Monday, 29 September 2014

Penguin no. 1068: Essays and Poems
by G.K. Chesterton

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we very little like. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent.

It seems that the newspapers for which G.K. Chesterton wrote permitted their journalists considerable freedom in the choice of subject matter, and that this was a liberty of which Chesterton took full advantage. This collection of 29 essays and 28 poems, selected by William Sheed, covers a wide range of topics including the trivial - such as the correct pronunciation of the word tomato; the literary - considering David Copperfield and the Browning love letters; and the religious, in his discussion of the protestant attitude to Mary.

But such a slim volume can only provide the smallest sample of Chesterton's work, as he was an unusually prolific writer: he wrote hundreds of poems and thousands of essays during his journalism career, in addition to his novels and his plays and the short stories which recount the experiences of the amiable priest-detective Father Brown.

William Sheed suggests in his introduction that Chesterton's prolificity was a product of his exceptional creative abilities and of his impatience, but there were also times when it proved to be his weakness: as he could write effortlessly, and with an abundance of ingenious ideas and original observations, he tended to rely on these abilities rather than seeking improvements in style and form. While recognising the charm and artistry of his writing, he argues that some of Chesterton's prose comes across as hurried and unfinished, and at times his work seems to have the quality of a capable first draft. But if this is so it doesn't detract from the experience of reading the essays, as it is the originality of Chesterton's observations which make them so interesting to read.

Chesterton tended to begin with a paradox, considering the most familiar of situations while drawing the most unorthodox of conclusions, and eventually arguing for almost the opposite of the contemporary view. He recognised the precariousness of arguments built up from any premise, and argues for a recognition of all the assumptions which underpin the reasoning. And he often supports his views by some appeal to tradition or history.

I have seen it written that Chesterton had a reputation as an Anti-Semite, though there is nothing in this selection which would convey such an impression. There is a little mild unthinking racism, but nothing stronger than that you often see in much writing from this era. What does come across clearly, though, is his unfailing and deep opposition to fashionable ideas, and to modern thought and culture. The embrace of Darwin's theories, the disregard of religion, the belief in progress for its own sake, and the concept that new ideas were superior simply on account of being new, were all aspects of modernity he opposed. He discusses it here in relation to art, literature, and politics. And more than this, he asserts that there is no evidence that the modern ideas which were being enthusiastically embraced were new in any case; it may simply have been a modern conceit. He provides examples suggesting such thoughts occurred to Shakespeare, for example, and concludes that Shakespeare had the wisdom to reject them.

Such beliefs put him at odds with his contemporaries Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, who yet remained his strongest friends. It seemed to me that there was a vein of generosity running through all these essays, in that he could completely disagree with people and yet still admire them. It is clear that he enthusiastically embraced debate, and that he was motivated by a search for the truth as he perceived it.

I was reminded of Anthony Thorne's observation in Delay in the Sun that there had once been a fashion for wide and varied knowledge, but in time it had been superseded by an age of specialisation, one which continues to this day. These essays are a product of that earlier time, and provide some measure of what was lost in the narrowing of focus. Irrespective of whether I found the arguments persuasive, I found every one of these essays entertaining and thought-provoking.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1069: The Incredulity of Father Brown


  1. Good luck with the move. I hope that your new home has plenty of storage space for books.

    1. Thanks Phil. At this stage I am only moving to a rental while I continue to search for a house to purchase in the (over-priced) catchment area of the school my children attend. And I assess every house I view in terms of its potential for accommodating bookcases.

  2. What a great review! I just read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday and am convinced that he is one of the most underrated authors ever.

    What is particularly striking is that many of these authors remained friends with their contemporaries, in spite of having quite different beliefs and ideas. Nowadays we have much less tolerance and tend to see people with opposing ideas as the enemy and take everything personally. It's rather disappointing.

    From reading C.S. Lewis and even Montaigne I think that writers wrote more to convey ideas than to fit their writing into a particular system. Montaigne is considered brilliant but boy, his ideas are all over the place!

    I'm so glad that I found your blog and am looking forward to exploring it some more! What a great project!


    ~ Cleo ~



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