Sunday, May 20, 2007

C is for Chesterton

Since I first came across the essays of Gilbert Keith Chesterton I have thought of them as a good sanity test. If I read some of the essays and find that I pretty much agree with everything Chesterton is saying, I know I am pretty much sane. But if the same essays disagree with me, it is a pretty fair bet that anything I read will irritate me and I am less sane than not. This is true even if Chesterton is writing about the wrongheadedness of vegetarianism, or the folly of letting women vote: if I am sane, I will see that most of what he says makes perfect sense and he has just gone astray on one or two teensy points of emphasis which have led him to the wrong conclusion.

I came to Chesterton fairly late in life, long after I had read everything C. S. Lewis wrote, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everything I had liked in Lewis’s nonfiction was there in Chesterton’s nonfiction. But there was a lot more of Chesterton’s nonfiction, meaning it could keep me entertained for longer; and it was Catholic, meaning it was more congenial to me in a thousand small ways.

I find there are two surefire ways of cheering myself up, should I feel depressed about one thing or another. One is to listen to Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, of course. Should that fail, the thing that is sure to cure me is reading Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. And THAT will settle the Manichees!

Like Asimov and Borges, Chesterton invetned a new genre, but I am not as fond of any of the ‘spiritual picaresque’ novels as I am of I, Robot or The Quixote of Pierre Menard. However: they do have poetry!

YOU will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian.
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

So I cleared the inn of wine,
And I tried to climb the sign,
And I tried to hail the constable as “Marion.”
But he said I couldn’t speak,
And he bowled me to the Beak
Because I was a Happy Vegetarian.

Oh, I knew a Doctor Gluck,
And his nose it had a hook,
And his attitudes were anything but Aryan;
So I gave him all the pork
That I had, upon a fork;
Because I am myself a Vegetarian.

I am silent in the Club,
I am silent in the pub,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am at heart a Vegetarian.

No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian;
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very
So very, very, very Vegetarian.

Unaccountably, this song from the Flying Inn is often anthologised without the third verse. In other places, equally unaccountably, people quote this verse to demonstrate that Chesterton was anti-semitic, ignoring the fact that it is in a song sung by a character in a novel. Equally, if I am allowed- which of course I am, being the Master of my Blog and the Captain of my, er, Blog- to go off on a sudden tangent, I have just read an essay taking Tolkien to task for the quality of his poetry in the Lord of the Rings. Some of it is embarassingly bad, says the essayist: someone ought to tell him. (This essay was written in the 50s, when Tolkien was still alive) Of course some of it is embarassingly bad! A lot of it is meant to be stuff people made up on the spot to amuse themselves, or popular songs, or, in at least one instance, poetry made up by someone who is not as good a poet as he thinks he is. Given this, it is not embarassingly bad, but embarassingly good. Pippin and Merry’s little song of leavetaking is meant to be the sort of doggerel two adolescents might come up with; Bilbo’s song about Earendil is meant to be over-elaborate and over-alliterative and not really terribly good; Tom Bombadil’s verses are meant to be- well, God only knows. I have no idea what the point of Tom Bombadil was. When I get to heaven, that is one of things I intend to make inquiries about.

If you are going to say that all poetry in a novel has to be ‘good’ poetry, than you are being the nastiest sort of elitist. (Well, technically not ‘the’ nastiest sort, since there are those ‘exterminate the underclass’ sort of elitists). These are the same sort of people who have made us all too embarassed to sing in public, with their cursed idea that singing is the sort of thing you ought not to do unless you can do it well: that it is a sort of peculiar stunt to be graded and found fault with, like platform diving, rather than an essential part of our human heritage that everyone can and ought to do.

All of this is wandering very far off topic, except that I am sure Chesterton would agree with me...

Finally, we also have Chesterton to thank for one of the finest ‘Who am I?’’s never used on ‘Sale of the Century’:
Tony Barber: This dystopian novel, written by a middle-class Englishman in the first half of the 20th century, takes place in London in the year 1984…

Dr Clam:
*buzzer sounds*

Tony Barber:
Dr Clam?

Dr Clam:
The Napoleon of Notting Hill?

Tony Barber: Correct.


The Hebdomadarian said...

Great poem - it's one I had not come across before. If you enjoy reading Chesterton, you might be interested in this blog dedicated to his writings. I started it a few months ago. Thus far I've only posted one poem, but I hope to add more as time goes on.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think I must disagree somewhat with your comment about poetry needing to not be bad in fiction. (I also must disagree about Tolkien's poetry being bad, but that's neither here nor there.)

The way I look at it, stories are there to entertain us, to inspire us, to stimulate our minds, and to do a large variety of similar tasks. It's why we read them rather than sticking to nonfiction (which has more immediate practical value.) When that unnamed person we will all throw metaphorical sticks at said that Tolkien's poetry was "bad," therefore, I don't think he was being elitist. I think he was saying something I've heard from a lot of people: "this book was pretty good and I really enjoyed it, and then I came to some poems and they were dull and tedious and didn't do anything to me that I wanted them to do."

To respond, "well, that's how the characters would behave" seems a bit naieve, because poems spoken by characters don't have to be repeated to the readers.

(This isn't to say that poems in a story need to be good outside of their context--but they do need to be good in the sense that they add to the work they adorn in more than a documentary sense.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Oh, and btw, I enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more of your archives. (I just enjoy arguments more than agreement-contests.)

Dr. Clam said...

Yes, arguments are infinitely better than sterile agreemnet! Luckily few people ever agree with me about anything. :)
Thanks for dropping by!