Collected Works, Volume 10
Collected Poetry Part 2
When the English monarchy was restored after the death of Cromwell, and King Charles II rode through London, the bodies of his dead enemies, exhumed from their graves, were exhibited on gibbets. A rather gruesome scenario. But 14-year-old G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem about it: “Is this Christian Church’s mercy?/ Is this knightly chivalry?”
His early poems reveal a love of freedom and a hatred of tyranny.
For God is the strength of the freeman’s hand
And He alone is the freeman’s king.
And truth and beauty and justice stand
And to the Almighty their happiness sing.
That was when he was 15. Although his power as a poet is already well-developed, he is still working out his views of the universe. Though he expresses his belief in God, he is still trying to find God. There are dialogues in verse where characters are groping for a transcendent truth that offers satisfaction where nothing else does, longing not only for a lost innocence but for an unfulfilled hope. In an unfinished poem written a few years later, a Sultan sitting in his exquisitely manicured garden cries out:
Ah me, I loved things better when I stood
and hated them and feared them and was free.
All things are orderly and therefore good,
And God! What is the good of good to me?
Almost 400 pages of the second volume of Chesterton’s collected poetry are poems that he wrote from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties, before his professional writing career even began. Most of these verses were hunted down by the Dean of Chesterton scholars, Denis Conlon, who, in his illuminating introduction, points out that this was the period when Chesterton’s “muse was at its freshest,” and that Chesterton the poet has never been properly assessed because two-thirds of his poems had never been published. Conlon makes the case that Chesterton may be the most prolific poet of the age. And it is quality not just quantity: “Just a few of the[se poems] might have made the reputation of lesser poets.”
There are poems of fairy tale romance, but even more of the romance of history, of the great battles, the great loves, the great moments that should never be forgotten, including the same such moments in the poet’s own life. The poem preserves the memory. It prevents the moment from fleeing. A good poem is like a good statue. It sets the moment in stone. But it has the advantage of being a portable statue. The poet carves his words to last because, as goes the refrain in his “Ballade of Oblivion”: “These things a man may easily forget.”
One particular thing that Chesterton does not want ever to forget is the tragic death of his would-be sister-in-law Gertrude in 1899: “O dear, dead sister. . . When by thy dear dead face I prayed/ Some portion of thy spirit’s pride/ to keep thy kindred unafraid.” He drew strength from this departed soul because he had to give strength to her grieving family. And he found a mystical connection with her spirit whom he believed could see what this creative artist still had before him: “Thou knowest all I have not sung. . .” There was a triumph in this tragedy because not only did Chesterton look death square in the face, he seems to have seen the face of God.
Scatter the dust—drive down the lid!
Let dust and darkness be her dress.
If He but dreamed of her—I trust
In that abysmal tenderness.
It was what Chesterton would years later refer to as “the earthquake irony of Job.”
The young poet knows how to laugh as well as cry, especially to laugh at himself and his art, which is always in danger of being taken too seriously. He can also pleasantly pause within a poem to admire his own handiwork, as he does in a ballad called “The Satisfaction of Satan”:
Within the low white wall of heaven
The lonely lady stood:
round her like flowers the sun unfurled
(“The sun unfurled” is good).
This marvelous volume includes the complete text and illustrations of Chesterton’s first book, a collection of nonsense verse called Greybeards at Play; his complete clerihews, witty and absurd (also illustrated); and his complete ballades, brilliantly constructed commentary that pass as jokes. We use the word “complete” facetiously. More have turned up since this volume was published, and apparently will until the end of time.
Perhaps the most delightful inclusion in this volume is not a poem at all but an unpublished contemporary review of Chesterton’s second book of poetry, The Wild Knight and Other Poems. The critic unleashes his sarcastic arrows, ridiculing poor and obvious rhymes, bad grammar, bizarre metaphors. He calls one poem “the finest imitation of prose ever presented in metrical form,” and says there is great competition as to which is the worst poem in the book. One poem exhibits “the foolish craze for the aestheticising of unaesthetic objects” and in another the poet “leaves earthly paradise rather uglier than he found it.” Who was this unmerciful critic? Why, G.K. Chesterton, of course.