The man who wishes to feed on mahogany

Poetry deals with primal and conventional things — the hunger for bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh, original craving to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him. If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only express what is original in one sense — the sense in which we speak of original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new, but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that it deals with origins.

Robert Browning (1903).


In her poetry collection Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, Annie Dillard included a response to this passage. I include it here for interest’s sake. Despite her contradiction of Chesterton’s thesis, the ideas animating the poem are remarkably Chestertonian.


Not the man who wishes to feed on mahogany
and who happens to love and not be loved in return;
not mourning in autumn the absence or loss of someone,
remembering how, in a yellow dress, she leaned
light-shouldered, lanky, over a platter of pears –
no, no tricks. Just the man and his wish, alone.

That there should be mahogany, real, in the world,
instead of no mahogany, rings in his mind
like a gong — that in humid Haitian forests are trees,
hard trees, not holes in air, not nothing, no Haiti,
no zone for trees nor time for wood to grow:
reality rounds his mind like rings in a tree.

Love is the factor, love is the type, and the poem.
Is love a trick, to make him commonplace?
He wishes, cool in his windy rooms. He thinks:
of all earth’s shapes, her coils, rays and nets,
mahogany I love, this sunburnt red,
this close-grained, scented slab, my fellow creature.

He knows he can’t feed on the wood he loves, and he won’t.
But desire walks on lean legs down halls of his sleep,
desire to drink and sup at mahogany’s mass.
His wishes weight his belly. Love holds him here,
love nails him to the world, this windy wood,
as to a cross. Oh, this lanky, sunburnt cross!

Is he sympathetic? Do you care?
And you, sir, perhaps you wish to feed
on your bright-eyed daughter, on your baseball glove,
on your outboard motor’s pattern in the water.
Some love weights your walking in the world;
some love molds you heavier than air.

Look at the world, where vegetation spreads
and peoples air with weights of green desire.
Crosses grow as trees and grasses everywhere,
writing in wood and leaf and flower and spore,
marking the map, “Some man loved here;
and one loved something here; and here, and here.”

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 6:18 am  Comments (2)  

“A wild, elusive, ever-changing, fantastical, and irresponsible jester”

I have occasionally in my life made jokes, and I have also occasionally been serious. And this, I had always understood, was the not unusual practice of my fellow-creatures. But I have discovered that this explanation is not considered sufficient in my case; I am always supposed to be engaged with some tortuous or topsy-turvy intention. When I state a dull truth about anything, it is said to be a showy paradox; when I lighten or brighten it with any common jest, it is supposed to be my solid and absurd opinion. If I ask a rational question of an opponent, it is considered a wild frivolity. But if I make an ordinary idle pun, it is gravely explained to me that my analogy is rather a verbal parallelism than a philosophic example of the operations of the common law.

Thus I was in controversy lately with some writers on a certain journal who maintain that such a doctrine as that of miracles (let us say) is not a truth, but the symbol of a truth. I merely asked them, “What is the truth of which it is a symbol?” You would think that a courteous, relevant, and reasonable question. The answer of the journal was to cast up its eyes and clasp its hands, and ask distractedly how it could be expected to argue with such a wild, elusive, ever-changing, fantastical, and irresponsible jester as myself. On the other hand, I casually summed up the distinction between the supernatural and the unreasonable by the phrase that one might believe that a Beanstalk grew up to the sky without having doubts about how many beans make five. For this a writer, intelligible and presumably human, actually rebuked me, gravely asking me whether I believed in the Beanstalk!

When I make common jokes they are regarded as highly uncommon opinions. When I state solid opinions, they are regarded as giddy jokes. But no matter. A time will come.

The Illustrated London News, 21 May 1910.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 5:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Catholic education

Those who refuse to understand that Catholic children must have an entirely Catholic school are back in the bad old days, as they would express it, when nobody wanted education but only instruction. They are relics of the dead time when it was thought enough to drill pupils in two or three dull and detached lessons that were supposed to be quite mechanical. They descend from the original Philistine who first talked about “The Three R.s”; and the joke about him is very symbolic of his type or time. For he was the sort of man who insists very literally on literacy, and, even in doing so, shows himself illiterate.

They were very uneducated rich men who loudly demanded education. And among the marks of their ignorance and stupidity was the particular mark that they regarded letters and figures as dead things, quite separate from each other and from a general view of life. They thought of a boy learning his letters as something quite cut off, for instance, from what is meant by a man of letters. They thought a calculating boy could be made like a calculating machine.

When somebody said to them, therefore, “These things must be taught in a spiritual atmosphere”, they thought it was nonsense; they had a vague idea that it meant that a child could only do a simple addition sum when surrounded with the smell of incense. But they thought simple addition much more simple than it is. When the Catholic controversialist said to them, “Even the alphabet can be learnt in a Catholic way”, they thought he was a raving bigot, they thought he meant that nobody must ever read anything but a Latin missal.

But he meant what he said, and what he said is thoroughly sound psychology. There is a Catholic view of learning the alphabet; for instance, it prevents you from thinking that the only thing that matters is learning the alphabet; or from despising better people than yourself, if they do not happen to have learnt the alphabet.

The old unpsychological school of instructors used to say: “What possible sense can there be in mixing up arithmetic with religion?” But arithmetic is mixed up with religion, or at the worst with philosophy. It does make a great deal of difference whether the instructor implies that truth is real, or relative, or changeable, or an illusion. The man who said, “Two and two may make five in the fixed stars”, was teaching arithmetic in an anti-rational way, and, therefore, in an anti-Catholic way. The Catholic is much more certain about the fixed truths than about the fixed stars.

But I am not now arguing which philosophy is the better; I am only pointing out that every education teaches a philosophy; if not by dogma then by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere. Every part of that education has a connection with every other part. If it does not all combine to convey some general view of life, it is not education at all.

The Common Man (posth.; 1950)

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 10:33 pm  Comments (1)