We see, in his poetry and prose, the humour and humility of G.K. Chesterton, but also the extraordinary genius who sees that the ordinary things of life are not merely a matter of life and death but a matter of eternal life and eternal death.
The genius of G.K. Chesterton is hard to pin down because Chesterton is himself hard to pin down. He is all over the place. Everywhere. He can be found among the novelists, and the poets, and the biographers; he is to be seen wherever two or three Christian apologists are gathered together. Wherever there’s a discussion on social problems or politics, he can be seen in the midst of the argument. He’s in the thick of it with the philosophers and can be found holding forth with the theologians. He spreads himself widely and broadly but never thinly. There’s always depth wherever he is found.
And yet he is found, more often than not, in none of the multifarious places just mentioned. He is to be discovered most often among the essayists, of whom he is indubitably one of the greatest. It is, therefore, with the greatest of pleasure that I am currently finding myself in the midst of Chesterton’s essays as I discuss In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton with my co-hosts, Father Fessio and Vivian Dudro, in the online FORMED Book Club.
I had the honour of making the selection of the essays for this volume, along with Dale Ahlquist and Aidan Mackey, the esteemed leaders of Chestertonia in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively. It is a joy to be returning to these essays over the next several weeks as we work our way through the book. Thus far, after two discussion sessions, we have read the first nine essays.
One of the defining characteristics of Chesterton’s prose, and the mind of which it is an expression, is the way that ordinary, everyday things are transfigured into extraordinary things of eternal significance. Chesterton achieves this by the use of paradox, the bringing together of apparently contradictory elements in a way that makes us see them anew. Take, for instance, his bringing together of physics and metaphysics in his connecting of the telescope with the practice of religion: “Religion has had to provide the longest and strangest telescope—the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt.” In the same essay, he laments that humanity is “everlastingly kicking down the ladder by which it has climbed.”
In “A Defence of Skeletons,” Chesterton reminds us that the skeleton which is closest to us, the one that wears us like a glove, is the one we overlook. “One would think it would be most unwise in a man to be afraid of a skeleton, since Nature has set curious and quite insuperable obstacles to his running away from it.” It is this living skeleton which Chesterton invites us to see, mindful that we would quite literally be dead without it. “There is no reason why this creature (new, as I fancy, to art), the living skeleton, should not become the essential symbol of life.” And yet he reminds us that it is, when disembodied, the perennial reminder of death:
In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (which was, in certain times and respects, a much gloomier period) this idea of the skeleton had a vast influence in freezing the pride out of all earthly pomps and the fragrance out of all fleeting pleasures…. [I]t was the idea of the degradation of man in the grinning ugliness of his structure that withered the juvenile insolence of beauty and pride. And in this it almost assuredly did more good than harm.
This grinning ugliness is not gross, only grotesque, serving to caricature the character of man, reminding him that pride is a pathetic joke that men play on themselves, a joke which can only be funny if we see it with the humour of humility: “[H]owever much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar vengeance, or contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever.” This grim, grinning and gargoylesque humour foreshadows its presence in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in which Eliot shows us ourselves in “[t]he rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” And it was expressed with delightful simplicity in Chesterton’s poem, “The Skeleton,” which predates his essay:
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
No: I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
It was hid so carefully.
And thus we see, in poetry and prose, the humour and humility of G.K. Chesterton, but also the extraordinary genius who sees that the ordinary things of life, such as life itself, are not merely a matter of life and death, but a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Well might we celebrate the extraordinary genius of this ordinary man.
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The featured image is a photograph of G.K. Chesterton at work and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.