“The poetry of modern life”

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the ‘Iliad.’ No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 11:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A pillar-box”

It is indeed difficult to account for the clinging curse of ugliness which blights everything brought forth by the most prosperous of centuries. In all created nature there is not, perhaps, anything so completely ugly as a pillar-box. Its shape is the most unmeaning of shapes, its height and thickness just neutralising each other; its colour is the most repulsive of colours–a fat and soulless red, a red without a touch of blood or fire, like the scarlet of dead men’s sins. Yet there is no reason whatever why such hideousness should possess an object full of civic dignity, the treasure-house of a thousand secrets, the fortress of a thousand souls. If the old Greeks had had such an institution, we may be sure that it would have been surmounted by the severe, but graceful, figure of the god of letter-writing. If the mediaeval Christians had possessed it, it would have had a niche filled with the golden aureole of St Rowland of the Postage Stamps. As it is, there it stands at all our street-corners, disguising one of the most beautiful of ideas under one of the most preposterous of forms.

It is useless to deny that the miracles of science have not been such an incentive to art and imagination as were the miracles of religion. If men in the twelfth century had been told that the lightning had been driven for leagues underground, and had dragged at its destroying tail loads of laughing human beings, and if they had then been told that the people alluded to this pulverising portent chirpily as ‘The Twopenny Tube,’ they would have called down the fire of Heaven on us as a race of half-witted atheists. Probably they would have been quite right.

— Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on April 16, 2015 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

“God of things as they are”

The wonder-working done by good people, saints and friends of man, is almost always represented in the form of restoring things or people to their proper shapes. St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, finds a boiling pot in which two children have been reduced to a sort of Irish stew. He restores them miraculously to life, because they ought to be children and ought not to be Irish stew. But he does not turn them into angels; and I can remember no case in hagiology of such an official promotion. If a woman were blind, the good wonder-workers would give her back her eyes; if a man were halt, they would give him back his leg. But they did not, I think, say to the man: “You are so good that you really ought to be a woman”; or to the woman: “You are so bothered it is time you had a holiday as a man.” I do not say there are no exceptions; but this is the general tone of the tales about good magic. But, on the other hand, the popular tales about bad magic are specially full of the idea that evil alters and destroys the personality. The black witch turns a child into a cat or a dog; the bad magician keeps the prince captive in the form of a parrot, or the princess in the form of a hind; in the gardens of the evil spirits human beings are frozen into statues or tied to the earth as trees. In all such instinctive literature the denial of identity is the very signature of Satan. In that sense it is true that the true God is the God of things as they are — or, at least, as they were meant to be.

Illustrated London News, 22 November 1913.

Published in: on April 8, 2015 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lines To A Young Girl Born Before April Fool’s Day

When March went out a lion or a lamb,
And you came in, a lamb or lioness
(For which you were, when in the cot or pram,
I do not know although I partly guess),
They gave you that strong name, with other mercies,
Especially no doubt to suit my verses.

My verses, which were then, as you are, young,
More numerous than now and even worse,
But then were things less glorious to be sung,
And several things more damnable to curse;
And so in rhymes I now find crude and scrappy,
I kicked the pessimists to make them happy.

Thank Heaven you missed, and men need tell you not,
What tosh was talked when you were very small,
When Decadence, which is the French for Rot,
Turned life to an irreverent funeral.
The leaden night of that long peace is dead
And we have seen the daybreak … very red.

England, unbroken of the evil kings,
Whose line is breaking in the breaking snow,
Open your ways to large and laughing things
And the young peace be with you where you go,
And far on that new spire, new sprung in space,
St. Michael of the morning give you grace.

The Spring is with us, whose new-made election
Leaps in the beeches that baptised our Field,
Walks in the woods the ways of resurrection
In a new world washed in the wind and healed;
Young as your ancient name, more strong than death,
Strength of the House of God, Elizabeth.

— (March, 1916).

Published in: on April 1, 2015 at 10:09 am  Comments (1)  

The Trinkets

A wandering world of rivers,
A wavering world of trees,
If the world grow dim and dizzy
With all changes and degrees,
It is but Our Lady’s mirror
Hung dreaming in its place,
Shining with only shadows
Till she wakes it with her face.

The standing whirlpool of the stars,
The wheel of all the world,
Is a ring on Our Lady’s finger
With the suns and moons empearled
With stars for stones to please her
Who sits playing with her rings
With the great heart that a woman has
And the love of little things.

Wings of the whirlwind of the world
From here to Ispahan,
Spurning the flying forests,
Are light as Our Lady’s fan:
For all things violent here and vain
Lie open and all at ease
Where God has girded heaven to guard
Her holy vanities.

— (1916-21).

Published in: on March 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Imagines himself to be irritated”

A gentleman trying to get a fly out of the milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine often imagines himself to be irritated. Let him think for a moment of the patience of anglers sitting by dark pools, and let his soul be immediately irradiated with gratification and repose. Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it. But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative; it rested entirely upon the assumption that the drawer could, should, and would come out easily. “But if,” I said, “you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine that you are tugging up a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine that you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevass. Imagine even that you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English.” Shortly after saying this I left him; but I have no doubt at all that my words bore the best possible fruit. I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on March 18, 2015 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“More accurate than fact”

The personal and moral greatness of Alfred is, indeed, beyond question. It does not depend any more than the greatness of any other human hero upon the accuracy of any or all of the stories that are told about him. Alfred may not have done one of the things which are reported of him, but it is immeasurably easier to do every one of those things than to be the man of whom such things are reported falsely.

Fable is, generally speaking, far more accurate than fact, for fable describes a man as he was to his own age, fact describes him as he is to a handful of inconsiderable antiquarians many centuries after. Whether Alfred watched the cakes for the neat-herd’s wife, whether he sang songs in the Danish camp, is of no interest to anyone except those who set out to prove under considerable disadvantages that they are genealogically descended from him. But the man is better pictured in these stories than in any number of modern realistic trivialities about his favourite breakfast and his favourite musical composer. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men. If we read of a man who could make green grass red and turn the sun into the moon, we may not believe these particular details about him, but we learn something infinitely more important than such trivialities, the fact that men could look into his face and believe it possible.

The glory and greatness of Alfred, therefore, is like that of all the heroes of the morning of the world, set far beyond the chance of that strange and sudden dethronement which may arise from the unsealing of a manuscript or the turning over of a stone. Men may have told lies when they said that he first entrapped the Danes with his song and then overcame them with his armies, but we know very well that it is not of us that such lies are told. There may be myths clustering about each of our personalities; local saga-men and chroniclers have very likely circulated the story that we are addicted to drink, or that we ferociously ill-use our wives. But they do not commonly lie to the effect that we have shed our blood to save all the inhabitants of the street. A story grows easily, but a heroic story is not a very easy thing to evoke. Wherever that exists we may be pretty certain that we are in the presence of a dark but powerful historic personality. We are in the presence of a thousand lies all pointing with their fantastic fingers to one undiscovered truth.

— Varied Types (1905).

Published in: on March 11, 2015 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Built on truisms”

It is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.

— The Defendant (1901).

[This post dedicated to the Justices of the Canadian Supreme Court. — The Hebdomadarian]

Published in: on March 4, 2015 at 10:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

“There are no crowds of men”

Spreading around us upon every side to-day like a huge and radiating geometrical figure are the endless branches of the great city. There are times when we are almost stricken crazy, as well we may be, by the multiplicity of those appalling perspectives, the frantic arithmetic of that unthinkable population. But this thought of ours is in truth nothing but a fancy. There are no chains of houses; there are no crowds of men. The colossal diagram of streets and houses is an illusion, the opium dream of a speculative builder. Each of these men is supremely solitary and supremely important to himself. Each of these houses stands in the centre of the world. There is no single house of all those millions which has not seemed to some one at some time the heart of all things and the end of travel.

— Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on February 25, 2015 at 4:56 pm  Comments (1)  

Reparation

God is great: through the tangle of scorns
In ordered seasons of suns and snows;
Slowly the thousand crowns of thorns
Shall break and redden to crowns of rose.

God is great: with a myriad throats;
Doubt’s grey seas rise high and throng,
Yet all their noise is a note ‘mid notes
Struck in the chords of his own world-song.

God is great: but not most for these
For heavens in chaos and moons in blight
I see his glory, as one that sees
Measureless forces he reins aright.

At the roots of my heart lies brown and dry,
Bitten and fragrant, an old ‘too late’
The dark dumb heat of a buried cry,
And God shall answer it — God is great.

— (late 1890s).

Published in: on February 18, 2015 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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