Sunday, May 4, 2014

New Poems by G. K. Chesterton

Date originally posted to Facebook: February 13, 2011
Source of book: I own this.

I am slowly republishing my old reviews on the blog. I'm almost done! After that, I intend to figure out how to create an index of all the posts. Wish me luck.


I admit it. I’m an unabashed Chesterton fan. One of those larger than life personalities, his writing resembles a big, overripe tomato thrown at the staid conventional wisdom. Oddly, however, I had stuck to his prose, never really sampling the poetry.

Amanda found a nice used hardback collection for me for Christmas this year, and I dove in.

Like a few other artists of the early 20th century, Chesterton chose to follow the old styles and forms, rather than forging a new path. In that sense, he could be compared to Rachmaninoff, or perhaps even Sibelius with his “pure cold water”. Nevertheless, traditional forms are unable to contain his outsize ideas. Throughout, a word here or there will stick out with audacity, a piquant spice transforming a formerly predictable dish.

This particular book contains most of Chesterton’s poems, including “New Poems”, published in 1932, near the end of Chesterton’s life. My book prints the poems in reverse chronological order, oddly enough.

“New Poems” contains short poems about a variety of subjects. Some are very specific responses to current events, headlines, articles, and other poems. Representative of this type is:

            “On A Prohibitionist Poem”

            Though Shakespeare’s Mermaid, ociean’s mightiest daughter,
            With vintage could the seas incarnadine:
            And Keats’s name that was not writ in water
                        Was often writ in wine.

            Though wine that seeks the loftiest habitation
            Went to the heads of Villon and Verlaine,
            Yet Hiram Hopper needs no inspiration
                        But water on the brain.

(As I noted in my post on The Flying Inn, Chesterton correctly saw American Prohibition as an attempt to impose a moral code on the poor, particularly African Americans – a code ignored by the wealthy, of course.)

Others are about timeless subjects. One of my favorite examples:

“The World State”

Oh, how I love Humanity,
  With love so pure and pringlish,
And how I hate the horrid French,
  Who never will be English!

The International Idea,
  The largest and the clearest,
Is welding all the nations now,
  Except the one that’s nearest.

This compromise has long been known,
  This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
  And small suburban gardens—

The villas and the chapels where
  I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
  And hate my next-door neighbour.

Still others are delicious parodies.

In his extended poem, “Answers to the Poets”, Chesterton imagines such things as Lucasta replying to Lovelace, and the monk in the Spanish cloister replying to Browning. I am particularly fond of the following from his anonymous response “To a Modern Poet”:

            But I am very unobservant.
                                    I cannot say
            I ever noticed that the pillar box
                        was like a baby
                                    skinned alive and screaming.
                                    I have not
                                    a Poet’s
                        which can see Beauty

I also recommend reading “Variations of an Air”, which consists of Chesterton’s imagining of what “Old King Cole” would sound like if written by Tennyson, Yeats, Browning, Swinburne, and best of all, Whitman. This is easily found online, although many versions inexplicably omit the final verse in the style of Swinburne.

It will be an adventure to return to Chesterton at regular intervals as I continue my poetry project.

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