Lecture 80: The Glass Walking Stick

G.K. Chesterton lived on an island. It was called England. And yet, he was always strangely “envious” of another island – the one where Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked. It had something to do with the mystic in him, the longing for quiet contemplation, for self-sufficiency, for the poetry of limits, the romance of thrift. It even had something to do with why he enjoyed books. “This desire to be wrecked on an island,” he writes,

partly arises from an idea which is at the root of all the arts – the idea of separation. Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble. We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer. Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys – instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies. That is what makes one so impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life, and demanding a larger sphere. Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions. What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost.

This passage comes from “The Inside of Life,” one of the Chesterton essays in the collection called The Glass Walking Stick. Only a fraction of Chesterton’s 1600 Illustrated London News columns were collected into books during his lifetime. Almost two decades after he died, his secretary, Dorothy Collins, went to that vast mine of uncollected “Our Note-book” essays and put together this volume. It is probably the least well-known of the posthumous Chesterton books that Dorothy Collins assembled.

The striking title comes from the first essay in the collection, which evokes an image of Chestertonian paradox, for walking sticks are not normally made of glass. And sticks don’t normally walk, for that matter. But the essay itself is about a most pleasantly surprising paradox: the treasures of the poor. Keeping the theme going, there is another essay in the collection called “A Walking Paradox.”

The remainder of Dorothy Collins’ selection includes a number of pieces about Spain and France, about English literature and English history, including his columns following the deaths of two monarchs, Edward VII in 1910 and George V in 1927.

On a prophetic note, there is one essay that hits today’s political correctness and multi-culturalism square in the face. Chesterton describes how the League of Nations was attempting to erect a sculpture as an International Peace Memorial. But the sculptor’s design was rejected because it contained a Christian symbol. However, it was not Buddhists or Moslems from Asia who objected; it was Europeans. Pagan symbols could be used, but not Christian symbols. Why they were proud of paganism but embarrassed by Christianity was not explained very well. But Chesterton explains it. The problem is not non-Christians from a non-Christian culture, but anti-Christians from a Christian culture. It certainly creates a dilemma: In a culture created by Christianity, what are the symbols for peace?

Chesterton’s criticism of the narrowness of fads and fashions is itself timeless, even though the particular fads and fashions change. He points out how people talk about change “as if the change were unchangeable.”

The latest opinion is always infallibly right and always inevitably wrong. It is right because a new generation of young people are tired of things, and wrong because another generation of young people will be tired of them.

While the Chesterton essays are of course delightful, one of the best things about this volume is the introduction by Arthur Bryant, the columnist who succeeded him at the Illustrated London News. Chesterton had written the weekly “Our Note-book” column for 31 years, right up until his death in June of 1936. Bryant was asked to fill in as the columnist until a permanent replacement could be found. Apparently there was trouble finding that permanent replacement because Bryant filled in for the next 40 years. So between the two of them they wrote the column for 71 years.

Bryant gives a glorious tribute to his predecessor: “Chesterton spent his whole life in teaching others how to live. Even today the sound of his name is like a trumpet-call. To him the world was a field in which one went about doing battle with evil in order that good might endure…If any literary name of our generation becomes a legend transcending letters, it will, I believe, be his.”

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