G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton 1874-1936
English poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, journalist, biographer, historian, and dramatist.
Admired for the volume and diversity of his literary endeavors during the first half of the twentieth century, Chesterton is best known today as a colorful bon vivant as well as the creator of the Father Brown mysteries and of the fantastical novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). But he was also a formidable Christian polemicist and writer of such poems as The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) and The Ballad of St. Barbara (1922), both of which treat battles in England's distant and more recent past as the stuff of legend.
Born in London and educated at St. Paul's School, Chesterton afterward studied at the Slade School of Art. Although he never became a professional artist, Chesterton did contribute illustrations to the novels of his friend Hilaire Belloc, and his strong gift for the pictorial is reflected in the vividness of his writing. While at the Slade School, Chesterton encountered and rejected the pessimistic, fin de siècle pose that was popular during his youth, eventually embracing an optimistic attitude toward life that can be found in his light verse collection Greybeards at Play (1900). Chesterton regarded himself first and foremost as a journalist. Indeed, one of his first jobs upon graduating from art school was as an art reviewer for a publisher. Shortly afterward he began his journalistic career in earnest with a series of articles that he contributed to the Speaker, a journal formed by some of his friends. By the time he married Frances Blogg in 1901, Chesterton had already become noted in London journalistic circles for his poetry, articles, essays, and reviews.
After marriage, Chesterton settled down to write the sort of prose works for which he is most admired, including Orthodoxy (1908), and The Everlasting Man (1925). Chesterton's writings are divided in tone between comic, high-energy excursions similar to those of Charles Dickens and serious meditations on the fate of humanity and the nature of faith. In 1922 Chesterton formally embraced Catholicism. Many of his early works presage this conversion; his works afterward are devoted almost exclusively to his interest in and defense of the Church. Chesterton was a prolific writer in a variety of genres; he continued to publish until his death in 1936.
Chesterton's poetry has been frequently anthologized. Verses such as the ebullient “The Rolling English Road” and the patriotic, and in some cases comical, “The Englishman,” “The English Graves,” and “The Secret People” define and celebrate the unique personality of the English. Poems such as “Lepanto” (which describes a sea fight between European forces and the Ottoman Empire) and The Ballad of St. Barbara (which recalls World War I's Battle of the Marne) are rousing martial tributes. Chesterton's epic The Ballad of the White Horse has, in its retelling of the English King Alfred's struggle against the Danes, been compared to its successor, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Although Chesterton's poetry remains popular, it has not always been well received by critics. Some worried about the apparent frivolity of his lighter poems. One early critic described Chesterton's verse as simultaneously banal, extravagant, and devoid of any genuine feeling. Others have acknowledged the poet's skillful use of language, describing his rhetoric as “dignified” even as they suggest that his verses are flawed. Scholars tend to agree that Chesterton's work was influenced by a number of sources, including the fin de siècle, art-for-art's-sake pessimism he later rejected and the rollicking humor of Charles Dickens's early works. Chesterton's writing was also deeply affected by his Roman Catholic beliefs. This faith is reflected strongly in works written even before his conversion, such as “Lepanto” and The Ballad of the White Horse.
Critics often distinguish between the puckish humor of Chesterton's light verse and drinking songs on the one hand and his serious, epic poems on the other. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that he has been called the master of irreverent paradox. Scholars have remarked that through Chesterton's paradoxes, the seemingly self-evident is turned upside-down, causing readers to view their initial beliefs in a different light. This was part of Chesterton's purpose and his “chief idea of life”: the awakening of a child's sense of wonder as if experiencing things for the first time. His essay “A Defense of Nonsense” describes a method of thinking that applies equally to his prose and poetry: “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”