Meet Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He was larger than life. He was the author of dozens of books, countless poems, and thousands of articles. He originated characters ranging from Father Brown to “the Man who was Thursday“. He simultaneously sparred with and befriended contemporary intellectual giants H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. His words contributed to the Christian conversion of countless numbers including C.S. Lewis and Evelyn Waugh. He has been endlessly quoted, vigorously copied, but never replaced. One of a kind. A giant in the figurative and literal sense. G.K. Chesterton was an extraordinary man. And yet, I just didn’t “get him”.
Oh yes, I’d have a go at him. I attended lectures at the American Chesterton Society. I read Orthodoxy, The Man Who Was Thursday, and the Everlasting Man. I poured over numerous articles by and about Chesterton. All of these resources definitely helped to color the man who was G.K. Chesterton. He was brilliant with flashes of paradoxical insight that turned your world upside down. He was deep to a level that required serious brow-furrowing and rereading of paragraphs to see if I really understood his point. He seemed puckish, absent-minded, and whimsical. But strangely, the more I felt I knew about Chesterton, the less I truly knew him. He seemed the mixture of genius and oddball. Very human, but a very anomalous human. There is a difference between eccentricity that endears and eccentricity that repels. And Chesterton’s brilliant eccentricities seemed to overwhelm. He seemed like the blazing fireball we call the sun – illuminating and yet too bright to engage directly; warming and yet risking a burn. To put it plainly, G.K. Chesterton was a daunting, incomprehensible figure…until Maisie Ward reintroduced him to me.
In 1943, Maisie Ward of the publishing entity, Sheed & Ward, published a warm, yet comprehensive account of her client and friend Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Like any good biographer of the “greats” of history, the seminal life events, the notable accomplishments, and the quirky idiosyncracies were well-represented. And while these life details further rounded out G.K. Chesterton for me, it was the very poignant, the very warm, the very deeply human anecdotes that helped me to “meet” G.K. for the very first time.
In the privacy of letters never intended for publication, I heard the voice of a man comforting his fiance who had tragically lost her dear sister, Gertrude, in a car accident:
” [Chesterton refers to the Psalms text: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his saints'] ‘Precious’ – we could not say that Gertrude’s death is happy or providential or sweet or even perhaps good. But it is something. ‘Beautiful’ is a good word – but ‘precious’ is the only right word.
It is this passionate sense of the value of things; of the richness of the cosmic treasure: the world where every star is a diamond, every leaf an emerald, every drop of blood a ruby, it is this sense of preciousness that is really awakened by the death of His saints. Somehow we feel that even their death is a thing of incalculable value and mysterious sweetness: it is awful, tragic, desolating, desperately hard to bear – but still ‘precious’”.
I read the romantic musings of a man in love (as G.K. wrote to his fiance Frances):
“There is nothing in God’s earth that really expresses the bottom of the nature of man in love except [Robert] Burns’ songs. To the man not in love they must seem inexplicably simple. When he says, ‘My love is like a melody that’s sweetly played in tune,’ it seems almost a crude way of referring to music. But a man in love with a woman feels a nerve move suddenly that Dante groped for and Shakespeare hardly touched.”
I sensed the man’s compassion for a disapproving mother-in-law fearful of losing her daughter to marriage. (G.K. wrote to his fiance Frances):
“A mother whose child is dying can hardly believe that in the inscrutable Unknown there is anyone who can look to it as well as she. And if a mother cannot trust her child easily to God Almighty, shall I be so mean as to be angry because she cannot trust it easily to me?…Your mother would certainly have worried if you had been engage to the Archangel Michael: how much more when you are engaged to an aimless, reckless, unbrushed, strange-hatted, opinionated scarecrow who has suddenly walked into the vacant place. I could have prophesied her unrest: wait and she will calm down all right, dear. God comfort her: I dare not.”
I heard the man’s melancholy over dear friendships separated by the unforgiving advance of time and age. (G.K. wrote in a poem):
Tea is made; the red fogs shut round the house but the gas burns I wish I had at this moment round the table A company of fine people
Two of them are at Oxford and one in Scotland and two at other places
But I wish they would all walk in now, for the tea is made.
I felt the man’s celebration of the spritely spirit of children. (G.K. wrote in a poem):
On the sands I romped with children Do you blame me that I did not
By bottling anemones?
But I say that these children will be men and women
And I say that the anemones will not be men and women
(Not just yet, at least, let us say).
And I say that the greatest men of the world might romp with children
And that I should like to see Shakespeare romping with children
And Browning and Darwin romping with children
And Mr. Gladstone romping with children
And Professor Huxley romping with children
And all the Bishops romping with children
And I say that if a man had climbed to the stars
And found the secrets of the angels,
The best thing and the most useful thing he could do
Would be to come back and romp with children.
And his nostalgia for a childhood he can never truly return to:
“It is an old story, and for some a sad one, that in a sense these childish toys [Chesterton's toy theater that he created for children] are more to us than they can ever be to children…I do not look back, I look forward to this kind of puppet play; I look forward to the day when I shall have time to play with it. Some day when I am too lazy to write anything, or even to read anything, I shall retire into this box of marvels; and I shall be found still striving hopefully to get inside a toy-theatre.”
But through it all, breaks G.K. Chesterton’s playful, mischievous exuberance to live life to its fullest and avoid the temptation of pessimism, cynicism, and drudgery. In response to T.S. Eliot’s concluding stanza in ‘The Hollow Men’ which stated:
‘This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.’
“Forgive me if I say in my old world fashion, that I’m damned if I ever felt like that…I knew that the world was perishable and would end, but I did not think it would end with a whimper, but, if anything, with a trump of doom…I will even be so indecently frivolous to burst into song, and say to the young pessimists:
‘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.’
And so, Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton would reintroduce to me Chesterton the writer, the debater, the apologist, and the hero. But perhaps, more importantly, I would meet Gilbert – soothing, loving, wistful, nostalgic, childish, and exuberant Gilbert – for the first time. How very nice it was to meet him.