FriendsWith regards to whether one sides with Eliot…or with Chesterton, apparently Eliot said this: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.”

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I think a few of the comments come from those who have googled Chesterton, Eliot, and art—not from those who have actually read much of either author, or seen Chesterton’s own art/illustrations, or spent significant time studying the ever-changing monikers for art styles.

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EXCELLENT POINT. I think you must be just about exactly right. I’d never even heard before of this sort of gaping “chasm” between Eliot and Chesterton. In any case, even if Eliot did say that Chesterton was some kind of scatter-brained lunatic—and I’d need to see a citation before I’d believe that—the rejoinder comes from…one who was more intimate with the history of philosophy than probably anyone else in the 20th century, Etienne Gilson, who said that Chesterton was “one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived.”

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These three comments, posted in response to my recent essay, “Modern Art and Imaginative Conservatism,” raise the question of whether Chesterton and Eliot should be considered friends or enemies. Since the question is not only interesting but evidently contentious, it will be well to look at the facts.

Let’s begin by confirming the authenticity of Eliot’s evidently dismissive judgment that “Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas [with] no evidence that it thinks.”[1] This was written in 1918, very early in Eliot’s literary career, and should not be seen as Eliot’s final and definitive judgment on Chesterton. There is no doubt, however, that Eliot was initially very antagonistic towards Chesterton, comparing him unfavourably with the new generation of modernist writers, such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis: “I have seen the forces of death with Mr Chesterton at their head upon a white horse. Mr Pound, Mr Joyce, and Mr Lewis write living English; one does not realize the awfulness of death until one meets with the living language.”[2] Considering the innovative approach of Pound, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and of course Eliot himself, it is no surprise that the somewhat archaic literary form chosen by Chesterton for The Ballad of the White Horse should serve as an affront to Eliot’s modernist sensibilities.

For his part, Chesterton held the modernists in disdain. In 1923 he countered Eliot’s rejection of regular rhythm and rhyme with a spirited defence of traditional poetic form: “Song is not only a recurrence, it is a return…It is in this deeper significance of return that we must seek for the peculiar power in the recurrence we call rhyme.”[3] It was, however, not only the modernists’ abandonment of traditional form which irritated Chesterton but also their apparent jaundiced cynicism and the evident absence of the spirited joie de vivre which Chesterton saw as the necessary mark of humanity’s humility in the presence of the goodness and wonder of Creation. He was also affronted by Eliot’s employment of unconventional imagery, such as the description of evening, in the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” as being “spread out across the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” In his poem, “To a Modern Poet,”[4] Chesterton satirized these lines of Eliot and condemned what he perceived as the perversity of Eliot’s pessimism:

Now you mention it,

            Of course, the sky

                        is like a large mouth

                                    shown to a dentist,

and I never noticed

            a little thing

                        like that.

But I can’t help wishing

            You got more fun out of it;

            you seem to have taken

                        quite a dislike

                                    to things

They seem to make you jump

And double up unexpectedly—

And when you write

            like other poets,

                        on subjects

not entirely

novel,

      such as, for instance,

            the Sea,

it is mostly about

            Sea-sickness.

As you say—

It is the New Movement,

            The Emetic Ecstasy.

Chesterton was also provoked by what he perceived as the pessimism of the concluding lines of Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” which had proclaimed that the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.” In a riposte “to young pessimists,” written in 1927, the same year in which the scathing attack “To a Modern Poet” was published in his Collected Poetry, Chesterton clearly had Eliot’s poem in mind:

Some sneer; some snigger; some simper;

In the youth where we laughed and sang.

And they may end with a whimper

But we will end with a bang.[5]

In the same year, Eliot was equally scathing of Chesterton in a review of the latter’s book on Robert Louis Stevenson, describing Chesterton’s style as “exasperating to the last point of endurance.” Eliot ended his review with the wry observation that Stevenson was an author well enough established to survive Chesterton’s approval. Yet one suspects that Eliot’s plaintive gibes had less to do with Chesterton’s approval of Stevenson as it had to do with his disapproval of Eliot and the new generation of young poets. “We are not all so completely immersed in ignorance, prejudice and heresy as Mr. Chesterton assumes,” Eliot complained. “He seems always to assume that what his reader previously believed is exactly the opposite of what Mr. Chesterton knows to be true.”[6]

FriendsIn truth, Eliot had a point. The pessimism of “The Hollow Men” was not that dissimilar to Chesterton’s own negative critique of modernity. Both men perceived the sickness in the waste land of modernity, their different approaches to prosody notwithstanding, and both came to understand that Catholic Christianity was the answer to modernity’s malaise. As the brilliance of “The Waste Land” illustrates, Eliot was not “so completely immersed in ignorance, prejudice and heresy” as Chesterton assumed, nor was Chesterton correct in his evident assumption that Eliot “believed…exactly the opposite” of what Chesterton knew to be true.

In 1929, following his much-publicized conversion to Christianity, Eliot wrote to Chesterton in a spirit of reconciliation: “I should like extremely to come to see you one day…May I mention that I have much sympathy with your political and social views, as well as (with obvious reservations) your religious views?”[7] The “obvious reservations” were a reference to the fact that Chesterton had converted to Roman Catholicism whereas Eliot had become an anglo-Catholic, i.e. a member of the “higher” regions of the Church of England. In the same letter, Eliot had added that Chesterton’s study of Charles Dickens “was always a delight to me.”

By 1935, Eliot’s tone, when mentioning Chesterton, was much more cordial. Referring to “such delightful fiction as Mr Chesterton’s Man Who was Thursday or Father Brown,” Eliot cautioned that the inclusion of religious apologetics or “Propaganda”, such as that introduced by Chesterton into his fiction, was not normally advisable. Insisting that nobody “admires and enjoys” Chesterton’s fiction “more than I do,” he added that few could succeed as Chesterton does: “I would only remark that when the same effect is aimed at by zealous persons of less talent than Mr. Chesterton the effect is negative.”[8]

As a cordial friendship developed between the erstwhile enemies, Chesterton became a valued contributor to the Criterion, the quarterly review which Eliot edited, and shortly before his death Chesterton had “greatly wished” to see Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral when it was performed in Notting Hill.[9] Thus it was that two of the most important figures in the Christian Cultural Revival had moved from enmity to friendship, united in a shared love for civilization which Eliot would encapsulate in Notes towards the Definition of Culture in his “appeal…to the men of letters of Europe, who have a special responsibility for the preservation and transmission of our common culture:”

We can at least try to save something of the goods of which we are the common trustees; the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout 2,000 years. In a world which has seen such material devastation as ours, these spiritual possessions are also in imminent peril.

For Eliot, and for Chesterton, the inheritance of western civilization, or Christendom, was not merely something old-fashioned that could be shrugged off and discarded in favour of new fads. It was a sacred tradition, the custodian of timeless verities that spoke with inexorable force and authority to each new and passing generation. As champions of Christendom, G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot were comrades in arms, united in the friendship of Faith which vanquishes all enmity. Theirs is a friendship worth celebrating!

Notes:
[1] Frank Kermode, ed., Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, New York, 1988, p. 152
[2] Bernard Bergonzi, T. S. Eliot, London, 1972, p. 39
[3] G. K. Chesterton, Fancies versus Fads, London, 1923, p. 16
[4] G. K. Chesterton, Collected Poems, London, 1927
[5] Chesterton’s inscription in Father John O’Connor’s personal copy of The Secret of Father Brown; quoted in Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, London, 1996, p. 356
[6] Nation and Athenaeum, December 31, 1927
[7] Quoted in Michael Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, London, 1986, p. 318
[8] Kermode, ed., op. cit., p. 100
[9] Robert Speaight, The Property Basket: Recollections of a Divided Life, London, 1970, p. 177

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