Lecture 51: The Collected Poems

When his Collected Poems appeared in 1927, G.K. Chesterton had been recognized as a major English poet for well over a decade. Most of the poems in this collection had already been published in book form, including the charmers such as “The Donkey,” the rousers such as “Lepanto,” and the epic Ballad of the White Horse. However, the poems in Book One of this volume, gleaned from the New Witness and G.K.’s Weekly, appear between the covers of a book for the first time.

Since they were originally written for papers that were mostly political, these are mostly political poems, which means they are critical of political affairs. But they are poems written by a patriot, for as Chesterton says, the true patriot is always a little sad. He loves his land, which is why he wishes it were better. He loves his land, which is why he bemoans the state it is in. All of the things he hears praised as progress he sees really as causing ruin: industrialization, commercialization, and globalization. “The thriftless towns litter with lives undone.”

Industrialization has not only spoiled the landscape (“Smoke rolls in stinking, suffocating wrack / On Shakespeare’s land, turning the green one black.”), the attendant commercialization has spoiled simple things like the pleasure of reading a book because now “the back of the cover will tell you the plot.”

His attacks on globalization range from the almost turgid “The Judgment of England” (“Where Wealth accumulates and Men decay.”) to the ironic “The World State”:

Oh, how I love Humanity,
With love so pure and pringlish,
And how I hate the horrid French.
Who never will be English! The International Idea,
The largest and the clearest,
Is welding all the nations now,
Except the one that’s nearest.

This compromise has long been known,
This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
And small suburban gardens –

The villas and the chapels where
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.

And perhaps his best dig comes when he asks:

Might not Americanisation
Be best applied to its own nation?

Even the religious poems are political, being a commentary on the current state of the Church of England, as epitomized by one short poem with a long title: “A Broad Minded Bishop Rebukes The Verminous St. Francis.”

If Brother Francis pardoned Brother Flea,
There still seems need of such strange charity,
Seeing he is, for all his gay goodwill,
Bitten by funny little creatures still.

There are some non-political poems in this collection. The most literary ones are actually parodies of other poets. It is in playing with poetic forms that Chesterton displays his mastery of them. His “Variations on an Air” is a hilarious tour de force, rewriting the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole” in the styles of Tennyson, Yeats, Browning, Whitman, and Swinburne.But he unleashes some fury when he writes “Answers to the Poets,” attacking the modern poets for both their form and their content. In the bitingly brilliant “To a Modern Poet,” he lays waste the wasteland of free verse. In “The Fat Lady Answers” he goes after such snobs as Frances Cornford – the immortal Frances Cornford – who sneers at “the fat white woman whom nobody loves.” Chesterton gives the large lady a chance to answer back:

Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads?

This volume was the most complete collection of Chesterton’s poetry published during his lifetime. It was very well-received. It went through several more editions with changes and additions and deletions, but it was far from complete both in terms of the poetry he had previously published and the poetry that he had written that had not been published. It did not include his very first collection, Greybeards at Play, nor his most recent, The Queen of Seven Swords. He would go on to publish a few limited edition single poems, such as Gloria de Profundis and The Grave of Arthur, but the poems that he left unpublished would be enough to fill two more large volumes. Most of these will see the light of print for the first time with the completion of the collected poetry by Ignatius Press.

If you would like to purchase this book, it is available in Vol.10 of The Collected Works Volume One. Volume Two is here. Volume Three is here.

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