Lecture 66: All I Survey

G.K. Chesterton knew the power of words. He spent his whole life deftly handling these explosive devices. He argued about politics and religion where the weapons are simple and straightforward even when meant to deceive. But he also argued about literature, where words are intricate and subtle, where the flashes and bursts are beautiful but dangerous and disorienting. His literary criticism is in many ways beyond comparison. When he writes about writers he rises to another plane altogether, using words to take apart words and put them back together into something more exquisite. He shines light on light. He elevates the truth and augments the beauty of great literature. He exposes the error but still finds the mysterious worth of lesser literature.

All I Survey is a collection of essays taken from Chesterton’s 1931-32 Illustrated London News columns. It contains the usual variety topics one would expect to find in his books, but the balance is tipped heavily in favor of literary criticism. Chesterton deals directly with many important writers, such as Jonathan Swift, Thomas Grey, Geoffrey Chaucer, Walter Scott, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll, George Sand, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Vachel Lindsay. He also makes extended references to Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Dryden, Burns, Browning and others, including one of the two of his only known references to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

As a critic, Chesterton does not tell us what we should think about a poem, or what the poet really means; he tells us what the truth is, and whether or not the poem has reached it and whether or not the reader may be expected to ride along. The modern critics, says Chesterton, have “rushed in between the poet and the public.” The theorists have made it their duty to explain what the writer means because the writer “has not performed the full literary function of translating living thoughts into literature.” He has left most of the poem still inside him. The rise of the critic-as-interpreter has produced two evils. It has prevented writers from expressing themselves plainly and has fueled the fire of pride among scholars and experts who act as oracles in the secular temples of the academy. We can trace this back to the Protestant Reformation, which has led to the deformation not only of faith but of thought itself and all the artistic forms along with it that were once in the service of the Church. Chesterton says that the “vast but vague revolution that we call the modern world largely began about the time when men demanded that the Scriptures should be translated into English. It has ended in a time when nobody dares to demand that English poets should be translated into English.”

The modern attack on tradition can be seen in simple things like the rejection of rhyme, even of nursery rhymes, a poetic form which Chesterton joyously defends: “In spite of all the educationists, it is a kindness to children to teach them nursery rhymes. But a man ought to be imprisoned for Cruelty to Children, if he recites to them rhymes that do not rhyme.”

He is not very hopeful about the prospects of modern poetry: “I have a notion that, in the long run, the new poet will outstrip even the old poet in giving the world whole libraries of poetry to burn.

Besides the long looks at literature, this volume contains plenty of politics and religion. Chesterton takes on “humanism,” the philosophy that claims to focus on the human things rather than the divine things. But the really human things are the divine things. It is not what we share with the animals that makes us human; it is what we share with God.

Chesterton surveys other human things: for instance, why northern European men are more likely than southern European men to kill themselves. He muses: “The men of the Mediterranean are more likely to relieve their feelings by killing somebody else.” But more importantly, “It is not surprising that the pessimism sometimes produces suicide… From the North come the Nietzsches and the Schopenhauers, and all who, in defiance of the old name of natural philosophy, insist on inventing an unnatural philosophy.”

There is obviously a connection between strange modern literature, devoid of form, and strange modern philosophies, devoid of truth, and strange modern policies, devoid of life. The connection is so obvious that most people have missed it. Perhaps we would be reminded of the power of words if one of Chesterton’s witty suggestions were actually taken seriously: put a tax on words! Though politicians might drool at the revenue possibilities, they would themselves be perhaps the most heavily burdened by such a tax. Writers might be driven to think of new examples. Reporters might be forced to be accurate. And academics might be called upon to prove that they know what they’re talking about.

The challenge to the literary artist is gigantic indeed. The task of art is to express the inexpressible. That, says, Chesterton, is “the whole business of literature… and it is a hard row to hoe.”

This book is currently out of print.