of the 
same man he is a good fellow but talks too much; a third that 
he is a good fellow but would be better without a moustache. 
The essential man is the same, but his three critics make 
really a different person, or, at least, each sees him from a 
different angle. 

As Chesterton so finely points out, the conception of The 
Ring and the Book is the studying of a single matter from 
nine different standpoints. In successive monologues Brown 
ing is endeavouring to depict the various strange ways a fact 
gets itself presented to the world. 

Further, the work indicates the extraordinary lack of logic 

used bv those who would be ashamed to be denied the name 

j 

of dialectician. Probably, thinks Chesterton, very many 
people do harm in their cause, not by want of propaganda, 
but by the fallaciousness of their arguments for it. 

There have been critics who have denied to this work the 
right of immortality. Chesterton is not one of these; rather he 
contends such a criticism is a gross misunderstanding of the 

C? <J 

work. For our critic the greatness of this poem is the very 
point upon which it is attacked, that of environment. For 
once and all Browning has demonstrated that there are riches 
and depths in small things that are often denied to what we 
think is greater. 

4 It is an epic round a sordid police court case. The 
essence of The Ring and the Book" is that it is the great 
epic of the nineteenth century, because it is the great epic of 
the importance of small things. Browning says, 4 I will show 
you the relation of man to heaven by telling you a story out 
of a dirty Italian book of criminal trials, from which I select 
one of the meanest and most completely forgotten. 



52 G. K. CHESTERTON 

It is then that Chesterton sees that this poem is more than 
a mere poem; it is a natural acknowledgment of the monarchy 
of small things, the same idea that made Dickens believe that 
common men could be kings that is, in the same category as 
the Divine care of the hairs of the head. It gives the lie to 
the rather popular fallacy that events are important by their 
size. It is once more a position that the stone on the hillside 
is as mighty as the mountain of which it is only a small part. 

Again, The Ring and the Book is an embodiment of the 
spiritual in the material, the good that can be contained in a 
sordid story; it is the typical epic of our age, because it 
expresses the richness of life by taking as a text a poor story. 
It pays to existence the highest of all possible compliments, 
the great compliment of selecting from it almost at random. 

There is a second respect, he feels, which makes this poem 
the epic of the age. It is that every man has a point of view. 
And, what is more, every man probably has a different point 
of view at least in something. 

The Ring and the Book, to sum up briefly why Chester 
ton thinks so highly of it, is an epic; it is a national ex 
pression of a characteristic love of small things, the germina 
tion of great truths; it pays a compliment to humanity by 
asserting the value of every opinion, it demonstrates that even 
in so sordid a thing as a police court there is a spiritual spark; 
in a word, it is an attempt to see God, not on the hill-tops or 
in the valleys, but in the back streets teeming with common 
men. 

It is now time to turn to two qualities of Browning that 
are full of the deepest interest, and which are dealt with by 
Chesterton with the greatest skill and judgment. These two 
qualities may be described as Browning as a literary artist 
and Browning as a philosopher. For our purpose it will be 
useful to take Browning as a literary artist first and see what 
was his position. Philosophy is usually in the nature of a 
summing up. The philosophy of a poet is best looked at 
when the poet has been studied; therefore it is best to follow 



BROWNING 53 

Chesterton s order and take Browning s philosophical position 
at the end of this chapter. 

He feels that in some ways the critics want Browning to 
be poet and logician, and are rather cross when he is either. 
They want him to be a poet and are annoyed that he is a 
logician; they want him to be a logician and are annoyed 
that he is a poet. The fact of the matter is he was probably 
a poet! 

Chesterton is convinced that Browning was a literary 
artist that is to say, he was a symbolist. The wealth of 
Browning s poetry depends on arrangement of language. It 
is so with all great literature: it is not so much what is said 
as how it is said, in what way the sentences are formed so 
that the climax comes in the right place. 

For all practical purposes Browning was, our critic thinks, 
a deliberate artist. The suggestion that Browning cared 
nothing for form is for Chesterton a monstrous assertion. It 
is as absurd as saying that Napoleon cared nothing for 
feminine love or that Nero hated mushrooms. What 
Browning did was always to fall into a different kind of form, 
which is a totally different thing to saying he disregarded it. 

There is rather an assumption among a certain class of 
critics that the artistic form is a quality that is finite. As a 
matter of fact, it is infinite; it cannot be bound up with any 
particular mode of expression; it is elastic, and so elastic that 
certain critics cannot adjust their minds to such lucidity. 

There is, our critic feels, another suggestion that if 
Browning had a form, it was a bad one. This really does not 
matter very much. Whether form in an artistic sense is good 
or bad can only be determined by setting up a criterion; this 
is not possible in the case of Browning, because, though he has 
many forms, they are original ones, which render them 
impervious to values of good and bad. 

Chesterton is naturally aware that Browning wrote a great 
deal of bad poetry every poet does. The way to take with 
Browning s bad poetry is not to condemn him for it, but to 



54 G. K. CHESTERTON 

say quite frankly this poem or that poem was a failure. It is 
by his masterpieces that Browning must be judged. 

Perhaps, as he points out, the peculiar characteristic of 
Browning s art lay in his use of the grotesque, which, as I 
said at the beginning of this chapter, is a totally different 
thing from the abnormal. 

In other words, Browning was rugged. It was as natural 
for him to be rugged as for Ruskin to be polished, for Swift 
to be cynical (in an optimistic sense), for Chesterton to be 
paradoxical. Ruggedness is a form of beauty, but it is a beauty 
that is quite different from the commonly accepted grounds. 
A mountain is rugged and it is beautiful, a woman is beautiful; 
but the two features of the aesthetic are quite different. It is 
the same with poetry. There is (and Browning proved it) a 
4 beautifulness in the rugged; it is a sense of being beauti 
fully rugged. 

Enough has been said to make it quite clear that Browning 
was a literary artist; but, as Chesterton contends, an original 
one. He did not confine himself to any one form: his beauty 
lay in the placing of the rugged before his readers, the 
method he used of employing the grotesque. 

It is now an excellent time in which to look at Browning s 
philosophy and Chesterton s interpretation of it. 

As it is perfectly true to say that every man has a point of 
view, a position so admirably brought out by Browning in his 
Ring and the Book, so it is also, I think, a truism that every 
man has (not always consciously) a philosophy. A philosophy 
is, after all, a point of view; it is not necessarily an abstract 
academic position; nor is it always a well-defined attempt to 
discover the ultimate purpose of things. It can be, and very 
often is, a point of view really acquired by experience. 

Naturally a man of the intellect of Browning would have 
a philosophy, and he had, as our critic points out, a very 
definite one. 

In his quaint way Chesterton tells us Browning had 



BROWNING 55 

opinions as he had a dress suit or a vote for Parliament. And 
he had no hesitation in expressing these opinions. There was 
no reason why he should; at least part of his philosophy, as I 
have indicated, lay in his knowledge of the value of men s 
opinions yet again brought out in The Ring and the 
Book. 

He had, so we are told, two great theories of the universe: 
the first, the hope that lies in man, imperfect as he is; the 
second, a bold position that has offended many people but is 
nevertheless at least a reasonable one, that God is in some way 
imperfect; that is, in some obscure way He could be made 
jealous. 

This is, no doubt, a highly unorthodox position. Yet it is 
a position that thousands have felt does make it plainer (as it 
did to Browning) the necessity of the Crucifixion; it was a 
pandering to Divine jealousy. 

These are, as Chesterton admits, great thoughts, and, as 
such, are liable to be disliked by those Christians and others 

7 J 

who will not think and dislike any one else doing so. 

This strange theological position of Browning is, I think, 
indicated in Saul. 

Chesterton usually does not agree with the other critics 
about most things, but he does at least agree in regard to the 
fact that Browning was an optimist. His theory of the use of 
men, though imperfect, is as good an argument for optimism 
as could well be found. Browning s optimism was, as our 
critic says, founded on experience, it was not a mere theory 
that had nothing practical behind it. 

As I have said, Browning disliked Spiritualists; but that is 
not, our critic thinks, the reason he wrote Sludge the 
Medium. What this poem showed was that Spiritualism 
could be of use in spite of insincere mediums. It was in no 
way an attack on the tenets of Spiritualism. 

The understanding of this poem gives the key to other 
poems of Browning s, as Bishop Blougram s Apology, and 
some of the monologues in The Ring and the Book ; 



56 G. K. CHESTERTON 

which is, that * a man cannot help telling some truth, even 
when he sets out to tell lies. 

This may be the right interpretation of these poems, but 
I think Browning really meant that there is an end some 
where to lying; in other words, lying is negative and tem 
porary; truth is positive and eternal. 

The summing up of Browning s knaves cannot be better 
expressed than by Chesterton. They are real somewhere. 
We are talking to a garrulous and peevish sneak; we are 
watching the play of his paltry features, his evasive eyes 
and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to change and 
harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole face 
of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that 
comes forth is the voice of God uttering his everlasting 
soliloquy. 

It is the essence of Browning; it is the certainty that 
however far distant there is the face of God behind the 
human features. 

If there is one characteristic about this study of Browning 
it lies in the fact that it is a very clear exposition of a remark 
able poet. A man might take up the book knowing Browning 
only as a name; he might well lay it down knowing what 
Browning was, what he achieved, what his essence was. The 
book is a masterly study it lays claim to our sympathies ; 
and never more so than when our critic describes that 
moment when Browning, alone in the room, saw his wife die. 



Chapter Five 

CHESTERTON AS HISTORIAN 

THE reason that Chesterton has written a history of 
England is that he says no member of the public has 
ever done so before. This is a thing to be supremely 
thankful for if true; but it is entirely untrue, for the very 
obvious fact that history has never been written by any one 
who is not a member of the public. Every historian is a 
member of the public. Let him imagine he is not, let him 
carry this imagination out to a logical conclusion, and he 
will have a good chance of landing in a prison for failing 
to pay the king s taxes. 

The very best people to write histories are historians, but 
they will never deal with history in a popular way. This 
Chesterton laments. He wants a history that shall be about 
the things that never ordinarily get into history. If he is 
told about the charters of the barons, he wishes to hear of 
the charters of the carpenters. This, he thinks, would make 
history popular, that word which is always used to denote 
something rather slight and superficial. He exclaims that 
the people are ignored, whereas the historian really would 
not be one at all if he was guilty of this charge. 

The fact of the matter is, that the whole of the history of 
England has been so misunderstood that Chesterton has 
come to the rescue and has told us what really happened in 
fact, all we learnt at school was waste of time; poor Green 
really wrote an anti-history of this country. The Romans 
are not of the remote past; the whole of present-day England 
is the remains of Rome, which is merely to say that our 
civilization comes down from Rome, a statement that quite 

I 57 



58 G. K. CHESTERTON 

able historians have hinted at now and again. No one for 
an instant is so foolish as to think that the chief remains of 
the Romans consist of the few broken-up baths and villas 
up and down the country, when a splendid high road stares 
them in the face. 

Chesterton pays enormous attention to the Middle Ages. 
They have, he thinks, been rather badly dealt with by 
historians. Too much attention is, he contends, paid to the 
time of the Stuarts onwards. Chesterton asks us to con 
template history as we should if we had never learnt it 
at school. It is, of course, true that we do not learn the 
essentials of our country in our schooldays. It is of no real 
importance that William conquered Harold in 1066, but it 
is of vast importance to know how he behaved as a con 
queror, a fact seldom taught. But if we forgot all the history 
we ever knew, we should not be able to appreciate Chester 
ton s history, which aims to reconstruct all that we had 
believed while pouring over Green in the fifth form. 

Chesterton covers so much ground in this book, his treat 
ment is so intricate, his method so full of various peculiar 
contentions, that the only possible method in a chapter is to 
take some of the more important points he touches upon and 
try and discover what he feels about them. It will be well to 
realize at once that however he may differ from recognized 
historians, his history loses all its meaning unless the standard 
historians are known fairly well. 

There are probably two tremendous turning points in 
history the one occurred at the moment that the fatal arrow 
entered the eye of Harold at Senlac, the other when Henry 
VIII set fire to the ecclesiastical faggots that ended in the 
Reformation. That period which lay between them may 
roughly be called the Middle Ages, which part of history 
Chesterton thinks has been badly treated. Whether this is 
so is a question that opens up a broader one: Has the history 



AS HISTORIAN 59 

of England ever received the attention it deserves ? Has right 
proportion been given to the most important events ? Should 
history be made popular in the modern sense of this much 
misinterpreted word? These are questions to which no 
adequate answer can be given in the space of a chapter, nor 
is it within the scope of this book. 

Chesterton is very annoyed to find that to possess Norman 
blood is, to many people, a hall mark of aristocracy : This 
fashionable fancy misses what is best in the Normans. What 
he contends, and I think rightly, is that William was a 
conqueror until he had conquered. Then England passed 
out of his hands. He had wished it to be an autocracy; 
instead, it developed into a monarchy William the Con 
queror became William the Conquered.* This is a line that 
the ordinary historians do not appear to take, though I fancy 
they imply it when they say that feudalism didn t exist in 
the time of the Georges. 

Perhaps one of the most picturesque parts of history is that 
time when men looked across the sea and saw in the far 
distance a huge cross that seemed to beckon as the voices 
later called to Joan of Arc. The Crusades were a time when 
wars were holy because they were waged for a holy thing. 
Six hundred years, so Chesterton tells us, had elapsed since 
Christianity had arisen and covered the world like a dust- 
storm, when there arose a copy and a contrary: the creed 
of the Moslems ; in a sense Islam was like a Christian 
heresy. Historians, so he thinks, have not understood the 
Crusades. They have taken them to be aristocratic ex 
peditions with a Cross as the prey instead of a deer, whereas 
really they were * unanimous risings. * The Holy Land was 
much nearer to a plain man s house than Westminster, and 
immeasurably nearer than Runnymede. But I am not sure 
that Chesterton has scored over the orthodox historians who 
made a good deal out of the fact that Crusade had a close 
affinity to Crux y which word meant a cross that was not 
necessarily bound up with Calvary. 



60 G. K. CHESTERTON 

In dealing with the Middle Ages, he propounds the pro 
position that the best way to understand history is to read 
it backwards that is, if we are to understand the Magna 
Charta we must be on speaking terms with Mary. 4 If we 
really want to know what was strongest in the twelfth 
century, it is no bad way to ask what remained of it in the 
fourteenth. This is a very excellent method, as it demon 
strates what were the historical events and what were the 
mere local and temporary. 

Becket was one of those queer people of history who was 
half a priest and half a statesman, and he had to deal with a 
king who was half a king and half a tyrant. Every schoolboy 
knows about Becket, and delights to read of the wild ride 
to Canterbury, which began with the spilling of Becket s 
brains and ended with the spilling of the King s blood by 
his tomb. 

For Chesterton, Becket may have been too idealistic: 
he wished to protect the Church as a sort of earthly paradise, 
of which the rules might seem to him as paternal as those of 
heaven, but might well seem to the king as capricious as those 
of Fairyland. The tremendously suggestive thing of the 
whole story of Becket is that Henry II submitted to being 
thrashed at Becket s tomb. It was like Cecil Rhodes sub 
mitting to be horsewhipped by a Boer as an apology for 
some indefensible death incidental to the Jameson Raid. 
Undoubtedly Chesterton has got at the kernel of the story 
that made an Archbishop a saint (a rare occurrence) and an 
English king a sportsman (a rarer occurrence). 

But clever as Chesterton is in regard to this particular 
story, the ordinary schoolboy would do better to stick to the 
common tale of Becket that came on the hasty words spoken 
by a hasty king; he will better understand the significance of 
the whipping of the king when he can read history back to 
the days when kings could not only not be whipped, but 
could whip whom they chose, and put men s eyes out when 
they used them to shoot at the king s deer. 



AS HISTORIAN 61 

A great part of the Middle Ages is concerned with the 
French wars, those wars that staggered the English exchequer 
and made the English kings leaders of armies. The reason 
of these wars was, Chesterton tells us, the fact that Chris 
tianity was a very local thing. It was more it was a national 
thing that was bound up with England. Men began to feel 
that foreigners did not eat or drink like Christians, which is 
to say that the Englishman began his contempt for the foreigner 
which has resulted in nearly all our wars, and has made the 
Englishman abroad a supercilious creature, and has made the 
English schoolboy put his tongue out at the French master. 

The French wars were something more than a national 
hatred, they were a national dislike of foreigners, a dislike 
that had its probable origin in the Tower of Babel. But this 
was not the only reason of the incessant French wars there 
was a question of policy. France began to be a nation, and 
a true patriotic applause hailed the later victory of Agin- 
court. France had become something more than a nation; 
it had become a religion, because it had as its figure a simple 
girl who believed in voices, and took her part in the struggles 
of a defeated country. 

Chesterton s chapter is a fine understanding of the French 
wars; it is an amplification of the mere skeletons of ordinary 
history, and as such is very valuable. 

From being a reasonable national dislike, the French wars 
gradually grew to be almost as much a scourge to England 
as they were to France. * England was despoiled by her own 
victories; luxury and poverty increased at the extremes of 
society, and the balance of the better mediaevalism was lost. 
It resulted in the revolt connected with Wat Tyler, a revolt 
that 4 was not only dramatic but was domestic ; it ended in 
the death of Tyler and the intervention of the boy king, who, 
in swaying the multitude that was a dangerous mob, gives 
us a fleeting and final glimpse of the crowned sacramental 
man of the Middle Ages. 

From this period Chesterton tells us that a rather strange 



62 G. K. CHESTERTON 

thing happened men began to fight for the crown. The Wars 
of the Roses was the result. The English rose was then 
the symbol of party, as ever since it has been the symbol of 
an English summer. 

Chesterton makes no attempt to follow the difficult path 
that the Wars of the Roses travel, from the military stand 
point, nor the adventures that followed the king-maker 
Warwick and the warlike widow of Henry V, one Mar 
garet. There was, so he says, a moral difference in this 
conflict that took the name of a Rose to fight for a Crown. 
4 Lancaster stood, as a whole, for the new notion of a king 
propped by parliaments and powerful bishops; and York, 
on the whole, for the remains of the older idea of a king who 
permits nothing to come between him and his people. This is 
everything of permanent political interest that could be traced 
by counting all the bows of Barnet or all the lances of 
Tewkesbury. 

The time when the Middle Ages was drawing near to the 
Tudors is interesting, because of the riddle of Richard III. 
Chesterton s description of this strange king is full of fascina 
tion if also it is full of truth: He was not an ogre shedding 
rivers of blood, yet a crimson cloud cannot be dispelled from 
his memory. Whether or not he was a good man, he was 
apparently a good king, and even a popular one. He antici 
pated the Renaissance in an abnormal enthusiasm for art and 
music, and he seems to have held to the old paths of religion 
and charity. 

He was indeed, as Chesterton says, the last of the mediaeval 
kings, and he died hard; his blood flowed over an England 
that did not know what loyalty was, a country that had 
nobles who would fly from their king on the first sign of 
danger; the Last Post of the old kings was sounding, and 
Richard answered its challenge. His description of this 
remarkable king is perhaps the best thing in the book, 
and is certainly far better than the ordinary history that 
attempts to give the character of a king in a couple of lines. 



AS HISTORIAN 63 

With the end of the mediaeval kings we pass to a period 
that is none other than the Renaissance, one of the most 
important epochs in English history, that great dawn of a 
more rational daylight which for so many made medievalism 
seem a mere darkness. 

The character of Henry VIII is one that is a veritable 
battleground. He is attacked because he found a variety of 
wives pleasing; he is condoned as a young man who promised 
to be a great king. There are, as Chesterton points out, 
two great things that intruded into his reign: the one was 
the difficulty of his marriages, the other was the question 
of the monasteries. If Henry was a Bluebeard, he was such 
because his wives were not a fortunate selection. He was 
almost as unlucky in his wives as they were in their husband. 
But the one thing that Chesterton feels broke Henry s 
honour was the question of his divorce. In doing this he 
mistook the friendship of the Pope for something that would 
make him go against the position of the Church. Henry 
sought to lean upon the cushions of Leo and found he had 
struck his arm upon the rock of Peter. The result was that 
Henry finished with the Papacy in the pious hope that it 
had done with him; Henry became head of the Church that 
was national, and soon Wolsey fell, to die in a monastery at 
Leicester. 

But this terrible king struck down the noblest of the 
Humanists, Thomas More, who died the death of a saint, 
gloriously jesting. The question of the monasteries is one 
that is solved by the simple statement that the King wanted 
money and the monasteries supplied it. Is there any justifi 
cation for the crimes of Henry ? For Chesterton it is un 
practical to discuss whether Froude finds any justification 
for Henry s crimes in the desire to create a strong national 
monarchy. For whether or not it was desired, it was not 
created. 

Chesterton in an original way has given a very clear 
account of the difficulties of the reign of Henry VIII, a 



64 G. K. CHESTERTON 

reign that had perhaps more influence on English history 
than any other, a reign that showed what the licence of an 
English monarchy could do and, what is of more importance, 
what it could not, a reign that showed that the fall of a great 
man could be so precipitate that the significance of it could 
not be felt at the time, a reign that showed that the Pope was 
something more than the friend of the English throne he 
was in matters of Church discipline its checkmate. This was 
the time that England trembled at the devilry of a king and 
rejoiced at the sun of a new learning that was slowly dis 
pelling the fog of the Dark Ages 

It is usually assumed that Mary was a bad woman because 
she burned people who were so unwise as not to be at least 
officially Catholics. Historians have applied the word bloody 
to her, whereas the better word would be fanatic. Her 
enemies were wrong about her character, says Chesterton. 
4 She was in a limited sense a good woman. If Chesterton 
means she was a good Catholic he is right, if the burning of 
heretics is a good thing for a Christian Church. But the 
fortunate part of the whole affair was that not even burning 
could restore the power of the Papacy in England in Mary s 
time any more than the arrogance of the Roman Catholics 
to-day can restore the Pope to London and unfrock the 
Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary was a sincere fanatic, and 
like most fanatics was an extremely ignorant woman; con 
sequently she could not see that the fire that burnt Cranmer 
also burnt the last hope of England bowing to the Pope of 
Rome. I cannot feel that Chesterton has in the least vin 
dicated the character of Mary. 

Historians are apt to think that the days of Queen Eliza 
beth were those in which England first realized that she was 
great. On the other hand, Chesterton is convinced that it is 
in this period that 4 she first realized that she was small. The 
business of the Armada was to her what Bannockburn was 
to the Scots, or Majuba to the Boers a victory that astonished 



AS HISTORIAN 65 

the victors. The fact of the matter was that Spain realized 
after the battle that the victory does not always go to the big 
battalions, which the present Kaiser is no doubt writing in 
his Imperial copybook to-day. 

The magnificance of the Elizabethan times has traces in 
mediaeval times and far fewer traces in modern times. Her 
critics indeed might reasonably say that in replacing the Virgin 
Mary by the Virgin Queen, the English reformers merely 
exchanged a true virgin for a false one. If Elizabeth was 
crafty it was because it was good she should be so. If she had 
not been so, the history of England might have found Philip 
of Spain on the English throne and Mary Queen of Scots a 
worse menace in England, a menace that by the skill of 
Elizabeth developed into a headless corpse. Had Elizabeth 
had a different historical background, she might have been 
a different Queen; but, as it was, she dealt with it as only a 
genius could who had followed a maniacal Queen who 
failed in everything she did. 

From the times of Elizabeth, Chesterton moves on to the 
age of the Puritans, those rather dull people who have always 
been the byword for those who are more popularly known 
as Prigs. The Puritans were primarily enthusiastic for what 
they thought was pure religion. Their great and fundamental 
idea was that the mind of man can alone directly deal with 
the mind of God. Consequently they were anti-sacramental. 
Not only in ecclesiastical matters, they were in doctrine 
Calvinistic that is, they believed that men were created to 
be lost and saved, a theological position that makes God a 
Person who wastes a lot of valuable time. It was to a large 
extent this belief in Calvin that made the Puritans dislike a 
sacramental principle; it was, of course, quite unnecessary to 
have one. If a man was either lost or saved, the need of any 
human meditators was not felt. 

It is, of course, true, as Chesterton says, that England 
was never Puritan. Neither was it ever entirely Catholic, 
neither has it ever been entirely Protestant. It is one of the 

K 



66 G. K. CHESTERTON 

things to be thankful for that men have ever held different 
religious opinions. It would be the greatest mistake if ever the 
Church was so misguided as to listen to the cries that come 
for unity, a unity that could only be founded on the subordi 
nating of the opinions of the many to the opinion of the few. 
I have said at the beginning of this chapter that Chesterton 
has said that the Middle Ages have not had the historical 
attention they deserve. Whether this is so is a question 
that cannot be answered here. What we have to say is 
whether this book is a valuable one. There are, of course, 
many opinions expressed in it that do not take the usual 
historical standpoint, or they have a more original way of 
expression. I cannot feel that this book is the best of 
Chesterton s works, not because it has not some very sound 
opinions expressed in it, but rather because to understand 
its import the ordinary histories must be well known. 
It is perhaps a matter of an unsuitable title, A Short 
History of England. It would have been better to have 
called it a c History of the Histories of England, and the Mis 
takes therein. It would be no use as an historical book in the 
school sense, but as an original book on some of the turning- 
points of English history it is valuable. Mr. Chesterton tells 
us to read history backwards to understand it. This we may 
well do if we have read it as fully forward as he evidently has. 



Chapter Six 

THE POET 



A1ONGST the many outstanding qualities of Ches 
terton there is one that is pre-eminent his extraor 
dinary versatility. It cannot be said that this quality 
is always an advantage; a too ready versatility is not always 
synonymous with valuable work ; especially is this so in 
literary matters. There are quite a number of writers who, 
without success, attempt to be a little of everything. This is 
not the case with Chesterton; if he is better as an essayist 
than as a historian, he is at least good as the latter; if he is 
better at paradox than at concise statements, he can be, if he 
chooses, quite free from paradox; if he excels in satire of a light 
nature, he can also be the most serious of critics if the subject 
needs such treatment. 

It has often been said that a good prose writer seldom makes 
a good poet. This may be to a certain extent a truism; the 
opposite is more often the case; that a good poet is quite often 
a poor producer of prose. There is a good reason for this: the 
mind of a poet is probably of a different calibre to that of a 
prose writer; a poet must have a poetical outlook on life and 
nature; the tree to him is something more than a tree, it is 
probably a symbol, but to a prose writer more often than not a 
tree is merely a mass of bark and leaves that adorns the land 
scape. 

Chesterton has written a great many poems, all of which 
can claim to be poetical in the true sense, but he has 
only written one really important poetical work. It is a ballad 
that is important for two things; firstly, it is about a very 
English thing; secondly, the style of the writing is nothing 

67 



68 G. K. CHESTERTON 

short of delightful, a statement that is not true of all good 
poetry. It has been said that Chesterton might well be the 
Poet Laureate; at least, it is a matter for extreme joy that he is 
not, not because he is not worth that honour, but because any 
thing that tended to reduce his poetical output would be a 
serious thing in these days when good poets are as scarce as 
really good novelists. 

The poem that has established Chesterton for all time 
as a poet is the one he has called with true poetical genius 
The Ballad of the White Horse. There have been many 
white horses, but there is The White Horse, and he lies alone 
on the side of a hill down Wiltshire way, where he has watched 
with a mournful gaze the centuries pass away as the horizon 
passes away in a liquid blue. 

The White Horse stands for something that year by year 
we are forgetting, those quaint old English feasts that have 
done so much to make England merry, and have made history 
into a beautiful legend that bears the name of Alfred. Yet 
the White Horse is falling into neglect. The author of c Tom 
Brown s Schooldays lamented the fact that people flew past 
the White Horse in stuffy first class carriages; were he alive 
now he would lament still more that English men and English 
women can pass the White Horse without a glance up from 
the novel they are reading bound in a flaring yellow cover. 
But there is one great Englishman who will never do this, and 
that is Chesterton; rather he writes of the White Horse, the 
lonely horse that is worthy of this splendid poem. 

In connection with the Vale of White Horse there are three 
traditions one, that Alfred fought a great battle there; 
another, that he played a harp in the camp of the Danes; a 
third, that Alfred proved himself a very bad cook who 
wasted a poor woman s cake, a poor woman who would 
willingly have sacrificed cakes every day to have the honour 
of the king under her roof. 

It is of these three traditions that Chesterton writes his 



THE POET , 69 

poem. Whether they may be historically accurate does not 
much matter; there is no doubt that the Vale had something 
to do with the King of Wessex, and popular tradition has made 
the name of Alfred a national legend. 

When Chesterton writes of the vision of the king he is no 
doubt writing of his own vision of the events that led up to the 
gathering of the chiefs. The Danes had descended on England 
like a cloud of locusts; it was the time that needed a National 
Champion, as time and again in the past the Israelites had 
needed one. It is one of the strange things of history that a 
champion has always appeared when he was most needed. 
The name of the Danes inspired terror; Wessex was 
shattered 

* For earthquake following earthquake 
Uprent the Wessex tree . . . 

The kings of Wessex were weary and disheartened : fire 
and pillage had laid the countryside bare with that horrible 
bareness that only lies in the wake of conqueror: 

* There was not English armour left, 

Nor any English thing, 
When Alfred came to Athelney 
To be an English king." 

This was the vision that Alfred had, and he gathered the 
disheartened chiefs to his side till, in victory, he could bear the 
name of king. 

In the wake of national champions there have ever 
appeared popular tales demonstrating the human qualities of 
these giants; if Napoleon could conquer empires, tradition 
has never forgotten that he once pardoned a sentry he found 
asleep at his post. If Wellington won the battle of Waterloo 
by military genius, so popular hearsay has urged that he com 
manded the Guards to charge * La Grande Armee in cockney 
terms. Around the almost sacred name of Alfred many and 



>o G. K. CHESTERTON 

various are the old wives tales, among which the story of his 
harp is not the least picturesque; it is one on which Ches 
terton expends a good deal of poetic energy. 

From the gist of the poem it is evident that Alfred, in the 
course of his wanderings, came near to the White Horse, but 
as though for very sorrow 

The great White Horse was grey. 

Down the hill the Danes came in headlong flight and 
carried Alfred off to their camp; his fame as a harpist had 
pierced the ears of the invaders: 

And hearing of his harp and skill, 
They dragged him to their play. 

The Danes might well laugh at the song of the king, but it 
was a laugh that was soon to be turned to weeping when the 
king had finished his song: 

And the king with harp on shoulder 

Stood up and ceased his song; 
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees, 
And the Danes laughed loud and long. 

There is in this poem a pleasant rhythm and a clearness of 
meaning that is absent from much good poetry. Chesterton 
has caught the wild romantic background of the time when the 
King of England could play a harp in the camp of his ene 
mies; when he could, by a note, bring back the disheartened 
warriors to renew the fight; when he could be left to look after 
the cakes and be scolded when, like the English villages, they 
were burnt. One of the most popular of the legends is the one 
connected with Alfred and the woman of the forest. It has 
made Chesterton write some of his most charming verse. 

And Alfred came to the door of a woman s cottage and 
there rested, with the promise that in return he would watch 
the cakes that they did not burn. 

c The good food fell upon the ash, 
And blackened instantly. 



THE POET 71 

The woman was naturally annoyed that this unknown 
tramp should let her cooking spoil : 

* Screaming, the woman caught a cake 

Yet burning from the bar, 
And struck him suddenly on the face, 
Leaving a scarlet scar. 

The scar was on the king s brow, a scar that tens of 
thousands should follow to victory: 

A terrible harvest, ten by ten, 
As the wrath of the last red autumn then 
When Christ reaps down the king. 

In a preface to this poem, with regard to that part which 
deals with the battle of Enthandune, Chesterton says: c I 
fancy that in fact Alfred s Wessex was of very mixed bloods; 
I have given a fictitious Roman, Celt, and Saxon a part in the 
glory of Enthandune. 

The battle of Enthandune is divided into three parts. The 
poetry is specially noticeable for the great harmony of the 
words with the subject of the lines; it is one of the great 
characteristics of Chesterton s poetry that he uses language 
that intimately expresses what he wants to describe. He can, 
in a few lines, describe the discipline of an army: 
And when they came to the open land 
They wheeled, deployed, and stood. 

It is perfect poetry concerning the machine-like move 
ments of highly-trained troops. 

The death of an earl that occurs in a moment of battle: we 
can almost see the blow, the quick change on the face from 
life to death; we can almost hear the death gurgle: 
Earl Harold, as in pain, 
Strove for a smile, put hand to head, 
Stumbled and suddenly fell dead, 
And the small white daisies all waxed red 
With blood out of his brain. 



72 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Of the tremendous power of a charge, Chesterton can 
give us the meaning in two lines that might otherwise take 
a page of prose: 

Spears at the charge yelled Mark amain, 
c Death to the gods of Death. 

Whether it be to victory or defeat, the last charge grips the 
imagination, just as the latest words of a great man are re 
membered long after he has turned to dust. The final charge 
of the Old Guard, the remnant of Napoleon s ill-fated army 
at Waterloo, the dying words of Nelson, these are the things 
that produce great poetry. 

Some of the verses describing the last charge at Enthandune 
are the finest lines Chesterton has so far written. It will not be 
out of place to quote one or two of the best the challenge of 
Alfred to his followers to make an effort against the dreaded 
Danes, at whose very name strong men would pale: 

Brothers-at-arms, said Alfred, 

* On this side lies the foe; 
Are slavery and starvation flowers, 
That you should pluck them so ? 

Or the death of the Danish leader, who would have pierced 
Alfred through and through : 

Short time had shaggy Ogier 
To pull his lance in line 
He knew King Alfred s axe on high, 
He heard it rushing through the sky; 
He cowered beneath it with a cry 
It split him to the spine; 
And Alfred sprang over him dead, 
And blew the battle sign. 

The last part of the poem is that which gives an account of 
the scouring of the White Horse, in the years of peace: 

* When the good king sat at home. 



THE POET 73 

But through everything the White Horse remained 

f Untouched except by the hand of Nature : 
The turf crawled and the fungus crept, 
And the little sorrel, while all men slept, 
Unwrought the work of man. 

The Ballad of the White Horse is in its way one of the 
best things Chesterton has done: it is a fine poem about a very 
picturesque piece of English legend, which may or may not 
be based on history. Poetry can, and very often does, fulfil a 
great patriotic mission in arousing interest in those distant 
times when Englishmen, with their backs to the wall, re 
sponded to the cry of Alfred, as they did when, centuries later, 
the hordes of Germans attempted to cut the knot of Haig s 
army. 

For hundreds of years Alfred has been turned to dust, but 
the White Horse remains, a perpetual monument to the great 
days when England was invaded by the Danes. The Ballad of 
the White Horse is a ballad worthy of the immortal horse that 
will remain centuries after the author of the poem has passed 
out of mortal sight. 



In an early volume of light verse Chesterton wrote of the 
kind of games that old men with beards would delight in. 
f Greybeards at Play is a delightful set of satirical verses in 
which the ardent philosopher confers a favour on Nature by 
being on intimate and patronising terms with her. 

This dear old philosopher, with grey beard and presumably 
long nose and large spectacles, is full of admiration for the 
heavenly beings: 

I love to see the little stars 
All dancing to one tune; 
I think quite highly of the Sun, 
And kindly of the Moon. 



74 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Coming to earth, this same philosopher is full of friendly 
relations with America, for 

The great Niagara waterfall 

Is never shy with me. 

In the same volume Chesterton writes of the spread of 
aestheticism, and that the cult of the Soul had a terrible 
effect on trade : 

c The Shopmen, when their souls were still, 

Declined to open shops 
And Cooks recorded frames of mind 
In sad and subtle chops. 

In a small volume of poems called Wine, Water, and 
Song, we have some of the poems that appear in Chesterton s 
novels. They have a delightful air of brilliancy and satire, 
about dogs and grocers and that peculiar king of the Jews, 
Nebuchadnezzar, who, when he is spoken of by scholars, 
alters his name to Nebuchadrezzar. We have but room for 
one quotation, and the place of honour must be given to the 
epic of the grocer who, like many of other trades, makes a 
fortune by giving short weights: 

* The Hell-Instructed Grocer 

Has a Temple made of Tin, 
And the Ruin of good innkeepers 

Is loudly urged therein; 
But now the sands are running out 

From sugar of a sort, 
The Grocer trembles, for his time, 

Just like his weight, is short 

The hymn that Mr. Chesterton has written, called C O 
God of Earth and Altar, is unfortunately so good and so 
entirely sensible that the clergy on the whole have not used 
it much; rather they prefer to sing of heaven with a golden 
floor and a gate of pearl, ignoring a really fine hymn that 



THE POET . 75 

pictures God as a sensible Being and not a Lord Chief Justice 
either of sickly sentimentality or of the type of a Judge 
Jeffreys. 

It must be said that to many people who know Chesterton 
he is first and foremost an essayist and lastly a poet. The 
reason is that he has written comparatively little serious poetry; 
this is, I think, rather a pity not that quantity is always 
consistent with quality, but that in some way it may not be 
too much to say that Chesterton is the best poet of the day; 
and I do not forget that he has as contemporaries Alfred 
Noyes and Walter de la Mare. 

The strong characteristic of his poetry, as I have said, is the 
wealth of language; to this must be added the exceedingly 
pleasant rhythm that runs as easily as a well-oiled bicycle. If 
Mr. Chesterton is not known to posterity as one of the leading 
poets of the twentieth century it will be because his prose 
is so well known that his poetry is rather crowded out. 



Chapter Seven 

THE PLAYWRIGHT 

NEARLY eight years ago all literary and dramatic 
London focused its eyes on a theatre that was known 
as the Little Theatre. On the night of November 7th 
the critics might have been seen making their way along John 
Street with just the faintest suspicion of mirth in their eyes. 

The reason was that the most eccentric genius of the day 
had written a play, and it was to be produced that night, and 
had the name of MAGIC, a title that might indicate something 
that turned princes into wolves, or transported people on 
carpets to distant lands, or might be more simply a play that 
dealt with Magic in the sense that there really was such a 
thing. 

The play was a success I could see that it would be at the 
moment Mr. Bernard Shaw so forgot himself as to be inter 
ested in something he had not himself written. The Press was 
charmed with the play and went so far as to say, with a gross 
burlesque of Chesterton, that it was * real phantasy and had 
soul. Chesterton by his one produced play had earned the 
right to call himself a dramatic author, who could make the 
public shiver and think at the same time, an unusual com 
bination. 

I rather fancy that Magic is a theological argument, dis 
guised in the form of a play, that relies for its effects on clever 
conversation, the moving of pictures, and a mysterious person 
who may have been a conjurer and may have also been a 
magician. 

When I say that the play is really a theological one, I do not 
mean to say that it has anything to do with the Thirty-Nine 

76 



THE PLAYWRIGHT 77 

Articles, the Validity of the Anglican Orders, or even the 
truth of the Virgin Birth ; rather it is about an indefinable 
* something that is so simple that it is misunderstood by 
every one. 

The play turns upon five people who are thrown together 
in a room that has a nasty habit of becoming ghostly at times. 

The five people are a doctor who is a scientist, who does 
not believe in anything not material being scientific; a vicar 
who is a typical clergyman, who thoroughly believes in super 
natural things until they are proved, when he becomes an 
agnostic; a young American who is a cad and a fool; a girl 
who believes in fairies and goes to Holy Communion, which 
is the one thing that depicts she has a certain amount of 
sense; a duke who ends every sentence with a quotation from 
Tennyson to Bernard Shaw. 

These five people are influenced by a Pied Piper kind of 
fellow who calls himself a conjurer, and is rather too clever for 
the company. 

Apparently the conjurer has been strolling about the garden 
when he meets Patricia, who thinks he can produce fairies. In 
due course the conjurer comes into the room, where he has 
encounters with the various occupants, who don t believe in his 
tricks; the conjurer is unlucky enough to meet the young 
American cad Morris Carleon, who is really quite rude to the 
conjurer and discovers (so he thinks) all the tricks except one 
in which the conjurer turns the red lamp at the doctor s gate 
blue. This so worries Morris that he goes up to his room with 
a chance of going mad. 

The others beseech the conjurer to explain the trick; he 
does so, and says it is done by magic, which is the whole point 
of the play, that we are left to wonder whether it was by 
magic or by a natural phenomenon. 

The conjurer gets the better of the parson, the Rev. Cyril 
Smith, who believes in a model public house and the Old 
Testament, and takes a good stipend for pretending to believe 
in the supernatural. 



78 G. K. CHESTERTON 

The result of the whole matter is magic, by which we 
presume the trick may have been done. 

The play is in some ways a difficult one : we are left wonder 
ing whether or not Chesterton believes in magic; if he does, 
then the conjurer need not have been so upset that he had 
gained so much power of a psychic nature; if he does not, then 
the conjurer was a clever fraud or a brilliant hypnotist. 

One thing is quite certain, Chesterton brings out the weak 
nesses of the dialectic of the parson and doctor in a remark 
able way; he makes us realise that there are some things we 
really know nothing about; if lamps turn blue suddenly it may 
quite well be a Something * that may be magic and might 
be God or Satan; anyhow, it cannot be explained by an Ameri 
can young man; it is of the things that the clergy profess to 
believe in and very often do not. 

It is, I think, undoubtedly a problem play, and I doubt 
very much if Chesterton knows what was the agency that 
did the trick, but I rather think that c Magic is a great play, not 
because of the situations, but rather because the more the play 
is studied the more difficult is it to say exactly what is the 
lesson of it. 

Magic is called a phantastic comedy ; it might well be 
called a phantastic tragedy. 



Chapter Right 

THE NOVELIST 



THERE is perhaps no word in the English language 
which is more elastic than the word novel as applied 
to what is commonly known as fiction. The word 
novel is used to describe stories that are as far apart as the 
Poles. Thus it is used to describe a classic by Thackeray or 
Dickens, or a clever love tale by Miss Dell, or a brilliantly 
outspoken sex tale by Miss Elinor Glyn, or a romance by Miss 
Corelli, or a tale of adventure by Joseph Conrad, or a very 
modern type of analytical novel by very modern writers who 
are a little bit young and a big bit old. 

I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that Chesterton 
as a novelist carries the art yet a step farther and has added 
elasticity to the word. It would, I think, be probably untrue to 
say that Chesterton is a popular novelist; he is much too unlike 
one to be so. That he is read by a wide public is not the same 
thing; he has not the following of the millions that Charles 
Garvice had, for the millions who understood him might find 
Chesterton difficult. Really Chesterton is read by a select 
number of people who would claim to be intellectual; very 
up-to-date clergymen rave about his catholicity, high-brow 
ladies of smart clubs delight in his knave whimsicalities, but 
the girl in the suburban train to Wimbledon passes by on the 
other side. 

One of the characteristic features of Chesterton s novels is 
his clever selection of titles that are by their very nature fit to 
designate his original works. If in journalism nine-tenths of 
the importance of an article depends upon its title, it is equally 
true that the tide of a novel is of the same import. Either 

79 



8o G. K. CHESTERTON 

a title should give some indication of the nature of the book, or 
it should be of the kind that makes us want to read it; this is the 
case with regard to the Chesterton novels, their designations 
are so phantastic that our curiosity is aroused. Thus The Man 
who was Thursday gives no possible explanation of what it is 
about, but it does suggest that it is interesting to know about a 
man who was Thursday; s The Flying Inn may be a forecast 
of prohibition or it may be a romance of the time when inns 
shall fly to the ends of the earth; c The Napoleon of Notting 
Hill leads us to suppose that perhaps there was a hidden 
history of that part of London, that Notting Hill can boast of 
a past that makes it worthy of having been a station on the 
first London tube. 

It is unsafe to prophesy any limit to the versatility of 
Chesterton, but it is improbable that he could write an ordi 
nary novel; the reason is, I fancy, that he cannot write of the 

ordinarv emotions with the ease that he can construct 

j 

grotesque situations. This is why I have said that, as a novelist, 
Chesterton is not popular in the sense that he is read by the 
masses (that word that the Church always uses to indicate 
those who form the bulk of the community). As a novelist, 
Chesterton stands apart, not because he is better than con 
temporary writers of fiction, but because his books are unlike 
those of any one else. 

I have taken Chesterton s most famous novels and have 
written a short survey of their character. They are not always 
easy to understand sometimes they seem to indicate alternative 
points of view; they teem with pungent wit and shrewd 
observations, they are without doubt phantastic, they are in 
the true sense clever. 

4 THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL 

At the time of the publication of this book the critics with 
astounding frankness admitted that, while this was a fine book, 
they had difficulty in deciphering what it meant. One, now a 
well-known Fleet Street editor, went farther, and said that 



THE NOVELIST 81 

possibly the author himself did not know what he meant a 
situation in which quite a number of authors have found 
themselves, especially when they read the reviews of their 
books. 

* The Napoleon of Notting Hill is not an easy book to 
understand : it may be a satire, it may be a serious book, it may 
be a prophecy, it may be a joke, it may even be a novel! I 
think that it is a little bit of a joke, in a degree serious some 
thing of a satire, possibly a prophecy. 

The main thing about the book is that a king is so unwise as 
to make a j oke, and an obscure poet is more unwise in taking this 
Royal joke seriously. Many who have laughed at monarchical 
wit have found that their heads had an alarming trick of falling 
on Tower Hill. 

In f The Napoleon of Notting Hill we are living a hundred 
years on, and we are to believe that London hasn t much 
changed; a certain respectable gentleman has been made a king 
for no special reason a very good way of having a versatile 
monarchy and a selection of kings. 

Not far off in the kingdom of Notting Hill there resides a 
poet who has written poems that no one reads. He is a romantic 
youth, and loves Notting Hill with the love of a Roman for 
Rome or of a Jew for Whitechapel. The new king, by way of 
a joke, suggests that it would be quite a good idea to take 
the various parts of London and restore them to a mediaeval 
dignity; thus Clapham should have a city guard, Wimbledon 
a city wall, Surbiton tolling a bell to raise its citizens. 

It so happens that the obscure poet, Adam Wayne, has 
always seen in Notting Hill a glory that her citizens cannot see; 
he determines to make the grocers and barbers of that neigh 
bourhood realise their rich inheritance. The new king, for 
some reason, desires to possess Pump Street in Notting Hill, 
and this gives the poet s dream a chance to mature; and he gets 
together a huge army, with himself as Lord High Provost of 
Notting Hill. There are some frightful battles in the adja 
cent states of Kensington and Bayswater, and, after varying 

M 



82 G. K. CHESTERTON 

fortunes, the Netting Hill Army is defeated, the Napoleon 
becomes again the poet of Netting Hill, while his citizens have 
developed from grocers to romanticists, from barbers to 
fanatics 

That there might be in the future a Napoleon of Netting 
Hill is highly improbable, that London will ever return to the 
pomp and heraldry of the Middle Ages is not at all likely; but 
that in a hundred years Notting Hill will be different is quite 
possible. If it is not likely that there will be fights between 
Bayswater and Notting Hill, there may at least be battles in 
the air unthought of; it may well be that its citizens in times of 
peace will take a half-day trip, not to Kew Gardens or to 
Hampton Court, but to Bombay and Cape Town. 

MANALIVE 

One of the strangest complications that man has to face is 
the criminal mind. It is so complex that no society has ever 
understood it; very often it has not taken the trouble to try. No 
method of punishment has stamped out the criminal; no re 
formers, however ardent, have freed the world from those 
who live by violence, kill by violence, and are themselves 
killed by violence. If crime is a disease, then to treat criminals 
as wrongdoers is absurd. If every murderer is insane, then 
hanging is nonsense; if a murderer is sane, then sanity is 
capable of being more revolting than insanity. 

* Manalive may, perhaps, be called a philosophy of the 
motive for crime; it may be a pseudo philosophy at least it is 
an entertaining one which cannot be said about all serious 
attempts at moulding the universe into a tiresome system, that 
is uprooted generally by the next thinker. The book opens 
with a very strong gale that ends with the arrival at a boarding 
house of a man who can stand on his head and has the name of 
Innocent Smith. He is somewhat like the person in the 
* Passing of the Third Floor Back, in that he revolutionizes the 
household, who cannot determine whether he is a lunatic or 
not; anyhow, he falls in love with the girl of the house. 



THE NOVELIST 83 

Unfortunately, rumour a nasty, ill-natured thing has it 
that Smith is a criminal. Evidence is collected, and a Grand 
Jury inquire into the charges, which include Bigamy, Murder, 
Polygamy, Burglary. It looks as if Smith is in for a very un 
comfortable time, and the wedding bells are a long way from 
ringing. 

The second part of the book is concerned with these 
charges and the conduct and motives of Smith. But Chesterton 
is a clever barrister, and shows that the motives behind the 
crimes are not only within the law, but are extremely useful 
and throw a new light on criminology. 

The crime of murder of which Smith is accused is one that 
he is supposed to have perpetrated in his college days. It was 
nothing less than firing at the Warden. The reason was not at 
all that Smith wanted to murder the Warden, but, rather, to 
discover if his theory of * the elimination of life being de 
sirable was a sincere one. It was not. As soon as the Professor 
thought he might attain the desired bliss of death, he desired 
more than anything that he might live. The fact, then, that 
Smith pointed a pistol at his Warden was perfectly justifiable; 
it had the eminently good principle of wishing to test a theory. 

If Smith was a bigamist he was so with his own wife, only 
that he happened to like to live with her in various places; if he 
was a burglar, he was perfectly justified, because he merely 
robbed his own house in fact, he does not wish to steal, be 
cause he can covet his own goods. Chesterton, on these 
grounds, acquits the prisoner. 

At the end of the book another or the same great gale 
springs up, and Smith, accompanied by Mary of the boarding- 
house, disappears. Clever as Chesterton s explanations of the 
crimes are, we shall not probably shoot at the Regius Professor 
of Divinity at Cambridge in order to demonstrate to him how 
desirable life really is; we shall not burgle our own sitting-room 
for the mere excitement of it; we shall not flit with our wife 
from Peckham to Marylebone, from Singapore to Bagdad, to 
imagine that we are bigamists or polygamists; rather, we shall 



84 G. K. CHESTERTON 

sit at home and sigh that all crimes cannot be as easily settled as 
those Chesterton propounds and shows are not crimes at all. 

THE BALL AND THE CROSS 

It is usually assumed that a theological argument is a 
dull and prosy affair that has as its perpetrators either Pro 
fessors of Theology or Professors of Rationalism. It is, of 
course, true that many Professors of Theology are dull, but 
they do not usually argue about theology at all. Professors of 
Rationalism are equally dull and are seldom happy when not 
engaged on the hopeless task of trying to understand God 
when they know nothing about Man and little about Satan. 

f The Ball and the Cross is a theological novel. It is, with 
out any doubt, the most brilliant of Chesterton s novels; it is 
an argument between a Christian ass and a very decent 
atheist. Atheists, if they are sincere, are on the way to be 
coming good Christians; Christians, if they are insincere, are 
on the way to becoming atheists. 

The book opens with a theological argument in the air 
between a professor and a monk. This becomes to the 
professor so wearisome that, with great good sense, he leaves 
the monk clinging to the cross at the top of St. Paul s 
Cathedral while he disappears into the clouds in his silver air 
ship. 

Having successfully climbed into the gallery, the monk is 
arrested as a wandering lunatic and taken off to an asylum. 
Meanwhile, a great deal of excitement is agitating Ludgate 
Hill, where an atheistic editor runs a paper that propounds 
(with all the usual insults at Christ, which culminate in an 
attack on the method of the birth of Christ) the creed of 
atheism. A particularly slanderous attack on the Virgin 
Mary results in an ardent Roman Catholic throwing a stone 
through the blasphemer s window. 

The result is that they are both brought up before the 
magistrate, and the two men decide to fight a duel. 

The whole book really, then, consists of a theological 



THE NOVELIST 85 

argument between the two, interspersed with attempts to 
settle their differences by a duel, which is always interrupted 
at the crucial moment. Finally, after queer adventures, the 
two arrive in a lunatic asylum, in which they are kept until the 
place is burned down. It so happens that the chief doctor of 
the place turns out to be Professor Lucifer, who had left the 
monk clinging to the Cross at the top of the Cathedral. He is 
burnt to death in an airship disaster, and the atheist and the 
Catholic end their adventures. 

The Ball and the Cross is very full of fine passages. It 
presents the side of the atheist and the Catholic in a brilliant 
manner. The chapter that describes the trial before the 
magistrate has got the atmosphere of the police-court to per 
fection. Not less good is the Chestertonian satire of the com 
ments of the Press on the case, in which Chesterton makes 
some pungent remarks about Fleet Street ( stunts. Perhaps 
one of the best things in the book is the argument between the 
French Catholic girl and Turnbull the atheist on the doc 
trine of Transubstantiation. This passage must be quoted ; 
it is one of the best arguments for the Sacrament that has been 
written for those people who can see that (even in these 
days) bread is a symbol for the Presence of the Life Giver, and 
wine a symbol for the Presence of the Life Force. 

I am sure, cried Turnbull, there is no God. 

But there is, said Madeleine quietly; why, I touched 
His body this morning. 

c You touched a bit of bread, said Turnbull. 

You think it is only a bit of bread, said the girl. 

( I know it is only a bit of bread, said Turnbull, with 
violence. 

Then why did you refuse to eat it ? she said. 

If Orthodoxy is the finest of Chesterton s essays, 
f Browning the best of his critical studies, f The Ballad of the 
White Horse the best of his poems, there is, I think, little 
doubt that this strange theological exposition, f The Ball 



86 G. K. CHESTERTON 

and the Cross, is the best of his novels. It should be read by 
all rationalists, by all self-satisfied Christians, by all heretics, 
by those who are orthodox, and, above all, it should be read 
by those millions who pass St. Paul s Cathedral and seldom if 
ever give a thought to the c Ball and the Cross that has made 
the title of Chesterton s best novel. 

THE FLYING INN 

Chesterton is once more a laughing prophet in this 
book, and he has as sad a state of things to prophesy as had 
Jeremiah to the Israelites, those people who, if it were not that 
they find a place in the sacred writings, would be the most 
silly and futile race of ancient history. 

The scene of the story is England, and the last inn is there. 
We are to imagine that the non-drinking wine dogma of Islam 
has permeated England. It is a sorry state of things when 

The wicked old women who feel well-bred, 
Have turned to a teashop the Saracen s Head. 

The great charm of the book is the poetry that the Irish 
captain recites to Pump, the innkeeper, the gallant innkeeper 
who, against all opposition, keeps the flag flying and the 
flagon full. If the book is a little overdrawn it is, no doubt, 
because the subject is slightly farcical; the arguments of the 
Oriental are well put, and, if the discussion of the merits of 
vegetarianism are a little wearisome, the poetry of a vege 
tarian is splendid: 

For I stuff away for life 
Shoving peas in with a knife, 
Because I am at heart a vegetarian. 

Thus, if we observe queer manners at Eustace Miles we 
shall know the reason. 

No doubt the adventures of the last innkeeper in England 
would be wonderful; there would be half-day trips to see him; 
bishops would flock to gaze upon the last relic of a pagan 



THE NOVELIST 87 

England; the Poet Laureate might so forget himself as to 
write an * Epic of the Last Innkeeper ; editors would be send 
ing lady reporters to give the feminine view of the finish of 
drinking; publishers would fall over one another in their 
eagerness to secure the Memoirs of the Last Publican ; the 
Salvation Army would put the last drunkard in the British 
Museum as a prehistoric specimen; on the death of this 
National Hero, the Dean of Westminster would politely offer 
the Abbey for a memorial service, with no tickets for the best 
places. 

Chesterton gives other adventures to this last innkeeper. 
He is, we hope, a false prophet for this once. Were there to be 
no beer perhaps not even the pen of Chesterton would be able 
to describe the scenes that would take place in England. 

THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY 

Anarchy is a very interesting subject and is used to denote 
very different things. It may be something that puts a bullet 
through a king with the insane hope of ending the monarchy; 
it may be an act of a God-fearing Protestant clergyman when 
he attempts to harry the Catholics by denying that the crucifix 
is the proper symbol of the Christian religion ; it may be the 
act of God when a village is destroyed by an earthquake or an 
island created by a seaquake. 

c The Man who was Thursday is about an anarchist, and 
we are not sure whether Chesterton is not pulling our re 
spectable legs and laughing that we really believed the party 
of desperadoes were real anarchists. The fact is, the book starts 
in a highly respectable suburb that might be anywhere near 
London and could not be far from it. 

There are two poets strolling about under the canopy of a 
lovely sky; one believes in anarchy, the other doesn t the 
one who does invites the one who does not to come with him 
and see what anarchy is. This he does, and, after a good supper 
of lobster mayonnaise, the two get down to a subterranean 
cavern where are assembled half the anarchists of the world, 



G. K. CHESTERTON 

precisely six; they call themselves by the names of the week, 
with a leader, who is met with later, Sunday. 

Syme, the visitor, is appointed as a member, and becomes, 
Thursday; he has a great many adventures, including breakfast, 
overlooking Leicester Square, and gradually discovers that the 
said anarchists, unknown at first to each other, are really 
Scotland Yard detectives. 

The only real anarchist is the poet who believed in it, whose 
name is Gregory. He has the pious wish to destroy the world; 
he may be Satan, if that person could ever pretend to be a poet. 

What does Chesterton mean by this strange weird tale that 
is almost like a romance of Oppenheim and is yet like an 
old-world allegory? Is he laughing at anarchists that they 
are but policemen in disguise? Is he saying that policemen are 
really only anarchists? Or does he mean that the Devil 
masquerades as the spirit of the Holy Day of the week 
Sunday, or is Sunday really Christ? 

Chesterton calls this novel a nightmare; a nightmare is 
usually a muddled kind of thing with no connections at all; it 
is a dream turned into a blasphemy. The book may mean 
several things ; it is quite possible that it may mean nothing; 
there is no need for a novel to mean anything so long as it is 
readable. The Man who was Thursday certainly is that, 
but it leaves us with an uneasy suspicion that it is a very serious 
book and at the same time it may be merely a farce. 

Space does not permit us to more than mention Chester 
ton s two detective books, The Innocence of Father Brown 
and f The Wisdom of Father Brown. They are a highly 
original series of detective tales. ( The Club of Queer Trades 
is a volume of quaint short stories full of Chesterton s genius. 

Since Chesterton wrote these books an event has occurred 
to him which may have a considerable effect on his writings. 
His novels have always shown a Catholic tendency when they 
have touched at all on religion. They have not, of course, the 
propagandist setting of the works of Father R. H. Benson, 



THE NOVELIST . 89 

nor do they have a contempt for other Churches that so often 
blackens the writings of Roman Catholic apologists. 

The event is one that has occasioned the usual mistake in the 
Press. They have said with loud emphasis, Mr. Chesterton 
has joined the Catholic Church. He has not; there is, un 
fortunately, no Catholic Church that he could have joined; 
what he has done is to be received into the Roman part of the 
Catholic Church. 

This is a matter of importance to Chesterton; it is a 
matter of far greater importance to the Roman Catholics. If 
the Roman Church is wise she will not put her ban on Chester 
ton s writings his intellect is far beyond the ken of the Pope; 
his utterances are of more import than all the Papal Bulls. 
She has secured, as her ally, one of the finest intellects of the 
day, one of the best Christian apologists. 

If, then, we have further novels from the pen of Chesterton 
we shall expect them to have a Roman bias, but we shall hope 
that they will not bear any signs that Rome has dictated the 
policy that has made many of her best priests mere puppets, 
afraid, not of the Church, but of the Pope, who often enough 
in history has been a very ignorant man. 

Of present-day novelists it is in no way fair to compare them 
to Chesterton ; some contemporary novelists are better than 
he is, some are worse. These are statements the writer of this 
book has often heard ; they are entirely unfair. Chesterton, as I 
have said, stands apart ; his works are for the most part symbolic. 
This is their difficulty: any of his books may be the symbol for 
several points of view with the exception of his religious 
position, which is always on the side of Christianity, and, I 
think, the Roman Catholic interpretation of it; his dialogue is 
worthy of Anthony Hope, his dramatic power is intense, his 
satire is never ill-natured, it is always cutting, his humour is 
gentle, pathos is rare in his novels, he has never described a 
woman, he is undoubtedly a philosopher, but he is not one who 
is academic, above all he is the genial writer of phantastic tales 
that are as wide as the universe. 

N 




(Chapter 

CHESTERTON ON DIVORCE 

IT may be somewhat arbitrary to proceed straight away 
to nearly the end of Chesterton s Superstition of Divorce 
to find an argument that shows that he doesn t quite 
understand what divorce aims at; but it is well, when 
taking note of a book on an alleged abuse of modern society, 
to also see that the writer has got hold of the right end of 
the stick. It is no doubt unfortunate that many marriages 
said to be made in heaven end in hell. Divorce may be a sign 
that men have no reverence for marriage, it may equally be 
an argument that they reverence it very much ; but there is no 
good reason for attributing to divorce only very low motives 
and one of the lowest that can be found; consequently I have 
started in the middle of this book. 

In a chapter on the tragedies of marriage, Chesterton re 
marks that ( the broad-minded are extremely bitter because a 
Christian, who wishes to have several wives when his own 
promise bound him to one, is not allowed to violate his vow at 
the same altar at which he made it. What most people who 
wish for a divorce want is that they shall have, not several 
wives, but one, who shall prove that Christian marriage is not 
a horrible farce, that the words of the priest were not a miser 
able blasphemy. Chesterton has made a very big mistake if he 
thinks that the exponents of divorce wish the Church to be a 
party to polygamy; what they want is that the Church shall 
show a little common sense and not rely on the tradition of 
hotly disputed texts. 

I think it is perfectly clear that Chesterton can see no good 
in divorce at all. I have said it may be a very good argument 

90 



ON DIVORCE 91 

for those who wish to make marriage what it is said by the 
Church to be a Divine institution. Many people seek 
divorce, not that, as Chesterton implies, they shall run away 
with the wife of the man across the square, but that, having been 
unlucky in a speculation, they wish quite naturally and quite 
rightly to try again, to the infinite satisfaction of all parties. 
If the Church does not agree that divorce is ever right, so 
much the worse for that Divine institution ; if the Church 
is right in holding that marriages are made by God, then 
civil marriages are not marriages at all, and there is no need 
to worry about divorce, because the most ardent reformer 
does not imagine that man can undo the Divine decree; on 
the other hand, the Church never will face the fact that, if all 
marriages in a church by a priest are Divine, then it is rather 
strange that the result of them very often would be more 
consistent with a Satanic origin. 

I am dwelling at some length on this theological argument 
because, though Chesterton does not base his case on that argu 
ment, he undoubtedly considers that divorce is against the 
Church s teaching, and the Church to which he now belongs 
would not allow him to think otherwise. Before I finally leave 
this side of the question there is one other consideration that 
must be faced. Whatever the texts in the New Testament 
relating to divorce may mean, it is rather unfortunate that 
they are attributed to a bachelor. Whether Christ had any 
good reason for knowing anything about divorce is not an 
irreverent one, but it is one that the Church must face to-day. 

Another thing that Chesterton does not seem to realize 
is that many people do not want divorce to marry again, 
but to be free of a partner who is not one in the most superficial 
sense of the word; at the same time a separation does not meet 
the case, as it is always possible that a man or woman may wish 
to take the matrimonial plunge again. Chesterton seems to 
think it is amusing to poke fun at those who are sensible 
enough to wish to make lunacy a sufficient ground for 
divorce. The process he says, c might begin by releasing 



92 G. K. CHESTERTON 

somebody from a homicidal maniac and end by dealing with a 
rather dull conversationalist. He might have added, to make 
the joke complete, or from some one who snores, or keeps cats, 
or reads Bernard Shaw. 

To put it roughly, says Chesterton, we are prepared in 
some cases to listen to a man who complains of having a wife. 
But we are not prepared to listen at such length to the same 
man when he comes back and complains that he has not got a 
wife. In a word, divorce is a controversy about remarriage; 
or, rather, about whether it is marriage at all. To a certain 
extent Chesterton is right when he says that the controversy 
about divorce is really about remarriage, but what he forgets 
is, that for the hundreds who want divorce to be remarried, 
there are thousands who want it to be unmarried. The reason a 
man complains of having a wife is, of course, often that he 
prefers a mistress ; but it is equally true that another cause for 
complaint is that his wife has for him none of the recognized 
attributes of the normal state of wifehood. 

I have always understood that in some sense Chesterton 
was a journalist of the kind who is rather hard on journalism, 
but I did not know until I read this book on divorce that he so 
little understood newspapers and their writers. Commenting 
on the fact that the Press is sensible enough to use divorce as a 
news item, he says: The newspapers are full of an astonishing 
hilarity about the rapidity with which hundreds of thousands 
of human families are being broken up by the lawyers; and 
about the undisguised haste of the "hustling" judges who carry 
on the work. I wonder if Mr. Chesterton ever reads the 
leaders of certain papers, leaders which never fail to regret the 
enormous amount of divorce there is. If it be true that there is 
a great deal of news of divorce in the Press, it is because the 
Press does not give news of an imaginary world that is a Utopia, 
but of the dear old muddle-headed world as it is. Does 
Chesterton fail to see that if the newspapers did not report the 
Divorce Courts, the numbers of cases would increase from 
thousands to millions. It is useless Chesterton sighing that 



ON DIVORCE 93 

lawyers have become breakers of families; they have also 
become restrainers of suicide. If the judges hustle, it is because 
they are sensible enough to see that most of the divorces are 
justifiable; when they have not been, they have not been slow 
to say so. 

Yet again Chesterton repeats the somewhat superficial argu 
ment against divorce that its obvious effect would be frivolous 
marriage. The normal person on his or her wedding day 
luckily does not think about anything beyond the supreme 
happiness they have found at least at the time. It is lightly said 
that the modern Adam and Eve think of the chances of divorce 
before marriage whatever may be the cause of divorce after 
wards; at least it will be agreed that it is a failure of a particular 
two people who thought that their lives together would be a 
mutual happiness. Therefore, when Chesterton says that 
divorce is likely to make frivolous marriages he is saying 
that couples about to marry do so expecting it to be a failure. 
If this be so, then the young men and women of to-day are 
more hopeless than they are commonly made to appear by 
correspondence about them in the papers. If, on the other 
hand, every couple on marriage knew for a certainty that it was 

* till death us do part, it is more than likely that marriage 
would be a thing that was abnormal, not normal. It might 
even be that the Church would have to listen to reason, and 
be disturbed over worse things than divorce, and whether she 
should endeavour to take a Christian attitude to those who 
had been unfortunate or indiscreet. 

Chesterton is very concerned that the time will come when 

* there will be a distinction between those who are married 
and those who are really married. This is precisely to state 
what is Utopia. At present many people who are really married 
are in the chains of slavery ; the more who get out of it the better. 
As the number of those whose marriages are a farce will gradu 
ally diminish, thus will divorce be a godsend. Divorce is, in 
certain cases, a godsend, but the priests refuse to listen to the 
Divine revelation. 



94 G. K. CHESTERTON 

Chesterton sketches at some length the nature of a vow. 
He considers that Henry the VIII broke the civilization of 
vows when he wished to have done with his wife. It is quite 
possible that he did, but it is also possible that she did precisely 
the same thing. The question in regard to our inquiry is: 
Is the marriage vow entirely binding even when the other 
party to the contract has broken it ? The opponents of divorce, 
amongst whom are Chesterton, will quite easily say that it is, 
yet they cheerfully ignore the fact that in a marriage two 
persons make a contract, and if one breaks it there is quite 
a good reason that the vow made is no longer one at all. 
It is a very interesting question whether a vow should ever be 
broken. Should Jephthah have broken the vow that sacrificed 
his daughter? Should Herod have broken his vow that laid 
the head of John the Baptist on a charger? Should two people 
remain together when (if they have not broken their actual 
vows) they have lost the spirit of them? The opponents of 
divorce, who are so eager over the keeping of the marriage 
vow, are they as eager that it shall be but a miserable skeleton? 

Chesterton does not see any particular reason why the ex 
ponents should be anxious to secure easier divorce for the poor 
man. It is, he thinks, encouraging him to look for a new 
wife. If he has a wife who isn t one at all, the best thing for 
him is to look for another who will prove to be so, otherwise he 
will search for the nearest public-house and a cheap prostitute. 
Surely it is better that it be granted his first marriage was a 
failure and let him try decently for a better. 

Of course, the most sensible plan would be to give divorce 
for all sorts of small things; people would soon then tire of it. 
Chesterton tells us that already in America there is demand for 
less divorce consequent on the increased facilities over there. 
In England there is demand for more. Let it be given freely 
and the demand will soon cease. Why should our policy be 
dictated by a celibate priesthood? Does Chesterton think that 
people who hate one another are going to live together as 
though they were the most ardent lovers? Does he consider 



ON DIVORCE 95 

that it would be better to have no divorce and no marriage as a 
consequence? Does he consider that ill-assorted couples will 
make happy nations? Does he really consider that divorce 
can destroy marriage? Does he consider that the newspapers 
print the divorce cases because they have no other copy? 

Chesterton s book is, I think, unfair on some points. 
He considers divorce is a superstition; he holds that it is 
pernicious from a social standpoint; he considers that it 
encourages adultery; he considers that it is the breaking of a 
vow; but has he ever seriously considered that if all divorce is 
wrong, that marriage very often is the most miserable carica 
ture of Divinity possible? Has he thought what the state of the 
country would be if no marriage could ever be broken or a fresh 
matrimonial start made ? If such a thing happened it might 
make him write a book on the Superstition of Non-Divorce. 



Chapter Ten 

THE NEW JERUSALEM 

THERE are four ways of going to Jerusalem the one 
is to go as a pilgrim would go to Mecca ; another is to 
go as a tourist in much the way that an American 
staying in Russell Square might start for a trip round London. 
Again, it is possible to go to Jerusalem for yet a third reason, 
that of wishing quite humbly to be in some way a modern 
Crusader. There is yet a fourth way, which is to be made to go 
for reasons that are called military and are really political. 

The New Jerusalem is, above all, a massive book. It is 
the record of a tour, and it is something more, it is an apprecia 
tion of the Sacred City on a Hill. It is, in a limited sense, a 
philosophy of the Holy Land; it deals in a masterly way with 
problems connected with the Jews; it is so unscholarly as to 
insist that the scholars who refuse to call the Mosque of Omar 
that at all are pedantic; it has a fine chapter on Zionism; it 
describes Jerusalem, not so much as a city, but as an impression 
that fastened itself on the mind of Mr. Chesterton. 

There are some very fine passages in the book that deal with 
the curious question of Demonology, that peculiar belief 
which finds a place in the New Testament in the story of the 
Gadarene swine, and who, Chesterton felt, might still be 
found at the bottom of the Dead Sea sea swine or four- 
legged fishes swollen over with evil eyes, grown over with 
sea grass for bristles, the ghosts of Gadara. 

One of the most interesting chapters of this book is that 
which is entitled The Philosophy of Sightseeing. There is, 
of course, a philosophy of everything, of boiling eggs, of race 
horses, of the relations of space and time in fact, Philosophy is 

96 



THE NEW JERUSALEM 97 

a sort of Harrods, that sums up anything from a Rolls Royce 
to a packet of pins. 

To some people there must be almost something incongru 
ous in the idea of sightseeing in the Holy Land, yet it is prob 
able that of the crowds round the foot of the Cross, on which 
was enacted the world s greatest blessing, a great part were 
idle sightseers who, twenty centuries later, might have been a 
bank holiday crowd on Hampstead Heath. Chesterton found 
that there was a philosophy in sightseeing; he had been 
warned that he would find Jerusalem disappointing, but he did 
not. He could be interested in the guide who c made it very 
clear that Jesus Christ was crucified in case any one should 
suppose that He was beheaded. He could see that the Christi 
anity of Jerusalem, after a thousand years of Turkish tyranny, 
survived even in the sense of dying daily ; fascinating as 
Chesterton found Jerusalem, much as he insists that the 
* sights of the city must be seen in their right perspective, yet 
he has sympathy with the man who only c sees in the distance 
Jerusalem sitting on the hill and keeping that vision lest 
going further he might understand the city and weep over it. 

Chesterton devotes a long and careful chapter to the 
question of the Jews, of whom Christ was the chief; but, 
notwithstanding, thousands of His so-called followers quite 
forget this, and scarcely will admit that the Jew has a right to 
live. The reason is, no doubt, that the Fourth Gospel uses the 
word toyJajo; in the sense of those who were hostile, con 
sequently many entirely orthodox Christians are anti-Jewists, 
quite oblivious of the very reasonable request of St. Paul that 
in Christ are neither Jew nor Gentile. This is, in brief, the 
theological side of the vexed question of Zionism. Chesterton 
makes it quite clear that he thinks it desirable that Jews 
should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of 
Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews, which is 
of course to say that the Jews should be a nation. But the fact 
remains, do they wish to be so, and, if they do, is it necessary 



98 G. K. CHESTERTON 

to them, or even congenial, that it shall be in Palestine ? It 
is no way the province of this book to go into this question; it 
has been enough to say that it is perfectly evident that 
Chesterton desires for the Jew the dignity of being a separate 
nation. 

Is there any particular characteristic in this record of 
Chesterton s visit to Jerusalem? Is it anything more than an 
impression of a wonderful experience, when a great writer left 
his home in Buckinghamshire and passed over the sea and the 
desert to the city that is older than history and is now new? 
I do not think that the book can be called more than a Chester- 
tonian impression of Jerusalem, with an appreciation of the 
vexed history of that strange city which is Holy. It does not 
forget the problems in connection with Palestine, but it has no 
particular claim to having said very much that was new about 
the New Jerusalem. Yet it has avoided the obvious : it is not of 
the type of book that is read at drawing-room missionary 
meetings, which are more often than not written in a sur 
prised style, that the places mentioned in the Bible are really 
somewhere. 

I almost feel as if this book is something of a guide-book in 
fact, it was inevitable that it should be so. I rather fancy that 
descriptive writing is for Chesterton difficult; it is a little 
bit too descriptive, which is to say it is not always easy to 
imagine the scene he is trying to describe. I am not sure that 
the Jews will be flattered to be told that Chesterton thinks they 
are worthy of being a nation ; it is slightly patronizing. 

Yet the New Jerusalem is a book to read, but it is not of the 
Holy City that St. John saw in the Revelation ; it is of the New 
Jerusalem of the twentieth century, which is very imperfect, 
yet is Holy. It is a book of a city that was visited by God, Who 
did not deem Himself too important to walk in its streets; it is 
of a city teeming with difficulties; it is of a city that has felt 
the iron hand of the conqueror; it is finally Jerusalem made 
into a symbol by the hand of Mr. Chesterton. 



Chapter Eleven 

MR. CHESTERTON AT HOME 

THERE is a very remarkable fascination about the home 
life of a great man whatever branch of activity he may 
adorn. If he is an archbishop, it is interesting to know 
what he looks like when he has exchanged his leggings for a 
human dress; if he is a pork millionaire, we like to see whether 
he enjoys Chopin; if he is a great writer, the interest of his home 
life is intensified. For the tens of thousands who know an 
author by his books, the number who know him at home may 
quite well be measured by the score. 

There is always an idea that a great man is not as others; that 
he may quite conceivably eat mustard with mutton, or peas 
with a spoon; that his conversation will be of things the ordinary 
man knows nothing about; that he is unapproachable; that he is, 
in short, on a glorified pedestal. This love of the personal is 
demonstrated in the absurd wish people have to know about the 
private doings of Royalty, it is shown in the remarkable fact 
that thousands will hang about a church door to see the wedding 
of some one who is of no particular interest beyond the fact that 
they are in some way well known; it is again seen in the interest 
that people display in those parts of a biography that deal with 
the life of the public man in his private surroundings. 

When I first knew Chesterton he was living in a flat in 
Battersea, a charming place overlooking a green park in 
front and a mass of black roofs behind. Here Chesterton lived 
in the days when he was becoming famous, when the inhabi 
tants of that part of London began to realize that they had a 
great man in their midst, and grew accustomed to seeing a 
romantic figure in a cloak and slouch hat hail a hansom and 
drive off to Fleet Street. 

99 



ioo G. K. CHESTERTON 

Later, Chesterton moved to Beaconsfield, a delightful 
country town, built in the shape of a cross, on the road from 
London to Oxford. He has here a queer kind of house that is 
mostly doors and passages, and looks like a very elaborate dolls - 
house; it is rather like one of the Four Beasts, who had eyes all 
round, except that instead of having eyes all round it has doors 
all round; and I have never yet discovered which is really the 
front door, for the very good reason that either of the sides may 
be the front. 

In a very charming essay, Max Beerhobm, one of the best 
essayists of the day, gives warning to very eminent men that 
if they wish to please their admirers a great deal depends on 
how they receive those who would pay them homage. He tells 
us of how Coventry Patmore paid a visit to Leigh Hunt and 
was so overcome by the poet s greeting This is a beautiful 
world, Mr. Patmore that he remembered nothing else of that 
interview. I remember one day it so happened that I had to 
pay a visit to Anthony Hope. I knocked tremblingly at his 
door in Gower Street and followed the trim housemaid into the 
dining-room. Here I found an oldish man with his back to 
me. Turning round at my entrance he said, without any asking 
who I was, c Have a cigarette ? And this is all that I re 
membered of this visit. 

The best way, according to Max Beerbohm, is for the visitor 
to be already seated, and for the very eminent man to enter, for 
Let the hero remember that his coming will seem super 
natural to the young man. 

I cannot remember the first time I saw Chesterton, 
whether he was seated or whether I was; whether his entrance 
was like a god or whether he was sitting on the floor drawing 
pirates of foreign climes or whether he was wandering up and 
down the passage. Chesterton is so remarkable-looking that 
any one seeing him cannot fail to be impressed by his splendid 
head, his shapely forehead, his eyes that seem to look back 
over the forgotten centuries or forward to those yet to come. 

If there is one thing that is characteristic of Chesterton, 



AT HOME 101 

it is that he always seems genuinely pleased to see you. Many 
people say they are pleased to see you, yet at the same time 
there is the uncomfortable feeling that they would be much 
more pleased to see you leaving. This is not the case with Ches 
terton : he has the happy advantage of making you feel that he 
really is glad that you have come to his house. This is not so with 
all great writers. Carlyle, if he liked to see a person, did not say 
so; Tennyson did not always trouble to be polite; Swift would 
receive his guests with a gloomy moroseness; Dickens was a 
man of moods; conversation with Browning was not always 
easy. Great men do not always trouble to be polite to smaller 
ones. 

What a wonderful laugh Chesterton has. It is like a clap of 
thunder that suddenly startles the echoes in the valley; it is the 
very soul of geniality. There is nothing that so lays bare a man s 
character as his laugh it cannot pretend. We can pretend to 
like; we can pretend to be pleased; we can pretend to listen; we 
can t pretend to laugh. Chesterton laughs because he is amused; 
he is amused at all the small things, but he seldom laughs at a 
thing. 

I have often and often sat at his table. He talks incessantly. 
There is no subject upon which he has not something worth 
while to say. His memory is remarkable; he can quote poet after 
poet, or compose a poem on anything that crops up at the table. 
I do not think it can be said that Chesterton is a good listener. 
This is not in any way conceit or boredom, but is rather that 
he is always thinking out some new story or article or poem. 
Yet he is a good host in the niceties of the table; he knows if you 
want salt; he does not forget that wine is the symbol of hospi 
tality. 

It has been said that Chesterton is one of the best conversa 
tionalists of the day. Conversation is a queer thing; so many 
people talk without having anything to say; others have a great 
deal to say and never say it. Chesterton can undoubtedly talk 
well; he has a knack of rinding subjects suitable to the company; 
though he does not talk very much of things of the day; he is 



102 G. K. CHESTERTON 

naturally mostly interested in books. Given a kindred soul 
the two will talk and laugh by the hour. 

Naturally, Chesterton has to pay the price of greatness: 
he has visitors who will make any pretence to get into his 
presence. But many are the interesting people to be found at his 
home. I remember one day, some years ago, when Sir Herbert 
Tree called to see him. I do not recollect what they talked 
about, but the time came for the famous actor to go. The 
last I saw of him was the sight of his motor-car disappearing 
and Sir Herbert waving a great hat, while Chesterton waved a 
great stick. I never saw Tree again. Not long after, the world 
waved farewell to him for ever. 

One of the most frequent visitors to his home is Mr. Belloc, 
and it is said that he always demands beer and bacon. One day it 
so happened that Mr. Wells came in about tea-time. He 
seemed, it is said, gloomy during the meal, and finally the cause 
was discovered ! Mr. Wells also wanted beer and bacon. It was 
forthcoming, and the great novelist was satisfied. It is at least 
interesting to know that on one point at least Belloc and Wells 
are agreed that beer and bacon are very excellent things. 

No word of Chesterton s home life would be complete 
without reference to his dog Winkle. Winkle was more than a 
dog, he was an institution; he had the most polished manners 
the more you hurt him the more he wagged his tail ; if you trod 
on his tail he would almost apologize for being in the way. He 
knew his master was a great man; he had a certain dignity, but 
was never a snob. But the day came that Winkle died, and 
was, I am sure, translated into Abraham s Bosom. Chesterton 
has now another dog, but he will never get another Winkle. 
Such dogs are not found twice. I am not sure, but I think one 
day Winkle will greet Chesterton in the Land that lies the 
other side of the grave. 

It is, I think, well known that Chesterton has a great 
liking for children. He is often to be seen playing games with 
them or telling them fairy stories; he is an optimist, and no 



AT HOME 103 

optimist can dislike children. He probably likes children for 
the very good reason that he is quite grown up; it is no un 
common thing to see him sitting on the floor drawing pictures to 
illustrate his stories. Which reminds me that Chesterton is a 
remarkably clever artist. I would solemnly warn any one who 
does not like his books defaced not to lend them to Chesterton. 
He will not cut them, he will not leave them out in the sun, 
he will not scorch them in front of the fire, but he will draw 
pictures on them. I have looked through many books at his 
home nearly all of them have sketches in them. I have not 
the qualifications to speak of his arf, I do not know whether he 
can be considered a great artist; I do not know whether it is a 
pity that he does not do more drawing; I do not know whether 
he can really be called an artist in the modern sense at all but 
I do know that at his home there are many indications that he 
likes drawing, especially sketches of a fantastic nature. 

Chesterton does nearly all his work in his little study, a 
sanctum littered with innumerable manuscripts. He, like 
most authors of the day, dictates to a secretary, who types what 
he says. It is, I think, in many ways a pity that so many 
authors type their manuscripts; for not only are they machine- 
made, they have not the interest that they should have for 
posterity. What would the British Museum have lost if all the 
manuscripts had been typewritten ! Chesterton s written hand 
is extremely elegant. At one time I believe he used to write 
his own manuscripts. The typewriter is, after all, but one 
more indication that we live in times when nothing is done 
except by some kind of machinery; all the same, I could wish 
that even if typewriters are used famous authors would keep 
one copy of their writings in their own hand. 

It is remarkable the amount of work that Chesterton gets 
through. He has masses of correspondence, he has articles to 
write, books to get ready for press, and yet he finds time to 
help in local theatricals, to give lectures in places as wide apart 
as Oxford and America (and what is wider in every way than 
those two places ?), that mean all that is best in the ancient world 



104 G. K. CHESTERTON 

and all that is best in the modern. He can also find time to take 
a long tour to Palestine to find the New Jerusalem, that city 
that Christ wept over, not because it was to be razed to the 
ground, but because its inhabitants were fools. 

What are the general impressions that a stranger visiting 
Chesterton would get ? He would, I think, be impressed by 
his genial kindliness; he would be amazed by his extraordinary 
powers of memory and the depths of his reading; he would be 
gratified by the interest that Chesterton displays in him; he 
would be charmed by the quaintness of his home. That 
Chesterton has humour is abundant by his conversation; that 
he has pathos is not so apparent. I am not perfectly sure 
that he can appreciate the things that make ordinary men sad. 
It has been said that he is not concerned with the facts of 
everyday life; if he is not, it is because he can see beyond 
them he can see that this is a good world, which makes him 
a good host; he can look forward across the ages to the 
glorious stars that shine in the night sky for those who are 
optimists, as Chesterton is, and are great men in their own 
homes. 






Chapter Twelve 

HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 

IN a very admirable discussion on the word great/ in his 
study of Dickens, Chesterton remarks that there are a 
certain number of people who always think dead men 
great and live men small. The tendency is natural and is 
entirely worthy of blame. If a man is great when he is dead, 
then he was great when he was alive. It is but a re-echo of 
much of the folly talked during the war, when we were so 
credulous as to believe that every dead soldier was a saint and 
every live one a hero. Then, when the war was over, these 
hero worshippers quietly forgot that the soldiers had been 
heroes, put up stone crosses to the dead, and did little to remove 
the crosses from the living. 

There are a number of quite well meaning people who will 
say, without much thought, that Chesterton is a great man, 
and if you ask them why, they will answer, c He is a great writer, 
he is a great lecturer, he must be great; look at the times he 
appears in the Press, look at the wealth of caricature that is 
displayed on him. No doubt these are good reasons in their 
way, but they rather indicate that Chesterton is well known in a 
popular sense; they are not a true indication that he is great. 
The public of to-day is inclined to measure greatness by the 
number of times a person appears in the newspapers, it 
seldom realizes that greatness is, above all, a moral quality, not 
a quantity; the fact that a person is in front of the public eye 
(very often a blind eye) is no indication of true greatness. If 
it was, then of necessity every Prime Minister would be a 
great man, every revue actress would be a great woman, every 
ordinary person would be small. 

P 105 



io6 G. K. CHESTERTON 

It is one of the most difficult things possible to determine 
what is the place a writer takes in literature. It does not make 
the task easier when the writer is not only alive but is still a 
comparatively young man in the height of his powers. A pure 
and simple biography cannot always determine with any 
satisfaction its subject s literary standing. Critical studies of 
classic authors do not usually give any preciseness about the 
exact niche the subject fills. 

Literature is one of the most elastic qualities of the day, of 
human activity; it cannot be bound by rules, yet has a more 
or less artificial standard, which is, perhaps, an imaginary line 
which has style on the one side and lack of style on the other. 
Yet there is a further difficulty: it is in no way fair to award 
an author his place in literature entirely by his style, nor is it 
fair to literature to disregard it. 

I have anticipated in earlier chapters some of what must 
be said in this, but it is not, I think, out of place to attempt to 
write of the literary qualities of Chesterton and of his place 
in contemporary literature. With regard to his position 
in respect of former writers I must say something, but it 
would not be wise to give any comment of what may be the 
permanent place of Chesterton in the world of books. He has, 
I hope, many years of literary output in front of him. It cannot 
be ignored that his reception into the Roman Catholic Church 
may greatly influence his future writings; it is too soon to 
make any effort to predict whether his writings will stand the 
test of time, whether he will be popular in a hundred years or 
whether he will have the neglect that has attended some of the 
greatest of authors. 

There is a question that must be faced. Has Chesterton a 
place in literature at all, if, as is the usual thing, we have to 
compare him with contemporary writers, or is it that he has 
such a unique place that it is impossible to compare him to any 
living writer? Probably, although it is not necessary, it is best 
to compare Chesterton with some of the greatest writers of the 
day, and see why it is that he is worthy of a place in the 



HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 107 

foremost rank. There are, at the present day, a great number 
of writers who would appear worthy of a foremost place in 
literature. Those I have chosen have been selected because, 
in a sort of vague way, people couple them with the name of 
Chesterton. They are, I think, H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw 
and Hilaire Belloc. 

I do think that all these writers have a unique place in con 
temporary literature. Perhaps, of the three, Wells is the 
greatest, because there is possibly no greater thing than a 
scientific prophet who is also a brilliant novelist. If Belloc 
and Shaw are smaller men it is because they deal with smaller 
matters. 

At the present day Chesterton does occupy in contemporary 
literature a place that no one else does. He is, in a sense, a 
Dickens of the twentieth century ; he is something more, he 
may even be a prophet. Of course Chesterton has not the 
enormous following that Dickens had at the height of his 
powers, but he has that kind of monumental feeling in the 
twentieth century that belonged to Dickens in the nineteenth : 
he is typical of this century, being an optimist when ordinary 
men are pessimistic. As in the nineteenth century Dickens 
made common men realise their greatness when they them 
selves felt immeasurably small, so Chesterton makes great 
men feel small when they are really so. 

But in another sense he cannot really be compared to 
Dickens. Dickens undoubtedly was a delineator of supreme 
characters. I do not think it can be said that any of the charac 
ters of Chesterton would ever be known with the knowledge 
with which Mr. Pickwick is known. Dickens was not in any 
sense an essayist; Chesterton is one in every sense. Dickens 
was a man who really cared very much that all kinds of oppres 
sion should be put down; Chesterton, no doubt, cares also, but 
he rather imagines that things ordinary people quite rightly call 
welfare work are but forms of slavery. If Dickens hated 
factories it was because he had hateful experience of them; if 
Chesterton hates factories it is because he thinks they destroy 



io8 G. K. CHESTERTON 

family life and the home. I have attempted to suggest that 
Dickens and Chesterton are alike as regards their being monu 
ments of their respective centuries. I have also suggested that 
they are extremely unlike. Yet I can think of no writer of 
the nineteenth century who, in ideal, is so near to Chesterton 
as Dickens; but that at the same time they are also so far apart 
is but another indication that to place Chesterton in regard 
to the past is almost impossible. 

One thing that Chesterton is not, is an Eclectic ; if he 
is an original thinker, it is because he can see that though 
black is not really white there is no particular reason why it 
should not be grey; if Netting Hill can boast of forty fried fish 
shops he does not see any reason why it could fail to produce 
a Napoleon. If a party of Dons are sitting round a table dis 
cussing how desirable is the elimination of life, he sees that it 
is a perfectly good ethic for one of the undergraduates to test 
the theory by brandishing a loaded pistol at the warden s head. 
If, as a novelist, he is different to all his contemporaries, it is 
because he has discovered that the word novel sometimes 
means something new, sometimes something original, very 
often something extremely old. 

Yet another difficulty for rinding an exact niche for Ches 
terton lies in the fact that he is a bit of everything, and, what is 
more, these bits are very big and make a large kaleidoscope. He 
is a theological professor who is so entirely sensible that the 
public hardly discovers the fact ; he does not wear a cap and 
gown, and quote quite easily from all the Fathers of the ancient 
Church. He does not apologize for Christianity by reading 
Christian books. Rather to learn the Christian standpoint he 
discovers the tenets of Rationalism; he writes a theological 
philosophy that might be a discussion between Satan and 
Christ and puts it into a novel; he writes a dissertation on 
Transubstantiation and puts it into a tale of anarchy that is so 
untheological that it mentions Leicester Square and lobster 
mayonnaise; he is a historian who not only writes history but 
understands it; he does not consider that William conquered 



HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 109 

England, but that England conquered William; he says the 
best way to read history is to read it backwards; he is a his 
torian who does not consider the most important facts are the 
dates of kings who lived and died. 

It has been said that Chesterton is the finest essayist of the 
day. It would be perhaps fairer to say he is like no living 
essayist; if he is not a finer essayist than Dean Inge, he is at 
least as good; he may not be so academic, but he is as learned; 
if he has not quite the charm of Mr. Lucas he is at least more 
versatile. His essays sparkle with epigrams, they are full of 
paradox. He has said that Plato said silly things and yet was 
the wonder of the ancient world. He can lament that H. G. 
Wells has come to the awful conclusion that two and two are 
four, and at the same time be thankful that not even in fairy 
land can two and two make five; he can state quite calmly that 
the weakness of Feminism is that it drives the woman from the 
freedom of the home to the slavery of the world; he can make 
priggish clergymen, who accuse him of joking and taking the 
name of the Lord in vain, bite their words by explaining that 
to make a joke of anything is not to take it in vain. As an 
essayist, Chesterton stands apart from his contemporaries. Of 
older essayists I can think of none who could in any way be 
said to have a similarity to Chesterton. 

One of the most interesting things about Chesterton is his 
position as a poet. I have said, in an earlier chapter, that he 
might have been the Poet Laureate. I have ventured to say 
that if posterity did not place him among great poets it would be 
because he had given more attention to prose. The particular 
question of Chesterton as a poet opens up a more general one, 
which is something in the nature of a problem. Would the 
great classic poets of the last century have been as great if they 
had not written so much poetry? Had Tennyson written but 
two long poems; had Browning never written anything but 
short lyrics; had Wordsworth been content to write few 
poems, provided these had been an indication of the best work 
of these particular poets, would posterity have granted them 



no G. K. CHESTERTON 

immortality? Will Chesterton go down to posterity as a poet 
on account of his fine achievement in his * Ballad of the White 
Horse, or will people forget him because he has not written 
more? I am rather afraid this may be so. Posterity, it is true, 
likes quality, but it likes it better with quantity. 

But I feel that I am dealing with what I had said it would 
be well to avoid anything to do with the future of Ches 
terton. What is Chesterton s position as a poet to-day? He 
is, I think, one of the finest of the day; he has a fine sense of 
humour in poetry; he has great powers of recasting scenes of 
long- forgotten centuries; he has a fine musical rhythm; but he 
has not, I think, pathos. I think it is a pity that he does not 
write epics on events of the day; he might easily find the Poet 
Laureate s silence an inspiration; he might write another great 
poem; it might be better than any more novels. 

It is difficult to say whether or not Chesterton is a play 
wright. His one play was a fine one about a fine subject, but 
I do not think it had the qualities that would be popular in an 
ordinary theatre in London. There is a certain suggestion of a 
problem about it which is a little obscure. We are not sure 
whether Chesterton is in earnest or joking: it has not probably 
sufficient action to suit this century, that wishes aeroplanes to 
dash through the house on the stage, or two or three people to 
meet with violent deaths in three acts. It is in the nature of a 
discussion and might be almost anti-Shavian; it would be 
absurd to attempt to place Chesterton among contemporary 
dramatic authors, but it is not too much to predict that he 
might quite easily soon be very near the front rank. 

Byhis critical studies of Browning, Dickens, and Thackeray, 
Chesterton has proved that there was a great deal more to be 
said about these classic authors than the critics had seemed to 
think. Chesterton seldom agreed with those who had written 
before. What they had considered weaknesses he had con 
sidered strength; what he had considered weakness they had 
considered strength. Possibly no author had been written 
about more than Dickens, yet there remained for Chesterton 



HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 1 1 1 

to add much that was vital. No poet had been more mis 
understood than Browning; no poet had been more attacked 
for his grotesque style; no critic has written with the under 
standing of Browning as has Chesterton. In taking extracts 
from Thackeray, Chesterton has shown a fine appreciation of 
that novelist s best work. 

It is a difficult thing for a great writer to be a great critic. 
He is liable to be either condescending or supercillious; he is 
liable unconsciously to judge all standards by his own; he is 
likely to be rather intolerant of any opinions but his own; it is 
easier for a great critic to be a great writer. In the case of 
Chesterton, because he is a great and original writer he has 
a brilliant critical acumen that probes deep into the minds of 
other authors and sees what is stored there in a way that other 
critics have, perhaps, failed to see, not because they did not 
choose to look for it, but rather because, almost without 
knowing it, critics who set out to be critics exclusively are 
liable to work rather too much by a fixed rule. 

It is, I hope, now apparent how difficult it is to say where 
exactly Chesterton finds a place in literature. Is it as an 
essayist? Is it as a novelist ? Is it as a historian ? Is it as a critic ? 
If it is as a novelist, then it is as a writer of peculiar phantasy; 
if it is as an essayist, it is as a brilliant controversialist; if it is 
as a historian, it is as a unique critic of history ; if it is as a critic, 
it is as a broad-minded one of not only past great authors but 
of current events. 

I do not know of any writer who is so difficult to place. 
Wells can quite well be a fine novelist and prophet ; Bernard 
Shaw can easily be called a playwright and a philosopher; 
Galsworthy is a serious novelist and a playwright who takes 
the art with proper regard for its powers of social redress ; 
Sir James Barrie is a mystical writer with a message. There 
are fifty novelists who are interpreters of manners and prob 
lems of the twentieth century. But Chesterton is not like 
any of these. He is not in any sense a specialist ; he is really a 
general practitioner with the hand of a specialist in everything 



ii2 G. K. CHESTERTON 

he touches except divorce. In a word, he is that thing in 
literature that occurs once or twice in every century an epic. 
He is the laughing, genial writer of the twentieth century 
who, in everything he does, earns the highest of all literary 
honours to be unique. 



Chapter Thirteen 

G.K.C. AND G. B.S. 

IT would be a very interesting problem to try and discover 
how it is that Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George 
Bernard Shaw have come to be known so familiarly as 
G. K, C. and G. B. S. If any of my readers can suggest a 
solution of this, I hope they will let me know; because, if I 
calmly headed this chapter G. K. C. and J. M. B. I do not 
think that any one would guess that I was attempting to com 
pare Chesterton to James Matthew Barrie unless I told them. 
It would be really quite amusing to do all comparisons by this 
initial method; we might find in the Hibbtrt Journal an 
article on the need of Episcopacy headed H. H. Dunelm and 
Frank Zanzibar, which would be quite simply the Bishop 
of Durham and the Bishop of Zanzibar on Episcopacy; or, for 
a rest, we might turn to the Daily Herald and find f J. R. C. 
attacks L. G., which would be quite simply that Mr. Clynes 
did not see eye to eye with the Premier that a Coalition 
Government was a national asset. 

If we refer to the past, it is not easy to suggest any one who 
might be known by initials. Charles Dickens was never known 
as C. D.; Thackeray, when he wrote his { Essay on the Four 
Georges was probably not known as W. M. T. on the Four 
Georges; but if Chesterton writes a book on America, the 
Press affirms that there is a new book on America by G. K. C., 
or we pick up a morning paper and find a large headline on 
* G. B. S. on Prisons, and every one knows who it is. But put a 
headline, * Randall on Divorce, and it is not seen at once that 
the Archbishop of Canterbury has been addressing the Upper 
House on a matter of grave ecclesiastical import. 

Q IJ 3 



ii4 G. K. CHESTERTON 

There is a saying about some people being born great, 
others having that state thrust upon them, others as having 
achieved it. There is no doubt that Chesterton was born to be 
great, so no doubt was Shaw, but they went about it in a differ 
ent way. The public caught hold of the remarkable person 
ality of Chesterton and scarcely a day passed that the Press did 
not either quote him or caricature him; on the other hand, 
Shaw caught hold of the public, annoyed its susceptibilities, 
held it in supreme contempt, raved at it from the stage and 
platform, and the public, amazed at his cleverness, received 
him as the rude philosopher who looked a genius, talked like a 
whirlwind, said that he was greater than Shakespeare, said he 
was the Moliere of the twentieth century, and posed until it 
was expected of him. 

But Chesterton does not pose. If he comes to lecture on 
Cobbett and talks for three-quarters of an hour on how his 
hat blew off, it is not a pose, it is the natural inconsequence of 
Chesterton on the platform. If Shaw is invited to a dinner and 
writes that he does not eat dinner and does not care to see 
others doing nothing else, he is posing; but, if so, it is because 
he is expected to do so. 

On almost every subject Shaw and Chesterton disagree; yet 
they are both men who, in some way, attempt to be reformers. 
Shaw proceeds by satire and contempt; Chesterton proceeds 
by originality and good nature, except on the question of 
divorce, which makes him very angry, and, as I have said, 
uncritical. Shaw chastises the world and is angry; Chesterton 
laughs, and, in a genial way, asks what is wrong; and, having 
found out, attempts to put things right. Shaw would rather 
have a new sort of world with a super-man. 

Shaw and Chesterton approach reform from two different 
ways. Chesterton suggests them by queer novels and para 
doxical essays; Shaw puts his ideas into the mouthpieces of 
those who are known as Shavian characters; he interprets his 
theories by the Stage, therefore his sermons reach tens of 
thousands who would not read him if he preached from a 



G. K. C. & G. B. S. 115 

pulpit. Thus, if he wants to show that there are no rules 
for getting married, he puts the problem into a play and wants 
an extension of divorce; Chesterton, on the other hand, 
believes that marriage is Divine and that divorce is but a 
superstition. If Shaw believed that the home narrowed life, 
was a domestic monarchy, meant a loss of individuality between 
husband and wife, Chesterton, far from agreeing to this pro 
position, takes the opposite view that it is the home which is 
large and the world which is small and narrowing. Probably 
neither is quite right. For some people the home is narrowing, 
for others it is the place that affords the widest scope; for some 
the world is narrow, for others the world is extremely broad 
in fact, so broad that they never are able to get free from its 
immensity. 

With regard to religion, whatever opinions Chesterton may 
hold as he is now a Roman Catholic they are no longer of 
interest. Shaw, on the other hand, is much too elastic a man to 
imagine fora moment that religion is a thing that is necessarily 
bound up with an organization which is mainly political; he 
is not so credulous as to believe that the spiritual can fall verti 
cally to earth because a man kneels before a bishop and be 
comes a priest. Rather he had a much better plan. He 
started by being an atheist, the best possible foundation for 
subsequent theism. From this he became an Immanist, 
which is that God is in some way dispersed throughout the 
earth. 

If there is one thing upon which we may say that Shaw and 
Chesterton are identical, it is in the strange fact that neither of 
them has, I think, ever described an ordinary lover the sort 
of person who is nothing of a biological surprise, the kind of 
person who woos on a suburban court in Surbiton or Wimble 
don and marries in a hideous red brick church to the cheerful 
accompaniment of confetti and the Wedding March. I do not 
think either of them can really enter into the ordinary emotions 
of life. They could neither of them write, I fancy, a really 
typical novel that is, a tale about the folks who do the 



1 16 G. K. CHESTERTON 

conventional things. Chesterton always sees everything upside 
down. If the man on Netting Hill sees it as a bustling area, 
Chesterton sees it as a place upon which a Napoleon might 
fall. Shaw, on the other hand, could not write of ordinary 
things because he is usually contemptuous of them. If Ches 
terton thinks education is a failure it is because the conven 
tional method irritates him; Shaw considers that education 
does not educate a man, it merely moulds him. 

I am not sure that Mr. Skimpole, in his brilliant study of 
Bernard Shaw, is quite correct when he says f the whole case 
against Chesterton, of course, is that he is a Romantic. Why 
is it a something against him that he chooses to be an idealist? 
Because, says Mr. Skimpole, c he does not seem to have 
grasped the fact that the most important difference between the 
Real and the Ideal aspects of anything is that while the Ideal 
is permanent and unchangeable as an angel, the Real requires an 
everlasting circle of changes. I am rather afraid Mr. Skimpole 
is talking through a certain covering that adorns his head. 
Cannot he see that very often the ideal is nothing less than the 
real? It is no case against Chesterton that he is a Romantic 
so long as the fact is duly recognized. If he considers certain 
institutions are permanent which may be said to be ideal (for 
instance, that marriage is a sacrament), he is just as likely to be 
as right as is Mr. Shaw when he contends that marriage must 
be made to fit the times, even if it be granted it is a Divine 
thing. 

If Shaw is unable to see that most earthly things have a 
heavenly meaning, as Chesterton does, it is so much the worse 
for Shaw and so much the better for Chesterton. If Chesterton 
is a dangerous Romantic who likes Fairyland, at least Shaw is a 
dangerous eugenist who wants a super-man, and I am not 
sure that the fairies of Chesterton are not more useful than the 
ethics of Shaw; there is no doubt that they are less grown up. 
If Shaw is a philosopher, he is not one of this Universe; he is of 
another that shall be entirely sub-Shavian. If Chesterton is a 



G. K. C. & G. B. S. 117 

philosopher, it is because he can see this universe better upside 
down than Shaw understands it the right way up. 

In fact, the difference between Shaw and Chesterton may, 
I think, be something like this. They are, as I have said, both 
reformers, but Chesterton wishes to keep man as he is essenti 
ally, and gradually make him something better. Shaw wants to 
have done with man and produce a super-man. In this way 
Shaw admits the failure of man to rise above his environment. 
Chesterton not only thinks he is able to, but tries to prove it in 
his writings. Thus, if a man is an atheist he can show that he 
is in time capable of becoming a good theist, but Shaw if he 
allows some of his characters to be in hell, gets them out of it 
by attempting to make them strive for the super-man. For 
Chesterton, Man is the Super-Man; for Shaw, the Super-Man 
is not Man at all. 

In fact, this no doubt is the reason that Shaw is really a 
pessimist and Chesterton an optimist. 

There is, I think, little doubt that Chesterton is a far more 
important man than Shaw. He has the facility for getting hold 
of the things that matter; he is never ill-natured; he does not 
make fun of other people. Much as the writer admires the 
wit and brilliancy of Shaw, he cannot help feeling that Shaw 
is a rather cynical personality; Shaw loves to laugh at people, 
he is inclined to make fun of the martyrs. They were 
possibly quite mistaken in their enthusiasm, but at least they 
were consistent. I do not feel convinced that Shaw would 
stand in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and keep his ideals if 
he knew that it would involve being eaten by lions that came 
up Regent Street, as the martyrs faced them centuries ago in 
Rome, but I have little doubt that Chesterton would remain in 
Piccadilly Circus if he knew that he would be eaten unless he 
denied that marriage was a Divine institution. 

In a word, Shaw bases his Philosophy and Plays on a con 
tempt for all existing institutions. Chesterton bases his 
Writings and Philosophy on genial good nature and a respect 



1 1 8 G. K. CHESTERTON 

for the things that are important. Therefore I think that 
Shaw has not made such a permanent contribution to thought 
as Chesterton certainly has; even if it is only in showing that 
the Christian religion is reasonable. 





er Fourteen 
CONCLUSION 

THERE was a time in history when the ancient world 
searched in vain for the truth. It produced men of the 
type of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; they were great 
philosophers who looked at the world in which they lived and 
asked what it meant. Was it material? Was it spiritual? Was 
it temporary? Was it eternal? Men were dissatisfied. And 
about that time a greater Philosopher came in the wake of a 
star, and men called Him Christ. 

It is the twentieth century, and the Man the ancient world 
called Christ founded the religion which His followers were to 
take to the ends of the earth. Yet men are still dissatisfied; 
philosophers look out of their high-walled windows and watch 
the modern world, which goes on; men die and are forgotten; 
creeds spring up for a day and pass; writers produce books, and 
in their turn pass away. 

Of this century Chesterton is one of the great thinkers. It is, 
I think, a mistake not to take him seriously. If he is phantastic, 
there is a meaning behind his phantasy; if he laughs, the world 
need not think that he is frivolous. He is a prophet, and he 
has honour in his own country. 

Chesterton is still a young man; he is young in soul and 
body. Like Peter Pan he does not grow up, yet he is a famous 
man; he has written great books, he has written fine poems, 
he has written brilliant essays, but he has never written a book 
with an appeal to an unthinking public that reads to kill 
thought. I wonder whether Chesterton would write a 
Philosophy for the Unthinking Man ? I think he is the one 



119 



120 G. K. CHESTERTON 

man of the day who could do it, and I think it might be his 
greatest book. 

I have attempted in this book to draw a picture of the 
works of Chesterton. They are not easy to deal with; they 
may mean many things. I have not attempted to forecast the 
future of Chesterton, strong as the temptation has been, but 
I have endeavoured to place before those who know Chesterton 
what it is they admire in him ; and for those who only know 
him as a name, I hope that this book may induce them to read 
the most arresting writer of the day, who is known in every 
country as the Master of Paradox, which is to say that he is 
the Master of the Temple of Understanding. 



THE END