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G.K. Chesterton, the Poet | Denis J. Conlon | The Introduction to Volume X: Collected Poetry (Part III) of G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works | Ignatius Insight

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Speaking on January 11, 1934, to the Distributist League at Gatti's Restaurant in London Gilbert Chesterton summed up what he called his moral, mental and spiritual condition in an impromptu triolet:
My writing is bad,
And my speaking is worse;
They were all that I had,
My writing is bad;
It is frightfully sad,
And I don't care a curse.
My writing is bad,
And my speaking is worse.
Chesterton, recognised as one of the greatest speakers of the century, was once again indulging his habit of digging the grave of his literary reputation. Ironically, he did so in an off-the-cuff verse form that many poets have found almost impossible to tackle at leisure, but it is a late example of his denigrating his own work quite typical of his attitude right from the beginning of his career when in 1898 he wrote, "I do not feel as if things like the Fish poem are really worth publishing. I know they are better than many books that are published, but Heaven knows that is not saying much.... With regard to this occasional verse I feel a humbug. To publish a book of my nonsense verses seems to me exactly like summoning the whole of the people of Kensington to see me smoke cigarettes.... " His self-effacement coupled with a tendency to lose poems and a penchant for publishing them in obscure, now long forgotten magazines ensured that much of his work was mislaid; other poems were presented to friends and only reemerged years later after his death, and his wife kept the poems he addressed to her strictly to herself. He was, of course, a powerhouse pouring forth poetry, and his prodigious memory, not to be confused with his forgetfulness, could at the drop of a hat recreate, or more correctly rewrite, the missing verses. New versions proliferated as they were conjured up as occasion demanded, one example among many being "The Nativity", which appeared in differing forms over many years.

Chesterton never seems to have collected his own poems. The Wild Knight (1900) was put together, financed and promoted by Edward Chesterton, his father, while Poems 1915 and Wine, Water and Song were, due to GKC's long illness in 1914-1915, sent to the press by his wife. Either she or the publisher, influenced by the libel case against his brother resulting from the Marconi affair, changed lines to avoid any further prosecutions. In The Song of Quoodle "Old Gluck" (Sir Isidore Gluckstein) was censored and replaced by "The Jew", thus making a valid comment on the exclusion of the public from parkland seem like an anti-Semitic diatribe. Later collections were assembled with similar lack of sensitivity by secretaries, until at last for the third 1933 edition of Collected Poems (issued by a new publisher) Chesterton himself did glance over the collection, made a few minor changes but decided to leave things as they were, with the poems still printed chronologically back to front. He probably felt as he had in 1905 in his note to the second edition of The Wild Knight: "I leave these verses as they stand, although they contain innumerable examples of what I now see to be errors of opinion. ... there are verses I cannot take so seriously as to alter them. The man who wrote them was honest; and he had the same basic views as myself. Besides, nobody need read the book: I certainly beg to be excused." All the collections were, however, notable for their omissions: it would be remarkable if a fond parental choice of verses were to include everything the poet had produced or evaluate its worth dispassionately, and more remarkable indeed if a wifely hand could fall upon verses written before her marriage, particularly those apparently written for an earlier love. In Chesterton's case the situation was compounded by the poet's own inability or unwillingness to turn up his lost work. The outcome was the disappearance for up to a century of the greater part of GKC's poetic output, in particular most of that written before 1900 when he was twenty-six years old and his muse was at its freshest. In Chesterton's case inspiration never did dry up, but it is probably fair to say that after his illness in 1914 and especially after he took up the burden of editing The New Witness (later G. K.'s Weekly) he was not able to pour forth his verses with the previous abandon. Nonetheless, "there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen" in his later work.

It is difficult to assess the status of any writer when work is missing, and two-thirds of his poems were missing from Chesterton's Collected Poems. Of course, many of his contemporaries were aware of some of the omissions, but their opinions were based only on the material known to them. We know that John Betjeman commented favourably during radio and TV shows on poems such as "The Secret People", which he saw as "a potted History of England", and that in 1953 Alfred Noyes was to say, "In his real self Chesterton was essentially a poet. His Lepanto and The Ballad of the White Horse will live, but fine as they are, there are still finer things in some of his shorter poems." [1] Those opinions from perhaps the last two poets to make a successful living from their poetry is supported by opinions from others such as Charles Williams: "One of the first poets of our time", [2] and Andre Maurois:
There are visitors to the Zoo who gaze at the hippopotamus or the elephant and think these great creatures would be more nearly perfect if they were different. But the hippo and the elephant are facts . " Without his paradoxes, without his jokes, without his rhetorical switchbacks, Chesterton might perhaps be a cleverer philosopher. But he would not be Chesterton. It has often been supposed that he is not serious, because he is funny; actually he is funny because he is serious. Confident in his truth, he can afford to joke.... During an age of morbid rationalism, Chesterton reminded men that reason is indeed a wonderful tool, but a tool that needs material to work on and produces nothing if it does not take the existing world as its object.... To Chesterton as to Browning, the universe stands constant, solid—wondrous, under all the theories built up by intelligence, each as different from the others as were the reports of the blind men on the elephant. In that universe, with Chesterton's help we can grow deep spreading roots, and the shifting winds of the mind cannot drag us out of the soil for those brief and glorious flights that can only end in a quick fall. [3]
In I 961, a generation later, Anthony Burgess, once again basing his opinion only on Collected Poems, was to say:
He is not a great poet, but he was incapable of turning a mean rhyme, and he was too fond of language ever to admit the bathetic or pedestrian. If his poems are unsubtle, that is in keeping with the "public" quality of all his writing—a concern with broad strokes and bold colour, a love of the oratorical. Poems like "The Rolling English Road" and "The Donkey" remain superb recitation pieces, and Chesterton would be pleased to know that public bar audiences are better prepared to hear them than are Hampstead drawing-rooms. He had an easy mastery of traditional verse forms including difficult ones like the ballade, and he learned much from such practitioners as Villon how to make his rhymes and images bite. Chesterton never had a moonlight or twilit phase in his poetic development: there was always boldness, wit, even anger. And he could write light verse which remains funny without being facetious. [4]
Possibly the "moonlight or twilit phase" is now available in these present volumes, but P.J. Kavanagh thought in any case that "Chesterton's poems are usually thoughts expressed in verse, or emotion expressed thoughtfully." [5] Another poet who looked favourably on GKC's verse was W H. Auden, who stated his position in 1970: "I have always liked Chesterton's poems" [6] and then four years later expanded his view:
Consciously or unconsciously, every poet takes one or more of his predecessors as models. Usually, his instinct leads him to make the right choice, but not always. In Chesterton's case, for example, I think that Swinburne was a disastrous influence.... It is due to Swinburne that, all too often in his verses, alliteration becomes an obsessive tic.

Both in his prose and his verse, [Chesterton] sees, as few writers have, the world about him as full of sacramental signs or symbols. I would not call him a mystic like Blake, who could say: "Some see a heavenly host singing Holy, Holy, Holy." Chesterton never disregards the actual visible appearance of things. Then, unlike Wordsworth, his imagination is stirred to wonder, not only by natural objects, but by human artifacts as well. Probably most young children possess this imaginative gift, but most of us lose it when we grow up as a consequence, Chesterton would say, of the Fall.

In verses such as ["The Song of Quoodle"], there is little, if any, trace of Swinburnian influence. Behind them one detects the whole tradition of English comic verse, of Samuel Butler, Prior, Praed, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and, above all, W S. Gilbert. It was from such writers, I believe, that Chesterton, both in his verse and his prose, learned the art of making terse aphoristic statements which, once read or heard, remain unforgettably in one's mind. I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton that is not a triumphant success. Greybeards at Play—until it was sent to me by John Sullivan, Chesterton's bibliographer, I had never heard of its existence: I have no hesitation in saying that it contains some of the best pure nonsense verse in English, and the author's illustrations are equally good. By natural gift, Chesterton was, I think, essentially a comic poet." [7]
The poetic muse descended early on the young Chesterton, who before the age of ten was writing competent pastiches, after which he found his own voice, rapidly developing precocious solemnity alongside light-hearted and eclectic tones. His output from the late 1880s throughout the 1890s was phenomenal, as he experienced first love and began to run the gamut of a variety of religious positions. During this time, he spent two years at University College London training to be a book illustrator, before going to work as a publisher's reader for a firm specializing in Spiritualist tracts . Every spare moment seems to have been devoted to poems in an amazing variety of styles, almost all of it destined to be put away and forgotten for over a century, with the exception of those few contained in The Wild Knight and Other Poems.

Once Chesterton had in 1900 given up working as a publisher's reader and become a journalist, he soon gained an ever-growing reputation as a literary critic and social commentator, with his poetry turning more in the direction of the political and social lampoon and ballade. Nonetheless, he was able to retain a lightness of touch which ensured that even the bitterest satirical attack was always acclaimed as a comic masterpiece. On a more solemn note he found time to undertake great recitation pieces such as The People of England (The Secret People), Lepanto and his tribute to King Alfred, The Ballad of the White Horse.

The great outpouring continued until in the 1920s he took on more and more editorial duties on G. K .'s Weekly, alongside his weekly article for the Illustrated London News, and undertook lecture tours . His light-hearted banter became more and more confined to the private poems he exchanged over the years with groups of young people with whom he always seemed to have a ready rapport, a rapport which does not, however, appear to have extended to the parties to which GKC was invited (The Jazz and All Through the Night). Eventually in the 1930s his work load did restrict him, and his poems appeared far less regularly. This meant that there were far fewer poems to be lost, but many still escaped the net. It is almost certain that there are some which have escaped this latest sweep, but that is in the nature of the Chestertonian game. Gilbert Chesterton was almost certainly the most prolific poet of his age, one whose verse so entered the public consciousness that they became part of the bric-ŕ-brac of the mind. Soon after the death of GKC Herbert Palmer found
his verse full of preachings, politics and arresting hymns of hate.... Chesterton, in spite of his frequent blare and bombast, has been extraordinarily successful in infusing true poetry into his thundering orchestra. God speaking through him, he knows no restraint, but comes at you, marches up the street and round the corner, a rage of music and colour that seeks to hold up the traffic. . . . But poetry that is merely like that does not necessarily contain the enduring line, the wonderful stanza, and it is astonishing that in the verse of Chesterton there is so much that is really fine. . . . There is plenty of magic in Chesterton's verse, not exactly the delicate elfish magic of Yeats or Walter de la Mare, a rather flick-in-the-eye magic if you like, but none the less evident. Sometimes, indeed, he achieves it when flying right into the jaws of bombast he steers miraculously clear, or when formulating a paradox he gets beyond the truth of paradox to the creation of the rose that shines upon the lips of truth. Then there is the Chesterton who is memorable because he says something very droll, even though it be penetratingly satirical. ... But Chesterton was a sort of God's fool, the Almighty's chosen jester, who fearlessly took liberties, secure in most instances beneath his cap and bells. [8]
This third volume of Chesterton's poetry completes the task of giving an oversight of an avalanche of poems, just a few of which would have made the reputation of lesser poets.


[1] Alfred Noyes, "The Centrality of Chesterton", The Quarterly Review (January 1953): 45-50.

[2] Charles Williams, Poetry at Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), pp. 97-113.

[3] André Maurois (Emile Herzog), Poet and Prophet (London: Cassell, 1933), pp. 141-74.

[4] Anthony Burgess, Introduction to G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1969), pp. 3-7.

[5] P.J. Kavanaugh, The Bodley Head Chesterton (London: Bodley Head, 1985), pp. x-xxvii; American edition: A Chesterton Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985) .

[6] W H . Auden, Chesterton's Non-Fictional Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), pp. 11-18.

[7] W H. Auden, "The Gift of Wonder", in G. K. Chesterton—A Centenary Appraisal, ed. John Sullivan (London: Paul Elek, 1974), pp. 73-80.

[8] G. K. Chesterton and His School", Post- Victorian Poetry (London: Dent, 1938).

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Dr. Denis J. Conlon is professor of English literature at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and president of the U.K. Chesterton Society. He has edited several works, including volumes 6 and 14 of G. K. Chesterton's Collected Works (1991, 1993), The Song of Dermot and Earl Richard Fitzgilbert, and "Sans everything": Essays on English Literature, Philosophy, and Culture in Honour of Guido Kums and Hugo Roeffaers.

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