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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.”


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.


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.”


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


      such as, for instance,

            the Sea,

it is mostly about


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!

[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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9 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for an intriguing article. I knew that C. S. Lewis and T. S. Elliot had their problems. I didn’t know that there were troubles for a time between Chesterton and Elliot. Chesterton had a knack for getting along with those he disagreed with—witness his friendships with H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw. I suspect the early Elliot was a bit thin-skinned. Wells and Shaw enjoyed their clashes with Chesterton even when they were bested by him. Neither was thin-skinned.

    It matters that Elliot’s remark—“Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks”—came in 1918 when Chesterton was one of the few members of the chattering classes to be openly skeptical of plans for the League of Nations. In my book, Chesterton on War and Peace, he goes into great detail why a organization intended to stop all wars everywhere will fail and champions instead a smaller NATO-like organization with one simple goal, to keep a rearmed Germany from conquering the little countries of Eastern Europe that got their independence after WWI.

    Over the years, Elliot may have come to realize that Chesterton’s mind not only swarmed with ideas, those ideas were better than those of almost everyone. In 1932, for instance, Chesterton would not only warn that a European war was coming unless the leaders of Britain and France acted, but that it would begin over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened seven years later.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

  2. Well, then.

    I don’t recall every seeing a follow up piece at this website. Glad to have been part of such a momentous occasion!

    My quoting Eliot against Chesterton was not meant to accomplish anything other than to set forth a contrary way of thinking about modernity (and in particular “modern art”) than what the author attributed to Chesterton. (Caveat: I don’t know if Chesterton said those things about Impressionism. I hope he didn’t. But I take the author’s word for it. That said…there are plenty who have said exactly that, and more…Chesterton is not alone in this regard).

    I still find it not just incredible…but irresponsible that someone as eminent as Chesterton would talk about Impressionism as the beginning of the end as it were, part of the collapse of standards, etc., etc. It’s almost as if, first Impressionism, then….Roe v Wade. Which if true…would obviously be terrifying. But problem is, it’s not true.

    I am very concerned with the class of conservative thinkers who seemingly fail to allow (to use the author’s excellent phrase) “legitimate innovation” which should we conservatives “should not constitutionally oppose”.

    That is why Eliot is so extraordinarily important. He is truly our Virgil, the one who guides us through the (political and humanitarian) disaster of the 20th century…and remains our guide today, because the world has not really changed since Eliot’s day. In fact, it is just more so. The world was spinning in every direction then, all at once, and now it is spinning faster.

    However, not every change in form (in poetry, music, art) is a contributor to the chaos and therefore worthy of moral condemnation. Some of it (for example, Eliot’s poetry…) actually compensates for the chaos. But that is what it seems that the author is attributing to Chesterton and his views on Impressionism. Eliot’s contrary views are set forth throughout his prose, and in fact, once you know what you are looking for, throughout his poetry. His essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is a good place to start and even though it is more about poetry than art, Eliot creates in that piece a mindset which served him well, and which serves us well, in a world of chaos where we have to avoid despair, if we are going to create/re-create anything resembling civilization. (His essay the Music of Poetry is also good…actually…all his essays are good).

    Eliot was essentially a classicist and a traditionalist, but he faced forward and progressed in that way, equal parts imaginative and conservative. We must have both. From what I gleaned about Chesterton and Impressionism, he was at least in this instance, facing backwards and remained “constitutionally opposed to change”. This mindset caused him, as I said, to rail against declining standards for apples when in fact he was looking at an orange. Such a mindset…especially when it comes to something as vitally important as art, must be opposed, and opposed vigorously (and quoting Eliot always adds vigor and color….), because it is an assault on civilization and in an era when civilization is so desperately needed.

    I have often said that it is not a crime to be uninterested in art (or poetry…or music). No conservative has to do everything…or have an opinion about everything.

    But it is a crime to have sweeping opinions which are 1) wrong and 2) inflammatory, especially when you have a large following. Chesterton, who was so good on so many topics, essentially poisons the well for conservatives who might otherwise be interested in art (including the great boogeyman, “modern art”), and who might otherwise both be enriched and quite possibly even extend civilization by doing art, enjoying art, supporting artists, writing and thinking about art, etc. Basic humility, basic conservatism (and frankly basic Christianity) says that perhaps one ought to hold one’s tongue a bit, and investigate something that one doesn’t understand or like. I think if Chesterton had done done with Impressionism, he (and we) would have been far better served. But apparently he didn’t. That is a problem. Hence…the colorful quote from Eliot about Chesterton and which seems to me in this instance (alone) to be spot on.

  3. Two great men of literature, but is it fair to say they represent the dying gasp of a better age, an age resplendent in its literacy, still connected to its past with a wide and curious reading public that required quality and intelligence and wasn’t distracted by ephemera and semi-literate trash. The last paragraph is particularly powerful. Times certainly have changed.

  4. In the chapter on Eliot, in his Creators, Paul Johnson tells a story of how as a young Oxford grad student, he had the privilege of attending a reading of Four Quartets where both Lewis and Tolkien were present. I think he says that Lewis presided. But the takeaway was that the larger group found Four Quartets incomprehensible. (And this, presumably in spite of the fact that Lewis [via MacDonald I think] quotes Julian of Norwich in the Great Divorce as does Eliot in the penultimate lines of Little Gidding…which just leaves one asking, “huh? How did this group miss it?”).

    But Johnson forged his own path, and gained his own appreciation of Eliot’s genius. Johnson is really good on art, as well. The final paragraph of his history of art is worth quoting, because unlike some (many?) conservatives, Johnson recognizes that we are living in a golden age of art, not an age when art is dead (and note his Eliot-like reverence for both tradition and innovation which comes through):

    More people now love art, or what they think is art, than ever before. More of them see it regularly. More art is on display, all over the world, than in the whole of history. There are more books on art too: good books, with excellent illustrations. More young people than ever before want to create art, if only they knew how. The human need for art is greater than ever, for the world is more chaotic, and the demand for the ordering process which art supplies is rising. All the mistakes made in the last century can be corrected. In many ways the process has already started. The human race is in its infancy. The story of art has only just begun. Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come.

  5. Well that was a wonderful read. I had no idea what their relationship, if any, was. It makes perfect sense to me that they were antogonistic up through the 1920s but cordial and respectful afterward. It probably took a bit for Chesterton to understand Eliot’s art form (if he ever did) but it took some maturing on Eliot’s part to respect his previous generation. Excellent piece Mr. Pierce.

  6. As someone who was formed by TS Eliot at an early age and remains still unaquainted with GK Chesterton (beyond smidgen here and there), this is yet another article reminding me that I must finally get around to properly reading Chesterton.

    thank you for this piece.

    • [I actually just found the whole quote. The book Gilson refers to is Chesterton’s book on St. Thomas Aquinas.]

      E. Gilson: I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a “clever” book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called “wit” of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not help being modest and charitable too, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty.

  7. T.S. ELIOT on G.K. CHESTERTON: “What matters here is his lonely moral battle against his age, his courage, and his bold combination of genuine conservatism, genuine liberalism, and genuine radicalism.”

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