“Extremely unpleasant”

I do not think, as my opponent supposes, that punishing people severely solely for their opinions was a nice or proper human action. But I should be quite content if I could make people understand that it was a human action at all. As the matter is commonly stated in our day the difficulty is generally to imagine, not how a good man could be led to persecute, but why even a bad man should be bothered to do so. Persecution as described in our histories sounds like something too strange to be even a sin. All through my boyhood (which I need hardly say was studious and industrious in an almost feverish degree) I used to wonder why people hit or stoned people with an opposite philosophy. A little experience of the world, however, has taught me that the explanation is simple: the reason is that people with an opposite philosophy are extremely unpleasant. Whether or no heretics are unpleasing to God, there is no doubt at all about their being unpleasing to man.

The Illustrated London News, 30 June 1906.

Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 12:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Ballad of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours — on the wall —
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay–
My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall–
I see a little cloud all pink and grey–
Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call–
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way–
I never read the works of Juvenal–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational–
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Poems (1915).

(Hat-tip: Sean P. Dailey for pointing me to the bizarre video.)

Published in: on October 24, 2007 at 11:38 am  Comments (1)  

“To amaze and to awaken”

I write this article in a kind of crooked, half-country lane which, taking a turn at the bottom, opens upon the sea. Now I might walk down that lane a million times, and I should still feel that it was right to have walked down it a million times; that it was right to dwell in such a place and to be used to it. The lane is irregular, but it is not abrupt. The sea is awful, but it is not startling. It seems easy to accept the fact that they are always there; it is natural that Nature should be natural. But I know another lane in England crooked also, though a little broader round one corner, of which one sees something more splendid than the sea. The name of this lane is Fleet Street, and the sight is the dreadful dome and cross which Wren set in the sky. Now, when I see this, I do not feel that it is a thing meant to be seen a million times; but once or twice or thrice at some strange crisis of the soul. The sea lies in wait to soothe, but this lies in wait to amaze and to awaken. The sea is a lullaby; the church is an alarum. The waves beyond this little lane are waiting to tell me that Nature is patient and long-lived, and that we are secure in her bosom. But the Cathedral is waiting to tell me that we are not secure, that the sea can be upheaved and the earth be shaken, that heaven and earth shall pass away, but that words shall not pass away. No sceptic or blasphemer, perhaps, ever uttered a more profoundly un-Christian sentiment (in its implication) than that line of a pious Christian writer — “God made the country, but man made the town.” I think Cowper wrote it, I am not sure. If Cowper did write it, Cowper was a worshipper of Pan, and not of Christ. The whole point of Christianity is that man at his highest has a divine authority which is denied to Nature. Nature is not supernatural; in a sense art is supernatural, because man is supernatural. But exactly because Nature is only natural, we ought normally to live in Nature. And exactly because great architecture is in some sense supernatural, we ought to go specially to see it at special times. Our present position is like that of a man who should dine and go to bed in church, and then go and sing hymns in his bedroom. The best mystical tradition is not to be found in the modern poet, whose notion of a holiday is to go into the country. The best mystical tradition is to be found in the old rustic whose notion of a holiday is to go up to London. He sees the green hedges and the grey sea as what they are, the quiet and rational background of man’s life. And he sees St. Paul’s Cathedral as what it is — a sight. But for people like you and me this natural relation of town and country is turned entirely upside down. I see the natural turf and sand about once a year. And I see the exceptional and astonishing Fleet Street almost every day of my life.

The Illustrated London News, 31 August 1907.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

“All good things are one thing”

All good things are one thing. Sunsets, schools of philosophy, babies, constellations, cathedrals, operas, mountains, horses, poems — all these are merely disguises. One thing is always walking among us in fancy-dress, in the grey cloak of a church or the green cloak of a meadow. He is always behind, His form makes the folds fall so superbly. And that is what the savage old Hebrews, alone among the nations, guessed, and why their rude tribal god has been erected on the ruins of all polytheistic civilizations. For the Greeks and Norsemen and Romans saw the superficial wars of nature and made the sun one god, the sea another, the wind a third. They were not thrilled, as some rude Israelite was, one night in the wastes, alone, by the sudden blazing idea of all being the same God: an idea worthy of a detective story.

– Letter to Frances Blogg (later his wife) (1899).
Quoted in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1943).

Published in: on October 10, 2007 at 5:06 am  Leave a Comment  

“Green fumes of depravity”

Those who detest the harmless writer of this column are generally reduced (in their final ecstasy of anger) to calling him “brilliant”; which has long ago in our journalism become a mere expression of contempt. But I am afraid that even this disdainful phrase does me too much honour. I am more and more convinced that I suffer, not from a shiny or showy impertinence, but from a simplicity that verges on imbecility. I think more and more that I must be very dull, and that everybody else in the modern world must be very clever. I have just been reading this important compilation, sent to me in the name of a number of men for whom I have a high respect, and called “New Theology and Applied Religion.” And it is literally true that I have read through whole columns of the things without knowing what the people are talking about. Either they must be talking about some black and bestial religion in which they were brought up, and of which I have never even heard, or else they must be talking about some blazing and blinding vision of God which they have found, and which by its very splendour confuses their logic and confounds their speech. But the best instance I can quote of the thing is in connection with this matter of the business of physical science [. . .] The following words are written over the signature of a man whose intelligence I respect, and I cannot make head or tail or them —

When modern science declared that the cosmic process knew nothing of a historical event corresponding to a Fall, but told, on the contrary, the story of an incessant rise in the scale of being, it was quite plain that the Pauline scheme — I mean the argumentative process of Paul’s scheme of salvation — had lost its very foundation; for was not that foundation the total depravity of the human race inherited from their first parents? . . . But now there was no Fall; there was no total depravity, or imminent danger of endless doom; and, the basis gone, the superstructure followed.

It is written with earnestness and in excellent English; it must mean something. But what can it mean? How could physical science prove that man is not depraved? You do not cut a man open to find his sins. You do not boil him until he gives forth the unmistakable green fumes of depravity. How could physical science find any traces of a moral fall? What traces did the author expect to find? Did he expect to find a fossil Eve with a fossil apple inside her? Did he suppose that the ages would have spared for him a complete skeleton of Adam attached to a slightly faded fig-leaf? The whole paragraph which I have quoted is simply a series of inconsequent sentences, all quite untrue in themselves and all quite irrelevant to each other. Science never said that there could have been no Fall. There might have been ten Falls, one on top of the other, and the thing would have been quite consistent with everything we know from physical science. Humanity might have grown morally worse for millions of centuries, and the thing would in no way contradict the principle of Evolution…

What can people mean when they say that science has disturbed their view of sin? What sort of view of sin can they have had before science disturbed it? Did they think that it was something to eat? When people say that science has disturbed their faith in immortality, what do they mean? Did they think that immortality was a gas?

Of course the real truth is that science has introduced no new principle into the matter at all. A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it. The materialism of things is on the face of things; it does not require any science to find it out. A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.

The Illustrated London News, 28 September 1907.

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment