"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘rhyme’

Another Robert Service poem

Well, it’s been three days since I posted anything.  Normally I’d at least have an excuse, but I can’t say that I’ve been busy.  I had oodles of spare time this weekend.  I just couldn’t come up with any great thoughts that were worth posting.  In lieu of those, I offer another Robert Service poem.


The Spell of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it,
  I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy — I fought it;
  I hurled my youth into a grave.

I wanted the gold, and I got it —
  Came out with a fortune last fall, —
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
  And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
  It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
  To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

Some say God was tired when He made it;
  Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
  For no land on earth — and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
  You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
  And then you are worse than the worst.

It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
  It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
  It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
  That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
  In crimson and gold, and grow dim,

Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
  And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
  With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
  The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
  The bighorn asleep on the hill.

The strong life that never knows harness;
  The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness —
  O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
  The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
  The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

The snows that are older than history,
  The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
  I’ve bade ’em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
  And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
  And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
  There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
  And I want to go back — and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
  I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
  I’ll pike to the Yukon again.

I’ll fight — and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
  It’s hell! — but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite —
  So me for the Yukon once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
  It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
  So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
  It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
  It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

– Robert Service


Introduction to Chesterton: The Poetry

(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.

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 2)

(This post picks up where part 1 left off.)

As I’ve already mentioned twice, Chesterton wrote an enormous amount in many different forms and genres.  He also wrote in many different literary styles and employed them all with great success, a trick that few authors can claim.  Yet despite all that, there’s very little danger of confusing Chesterton’s writing with anyone else’s.  His personality is so distinctive and shines forth so clearly in his writing that he’s nearly impossible to miss.  Now we’re left with the task of figuring out exactly what it is that defines Chesterton.

Chesterton was big on common sense.  He believed in the things which the mass or ordinary people believed in.  He also believed in traditions, habits, and customs, with a view that the received wisdom of earlier generations was a bulkwark against untested ideologies.  Once can see this in his approach to nearly any topic.  One of the most obvious is in poetry.  Chesterton thought that poetry should rhyme and have meter.  His own poetry certainly did.  In this, he was moving against the current of contemporary English poets who were busy experimenting with free verse and other such nonsense.

Or, to take another example, Chesterton stuck to traditional modes of storytelling in his fiction.  All of his stories begin at the start and move linearly to the end.  They have an omniscient narrator, a clear plot, and well-defined characters.  Chesterton did not mess around with stream-of-consciousness, disjointed non-linear plots, or other post-modernist tricks.  He stuck with the literary techniques that had worked for centuries.

It would be a gross error, though, to conclude that Chesterton wanted his writing to be dull and predictable.  He was always trying to surprise us, catch us off guard, hit us where we least expect it.

These two themes–respect for tradition and constant surprise–may seem contradictory.  Indeed they are contradictory, and the contradiction lies at the heart of Chesterton.  His goal was to help the reader see old things in new ways.  He was not concerned with inventing new styles or new viewpoints.  To him, the existing styles and viewpoints were just fine.  Rather, he was worried that people were losing sight of things that should be immediately evident.  He sought to point out those things in ways so unexpected that we’d have to think about them.

Lest this become too abstract, here’s an example from the famous essay On Lying in Bed.

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom. Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the colour in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled colour like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed, the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.

But for the beautiful experiment of lying in bed I might never have discovered it. For years I have been looking for some blank spaces in a modern house to draw on. Paper is much too small for any really allegorical design; as Cyrano de Bergerac says, “Il me faut des géants.” But when I tried to find these fine clear spaces in the modern rooms such as we all live in I was continually disappointed. I found an endless pattern and complication of small objects hung like a curtain of fine links between me and my desire. I examined the walls; I found them to my surprise to be already covered with wallpaper, and I found the wallpaper to be already covered with uninteresting images, all bearing a ridiculous resemblance to each other. I could not understand why one arbitrary symbol (a symbol apparently entirely devoid of any religious or philosophical significance) should thus be sprinkled all over my nice walls like a sort of small-pox. The Bible must be referring to wallpapers, I think, when it says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do.” I found the Turkish carpet a mass of unmeaning colours, rather like the Turkish Empire, or like the sweetmeat called Turkish Delight. I do not exactly know what Turkish Delight really is; but I suppose it is Armenian Massacres. Everywhere that I went forlornly, with my pencil or my paint brush, I found that others had unaccountably been before me, spoiling the walls, the curtains, and the furniture with their childish and barbaric designs.

Those two paragraphs have everything that we expect from Chesterton: humor, literary and Biblical references, political commentary, and clever wordplay.  What you might almost miss is that it’s all about things that are utterly everyday, namely ceilings and walls.  Now we all see at least one ceiling and four walls per day, usually more, but how often do we actually think about them?  Virtually never, of course.  We think about things that we can’t see, such as the budget deficit or carbohydrates or the War in Afghanistan.  We do not think about the ceiling or the walls because we’ve seen them tens of thousands of times.  We’re not likely to ever think about them unless Chesterton points them out.

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