Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Ballad of St. Barbara by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.


My relationship to G. K. Chesterton has gotten more complicated in the last few years. When I started this blog, I was a pretty big fan of his, for a number of really good reasons. 


When my politics and religion started to shift, I started to see some cracks in his image, but perhaps more so was just seeing a bit of his more reactionary views as I read more. 


So, where I am right now is that I still love a lot about Chesterton, but I wince at his sexism (he was big on gender roles), jingoism (he defends the British Empire even as he critiques it), and firm belief that Catholicism is the most true religion ever. So much for the bad stuff. 

 On the plus side, he has been on my “dream dinner party” invite list since I first assembled one in my teens, and I would absolutely still invite him. For one thing, he would be endlessly entertaining (he had a reputation during his lifetime for that.) But also, he was famously good friends with
George Bernard Shaw, who was on the other side of the aisle both religious (GBH was an atheist) and political (GBH was a pretty radical socialist for his time.) That they traded barbs in the press and in their writing didn’t prevent them from being friends - and I think they each softened each other’s views in some ways. The key, of course, is that both were on the same side, so to speak, of the great moral questions. They shared the goal of the common good, but disagreed about how best to get there. Finally, Chesterton was introspective and questioned himself as much as anyone. This essential humility and good nature made him hard to hate. 


The reasons I like Chesterton’s writing are easy to understand. He is often hilarious - his writing brims with good humor, self deprecation, and goofy scenarios. I first discovered him through his Father Brown mysteries - that was actually the first book I special ordered as a teen. It was The Ball and the Cross that blew my mind in significant ways and still is part of how I view the world. The idea that the sincere religious person and the sincere atheist have more in common than they do with those who don’t care still strikes me as a profound truth. As readers of this blog know, I care about my religion, and have found that I actually share a lot with some atheist friends because we do care. Of course, religion in this sense isn’t the vicious tribalism of white Evangelicalism or Wahabbist Islam, but a pursuit of truth and goodness and transcendence. GBH and Chesterton could be friends because they were allies in the important ways, not enemies bent on destroying anyone different from them. 


Over the years of blogging, I have written about a number of Chesterton works, although it has been a while (6 years?) since I last read anything of his. The Trump Era kind of turned me off to a lot of “Christianity” and “Christian” writers, honestly, and I have very gently returned to some of my favorites. (For what it is worth, Christina Rossetti has held up very well. C. S. Lewis fairly well. And Chesterton, fairly well too. Good writers and thinkers are timeless even when they have feet of clay.) You can read my other reviews linked at the end of this post. 


Anyway, this book is a collection of poems published in 1922. That date is important, because it is the first that Chesterton wrote after World War One. Although most of the world was changed by that war, it really was England, France, and Germany who saw an entire generation decimated in the bloodiest conflict Europe had ever known. The writers of that era, whether they served or not, were haunted by the war, and Chesterton was no exception. 


This collection, therefore, has a number of war poems. Some of these are annoyingly patriotic. You know, Olde Merry England and all that - contrast Wilfred Owen for someone who actually fought. But there are others that are thoughtful, and acknowledge the terrible price paid. I think it was too soon to realize just what a senseless war it was, even by the low standard of stupid wars. And, of course, the ultimate result of the war - another world war - wasn’t yet anticipated. 


Chesterton’s poetry is more uneven than his prose, in my experience. Some are just clunkers, awkward and unmusical. Others are fine, but nothing special. And a few are really good, if not in the pantheon. Here are my highlights from this collection. 


The title poem notes that St. Barbara is the patron saint of those in danger of sudden death - and also of artillery. Which, what? (Apparently also of mathematicians, although Chesterton doesn’t mention that.) So, the longish ballad is about artillery and death in the war. It is too long to quote, and some parts are more interesting than others. However, this stanza struck me as quite good:


“There was an end of Ilium; and an end came to Rome;

And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;

Arch after arch of triumph, but floor falling beyond floor,

That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.” 


That’s a pretty good image. I also think it is the most convincing of the ideas about war that Chesterton puts forward through the course of the poem. 


The best war poem in the book, however, is this one, which is outstanding in so many ways. 


“For a War Memorial”


The hucksters haggle in the mart

The cars and carts go by;

Senates and schools go droning on;

For dead things cannot die.


A storm stooped on the place of tombs

With bolts to blast and rive;

But these be names of many men

The lightning found alive.


If usurers rule and rights decay

And visions view once more

Great Carthage like a golden shell

Gape hollow on the shore,


Still to the last of crumbling time

Upon this stone be read

How many men of England died

To prove they were not dead.


Many of Chesterton’s poems are about religion. For the most part, they are the weaker ones, in my opinion. Probably, I am spoiled by Rossetti, whose sacred works are incredibly deep and perfectly crafted. Or Donne, who needs no explanation. One of the poems did, however, stand out to me. 


“The Sword of Surprise”


Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God

Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;

That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods

May marvel as much at these.


Sunder me from my blood that in the dark

I hear that red ancestral river run

Like branching buried floods that find the sea

But never see the sun.


Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes

Those rolling mirrors made alive in me

Terrible crystals more incredible

Than all the things they see


Sunder me from my soul, that I may see

The sins like streaming wounds, the life's brave beat

Till I shall save myself as I would save

A stranger in the street.


Several of the poems are delightfully creative. “The Old Song” is a riff on “London Bridge,” the old nursery song, expressing sorrow at both the industrialization that has remade London and also the death of so many (probably a war reference.) I won’t quote it, but you can read it here


There are two cyclical poems in the collection, both of which I enjoyed. The first is “For Five Guilds,” namely, glass-stainers, bridge-builders, stone-masons, bell-ringers, and shipwrights. Chesterton take the three that are obviously connected to the making of cathedrals, and ties in the other two as doing the same in the great cathedral of the outdoors. Meters and styles vary by section, giving an interesting flavor to each. So, just to give an example, the Bell-ringers get a swinging rhythm, while the Stone-masons have a stolid feel. There was one line that I loved:


We have graven the forest of heaven with hands,

Being great with a mirth too gross for pride,

In the stone that battered him Stephen stands

And Peter himself is petrified.


The second cycle is “Songs of Education,” which gets a laugh at various subjects. I both love and hate this poem. At its best, it is hilarious and very much on point. At its worst, it has a section that essentially goes after women for working rather than being full-time child care. Which is a sore point for me, and also notable because Chesterton says nothing about absent fathers. Rather, he whines about feminism, blah blah. So that was a sour note in an otherwise excellent and amusing poem. So, let’s look at the good parts. First up, “History.” 



Form 991785, Sub-Section D


The Roman threw us a road, a road,

And sighed and strolled away:

The Saxon gave us a raid, a raid,

A raid that came to stay;

The Dane went west, but the Dane confessed

That he went a bit too far;

And we all became, by another name,

The Imperial race we are.


The Imperial race, the inscrutable race,

The invincible race we are.


Though Sussex hills are bare, are bare,

And Sussex weald is wide,

From Chichester to Chester

Men saw the Norman ride;

He threw his sword in the air and sang

To a sort of a light guitar;

It was all the same, for we all became

The identical nobs we are.


The identical nobs, individual nobs,

Unmistakable nobs we are.


The people lived on the land, the land,

They pottered about and prayed;

They built a cathedral here and there

Or went on a small crusade:

Till the bones of Becket were bundled out

For the fun of a fat White Czar,

And we all became, in spoil and flame,

The intelligent lot we are.


The intelligent lot, the intuitive lot,

The infallible lot we are.


O Warwick woods are green, are green,

But Warwick trees can fall:

And Birmingham grew so big, so big,

And Stratford stayed so small.

Till the hooter howled to the morning lark

That sang to the morning star:

And we all became, in freedom's name,

The fortunate chaps we are.


The fortunate chaps, felicitous chaps,

The fairy-like chaps we are.


The people, they left the land, the land,

But they went on working hard:

And the village green that had got mislaid

Turned up in the squire's back-yard:

But twenty men of us all got work

On a bit of his motor car;

And we all became, with the world's acclaim,

The marvelous mugs we are:


The marvelous mugs, miraculous mugs,

The mystical mugs we are.


That’s practically the history of white America too, isn’t it? We came from all over, but now we are the imperial race, justified in excluding others. A great example of using humor to make some good points. Likewise, the one on geography is fire. 



Form 17955301, Sub-Section Z


The earth is a place on which England is found,

And you find it however you twirl the globe round;

For the spots are all red and the rest is all grey,

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.


Gibraltar's a rock that you see very plain,

And attached to its base is the district of Spain.

And the island of Malta is marked further on,

Where some natives were known as the Knights of St. John.


Then Cyprus, and east to the Suez Canal,

That was conquered by Dizzy and Rothschild his pal

With the Sword of the Lord in the old English way:

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.


Our principal imports come far as Cape Horn;

For necessities, cocoa; for luxuries, corn;

Thus Brahmins are born for the rice-field, and thus,

The Gods made the Greeks to grow currants for us;

Of earth's other tributes are plenty to choose,

Tobacco and petrol and Jazzing and Jews:

The Jazzing will pass but the Jews they will stay;

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.


Our principle exports, all labelled and packed,

At the ends of the earth are delivered intact:

Our soap or our salmon can travel in tins

Between the two poles and as like as two pins;

So that Lancashire merchants whenever they like

Can water the beer of a man in Klondike

Or poison the meat of a man in Bombay;

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.


The day of St. George is a musty affair

Which Russians and Greeks are permitted to share;

The day of Trafalgar is Spanish in name

And the Spaniards refuse to pronounce it the same;

But the day of the Empire from Canada came

With Morden and Borden and Beaverbrook's fame

And saintly seraphical souls such as they:

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.


The ones on math and citizenship are amusing in their own way. But I will end with the last one, “Hygiene,” which starts by quoting the Eugenic Congress on the importance of sleep. Chesterton spoofs all of the silliness involved with keeping kids indoors, then making them exercise (rather than just letting them climb trees), breathing exercises, and of course, the question of when to rise. It is unclear if Chesterton was a morning person or not, but as a decidedly non-morning person myself, I have to laugh at the last bit. 


The Early Bird catches the worm, 

The Worm that dieth not. 


Take that! Ya early birds! Just kidding. Do what works for you. 


So, while a mixed bag, there was a lot to enjoy in this collection. I’ll have to get back to reading Chesterton from time to time and see how I feel about him, but this was a good start. 




Other Chesterton posts:


The Flying Inn



The Man Who Knew Too Much

New Poems


St. Francis of Assisi


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