Chesterton is one of my favourite authors; an author of which I’ll read almost anything he wrote, regardless of what it is. His writing catches you up with his wonderfully lyrical style, filled with memorable quotes, and even when you’re disagreeing with him, you can’t help but admire the majesty of his argument.
He was tremendously prolific, writing “80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays.” Some of the best known of his works are the Father Brown stories, detective short stories which rank alongside the very best in the genre, featuring a Catholic priest, the eponymous Father Brown, as the detective. His novels are also good, though frequently surreal; both The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill require one to voluntarily suspend disbelief at times – in the former, as the subtitle says, nightmarishly, in the latter more innocently.
Outside of Father Brown, however, his non-fiction is perhaps even better than his fiction. His classic works, “Orthodoxy” and “Heresies”, remain superb apologetics surprisingly relevant today, even in the case of heresies. “What’s Wrong With the World” is a brilliant polemic, in which he inveighs, in turn, against eugenics (surprisingly far-sighted), women’s suffrage (rather less far-sighted) and central heating (simply odd) amongst other things. Chesterton’s gift is that his writing is so lucid and eloquent that even when you disagree, he forces you to confront your assumptions, as well as his genius for expressing difficult concepts in pithy conciseness.
His poetry, however, is something that I’ve only more recently realised he’d written. I’m neither a big nor a sophisticated lover of poetry, preferring poems that are simple, straight forward and somewhat traditional, with resonating language and clear stories as anyone who looks at the ‘Poems’ rounds in my Christmas Quizzes will know. And I won’t pretend to be an expert on Chesterton’s, but at a simple level, his gift for writing shines through here, also.
The Donkey is one of his best known and is both short and tightly written. Though I’m not religious, in this and some of his other Christian poems he manages to send chills down my spine – a clear success, in religious poetry. The whole poem bristles with fierce defiance, from the first line to the last, and is just filled with imagery and emotion.
The Donkey (G. K. Chesterton)
The other poem I’d single out is of quite a different nature, that represents his ballads – longer, story poems, more in the tradition of Macaulay or Browning. It celebrates the Battle of Lepanto which, as any player of Diplomacy will know, has something to do with Italy and Austria defeating Turkey(1). Much longer, much denser, but still absolutely packed with imagery and with a narrative that draws you on. Chesterton is doing a lot more here, with interesting rhythms and rhyme schemes, as well as far more complex metaphors and references, but he still manages to keep the emotion at the surface.
Some of my favourite parts are the minor lines with manage to say everything. “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass” sets the stage perfectly for the brutal section further down that begins, “The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes” (bear in mind here that Chesterton is Catholic); or “And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun” which gives a human side to all the pomp and majesty described. But what sings through most is the sense of joyous battle-readiness that shines through from Don John, alone of all the characters mentioned:
It’s the sort of poem that people don’t often write any more, at least not with such skill, and it’s a triumph of its type.
Lepanto (G. K. Chesterton)
(1) It was the first major naval defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the forces of Christian Europe; along with the Siege of Vienna, it was one of the key turning points that marked the end of Ottoman expansion.