Gilbert K. Chesterton
( Originally Published 1907 )
WALKING down Fleet Street some day you may meet a form whose vastness blots out the heavens. Great waves of hair surge from under the soft, wide-brimmed hat. A cloak that might be a legacy from Porthos floats about his colossal frame. He pauses in the midst of the pavement to read the book in his hand, and a cascade of laughter descending from the head notes to the middle voice gushes out on the listening air. He looks up, adjusts his pince-nez, observes that he is not in a cab, remembers that he ought to be in a cab, turns and hails a cab. The vehicle sinks down under the unusual burden and rolls heavily away. It carries Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Mr. Chesterton is the most conspicuous figure in the landscape of literary London. He is like a visitor out of some fairy tale, a legend in the flesh, a survival of the childhood of the world. Most of us are the creatures of our time, thinking its thoughts, wearing its clothes, rejoicing in its chains. If we try to escape from the temporal tyranny, it is through the gate of revolt that we go. Some take to asceticism or to some fantastic foppery of the moment. Some invent Utopias, lunch on nuts and proteid at Eustace Miles', and flaunt red ties defiantly in the face of men and angels. The world is bond, but they are free. But in all this they are still the children of our time, fleeting and self-conscious. Mr. Chesterton's extravagances have none of this quality. He is not a rebel. He is a wayfarer from the ages, stopping at the inn of life, warming himself at the fire and making the rafters ring with his jolly laughter.
Time and place are accidents: he is elemental and primitive. He is not of our time, but of all times. One imagines him drinking deep draughts from the horn of Skrymir, or exchanging jests with Falstaff at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, or joining in the intellectual revels at the Mermaid Tavern, or meeting Johnson foot to foot and dealing blow for mighty blow. With Rabelais he rioted, and Don Quixote and Sancho were his " vera blithers." One seems to see him coming down from the twilight of fable, through the centuries, calling wherever there is good company, and welcome wherever he calls, for he brings no cult of the time or pedantry of the schools with him.
He has the freshness and directness of the child's vision. In a very real sense indeed he has never left the golden age never come out into the light of common day, where the tone is grey and things have Lost their imagery. He lives in a world of romance, peopled with giants and gay with the light laughter of fairies. The visible universe is full of magic and mystery. The trees are giants waving their arms in the air. The great globe is a vast caravanserai carrying us all on a magnificent adventure through space. He moves in an atmosphere of enchantment, and may stumble upon a romance at the next street corner. Beauty in distress may call to him from some hollow secrecy; some tyrannous giant may straddle like Apollyon across the path as he turns into Carmelite Street. It is well that he has his swordstick with him, for one never knows what may turn up in this incredible world. Memory goeth not back to a time when a sword was not his constant companion. It used to be a wooden sword, with which went a wooden helmet glowing with the pigments of Apollo. Those were the days when the horn of Roland echoed again through Roncesvalles, and Lancelot pricked forth to the joust, and
Ever the scaly shape of monstrous sin
Ah, le bon temps où j' étais— jeune. But he still carries with him the glamour of the morning; his cheek still blanches at Charlemagne's " What a marching life is mine! " I burst in on him one afternoon and found him engaged in a furious attack on a row of fat books, around which his sword flashed like the sword of Sergeant Troy around the figure of Bathsheba Everdene. His eye blazed, his cheek paled, and beads of perspiration no uncommon thing stood out on his brow. It was a terrific combat, and it was fortunate that the foe were not, as in the leading case of Don Quixote, disguised in wine-skins, for that would have involved lamentable bloodshed. As it was, the books wore an aspect of insolent calm. One could almost see the contemptuous curl upon the lip, the haughty assurance of victory. I own it was hard to bear.
Adventure is an affair of the soul, not of Circumstance. Thoreau, by his pond at Walden, or paddling up the Concord, had more adventures than Stanley had on the Congo, more adventures than Stanley could have. That was why he refused to come to Europe. He knew he could see as many wonders from his own backyard as he could though he sought for them in the islands of the farthest seas. " Why, who makes much of miracles? " says Whitman.
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles
Miracles and adventures are the stuff of Mr. Chester-ton's everyday life. He goes out on to the Sussex downs with his coloured chalks—in the cavernous mysteries of his pockets there is always a box of pastels, though " the mark of the mint," in his own phrase, may be unaccountably absent and discovers he has no white chalk with which to complete his picture. His foot stumbles against a mound, and lo! he is standing on a mountain of chalk, and he shouts with joy at the miracle, for the world has never lost its freshness and wonder to him. It is as though he discovers it anew each day, and stands exultant at the revelation.
It is a splendid pageant that passes unceasingly before him ---
New and yet old
Familiarity has not robbed it of its magic. He sees it as the child sees its first rainbow or the lightning flashing from the thunder-cloud. Most of us, before we reach maturity, find life stale and unprofitable—" a twice-told tale vexing the dull ears of a drowsy man."
We are like the blasé policeman I met when I was waiting for a 'bus at Finchley one Bank Holiday. " A lot of people abroad today? " I said interrogatively.
" Yes," he said, " thahsands." " Where do most of them go this way? " " Oh, to Barnet. Though what they see in Barnet I can't make out. I never see nothin' in Barnet. " Perhaps they like to see the green fields and hear the birds," I said. "Well, perhaps," he replied, in the tone of one who tolerated follies which he was too enlightened to share.
" There'll be more at the Exhibition, I suppose? "
I said, hoping to turn his mind to the contemplation of a more cheerful subject. " The Exhibition! Well, I was down there on duty the day it was opened, and I never see such a poor show. Oh yes, the gardens; they're all right, but you can see gardens anywhere." Despairingly I mentioned Hampstead as a merry place on Bank Holiday. " Well, I never see nothin' in 'Ampstead myself. I dunno what the people go for. And there's the Garden City there, and crowds and crowds a-going to look at it. Well, what is there in it? That's what I asts. What-is-there-in-it? I never see nothin' in it."
The world of culture shares the policeman's physical ennui in a spiritual sense. It sees " nothing in it" We succeed in deadening the fresh intensity of the impression, and burying the miracle under the dust of the common day veiling it under names and formulas. " This green, flowery, rock-built earth, the trees, the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas; —that great deep sea of azure that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the black cloud fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail and rain; what is it? Ay, what? At bottom, we do not yet know; we can never know at all. It is not by our superior insight that we escape the difficulty; it is by our superior levity, our inattention, our want of insight. It is by not thinking that we cease to wonder at it. . .. This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whomsoever will think of it." It is this elemental faculty of wonder, of which Carlyle speaks, that distinguishes Mr. Chesterton from his contemporaries, and gives him kinship at once with the seers and the children. He is anathema to the erudite and the exact ; but he sees life in the large, with the eyes of the first man on the day of creation. As he says, in inscribing a book of Caldecott's pictures to a little friend of mine
This is the sort of book we like
You will not understand a word
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Life to him is a book of coloured pictures that he sees without external comment or exegesis. He sees it, as it were, at first hand, and shouts out his vision at the top of his voice. Hence the audacity that is so trying to the formalist who is governed by custom and authority. Hence the rain of paradoxes that he showers down. It is often suggested that these paradoxes are a conscious trick to attract attention that Mr. Chesterton stands on his head, as it were, to gather a crowd. I can conceive him standing on his head in Fleet Street in sheer joy at the sight of St. Paul's, but not in vanity, or with a view to a collection. The truth is that his paradox is his own comment on the coloured picture.
There are some men who hoard life as a miser hoards his gold map it out with frugal care and vast prescience, spend to-day in taking thought for to-morrow. Mr. Chesterton spends life like a prodigal. Economy has no place in his spacious vocabulary.
Economy," he might say, with Anthony Hope's Mr. Carter, " is going without something you do want in case you should some day want something which you probably won't want." Mr. Chesterton lives the unconsidered, untrammelled life. He simply rambles along without a thought of where he is going. If he likes the look of a road he turns down it, careless of where it may lead to. " He is announced to lecture at Bradford tonight," said a speaker, explaining his absence from a dinner. " Probably he will turn up at Edinburgh." He will wear no harness, learn no lessons, observe no rules. He is himself, Chesterton —not consciously or rebelliously, but unconsciously, like a natural element. St. Paul's School never had a more brilliant nor a less sedulous scholar. He did not win prizes, but he read more books, drew more pictures, wrote more poetry than any boy that ever played at going to school. His house was littered with books, filled with verses and grotesque drawings. All attempts to break him into routine failed. He tried the Slade School, and once even sat on a stool in an office. Think of it! G. K. C. in front of a ledger, adding up figures with romantic results figures that turned into knights in armour, broke into song, and, added together, produced paradoxes unknown to arithmetic! He saw the absurdity of it all. "A man must follow his vocation," he said with Falstaff, and his vocation is to have none.
And so he rambles along, engaged in an endless disputation, punctuated with gusts of Rabelaisian laughter, and leaving behind a litter of fragments. You may track him by the blotting-pads he decorates with his riotous fancies, and may come up with him in the midst of a group of children, for whom he is drawing hilarious pictures, or to whom he is revealing the wonders of his toy theatre, the chief child of his fancy and invention, or whom he is instructing in the darkly mysterious game of " Guyping," which will fill the day with laughter. " Well," said the aunt to the little boy who had been to tea with Mr. Chesterton, well, Frank, I suppose you have had a very instructive afternoon? " I don't know what that means," said Frank, but, oh! " with enthusiasm, " you should see Mr. Chesterton catch buns with his mouth." If you cannot find him, and Fleet Street looks lonely and forsaken, then be sure he has been spirited away to some solitary place by his wife, the keeper of his business conscience, to finish a book for which some publisher is angrily clamouring. For " No clamour, no book," is his maxim.
Mr. Chesterton's natural foil in these days is Mr. Bernard Shaw. Mr. Shaw is the type of revolt. The flesh we eat, the wine we drink, the clothes we wear, the laws we obey, the religion we affect all are an abomination to him. He would raze the whole fabric to the ground, and build it anew upon an ordered and symmetrical plan. Mr. Chesterton has none of this impatience with the external garment of society. He enjoys disorder and loves the haphazard. With Rossetti he might say, What is it to me whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun round the earth?
It is not the human intellect that interests him, but the human heart and the great comedy of life. He opposes ancient sympathies to new antipathies, hates modernism and science in all their aspects, and tends more and more to find refuge in miracles and mediaevalism. He is capable of believing any-thing that the reason repudiates, and can stoop on occasion to rather puerile juggling with phrases in order to carry his point. Thus, when someone says. " You cannot put the clock back," meaning that you cannot put events back, he answers with triumphant futility, " The reply is simply this: you can put the clock back." Johnson, with all his love of verbal victory, never got so low as this.
No man; indeed, was ever more careless of his reputation. He is indifferent whether from his abundant mine he shovels out diamonds or dirt.
You may take it or leave it, as you like. He cares not, and bears no malice. It is all a blithe improvisation, done in sheer ebullience of spirit and having no relation to conscious literature. He is like a child shouting with glee at the sight of the flowers and the sunshine, and chalking on every vacant hoarding he passes with a jolly rapture of invention and no thought beyond.
But there is one thing, and one only, about which he is serious, and that is his own seriousness. You may laugh with him and at him and about him. When, at a certain dinner, one of the speakers said that his chivalry was so splendid that he had been known to rise in a tramcar and " offer his seat to three ladies," it was his laugh that sounded high above all the rest. But if you would wound him, do not laugh at his specific gravity: doubt his spiritual gravity. Doubt his passion for justice and liberty and patriotism—most of all, his patriotism. For he is, above all, the lover of Little England, and the foe of the Imperialist, whose love of country is " not what a mystic means by the love of God, but what a child might mean by the love of jam." " My country, right or wrong! " he cries. " Why, it is a thing no patriot could say. It is like saying, ' My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt, if a decent man's mother took to drink, he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay in-difference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery. . . . We fall back upon gross and frivolous things for our patriotism. Our school-boys are left to live and die in the infantile type of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. We have made our public schools the strongest wall against a whisper of the honour of England. What have we done and where have we wandered, we that have produced sages who could have spoken with Socrates, and poets who could walk with Dante, that we should talk as if we had never done anything more intelligent than found colonies and kick niggers? We are the children of light, and it is we that sit in darkness. If we are judged, it will not be for the merely intellectual transgression of failing to appreciate other nations, but for the supreme spiritual transgression of failing to appreciate ourselves."
But sincere though he is, he loves the argument for its own sake. He is indifferent to the text. You may tap any subject you like: he will find it a theme on which to hang all the mystery of time and eternity. For the ordinary material cares of life he has no taste, almost no consciousness. He never knows the time of a train, has only a hazy notion of where he will dine, and the doings of tomorrow are as profound a mystery as the contents of his pocket. He dwells outside these things in the realm of ideas. Johnson said that when he and Savage walked one night round St. James' Square for want of a lodging, they were not at all depressed by their situation, but, in high spirits and brimful of patriotism, traversed the square for several hours, inveighed against the ministry, and " resolved that they would stand by their country." That is Mr. Chesterton's way. But he would not walk round St. James' Square. He would, in Johnson's circumstances, ride round and round in a cab even if he had to borrow the fare off the cabman. He is free from the tyranny of things. Though he lived in a tub he would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, for he would still have the universe for his intellectual inheritance.
I sometimes think that one moonlight night, when he is tired of Fleet Street, he will scale the walls of the Tower and clothe himself in a suit of giant mail, with shield and sword to match. He will come forth with vizor up and mount the battle-steed that champs its bit outside. And the clatter of his hoofs will ring through the quiet of the city night as he thunders through St. Paul's Churchyard and down Ludgate Hill and out on to the Great North Road. And then once more will be heard the cry of " St. George for Merry England ! " and there will be the clash of swords in the greenwood and brave deeds done on the King's highway.