Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Titus Techera as he reflects on the meaning of G.K. Chesterton’s “A Ballade of Suicide.” —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
G.K. Chesterton published “A Ballade of Suicide” in his journal, The Eye-Witness, September 21, 1911. This is a ballade, an old French form comprising three octets and a concluding quatrain, in direct address. The stanzas rhyme a-b-a-b-b-a-b-a. This allows the poet to turn the stanza around the middle—to effect a kind of change in his meaning. The stanzas all end with the same line, at once developed and undeveloped. Do not expect Chesterton’s ballade to be any kind of love poem—he wants to something else instead, to raise your eyebrow, not to say hairs on end. Invention is not now supposed to delight the more knowing among us; the form is supposed to make us laugh at the spectacle of someone taking himself so seriously, whoever this person addressing us may be. Chesterton uses only two rhymes, which adds a sense of levity, of contrived repetition, and he uses the iambic pentameter, an usually serious choice, for the same effect: What would be Shakespeare somewhere else is deadpan here. He means to put to you, matter-of-factly, something terrible. Levity is required, because certain moral forces lead men to look upon terrible things as though they were some mistake, some misunderstanding, something preposterous.
The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours–on the wall–
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me…. After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
To-morrow is the time I get my pay–
My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall–
I see a little cloud all pink and grey–
Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call–I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way–
I never read the works of Juvenal–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational–
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
You can see Chesterton’s intention in the first stanza: to make the shocking seem banal and the banal shocking. He starts with a mere dreadful item–the gallows, then the noose, which nonetheless we had expected since he gave his title. Then he moves to say something to shock—but what should shock us next to suicide? It is the powerlessness of our society to see it coming and prevent it. Chesterton presents something private in a mocking way, making us all spectators to something dreadful. The spectacle of suicide, presented here as though with propriety and according to usage, is private and we would rather it stay that way; we refrain from witnessing or even countenancing executions, much less suicide. The opinion that life is not worth living for a human being is hard to tolerate, but impossible to see in action. There is in such an action an indictment of society that is very hard even to understand.
The strange joke about receiving compliments for one’s gallows and the joke about the necktie party serve to make us wonder where the madness lies, whether with our society and its conventions or with what may be termed an eccentric or unsound fellow. There are arguments on both sides: Our conventions have manifestly failed to make us happy, but then again taking modern boredom so far as to commit suicide seems excessive. One is, doubtless, making a spectacle of oneself in committing suicide, and it can be strangely engrossing—a farewell to life, but not to vanity. But to set one’s mind to end the rule of mind over body is rather a peculiar thing to do, as though to set on purpose to effect the proof that there is no such thing as purpose… Then again, it may be argued, one has to do unquestioningly what one has decided if one is to know with certainty who one is and where one stands. Suicide is a very decisive action, and most of our actions are not of that character, so it is arresting.
This cannot be taken to mean that suicide, even averted, is a public spectacle, like execution surely must be. It is the morrow’s papers, instead, that might publicize it; it is the gossip and the inquest that would constitute a hurray. A sense of pride might require of a man no to give the public this dubious satisfaction. The scandal: How can the people, those who fail most unstintingly the man who contemplates suicide then turn around and say, he had it coming, and has got but what he well deserved! That is the ugly passion behind our conventions–there is something cruel in the moralism. Chesterton has no time for worries about the afterlife. It is society that concentrates his attention and he is not satisfied that we are anything but eager spectators to be stupefied by the suffering of the people who reject society most thoroughly. We have it on the authority of novels and movies, that the moralistic love to gossip. A man like the protagonist of this poem will have his pride, if nothing else, and then how could he give such satisfaction to hyenas? Why, they did not even work for their amusement, but so fondly do they hold themselves esteemed, they think they do deserve it gratis…
Maybe there’s something to that thought—that suicide is like a public execution. Were we to think that we have our own way of life, which we hold to be good–then those who fail to experience or understand its goodness are somehow in the blame. What’s wrong with them? We do applaud those brilliant few who from among us rise to meet our expectations, not to say our dreams. Shall we not then good riddance those who fail impertinently to impress? There is a suggestion in this stanza that society pushes people into excessive actions.
Chesterton next lays out a seemingly silly, random series of reasons not to die. What is there to live for, but everyday life? One supposes tomorrow always is the day one takes one’s pay. And the sword recalls past honor—a mere reminder now of distant deeds of war? Beyond the advantageous and the noble, there is a vague matter tied to the religion of the place, a nuisance that might be avoided. These are supposed to be the mundane worries of our mundane lives, the kinds of things with which one keeps so busy as to pass the time. These are also the institutions that order society, if mentioned in passing. Yet they are piddling stuff, and talk of cookery is fit for Homer’s talking pigs, who have so reasonably learned to say the pleasant is the good. Save possibly the works of Juvenal, for he seems to have made a living telling all who’d listen how unbearable their lives were… For all that, the two reasons in the second half of the stanza are personal, individual, in a way the others are not quite. There is a motion from most general to most particular here that culminates in moralizing satire, which is not a surprise. If life were this assortment of unease and guilty memories, if life were this, the fighting vainly ‘gainst the old ennui, then life were not worth living and we’d all be reasonable to just go hang.
There is more at stake here. Let’s look at only one image: “My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall.” Chesterton’s poetic rhetoric is at work here. First, the importance of this image is that it opposes the preceding. That was about the future, this is about the past. That was explicit, this one is not. That was about money or property or advantage, this is about reputation or honor. Secondly, the image itself, what it says. Forensic skill is required here: A sword is an officer’s weapon and it signifies some achievement. But an uncle is not a father or grandfather, so this is not a military family. At the same time, the uncle must have died in war, for otherwise, his sword would be hanging on his own wall, if at all. Thirdly, what is the importance to the stanza or poem of this past present to sight? The sword is followed by talk of a rector’s mother. These two things recall the old aristocratic order. These are two of the objects that relate to the past. This second stanza is about reasons to live, what there is to look forward to if one does not commit suicide. But this is the only one which might move a man to life. Why should that be? A soldier is tied up with death! Recall the opposition of future and past, money and honor. A soldier lives for his country and risks death for her, whereas a suicide cannot reasonably be said to be serving his country, or acting for anyone but himself. The family example further strengthens a kind of duty, because of likeness. One should not be unworthy of one’s own. The nearness in time and generations further suggests that honor is a living possibility, perhaps not only in war. All this leads to another, more serious matter. Manliness is the first of the moral virtues, without which no other is possible. Manliness is the man’s self-defense, but it extends to his own. A man then can hold his country as his own and defend it, but also principles. A man standing up for himself is implicitly standing up for man’s dignity. In what does this dignity consist? Why is man worth defending? In the very question we find the beginning of our answer: Manliness presupposes and affirms man’s ability to act. Human action is held to be worthy, and, implicitly, possible. That affirms the special dignity of man among the other beings. Man’s dignity is what a man needs to assert in order not to commit suicide.
The third stanza is taken up with a contempt for the most famous and most sophisticated educated people in Britain, then the world empire. There is a corruption in this sophistication, and it earns its natural or poetic punishment. The decadents do decay, irrespective of the truth or falsity of their implicit claim: that morality is a delusion, and that a romantic suffering, worshiped, is preferable to decency. The pedants pall, irrespective of the truth or falsity of their own implicit claim, that a preciseness of language is more important than attention to the things of which we speak. These two attitudes are simply coeval with civilization, and seem to be degenerated forms of moral and intellectual virtues, answers to the purposelessness that sometimes attends on peaceful prosperity. It’s perhaps worth noticing that they belong properly in a world from which strife has been banished.
That this is really a question about education and enlightenment is made clear in the sequel: After the question about learning how to live comes the question concerning children. Is it really possible that very famous writers, the most influential in their generation, the proudest flowers of Edwardian England, much in the news concerning the Nobel Prize of Literature, not know what children are like? Can human nature be concealed behind ideology? I’ll add, strife was not unknown to Wells and Shaw, but it had a utopian quality, it was about progress, social and psychological. It is the uselessness of play, as opposed to rational control of life through scientific means, that baffles the efforts to uplift mankind; it is the natural evil of the human being, the chaotic striving, innocent of any class consciousness or social project, that baffles the efforts to ennoble mankind at the price of any individual freedom. That rationalists are growing rational means nothing else than they are becoming acquainted with human things, which they had held in contempt.
But then you see a striking change, one last lone image of mere nature—a thing you’d have to leave the city just to see, a thing both plain and secret, known to those who try to find it and to follow in its winding way. It is not unlikely, given the theme of the stanza, that a stream astray is an image intended to recall soul. Here, nature and chance are visible apart from any art except that of the poet, and apart from that, too. The three stanzas seem to suggest different human possibilities. It is remarkable that Chesterton suggested that the burden of education is supposed to be relieved by an appeal to nature.
The man whose head will fall anon is and is not a mere Danton, and a Robespierre the man who topples it, and who must then himself be likewise overran. There is a revolutionary confidence in those who would tell us what to expect and what to do, and yet the revolution may betray their confidence. The man who says as much is one who thinks not how to move events, nor yet is moved out of himself by them.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2017.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides” (c. 1824–27), by William Blake.