Lecture 104: Serene Passion and Fiery Peace – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 104: Serene Passion and Fiery Peace

Volume 1 of Chesterton's Collected Poetry

Collected Works, Volume 10
Collected Poetry Part 1

 

The first time I saw Aidan Mackey, he was standing at a lectern reading a Chesterton poem to about 25 people sitting on folding chairs. It was June, 1990. Milwaukee. My first Chesterton Conference. I had arrived late, in the middle of his talk. He was pointing out the majesty of these lines: 

The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink 

As if it would wash the stars away . . . 

And how they contrasted with what came next: 

. . . as suds go down a sink. 

Everyone laughed. Little did I know as he finished the stanza, that he was acquainting me with one of the essential poems from the Chesterton corpus: 

The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink, 

And Noah he cocked his eye and said, “It looks like rain, I think, 

The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine, 

But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.” 

 George Marlin, the General Editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton for Ignatius Press, wisely chose Aidan Mackey to edit Volume 10, Chesterton’s collected poetry. But George’s mistake was setting aside only one volume for the poetry. He had no idea, and neither did anyone else, how many poems Chesterton had written. Aidan Mackey started collecting the uncollected Chesterton poetry and soon realized there was enough for another volume. As he continued his work, it became apparent that there was enough for still another. 

 Aidan admitted to being somewhat overwhelmed by the project. (And he handed off the editing duties for the second and third volumes to Denis Conlon.) In organizing this first volume, Aidan took a thematic approach rather than a chronological one. But even the themes overlap, as love, faith, heroism and humor often do. In some ways, it is more mysterious what Aidan left out than what he left in. But those decisions no doubt reflected his own frustration with having more material than he knew what do to with. Besides many familiar poems, we find here over 100 previously uncollected poems and dozens of previously unpublished poems. 

 The styles and subjects run the gamut. There is the incomparable Nonsense (such as these lines from a poem about the Prevention of Cruelty to Teachers): 

Because I could not bear to make 

An Algebraist cry 

I gazed with interest at X 

And never thought of Why. 

We get stinging satire (as found in a poem about Prohibition): 

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. 

And single lines and phrases that show that Chesterton can be as quotable and ironic and acute in his poetry as in his prose: 

Mammon our master doeth all things ill. 

When a writer’s prose is poetic, it is not surprising that his poetry is excellingly poetic. His verse washes over us, sometimes like a singing brook, sometimes like a dancing rain, and sometimes like a mighty ocean. Chesterton is passionate about everything: wonder at God’s creation, fidelity to friends, fighting the good fight in battlefields both physical and spiritual. The blood and the wine are always red. 

We see his passion most pleasantly in his love poems. Gilbert loves Frances. He adores this woman; he feels unworthy of her. He wants to express his love in words, which, even if it be the thing he does best, is a task for which he feels his talents are inadequate. Consider these lines of humble astonishment when he contemplates that she has consented to be his wife: 

Lord I have been a Waster of the sun 

A sleeper on the highways of the world 

A garnerer of thistles and of weeds 

A hewer of waste wood that no man buys 

A lover of things violent, things perverse, 

Grotesque and grinning and inscrutable 

A savage and a clown—and there she stands 

Straight as the living lily of the Lord. 

O thy world-wisdom speak—am I the man? 

 Though Frances has had a complete effect on him (“I find all the world is good/Since you are all the world to me.”), there is one other woman whom he loves even more. He writes of her from the first to the last. She is called many things, “The Mirror of Justice,” “The Queen of the Eagles,” “Our Lady of Victory,” “Our Lady of Last Assurance.” She, of “the broken heart and the unbroken sword,” holds G.K. Chesterton’s lifelong devotion, from even before he enters into the Church that calls her “Our Mother.” 

One of his earliest poems, published when he was still a school boy is to her, who 

. . . brightened the glens that were gloomy, and softened the tribes that were wild, 

Till the world grew a worshipping choir round the shapes of a mother and child. 

O woman, O maiden and mother, now also we need thee to greet: 

Now in ages of change and of question, I come with a prayer to thy feet, 

In the earthquake and cleaving of strata, the lives of low passions we see, 

And the horrors we bound in dark places rejoice, having hope to be free; 

Wild voices from hills half-forgotten laugh scorn at all bonds that restrain: 

O queen of all tender and holy, come down and confound them again! 

The young Chesterton recognizes early on that the modern world would be assaulted by those of “low passions” who “scorn at all bonds that restrain,” and the force that would be needed to combat them would be the purity and prayers of the one who truly represents all maidens and mothers. She is the one who will inspire him—and all men—to be a man of honor. 

Volume 10 part 1 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton is unfortunately out of print.