(This is part of my series entitled “Who is G. K. Chesterton”, which started here.)
Today G. K. Chesterton is known for his works on philosophy and religion, his detective stories, his novels, his history books, his literary and artistic criticism, his speeches, his debates, his newspaper columns, and his travelogues, among other things. During his lifetime, he was best known for his poetry. It is hard to imagine how a man who wrote prose so prolifically also found time to be a great poet, but that’s Chesterton for you.
How many poems did Chesterton write? Nobody knows; just as with the cells in the human body, there are so many that no one bothers to count. Certainly he wrote well over a thousand poems, and most of them were not short. All of them are tied together by a strong understanding of what poetry should be. First and foremost it should rhyme and have meter.
So moderns believe that rhyme and meter are bad things, that they’re cumbersome, limit the poet, and stifle his expression. Chesterton is a one-man rebuttal to this argument. His poetry ranges over every imaginable subject and every imaginable style and mood. He wrote poetry about depressing issues in a dark and somber mood. He wrote about the joy of living in a light and playful mood. He also wrote about depressing issues in a light and playful mood.
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Followed a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
This marvelous little bit of doggerel captures the spirit of Chesterton’s poetry in twelve short lines. It is quick and amusing but it has a point, and it comes to a point in the final line. Just as with his prose, Chesterton did not write poetry with no purpose. The same teeming mind that made him one of the most skilled debaters and commentators of his day also gave his poetry special oomph, as he packed his feeling about everything from politics to religion to poverty, war, and aesthetics into his lines.
Much of Chesterton’s poetry is humorous; much is not. When he wanted to, he could write verse with dramatic flair to match the greatest poets of any age.
A word came forth in Galilee, a word like to a star;
It climbed and rang and blessed and burnt wherever brave hearts are;
A word of sudden secret hope, of trial and increase
Of wrath and pity fused in fire, and passion kissing peace.
A star that o’er the citied world beckoned, a sword of flame;
A star with myriad thunders tongued: a mighty word there came.
(This comes from A Word, which is well worth reading in its entirety.)
If the fact that the lines in this passage are much longer than in the first one caught your notice, it should. Chesterton was remarkably versatile, and was able to beat trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, and even heptameter into submission. He was equally versatile with his rhyme schemes, Though couplets or a standard ABAB pattern were his favorites, he could employ just about any other that you’d care to name.
Chesterton’s poetry was also not limited to merely to making points and jokes. He lamented the fact that modern poetry had abandoned character and story, and he sought to reverse that trend. In various poems he took readers inside the mind of a barbarian warrior, a Belgian widow, and old man, an unborn child, a donkey, and a skeleton, just to name a few. He could put narrative into verse with the same skill that he displayed in his short stories; perhaps even a little bit more skill. Consider the opening verse from The Last Hero.
The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,
There was a wreck of trees and fall of towers a score of miles away,
And drifted like a livid leaf I go before its tide,
Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.
The heavens are bowed about my head, shouting like seraph wars,
With rains that might put out the sun and clean the sky of stars,
Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above,
The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love.
Feast in my hall, O foemen, and eat and drink and drain,
You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain.
This establishes the setting, main character, and plot right off the bat. Once again, I urge you not to deprive yourself of reading the entire poem.
In the year 1911, all the qualities that make Chesterton’s poetry great rolled together in one epic masterpiece. Lepanto tells the true story of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Ottoman Empire sought to conquer Italy and eventually push westward to destroy western civilization. Most of the monarchs in western Europe were too corrupt or self-absorbed to come to Italy’s defense, but then a solitary hero, Don John of Austria stepped forward to lead a fleet of ships. As Chesterton puts it:
- Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
- Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
- Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
- The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
- The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
- That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
- In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
- Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
- Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
- Don John of Austria is going to the war,
- Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
- In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
- Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
- Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
- Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
- Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
- Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
- Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
- Death-light of Africa!
- Don John of Austria
- Is riding to the sea.
This parade of sounds and images, metaphors and historical references is just one verse in a poem of several hundred lines. One of Chesterton’s master stroke during this poem was to constantly rotate perspective, telling the story from the vantage point of many different characters, some historical, some mythological. In the grand conclusion, Chesterton sets things up the same way that epic poets have set up battle scenes since the time of Homer and Virgil, by introducing the leaders on both sides. He brings us a picture of the Pope in Rome praying for victory, then sweeps across the sea to show us the Ottoman Sultans on their ships. Then, in a move of triumph and daring, Chesterton takes us below decks to meet a group that’s never been mentioned in epic poetry before: the hopeless galley slaves of the Ottoman fleet, enslaved after their cities were captured by the Turks and now chained to oars, living in their own filth, given barely enough to keep them alive and working the oars. With this unexpected picture, typical of how Chesterton uses perspectives that no else cares for, Chesterton brings the poem to a crescendo.
- The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
- (Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
- The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
- The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
- He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
- The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
- They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
- They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
- And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
- And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
- Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
- Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
- They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
- The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
- They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
- Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
- And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
- Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
- And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
- (But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
- Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
- Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
- Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
- Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
- Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
- White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
- Vivat Hispania!
- Domino Gloria!
- Don John of Austria
- Has set his people free!
No other English poet wrote like this during the twentieth century. One would have to head back to Shakespeare and Milton to find anyone from previous centuries who could match it.