a paean to the fat man

September 14, 2012

There are many reasons why I love Chesterton, and this is but one of them. It is called Doubt or Brighton or The Patriot or The German Band or The Two Voices. We are also told to call it whatever we like.

.

They say the sun is on your knees
A lamp to light your lands from harm,
They say you turn the seven seas
To little brooks about your farm.
I hear the sea and the new song
that calls you empress all day long.

(O fallen and fouled! O you that lie
Dying in swamps- you shall not die,
Your rich have secrets, and strong lust,
Your poor are chased about like dust,
Emptied of anger and surprise–
And God has gone out of their eyes,
Your cohorts break– your captains lie
I say to you, you shall not die.)

.

He then proceeds to chat a little in between stanzas- this was in an article, of course- so to preserve the effect, I shall do the same, although we’ll be chatting about very different things. I’m going to talk about Chesterton, and one of the things Chesterton rarely seems to talk about is Chesterton. I cannot help but love the man- he is everything good about the world, and honestly, the heart and mad soul of him is everything I want to be if I ever grow up. If there is anyone I want to emulate, it will be Chesterton.

Chesterton the eternally curious, Chesterton the miracle, the enormously wise fool who rejoices in all creation. He delights in everything and defies the world to bore him, and yet is entirely aware of the broken things of the world, and actively against all that makes it broken. He’s ponderously and enormously childlike- a ‘kindly and gallant cherub’, and yet with keen and clever eyes, and with a deep understanding of suffering and evil. His common sense and kindness are enormous as he was, and his imagination- just, oh. The way he makes words dance. His prose makes me shriek with laughter on buses. There are no adequate words for Chesterton. I love the man. I will always love him.

Back to the poem!

.

I know the bright baptismal rains,
I love your tender troubled skies,
I know your little climbing lanes
Are peering into Paradise,
From open hearth to orchard cool,
How bountiful and beautiful.

(O throttled and without a cry,
O strangled and stabbed, you shall not die,
The frightful word is on your walls,
The east sea to the west sea calls,
The stars are dying in the sky,
You shall not die, you shall not die.)

.

If, one day, I can be anything like Chesterton- say anything as clearly, be as keen and as true and as clear-sighted and as mad- and as in love with the world and with the God who made it as he is- if I can be anything like Chesterton, I will consider my life well lived, and my work well done. To live a life so well and so fully, to see so truly and to feel so wholly, and to bring it like a sudden and miraculous gift of sight for other people to see too, so clearly and perfectly- if there is any other way to write, I don’t know if I want it. I only wish I were half as decent, but honestly, scraping at sentences in an attempt to describe Chesterton is bad enough. I’ve a long way to go (so do we all). But this is the hardship I love the most.

I think the best Christian writers I’ve ever known have been the kind who have loved and written fairytales. I’m not entirely sure why. C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Chesterton. Hopkins, I think, would have loved fairytales, but might not have allowed himself to read them. Donne may as well have been one, the decadent lush. I wonder what R.S. Thomas thought of them, stark as he was with the silence that comes after the scream?

.

I see you how you smile in state
Straight from the Peak to Plymouth Bar,
You need not tell me you are great,
I know how more than great you are.
I know what William Shakespeare was,
I have seen Gainsborough and the grass.

(O given to believe a lie,
O my mad mother, do not die,
Whose eyes turn all ways but within,
Whose sin is innocence of sin,
Whose eyes, blinded with beams at noon
Can see the motes upon the moon,
You shall your lover still pursue.
To what last madhouse shelters you
I will uphold you, even I.
You that are dead. You shall not die.)

.

There’s something in this poem that reminds me of the end of all time. It’s my favourite type, the kind that rings most familiar to me; apocalyptic and passionate, cryptic and symbolic and bewildering, full of vast or violent words that are a kind of shorthand conjuring up particular emotions or images, and yet with the bloody simplicity that is Chesterton. Yeats writes a little like that, sometimes, dolphin-torn and gong-tormented, crimson and purple; Dylan Thomas is sometimes a flood of similar colour, but with less violent mysticism. To whom shall I compare thee, o poet? To Isaiah, perhaps, words like wounds, vast with visions. To the mystical shorthand that is the bible, each word so heavy with meaning the simplest story becomes an unfathomable bottomless lake. I call to witness every single parable Jesus ever told.

Isaiah is terrifying and hope-giving in exactly this same symbolic way.

I cannot describe Chesterton to you adequately. You simply have to read him yourself. His short essays and articles, preferably; they’re usually hilarious and also sometimes incredibly profound. Although I adore Manalive and The Man Who Was Thursday. (I’m not going to talk about his dedicated theology here; being who I am, I’m more inclined to prefer my theology via fiction, poetry or amusing and conversational prose.)

He is, of course, flawed, as is any human; as with any writer, he is shaped by his existing time and culture and class and race and job. He was a newspaper journalist, and I think because he had to turn out such a huge number of things so often and so quickly, a lot of his essays are incredibly random, and occasionally topics are glanced across only lightly before he’s off on his next tangent, when you kind of wish he’d go into something with a lot more depth. A lot of things also tend to wander in various digressive directions, quite easily. He also bears a marked preference for all things England, the soul of England, as it were, although he rather dislikes Imperialism- the essay I extracted this poem from was about this, in fact.

His views on women are- you know, I’m not entirely sure? He wrote an essay titled ‘Woman’, which was actually more about communal kitchens and class differences, and I’ve read it a few times and I still cannot make up my mind as to what he thinks, mainly because the essay isn’t so much about women as it is about human freedom, regardless of gender. A quote.

“My correspondent says [on the subject of whether communal kitchens should exist], ‘Would not our women be spared the drudgery of cooking and all its attendant worries, leaving them free for higher culture?’… I believe this way of talking about women and their higher culture is almost entirely a growth of the classes which (unlike the journalistic class to which I belong) have always a reasonable amount of money. … those who write like this seem entirely to forget the existence of the wage-earning classes. They say eternally, like my correspondent, that the ordinary woman is always a drudge. And what, in the name of the Nine Gods, is the ordinary man? These people seem to think that the ordinary man is a Cabinet Minister.

They are always talking about man going forth to wield power, to carve his own way, to stamp his individuality on the world, to command and to be obeyed. This may be true of a certain class. Dukes, perhaps, are not drudges; but, then, neither are Duchesses. … the ordinary man who typifies and constitutes the millions that make up our civilization is no more free for the higher culture than his wife is.”

And then there’s a hilarious section about the differences between the daily duties of a working-class woman as compared to the working class man, followed by a dismissal of this ‘higher culture’ business.

“No, if you were setting women free for something else, I might be more melted. If you can assure me, privately and gravely, that you are setting women free to dance on the mountains like maenads, or to worship some monstrous goddess, I will make a note of your request. If you are quite sure that the ladies in Brixton, the moment they give up cooking, will beat great gongs and blow horns to Mumbo-Jumbo, then I will agree that the occupation is at least human and his more or less entertaining.
Women have been set free to be Bacchantes; they have been set free to be Virgin Martyrs; they have been set free to be Witches. Do not ask them now to sink so low as the higher culture.”

He’s written other essays on feminism and things like that, just as he’s written essays on tomatoes and morality and Robert Browning and policemen in woods and pessimists and science v. religion and phonetic spelling and mystics and cockney jokes and chasing after hats, and- actually, I do recall frowning severely at my phone while reading a particular essay on feminism and equality. The way that particular piece ended, though, was very curiously Chesterton in that it did what Chesterton usually does, which is point me back to the maker of men and women, the beginning of all things.

Which is why I respect him, although I disagree with his views occasionally; I’m aware that I am a product of my time and class and culture, just as he was of his, and we’re both flawed and wrong in many ways in our searching after the truth. But at the heart of things, we’re both hanging out for the eternal constant, the Truth who is neither flawed nor wrong nor altered by time or place or class or culture. Although our own human blindness affects us, Chesterton is looking at and pointing us towards God in his own sightless way.

I’m not sure what else there is to say, now, except perhaps- come and see.

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