The Essays of G. K. Chesterton

by G. K. Chesterton

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Critical Evaluation

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Robert Graves called Chesterton “the elephantine paradoxist.” Like the man, the body of Chesterton’s literature is enormous. A versatile and prolific writer, like his hero Samuel Johnson, he wrote plays, biographies, novels, and detective stories, nonfiction in such areas as anthropology, archaeology, ancient and recent history, national and international politics, theology, philosophy, art, and literary criticism; and he was also a renowned lecturer. The scope of his interests embraced almost every aspect of contemporary life. Although he was an eminent man of letters, he preferred to call himself a journalist. Beginning in 1901, he contributed regularly to two leading newspapers; in 1918, he became editor of G. K.’s Weekly. For thirty-five years, he regularly wrote informal essays to the exacting space limitations of the newspaper column form. That he welcomed such limitations is evident in many of the essays; one of his favorite paradoxes was that restraint, externally imposed by social necessity, internally dictated by a self-disciplined conscience, offered the only freedom worth striving to achieve. Chesterton’s informal essays provide a comprehensive presentation of his views.

Never as light as his contemporary, Max Beerbohm, Chesterton was seldom overtly serious. Occasionally he conveyed his serious points through fantasy. Though his most common tone was mildly satirical, his essays were seldom sustained satires. While he showed that pure reason has severe limitations and imposes certain penalties, it was clear thinking that enabled him to recognize the importance of nonsense. He feigned lunacy momentarily as a lever for insight into the nature and practice of sanity; in his views a sane man was one who, in a single moment, could have “tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” The seeming lightness of his essays makes his insights more bearable and lasting.

Because his technique is transparent, perhaps, Chesterton’s use of rhetorical devices appears even more impressive. He makes us aware of certain devices only to capture us with others that operate simultaneously. For instance, he appears to end a thought in his characteristically epigrammatic way, but a few sentences later he startles us with a brilliant paradox or thrust of wit that he planted, parenthetically, in the epigram. His paradoxes are often inverted truisms. Each essay is a necklace of such paradoxes, used to choke or adorn the reader, depending on his doctrinal affinities. If his paradoxes are sometimes shallow, one must remember that deep ones are not so easy to dredge up that one can fill hundreds of essays, line by line, with them.

The informal essay is to prose what the lyric is to poetry, and it is most fascinating when the practitioner conveys a sense of himself. Chesterton’s commanding “I", always felt, is overwhelming. He is constantly setting the reader straight, advising, scolding, cautioning him, balancing this aggression with an amiably ironical attitude toward himself. His exuberance, frank enthusiasm, vigor, robustness, and masculine high spirits reveal a strong man, an antidote to the whiners, weaklings, and victim mentalities of his time and ours. But he was a man of fine feeling. In “The Secret of a Train,” upon discovering that he and a dead man are the sole passengers, he throws away his cigar, and thus understands the meaning of ritual. The mainspring of most of his essays is a personal experience, in the relating of which his facility for descriptive writing is apparent. Perhaps his most appealing characteristic is his belief, paradoxical for a conservative, in the importance of a romantic attitude. Most of the best things in the universe cost nothing; the others cost only a halfpenny. The source of man’s major perplexity, he felt, ought...

(This entire section contains 1850 words.)

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to be the realization that there are so many interesting things in life that one cannot be sufficiently interested in any of them. In “On Running After One’s Hat” and “The Romantic in the Rain” he argues that one should joyously and poetically transform the irritations of everyday life. With one leg temporarily maimed, he saw “The Advantages of Having One Leg”: one could see the beauty of both legs and thus God’s image in man more clearly. Lacking white chalk with which to sketch, he used a piece of the rock he was sitting on and thus realized that England was “A Piece of Chalk.”

One of his most famous paradoxes was that ordinary, everyday things are the strangest, most fascinating, and wondrous of all. He broke the routine form of the novel of crime detection by introducing the famous Father Brown, whose intuitions produced the solution to numerous mysteries. Chesterton was himself a sleuth of the mysteries of the ordinary, whose solution was that the common is far from commonplace if we remain always receptive to the metaphysical moment. He could turn an ordinary ride in a railway coach into a terrifying glimpse of the psychic perils of the familiar. Serving on a jury, he learns the amazing appropriateness of twelve ordinary men deciding important matters, as when Christ chose his disciples. In essay after essay, he turns the accepted notion upside down, thus making it more visible and understandable. To him, proverbs had a validity that overuse obscures; even vulgar jokes were subtle and spiritual ideas. The great task is to comprehend the trivial. For him, the path to outer space would begin at the front gate of one’s own home. Given the hearthlike familiarity of his point of departure, his paradoxes often take off into the Kafka-esque, the absurd, into black humor. But typically enough, in Chesterton the absurd proves to be a domestic ceremony, and black humor ends on a coda of divine laughter.

The things that must have been most evident in the human parade Chesterton witnessed, through his youth in the late Victorian era, his manhood before and during World War I, his middle-age during the Jazz Age, and his old age during the Great Depression, were the spectacular paradoxes in human thought and behavior. He observed them daily in politics, literature, manners, mores, fads, fetishes, perversities, popular entertainment, and technological changes. This paradoxical ambience inspired nonconservative writers to undermine the foundations of Victorian attitudes with a kind of paradoxical relativism. Chesterton, the cool-headed arch-conservative, fought liberals with their own weapon. Paradox was a decadent device which he used to bury the decadents. But for him paradox was more than a weapon; if the liberal used it to destroy, or as a perverse solace amid the ruins, Chesterton used it to justify, explain, defend, and enshrine the tenets of his own doctrine, while hanging the enemies of stability by their heels. He demonstrated that paradox is the conservative’s, not the revolutionary’s, true province; it is the vehicle for the eternal return. His paradoxes became platitudes for certain conservatives, popularly known as Chestertonians much as certain liberals were called Shavians

A rugged optimist, somewhat like Browning in attitude and belief, Chesterton argued the efficacy of conservative principles, venerable institutions, ritual and convention, common sense, and Christian mores out of a vigorous, dogmatic disapproval of the prevailing skepticism and pessimism. A convert to Catholicism, he was an apologist and champion of the faith. Trust the order of things as they are, he said; everything has its proper place, proportion, and use. To be free of convention is to move slavishly from one fad to another. His notorious absent-mindedness was that of a man with his mind always on the literal things of the world. Characteristic of the true conservative, his point of view remained consistent, and he attributed his freedom of thought and imagination to this basic rigidity. For him, the exciting and important questions were the old ones.

Chesterton was a controversialist. He argued that to be profoundly international one must first be national. Socialism is slavery. Democracy is deeper than democrats understand, for what follows it is true revolution. Science, combined with hasty reform, will enslave man, and create a “panic of prohibition.” Those who desire the perfection of society fail to see that perfection destroys its object. Chesterton lived in a time when technology promised a bright, if not a brave, new world, but it was one in which progress carried the germs of its own blight. He abhorred mass production and attacked technological infringements upon ordinary human liberties. In “The Pagoda of Progress” he argued that true progress was a search for a place to stop. Ever-increasing complexity in a civilization fosters a multiplicity of tortures. He noted that an old thing is disparaged the more we sense the necessity of concealing the awfulness of the new thing that replaces it. When there is no joy in work, there is no joy in leisure; the modern pleasure-seeker often destroys joy because he forces two pleasures to exist together so that they kill each other off, as when one combines good food with music or with the convenience of speed on a train. In “Sight-seeing” he declares that a mob going to see a sight is a contradiction; a sight should arrest a man accidentally; men should not arrest sights and imprison them in museums. In “On Lying in Bed” he laments that man has lost the art of doing nothing.

Chesterton was a man of culture whose erudition was clear and honest, without. He derided smug sophistication and precious intellectuality (“The Prison of Jazz,” “Tennyson,” “Meredith”). Only to the literary imagination is the sea infinite, for instance; Chesterton agreed with the country girl who said the sea resembled a cauliflower, a simile that expresses its boundedness. He believed that truly free men would speak in rhyme and meter. “The Slavery of Free Verse” consists in its trying to become more poetical by ignoring what distinguishes it from prose. He went to poetry to find better words than his own, not fidelity to everyday speech. In “On Literary Cliques,” Chesterton observes that the clique cherishes the imperfect work, the work in progress, rather than work worthy of the world. The strenuous work of artists is to describe the indescribable; thus the original mind always tries to explain itself. But certain modern critics and cliques deify the unutterable.

Chesterton ridiculed modern thought, postures of despair and disengagement, and sentimental evasion of moral principles disguised as fearless freethinking. In “On Sentiment” he showed that antisentimentalism is a snobbish form of sentimentalism, practiced by soft realists. In “The Sentimentalism of Divorce” he declares that he can understand why certain liberals believe in divorce, but not why they ever get married in the first place. Free love is the enemy of freedom; the luxury of laxity in anything is a bribe of slavery; when the prolifigate has painted the town red, he cannot see any red at all. Chesterton preferred the coarse language of his ancestors to the “Evil Euphemisms” of certain realists. He declared that he was almost alone in not being a skeptic about liberty, for the free thinker is not free to think optimistically; he feels compelled to be a cynic or a pessimist. But Chesterton believed that all pessimism aspired to optimism. His own optimism was dedicated to revealing this paradox to pessimists.