G.K. Chesterton was a brilliant essayist, constantly writing to spur his countrymen to virtue and sane thought. He also engaged in many debates, and was known for his unfailing affability and pleasant wit. In addition to being a journalist and essayist, Chesterton wrote short stories, novels, and poetry (both lyric and narrative); indeed he was quite prolific, but as most of his work was tied to his current times, politics, and debated ideologies, he is much less read today than he was in his time.
We may be removed in time from the events that prompted some of these poems; but as we still have pretentious politicians like Chesterton’s Walter Long, as well as crazy government bureaucracy like that faced by Chesterton’s poor Jones, these poems should still be able to speak to us.
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.
The Revolutionist: or Lines to a Statesman
“I was never standing by while a revolution was going on”—Speech by the Rt. Hon. Walter Long.
When Death was on thy drums, Democracy,
And with one rush of slaves the world was free,
In that high dawn that Kings shall not forget,
A void there was and Walter was not yet.
Through sacked Versailles, at Valmy in the fray,
They did without him in some kind of way;
Red Christendom all Walterless they cross,
And in their fury hardly feel their loss….
Fades the Republic; faint as Roland’s horn,
Her trumpets taunt us with a sacred scorn….
Then silence fell; and Mr. Long was born.
From his first hours in his expensive cot
He never saw the tiniest viscount shot.
In deference to his wealthy parents’ whim
The wildest massacres were kept from him.
The wars that dyed Pall Mall and Brompton red
Passed harmless o’er that one unconscious head:
For all that little Long could understand
The rich might still be rulers of the land.
Vain are the pious arts of parenthood,
Foiled Revolution bubbled in his blood;
Until one day (the babe unborn shall rue it)
The Constitution bored him and he slew it.
If I were wise and good and rich and strong—
Fond, impious thought, if I were Walter Long—
If I could water sell like molten gold,
And make grown people do as they are told,
If over private fields and wastes as wide
As a Greek city for which heroes died,
I owned the houses and the men inside—
If all this hung on one thin thread of habit
I would not revolutionize a rabbit.
I would sit tight with all my gifts and glories,
And even preach to unconverted Tories,
That the fixed system that our land inherits,
Viewed from a certain standpoint, has its merits.
I’d guard the laws like any Radical,
And keep each precedent, however small,
However subtle, misty, dusty, dreamy,
Lest man by chance should look at me and see me;
Lest men should ask what madman made me lord
Of English ploughshares and the English sword;
Lest men should mark how sleepy is the nod
That drills the dreadful images of God!
Walter, be wise! avoid the wild and new,
The Constitution is the game for you.
Walter, beware! scorn not the gathering throng
It suffers, yet it may not suffer wrong,
It suffers, yet it cannot suffer Long.
And if you goad it these grey rules to break,
For a few pence, see that you do not wake
Death and the splendour of the scarlet cap,
Boston and Valmy, Yorktown and Jemmappes,
Freedom in arms, the riding and the routing,
The thunder of the captains and the shouting,
All that lost riot that you did not share—
And when that riot comes—you will be there.
The Horrible History of Jones
Jones had a dog; it had a chain;
Not often worn, not causing pain;
But, as the I.K.L. had passed
Their Unleashed Cousins Act at last,
Inspectors took the chain away;
Whereat the canine barked “hurray!”
At which, of course, the S.P.U.
(Whose Nervous Motorists’ Bill was through),
Were forced to give the dog in charge
For being Audibly at Large.
None, you will say, were now annoyed,
Save haply Jones—the yard was void.
But something being in the lease
About “alarms to aid police,”
The U.S.U. annexed the yard
For having no sufficient guards
Now if there’s one condition
The C.C.P. are strong upon
It is that every house one buys
Must have a yard for exercise;
So Jones, as tenant, was unfit.
His state of health was proof of it.
Two doctors of the T.T.U.’s
Told him his legs from long disuse,
Were atrophied; and saying “So
From step to higher step we go
Till everything is New and True,”
They cut his legs off and withdrew.
You know the E.T.S.T.’s views
Are stronger than the T.T.U.’s:
And soon (as one may say) took wing
The Arms, though not the Man, I sing.
To see him sitting limbless there
Was more than the K.K. could bear
“In mercy silence with all speed
That mouth there are no hands to feed;
What cruel sentimentalist,
O Jones, would doom thee to exist—
Clinging to selfish Selfhood yet?
Weak one! Such reasoning might upset
The Pump Act, and the accumulation
Of all constructive legislation;
Let us construct you up a bit—”
The head fell off when it was hit:
Then words did rise and honest doubt,
And four Commissions sat about
Whether the slash that left him dead
Cut off his body or his head.
An author in the Isle of Wight
Observed with unconcealed delight
A land of old and just renown
Where Freedom slowly broadened down
From Precedent to Precedent….
And this, I think, was what he meant.