Lecture 93: Laughing in Rhyme

G.K. Chesterton’s first book was nonsense poetry. His first book of prose had an essay in defense of nonsense.

W.H. Auden did not encounter that first book, Greybeards at Play, until about seventy five years later. He said that it contained “some of the best pure nonsense verse in English.” He went on to say, “I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton that is not a triumphant success… Surely it is high time that such enchanting pieces should be readily available.”

It took more than another decade, but Marie Smith answered the call in 1987, and put this collection together, illustrating it with Chesterton’s own wonderfully amusing drawings. (This book is now out of print, but many of the works are in other collections. -Ed.)

The book includes all of Greybeards, all of the Flying Inn songs, (“The Rolling English Road,” “The Song of Quoodle,” etc.), Chesterton’s parodies of other poets, his satirical verse, a few ballades (such as “Ballade of a Suicide”), and poetic inscriptions that he spontaneously penned in books that he gave as gifts. It even includes a few poems that are not by Chesterton: a few unsigned pieces from G.K.’s Weekly that were actually written by George C. Heseltine, and one of the epigrams does sound suspiciously like Belloc. But it’s worth repeating:

Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything.
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot.

The drinking songs and traveling songs are perhaps Chesterton’s best known comic verse. Less well known are his parodies and burlesques, which include the absolutely brilliant and hilarious “Variations on an Air” of the nursery rhyme Old King Cole in the styles of Tennyson, Yeats, Browning, Whitman, and Swinburne. He also takes on famous poets by offering poetic answers to some of their famous poems: the skylark answers Wordsworth, the sea replies to Byron, and the Fat White Woman That Nobody Loves answers the unfortunate Frances Cornford (the “fat-head poet that nobody reads.” The Free-Versifiers are thoroughly skewered in “To a Modern Poet,” where Chesterton showers fake sympathy in their own self-indulgent style:

am sorry
if you have
a green pain
gnawing your brain away.

While parodying poets is fun, poking fun at politicians is almost serious. F.E. Smith, who became Lord Birkenhead, felt the sharp tip of Chesterton’s pen (“Chuck it, Smith!”)

Chesterton wrote over 60 ballades, and this was the first book in which most of them appeared. The form is stringent and delightful, with its refrain and its insulting envoi, as in “Ballade to a Philanthropist”:

Prince, I will not be knighted! No!
Put up your sword and stow your tricks!
Offering the Garter is no go –
But will you lend me two-and-six?

As for the book inscriptions, the two that do not belong in this collection are Chesterton’s dedications to Bentley and Belloc from The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. They are anything but light. More fitting is his inscription to Fr. O’Connor that ends:

This is a book I do not like –
Take it away to Heckmondwike.

Chesterton’s light verse can be found:
The Coloured Lands
Ignatius Press Collected Works Volume 10 Book 1
Ignatius Press Collected Works Volume 10 Book 2
Ignatius Press Collected Works Volume 10 Book 3
G.K. Chesterton’s Early Poetry

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