G. K. Chesterton's Non-Fictional Prose

Feast of St Joel the Prophet

I HAVE always enjoyed Chesterton’s poetry and fiction, but I must admit that, until I started work on a selection for a publisher, it was many years since I had read any of his non-fictional prose.

The reasons for my neglect were, I think, two. Firstly, his reputation as an anti-Semite. Though he denied the charge and did, certainly, denounce Hitler’s persecution, he cannot, I fear, be completely exonerated.

I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of any other nation on the planet: it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual. . . . I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.

The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation to the term race. It is always permissible to criticize a nation (including Israel), a religion (including Orthodox Judaism), or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will: a nation, a religion, a culture can always reform themselves, if they so choose. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter. If it were true, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suppose that it is, that certain moral defects or virtues are racially inherited, they could not become the subject for moral judgment by others. That Chesterton should have spoken of the Jews as a race is particularly odd, since few writers of his generation denounced with greater contempt racial theories about Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, etc. I myself am inclined to put most of the blame on the influence of his brother and of Hilaire Belloc, and on the pernicious influence, both upon their generation and upon the succeeding generation of Eliot and Pound, exerted by the Action Française Movement. Be that as it may, it remains a regrettable blemish upon the writings of a man who was, according to the universal testimony of all who met him, an extraordinarily ‘decent’ human being, astonishingly generous of mind and warm of heart.

My second reason for neglecting Chesterton was that I imagined him to be what he himself claimed, just a ‘Jolly Journalist’, a writer of weekly essays on ‘amusing’ themes, such as What I found in my Pockets, On Lying in Bed, The Advantage of having one Leg, A Piece of Chalk, The Glory of Grey, Cheese and so forth.

In his generation, the Essay as a form of belles-lettres was still popular: in addition to Chesterton himself, there were a number of writers, Max Beerbohm, E. V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, for example, whose literary reputations rested largely upon their achievements in this genre. Today tastes have changed. We can appreciate a review or a critical essay devoted to a particular book or author, we can enjoy a discussion of a specific philosophical problem or political event, but we can no longer derive any pleasure from the kind of essay which is a fantasia upon whatever chance thoughts may come into the essayist’s head.

My objection to the prose fantasia is the same as my objection to ‘free’ verse (to which Chesterton also objected), namely, that, while excellent examples of both exist, they are the exception not the rule. All too often the result of the absence of any rules and restrictions, of a meter to which the poet must conform, or a definite subject to which the essayist must stick, is a repetitious and self-indulgent ‘show-off’ of the writer’s personality and stylistic mannerisms.

Chesterton’s insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me. Thus E. C. Bentley writes:

To live in this way was his deliberate choice. There can be no doubt of that, for it was a hard life, and a much easier one lay nearby to his hand. As a writer of books, as a poet, he had an assured position, and an inexhaustible fund of ideas: the friends who desired him to make the most of his position were many. But G. K. Chesterton preferred the existence of a regular contributor to the Press, bound by iron rules as to space and time. Getting his copy to the office before it was too late was often a struggle. Having to think of a dead-line at all was always an inconvenience.

Whatever Chesterton’s reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake. “A journalist,” says Karl Kraus, “is stimulated by a dead-line: he writes worst if he has time.” If this is correct, then Chesterton was not, by nature, a journalist. His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full-length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased. (In fact, in my selection, I took very little from his volumes of collected essays.) Oddly enough, since he so detested them, Chesterton inherited from the aesthetes of the eighties and nineties the conviction that a writer should be continuously ‘bright’ and epigrammatic. When he is really enthralled by a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English literature, but, when his imagination is not fully held he can write an exasperating parody of himself, and this is most likely to happen when he has a dead-line to meet.

It is always difficult for a man as he grows older to ‘keep up’ with the times, to understand what the younger generation is thinking and writing well enough to criticize it intelligently; for an overworked journalist like Chesterton it is quite impossible, since he simply does not have the time to read any new book carefully enough.

He was, for example, certainly intelligent enough and, judging by his criticisms of contemporary anthropology, equipped enough, to have written a serious critical study of Freud, had he taken the time and trouble to read him properly: his few flip remarks about dreams and psycho-analysis are proof that he did not.

Chesterton’s non-fictional prose has three concerns, literature, politics and religion.

Our day has seen the emergence of two kinds of literary critic, the documentor and the cryptologist. The former with meticulous accuracy collects and publishes every unearthable fact about an author’s life, from his love-letters to his dinner invitations and laundry bills, on the assumption that any fact, however trivial, about the man may throw light upon his writings. The latter approaches his work as if it were anonymous and immensely difficult text, written in a private language which the ordinary reader cannot hope to understand until it is deciphered for him by experts. Both such critics will no doubt dismiss Chesterton’s literary criticism as out-of-date, inaccurate and superficial, but if one were to ask any living novelist or poet which kind of critic he would personally prefer to write about his work, I have no doubt as to the answer. Every writer knows that certain events in his life, most of them in childhood, have been of decisive importance in forming his personal imaginative world, the kinds of things he likes to think about, the qualities in human beings he particularly admires or detests. He also knows that many things which are of great importance to him as a man, are irrelevant to his imagination. In the case of a love-poem, for example, no light is thrown upon either its content or its style by discovering the identity of the poet’s beloved.

This Chesterton understands. He thought, for example, that certain aspects of Dickens’ novels are better understood if we remember that, as a child, Dickens was expected to put on public performances to amuse his father, so he informs us of this fact. On the other hand, he thought that we shall not understand the novels any better if we learn all the details about the failure of Dickens’ marriage, so he omits them. In both cases, surely, he is right.

Again, while some writers are more ‘difficult’ than others and cannot therefore hope to reach a very wide audience, no writer thinks he needs decoding in order to be understood. On the other hand, nearly every writer who has achieved some reputation complains of being misunderstood both by the critics and the public, because they come to work with preconceived notions of what they are going to find in it. His admirers praise him and his detractors blame him for what, to him, seem imaginary reasons. The kind of critic an author hopes for is someone who will dispell these preconceived notions so that his readers may come to his writings with fresh eyes.

At this task of clearing the air, Chesterton was unusually efficient. It is popularly believed that a man who keeps making jokes is not in earnest. The belief is not ill-founded since, more often than not, this is true. But there are exceptions and, as Chesterton pointed out, Bernard Shaw was one. The public misunderstood Shaw and thought him just a clown when, in fact, he was above all things a deadly serious preacher. In the case of Browning, Chesterton shows that many of his admirers had misunderstood him by reading into his obscurer passages intellectual profundities when in fact the poet was simply indulging his love of the grotesque. Again, he shows us that Stevenson’s defect as a narrator was not, as it had become conventional to say, an over-ornate style but an over-ascetic one, a refusal to tell the reader anything about a character that was not absolutely essential. As a rule, it is journalism and literary gossip that is responsible for such misunderstandings; occasionally, though, it can be the author himself. Kipling would certainly have described himself as a patriotic Englishman who admired above all else the military virtues. In an extremely funny essay, Chesterton convincingly demonstrated that Kipling was really a cosmopolitan with no local roots, and he quotes in proof Kipling’s own words:

If England were what England seems,
How soon we’d chuck her, but She ain’t.

A patriot loves a country because, for better or worse, it is his. Kipling is only prepared to love England so long as England is a Great Power. As for Kipling’s militarism, Chesterton says:

Kipling’s subject is not that valor which properly belongs to war, but that interdependence and efficiency which belongs quite as much to engineers, or sailors, or mules, or railway engines. . . . The real poetry, the ‘true romance’ which Mr. Kipling has taught is the romance of division of labor and the discipline of all the trades. He sings the arts of peace much more accurately than the arts of war.

Chesterton’s literary criticism abounds in such observations which, once they have been made, seem so obviously true that one cannot understand why one had not seen them for oneself. It now seems obvious to us all that Shaw, the socialist, was in no sense a democrat but was a great republican; that there are two kinds of democrat, the man who, like Scott, sees the dignity of all men, and the man who, like Dickens, sees that all men are equally interesting and varied; that Milton was really an aesthete whose greatness “does not depend upon moral earnestness or upon anything connected with morality, but upon style alone, a style rather unusually separated from its substance”; that the Elizabethan Age, however brilliant, was not ‘spacious’, but in literature an age of conceits, in politics an age of conspiracies. But Chesterton was the first critic to see these things. As a literary critic, therefore, I rank him very high.

For various reasons I selected very little from his writings on historical and political subjects. Chesterton was not himself an historian, but he had both the gift and the position to make known to the general public the views of historians, like Belloc, who were challenging the Whig version of English History and the humanists’ version of cultural history. It must be difficult for anyone under forty to realize how taken for granted both of these were, even when I was a boy. Our school textbooks taught us that, once the papist-inclined and would-be tyrants, the Stuarts, had been got rid of, and the Protestant Succession assured, the road to Freedom, Democracy and Progress lay wide open; they also taught us that the civilization which had ended with the fall of the Roman Empire was re-born in the sixteenth century, between which dates lay twelve centuries of barbarism, superstition and fanaticism. If today every informed person knows both accounts to be untrue, that the political result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was to hand over the government of the country to a small group of plutocrats, a state of affairs which certainly persisted until 1914, perhaps even until 1939, and that, whatever the Renaissance and the Reformation might signify, it was not a revolt of reason against fanaticism – on the contrary, it might be more fairly described as a revolt against the over-cultivation of logic by the late Middle Ages – Chesterton is not the least among those persons who are responsible for this change of view. The literary problem about any controversial writing is that, once it has won its battle, its interest to the average reader is apt to decline. Controversy always involves polemical exaggeration and it is this of which, once we have forgotten the exaggerations of the other side, we shall be most aware and critical. Thus, Chesterton’s insistence, necessary at the time, upon all that was good in the twelfth century, his glossing over of all that was bad, seems today a romantic day-dream. Similarly, one is unconvinced by Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, that if, when the monasteries were dissolved, the Crown had taken their revenues instead of allowing them to fall into the hands of a few of its subjects, the Crown would have used its power, not only to keep these few in order, but also for the benefit of the common people. The history of countries like France where the Crown remained stronger than the nobility gives no warrant for such optimism. Absolute monarchs who are anxious to win glory are much more likely to waste the substance of their country in wars of conquest than plutocrats who are only interested in making money.

Chesterton’s negative criticisms of modern society, his distrust of bigness, big business, big shops, his alarm at the consequences of undirected and uncontrolled technological development, are even more valid today than in his own. His positive political beliefs, that a good society would be a society of small property-owners, most of them living on the land, attractive as they sound, seem to me open to the same objection that he brings against the political ideas of the Americans and the French in the eighteenth century: “Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great.” In the twentieth century, the England he wanted would pre-suppose the strictest control of the birth-rate, a policy which both his temperament and his religion forbade him to recommend.

On the subject of international politics, Chesterton was, to put it mildly, unreliable. He seems to have believed that, in political life, there is a direct relation between Faith and Morals: a Catholic State, holding the true faith, will behave better politically than a Protestant State. France, Austria, Poland were to be trusted; Prussia was not. It so happened that, in his early manhood, the greatest threat to world peace lay, as he believed, in Prussian militarism. After its defeat in 1918, he continued to cling to his old belief so that, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he misread this as a Prussian phenomenon. In fact, aside from the economic conditions which enabled it to succeed, the National Socialist Movement was essentially the revenge of Catholic Bavaria and Austria for their previous subordination to Protestant Bismarckian Prussia. It was not an accident that Hitler was a lapsed Catholic. The nationalism of the German-speaking minority of the Hapsburg Empire had always been racist, and the hot-bed of anti-Semitism was Vienna not Berlin. Hitler himself hated the Prussian Junkers and was planning, if he won the war, to liquidate them all.

Chesterton was brought up a Unitarian, became an Anglican and finally, in 1922, was converted to Roman Catholicism. Today, reading such a book as Heretics, published in 1905, one is surprised that he was not converted earlier.

If his criticisms of Protestantism are not very interesting, this is not his fault. It was a period when Protestant theology (and, perhaps, Catholic too) was at a low ebb, Kierkegaard had not been re-discovered and Karl Barth had not yet been translated. Small fry like Dean Inge and the ineffable Bishop Barnes were too easy game for a mind of his caliber. Where he is at his best is in exposing the hidden dogmas of anthropologists, psychologists and their ilk who claim to be purely objective and ‘scientific’. Nobody has written more intelligently and sympathetically about mythology or polytheism.

Critical Judgment and Personal Taste are different kinds of evaluation which always overlap but seldom coincide exactly. On the whole and in the long run, Critical Judgment is a public matter; we agree as to what we consider artistic virtues and artistic defects. Our personal tastes, however, differ. For each of us, there are writers whom we enjoy reading, despite their defects, and others who, for all their virtues, give us little pleasure. In order for us to find a writer ‘sympathetic’, there must be some kinship between his imaginative preferences and our own. As Chesterton wrote:

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secrete planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about.

This is equally true of every reader’s mind. Our personal patterns, too, unlike our scale of critical values, which we need much time and experience to arrive at, are formed quite early in life, probably before the age of ten. In “The Ethics of Elfland” Chesterton tells us how his own pattern was derived from fairy-stories. If I can always enjoy reading him, even at his silliest, I am sure the reason is that man elements in my own pattern are derived from the same source. (There is one gulf between us: Chesterton had no feeling for or understanding of music.) There are, I know, because I have met them, persons to whom Grimm and Anderson mean little or nothing: Chesterton will not be for them.

*Originally published as an Introduction to G. K. Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1970).

G. K. Chesterton was the prince of paradox. A British writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, novelist, journalist, orator, biographer, lay theologian, and literary and art critic, this early twentieth century giant was a great defender of orthodox Christianity and has been described by Dr. Ralph Wood as the Father of the Inklings.

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