G. K. Chesterton Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Greybeards at Play 1900

The Wild Knight and Other Poems 1900

The Ballad of the White Horse 1911

Wine, Water and Song 1915

The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses 1922

Collected Poems 1933

The Defendant (essays) 1901

Twelve Types (essays) 1902

Robert Browning (criticism) 1903

The Napoleon of Notting Hill (novel) 1904

Heretics (essays) 1905

Charles Dickens (criticism) 1906

The Man Who Was Thursday (novel) 1908

Orthodoxy (essays) 1908

George Bernard Shaw (criticism) 1909

The Ball and the Cross (novel) 1910

What's Wrong with the World (essays) 1910

The Innocence of Father Brown (short stories) 1911

Manalive (novel) 1912

The Victorian Age in Literature (criticism) 1913

The Flying Inn (novel) 1914

The Wisdom of Father Brown (short stories) 1914

Eugenics and Other Evils (essays) 1922

The Man Who Knew Too Much (short stories) 1922

St. Francis of Assisi (biography) 1923

The Everlasting Man (essays) 1925

The Incredulity of Father Brown (short stories) 1926

The Return of Don Quixote (novel) 1927

The Secret of Father Brown (short stories) 1927

Four Faultless Felons (short stories) 1930

St. Thomas Aquinas (biography) 1933

Autobiography (autobiography) 1936

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (short stories) 1936

Lee Wilson Dodd (review date 1912)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Ballad of the White Horse,” in Yale Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, January, 1912, pp. 334-35.

[In the following review, Dodd contends that while The Ballad of the White Horse has an engaging story line, its quality as a poem is “rough” and at times “infelicitous.”]

A critic may well tremble who is given a book of verse to review briefly, and who opens the book to find it contains but one mighty “Ballad” in eight “Books”—a poem, however named, of almost epical sweep and proportions, dealing in a free, broadly imaginative way with certain legendary or traditional material in connection with King Alfred. There can be no doubt that Mr. Chesterton, hitherto famed as a brilliant if often perverse writer of prose, has in this Ballad of the White Horse made a serious attempt to write not merely poetry, but a nobly planned poem. He tells his tale with a purpose, choosing King Alfred for hero “because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism.” This battle is being waged to-day in the hearts of men; there are doughty champions on both sides. As a sturdy fighter against the present-day forces of intellectual nihilism, Mr. Chesterton is never to be despised. The Ballad of the White Horse is a good sword bared in the timeless conflict.

But what is to be said of it as a poem? In a brief space very little can be said with discrimination. For The Ballad of the White Horse is not a small matter; it does not belong with the Japanese ivories of modern verse. You will search through it vainly for curious felicities of language, not vainly for some very curious infelicities of rhythm and rhyme. Much ruggedness in a manly ballad may be forgiven, but only when it is a roughness as of broken surface-water borne on by the deep-flowing under-harmony of the tide. Mr. Chesterton does not, to my ear, always make this deep-flowing under-harmony felt. But he tells his tale like one in love with the telling—in other words, like a poet, a maker. And the tale is a good tale, filled with strong sorrows and ancient wrongs; filled chiefly, none the less, with undying hope and

“The giant laughter of Christian men.”

The Athenaeum (review date 1915)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poems,” in The Athenaeum, No. 4569, May 22, 1915, pp. 460-61.

[In the following review of Chesterton's Poems, the reviewer concludes that the volume contains both the “best and … worst” of Chesterton's works, and that Chesterton is a better poet than he is a prose writer.]

Robustness, sometimes giving way to an affectation of the robust, has always been the leading characteristic of Mr. Chesterton's work, both in prose and verse. This preference for size and strength has led him to select exceptionally large men—Sunday, Flambeau, Innocent Smith—to be the heroes of his romances, to employ words and phrases on account of their general...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

George Soule (review date 1915)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Attitude of Adventure,” in The New Republic, Vol. IV, No. 52, October 30, 1915, pp. 341-43.

[In the following review of Chesterton's Poems, Soule asserts that the poet takes refuge in “religious orthodoxy,” “banality and bravado” in order to avoid the discomfort of genuine feeling.]

Anybody who fancies himself in heroic declamation will probably, if he happens to read “Lepanto,” read it aloud. He is likely then to be so pleased with its brave colors and insistent sonority that he will repeat it a second and perhaps a third time. After that he is sure to avoid it as he would a Sousa march, not wishing to strut always with brass and...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1922)

SOURCE: “A Modern Exuberant,” The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1089, November 30, 1922, p. 779.

[In the following review of works by and about G. K. Chesterton, the reviewer observes that Chesterton's The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses reveals the poet's talent as a “dignified” rhetorician as well as his flair for lively verse.]

There was room for a critical monograph on the work of Mr. Chesterton, and after the publication of Mr. Braybrooke's little volume there is still room. One can only regret that Mr. Braybrooke has attempted a task for which he appears to possess...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)

H. E. P. (review date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Teutonic Minstrel,” in The New Statesman, Vol. XX, No. 505, December 16, 1922, pp. 335-36.

[In the following review of Chesterton's The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses, H. E. P. describes Chesterton as a patriotic poet whose facility with words usually overcomes any flaws in his verse.]

There are some books of verse which to criticise scrupulously seems almost a sacrilege. They may be full of eccentricities, carelessness, and distortions of metaphor and expression, laying themselves open to protest or damaging parody, but withal so full of vision, emotion, and rich music that the confounding cussedness and impish obscurity which sprawls...

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William Rose Benet (review date 1932)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Round about Parnassus,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 34, March 12, 1932, p. 588.

[In the following excerpt, Benet gives a positive review of The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton, concluding that Chesterton's poetry in particular “communicates noble emotion.”]

The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (Dodd, Mead) is, to me, an event. Despite his infinite polemics, his numerous novels, his multitudinous essays, his detective stories, and his master paradoxes, Gilbert Chesterton's greatest gift from the gods was the gift of verse. If he learned his art from masters so diverse as Lord Macaulay, Algernon Charles...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Thomas Curtis Clark (review date 1932)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “G. K. C.,” in The Christian Century, Vol. XLIX, No. 22, June 1, 1932, p. 705.

[In the following review of the Collected Poems, Clark emphasizes Chesterton's frequent use of paradox.]

Paradoxical always, Mr. Chesterton lives up to his reputation in this new collection of his poems. He has put into the book his whole paradoxical self—newspaper rhymester, with briefs like

Mince-Pies grant wishes: let each name his prize,
But as for us, we wish for more Mince-Pies;

anti-prohibition pamphleteer; Roman Catholic champion; foe of freakish modernist poetry; playboy of literature, with takeoffs on the classic poets,...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Harold M. Petitpas (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chesterton's Metapoetics,” in Renascence, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, Spring, 1971, pp. 137-44.

[In the following essay, Petitpas examines the philosophical, Christian, and Romantic elements that influence both Chesterton's own poetry and his ideas about poetry in general.]

Critics of poetry may be conveniently grouped into two categories: purely poetic critics who in a rigorous scientific spirit isolate a poem from extrapoetic reality, dwelling upon its internal relationships and evaluating it primarily by the principle of coherence; and, metapoetic critics who in a more philosophic spirit relate a poem to other reality, drawing out its transcendental dimensions...

(The entire section is 3879 words.)

Christopher Clausen (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Ballad of the White Horse,”’ in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, May, 1974, pp. 10-16.

[In the following essay, Clausen argues that for his own Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien borrowed the narrative structure and fundamental themes of Chesterton's poem about Christianity versus the forces of evil—The Ballad of the White Horse.]

No reasonably learned reader of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings can fail to have been struck by the extraordinary diversity of literary material that Tolkien manages to incorporate into his complicated but tightly unified narrative. Quarrying bits from...

(The entire section is 2643 words.)

Russell Kirk (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chesterton and T. S. Eliot,” in The Chesterton Review, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 184-96.

[In the following essay, Kirk compares the poetry and philosophies of T. S. Eliot and G. K. Chesterton, noting that although the two writers were both considered conservative, “Christian apologists” each approached Christianity via different, sometimes antagonistic, routes.]

In 1917, there appeared in the pages of a rather odd little London magazine called The Egoist a mordant reference to G.K. Chesterton, then at the height of his influence:

I have seen the forces of death with Mr. Chesterton at the head...

(The entire section is 4405 words.)

David J. Dooley (essay date 1979-80)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chesterton as Satirist,” in The Chesterton Review, Vol. VI, No. Fall-Winter, 1979-80, pp. 233-53.

[In the following essay, Dooley demonstrates how Chesterton used satire in his poetry and prose not simply as a gently humorous device, but also as a persuasive tool backed by moral substance.]

In his book The Amiable Humorist, Stuart M. Tave describes a change in sensibility which took place in the eighteenth century and whose effects we still occasionally observe; it involved a turning away from the unsympathetic, reductive method of wit and ridicule used by Pope and Swift, and the adoption of a species of humour which drew forth tears and sympathy....

(The entire section is 6706 words.)

John D. Boyd, S. J. (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Christian Mythos as Theme in Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse,” in Thought, Vol. LXVI, No. 261, June, 1991, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Boyd argues that The Ballad of the White Horse conveys one of Chesterton's most important themes: that Christian faith in the creation and the redemption are crucial to the underpinnings of human culture.]

To speak in the one breath of mythos (or myth) and poetry can easily cause confusion, for they are not the same thing; yet, if done carefully, it can help us focus on their compatibility and harmony without our losing a sense of the identity of each. This strategy can tell us a good bit...

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John LeVay (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “What Happens in ‘Lepanto,”’ in The Chesterton Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 25-29.

[In the following essay, LeVay describes the historical events that Chesterton left out of his poem about the sixteenth-century battle between a Turkish and a Christian fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto.]

“What doesn't happen in ‘Lepanto’.” The point is, there's no way on God's green earth that one is going to find out what happened at the battle of Lepanto by reading Chesterton's pep-rally tub-thumper. That's the kind of poem it is, and it's very good of its kind. It's also a phantasmagoric slide-show with martial allegro (Beethoven) music. But some...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


“Bards of Passion and of Mirth.” The New York Times Book Review (March 25, 1923): 6.

Positively reviews Chesterton's The Ballad of St Barbara, describing it as a poem in “which passionately lofty thought is given expression through passionately beautiful verse.”

Benson, James D., and Barron Brainerd. “Chesterton's Parodies of Swinburne and Yeats: A Lexical Approach.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 3, No. 4 (1988): 226-31.

Tabulates words from genuine poetry by Swinburne and Yeats to prove that Chesterton's parodies of these two authors works are successful imitations.


(The entire section is 470 words.)