When G.K. Chesterton died in 1936, many of his obituaries predicted that he would be best remembered as a poet. This may be surprising to most of Chesterton’s readers today because they are more likely drawn to him by his still timely and quotable essays, his detective fiction, his social and literary criticism, or his eloquent defense of the faith. But Chesterton published several volumes of poetry during his life. In fact, his first two books, both published in 1900, were books of poetry. The first, Greybeards at Play, a slim collection of four poems, also contains several of his whimsical illustrations, as whimsical as the rhymes themselves:
My niece, the Barnacle, has got
my piercing eyes of black;
the Elephant has got my nose,
I do not want it back.
His second book, The Wild Knight, includes some memorable poems, such as “By the Babe Unborn” and “The Beatific Vision,” as well as what proved to be his most famous poem, “The Donkey.” “The Donkey” is a microcosm of Chesterton and his philosophy. Already present in this sweet little poem are all the elements that would fill his writing for the rest of his life: paradox, humor, humility, wonder, the defense of the poor and the simple, the rebuke of the rich and worldly wise. The other recurrent theme, seen in everything from his Father Brown stories to his public debates, is the presentation of a character we would at first dismiss, but who surprises us by being in direct contact with Truth itself. Be careful before you call someone an ass. He may be carrying Christ.
A contemporary reviewer of the book astutely observed, “Egoism is not in Mr. Chesterton; but his ideas possess him exactingly, and his gift of self-expression is equal to his candour.” (For those who no longer comprehend English, this sentence can roughly be translated: “Chesterton isn’t at all full of himself, and he’s a really clear-thinker, has a way with words, and says what’s on his mind.”)
The title piece of the collection is a brief poetic drama, full of chivalry and swords and mystery, themes which would always be connected with Chesterton in his fiction, and, for that matter, his non-fiction. Even his life. For Chesterton himself would be referred to as a kind of wild knight in caricatures, in criticisms, and in Walter de la Mere’s final tribute, written for Chesterton’s memorial:
Knight of the Holy Ghost, he goes his way,
Wisdom his motley, Truth his loving jest;
The mills of Satan keep his lance in play,
Pity and Innocence his heart at rest.
It may be helpful to remember that Chesterton came to us first as a poet. It may explain why his prose is so wonderful, why all his words still dance. It may be that what Chesterton said about St. Francis, is also true of himself: “He was a poet whose whole life was a poem.”