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Go back to Part 1 of Chesterton's Life - 1874 to 1909

A Celebration of G.K. Chesterton: Part 2 1909 - 1936
compiled by Michael Ffinch


G.K. Chesterton 1874 - 1936
In 1909 with Orthodoxy well behind him and George Bernard Shaw just published, Gilbert and his wife left London for the small country town that was to be their home for the rest of their lives.

After we were married, my wife and I lived for about a year in Kensington, the place of my childhood; but I think we both knew that it was not to be the real place of our abode. I remember that we strolled out one day, for a sort of second honeymoon, and went upon a journey into the void, a voyage deliberately objectless.

The White Hart, Beaconsfield
I saw a passing omnibus labelled "Hanwell" and, feeling this to be an appropriate omen, we boarded it and left it somewhere at a stray station, which I entered and asked the man in the ticket-office where the next train went to. He uttered the pedantic reply, "Where do you want to go to?" And I uttered the profound and philosophical rejoinder, "Wherever the next train goes to." It seemed that it went to Slough; which may seem to be singular taste, even in a train. However, we went to Slough, and from there set out walking with even less notion of where we were going. And in that fashion we passed through the large and quiet cross-roads of a sort of village, and stayed at an inn called The White Hart. We asked the name of the place and were told that it was called Beaconsfield, and we said to each other, "This is the sort of place where some day we will make our home."
The White Horse at Kilburn, Yorkshire
A white horse had always had a fascination for Chesterton. He'd seen it in early dreams.

The first night of his honeymoon had been spent at the White Horse at Ipswich and in The Ballad of the White Horse, he took the white horse as the symbol of continuing English life.

The ballad tells the story of the battle of Alfred and his Christian army against the heathen Danish invaders.

In the river island of Athelney,
With the river running past,
In colours of such simple creed
All things sprang at him, sun and weed,
Till the grass grew to be grass indeed
And the tree was a tree at last.

Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
Like the child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.
king Alfred
At the worst moment of the Second World War, a Times leader quoted Our Lady's lines lines:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
and when later our fortunes improved:
"The high tide!" King Alfred cried.
The high tide and the turn!"
The theme verses of the ballad are the well known lines of Our Lady, when in a vision she appears to King Alfred before the battle and at a low moment in his fortune gives to him a message:

The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.
And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.
The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.
The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"

Even as she spoke she was not,
Nor any word said he,
He only heard, still as he stood
Under the old night's nodding hood,
The sea-folk breaking down the wood
Like a high tide from sea.
He only heard the heathen men,
Whose eyes are blue and bleak,
Singing about some cruel thing
Done by a great and smiling king
In daylight on a deck.
He only heard the heathen men,
Whose eyes are blue and blind,
Singing what shameful things are done
Between the sunlit sea and the sun
When the land is left behind.


Before the Battle of the Somme
Chesterton was just over forty when the World War broke out. Many men of that age found their way into the army and Chesterton with his love of battles and his devotion to the particular cause, to which Britain was then dedicated, would have done the same had it been possible.

Mr. Chesterton! Mr. Chesterton, why aren't you out at the front?

Madame, if you go round to my side, you will see that I am.
MALAHIDE: With his untidiness and inconsequence, he would have made an almost unbelievably bad soldier. But with his humility it would never have occured to him to allow incompetence to deter him from duty. But he'd not only forty years, but also bad health and military service was out of the question. Indeed in the first months of the war, he had a very serious illness, from which for a time it looked likely he would die.
FRANCES CHESTERTON: November 25th 1914, Dear Father O'Connor you must pray for him. He is seriously ill, and I have two nurses. It is mostly heart trouble, but there are complications. He is quite his normal self as to head and brain, and he even dictates and reads a great deal.
December 29th, Gilbert had a bad relapse on Christmas Eve, and now is being desperately ill. He is not often conscious and is so weak. I feel he might ask for you. If so I shall wire. Doctor is still hopeful, but I feel in despair.
January 3rd 1915. If you came he would not know you, and this condition may last some time. The brain is dormant and must be kept so. If he is at any moment sufficiently conscious to understand, I will ask him to let you come, or will send on my own responsibility. Pray for his soul and mine.
January 12th. He is really better, I believe, and by the mercy of God, I dare hope he is to be restored to us. Physically he is stronger, and the brain is beginning to work normally, and soon I trust we shall be able to ask him his wishes with regard to the Church. I am so thankful to think that we can get at his desire.
Easter 1915. I feel the enormous significance of the resurrection of the body, when I think of my dear husband, just consciously laying hold of life again. He still wanders a good deal when tired, but is certainly a little stronger.
Sackville Street, Dublin
after the Easter Rising
At Easter, 1916, came the awful tragedy of the Irish rising. Chesterton had fallen into the sleep of his long illness soon after the splendid gesture in which Redmond had offered the sword of Ireland to the allied cause. And there seems little doubt that in making this offer Redmond had with him, for the last time, the people of Ireland. Recruiting began well but that awful fate of stupidity that seems to overtake every Englishman dealing with Ireland even now was overwhelming the two countries.

Before the end of the war G.K. visited Ireland and in the book that he wrote after this visit may be found his best analysis of the matter.
CHESTERTON: In Northern Ireland we cannot avoid threology. That the difference had historically a religious root is really unquestionable, but anyhow it is very deeply rooted.

Orange Order March
The essence of Calvinism was certainty about salvation; the essence of Catholicism is uncertanity about salvation. The modern and materialised form of that certainty is superiority; the belief of a man in a fixed moral aristocracy of men like himself. But the truth concerned here is that, by this time at any rate, the superiority has become a doctrine as well as an indulgence.

I doubt if this extreme school of Protestants believe in Christian humility even as an ideal. I doubt whether the more honest of them would even profess to believe in it. This can be clearly seen by comparing it with other Christian virtues; of which this decayed Calvinism offers at least a version, even to those who think it a perversion. Puritanism is a version of purity; if we think it a parody of purity. Philanthropy is a version of charity; if we think it a parody of charity. But in all this commercial Protestantism there is no version of humility; there is not even a parody of humility. Humility is not an ideal. Humility is not even a hypocrisy. There is no institution, no commandment, no common form of words, no popular pattern or traditional tale, to tell anybody in any fashion that there is any such thing as a peril of spiritual pride.

In short, there is here a school of thought and sentiment that does definitely regard self-satisfaction as a strength; as against the strong Christian tradition in the rest of Ireland that does as definitely regard it as a weakness. That is the real moral issue in the modern struggle in Ireland; nor is it confined to Ireland. England has been deeply infected with this Pharisaical weakness; but as I have said, England takes things vaguely where Ireland takes them vividly.

This is a religious question and it will not have an irreligious answer. It will not be met by the limitation of Christian faith, but rather by the extension of Christian charity. But if a man says there is no diference between a Protestant and a Catholic, and both can act in anidentical fashion everywhere, but in a church or a chapel, he is madly driving the cart horse when he has forgotten the cart. A religion is not the church a man goes to, but the cosmos he lives in; and if any sceptic forgets it, the maddest fanatic beating an orange drum about the battle of the Boyne is a better philosopher than he.
MAISIE WARD: Though Gilbert Chesterton was not able to join the army in World War One, his brother Cecil, six years his junior, could become a soldier, and died in hospital a few days afterr the armistice. This loss, a tragedy in itself, had its very great influence on Gilbert Chesterton's life. Cecil Chestyerton had produced his weekly journal, The Eye Witness, and after his death Gilbert felt it a point of honour to continue the paper, which he did under various names, such as The New Witness and finally G. K's Weekly.
MALAHIDE: There were plenty of other obstacles to be overcome. Ever since the writing of The Ballad of the White Horse, a reader would have imagined that Chesterton was already intellectually convinced of the Roman case, but it is said that reluctance to pain his parents held him back, so long as his father was alive.
A FRIEND: He approached the Catholic Church gradually, but by a direct road. He first saw the city from afar off. Then approached it with interest; and at last entered. Few of the great conversions in our history have been so deliberate or so mature. It will be for posterity to judge the magnitude of the event.
MAISIE WARD: The ceremony took place in a kind of shed with corrugated iron roof and wooden walls, a part of the railway hotel. For at this time Beaconsfield had no Catholic Church. Father Ignatius Rice, another old and dear friend came over from the abbey at Douai, to join Father O'Connor at the inn, and they afterwards walked up together to Top Meadow.
ANOTHER FRIEND: Suddenly Father O'Connor asked G. K. if he had brought the ritual. G.K. plunged his hand in his pocket, pulled out a threepenny shocker with complete absence of embarrassment, and went on searching until at last he found the prayer book.
MAISIE WARD: He wrote the sonnet on his conversion that day. He was in brilliant form for the rest of the day, quoting poetry and jesting in the highest spirits. He joined the church to restore his innocence. Sin was almost the greatest reality to him. He became a Catholic, because of the Church's practical power of dealing with sin.
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
Hilaire Belloc
Hilaire Belloc gave Chesterton the means of defending the home. He put Chesterton in touch with Catholic economics. We owe Distributism to Belloc. Of course he did not invent the idea, which is implicit in Catholicism and explicit in Rerum Novarum that greatest encyclical of Pope Leo; but he did invent the thing as a system of practical economics, and an alternative to capitalism and its offspring communism.

He showed GKC how to defend Notting Hill, and he showed him how to defend the Sussex Downs. You might almost say that in the process he introduced Gilbert to the Sussex Downs.

I saw great Cobbett riding,
The horseman of the shires;
And his face was red with judgement
And a light of Luddite fires:
And south to Sussex and the sea the lights leapt up for liberty,
The trumpet of the yeomanry, the hammer of the squires;

A trailing meteor on the Downs he rides above the rotting towns,
The Horseman of Apocalypse, the Rider of the Shires.
MAISIE WARD: Chesterton's first major work as a Catholic was his life of St. Francis of Assisi.
Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
by Jusepe de Ribera
High in the dark house of Assisi Francesco Bernadonne slept and dreamed of arms. There came to him in the darkness a vision splendid with swords, patterned after the cross in the Crusading fashion, of spears and shields and helmets hung in a high armoury, all bearing the sacred sign. When he awoke he accepted the dream as a trumpet bidding him to the battlefield, and rushed out to take horse and arms. He delighted in all the exercises of chivalry; and was evidently an accomplished cavalier and fighting man by the tests of the camp. He would doubtless at any time have preferred a Christian sort of chivalry; but it seems clear that he was also in a mood which thirsted for glory, though in him that glory would always have been identical with honour. He was not without some vision of that wreath of laurel which Ceasar has left for all the Latins. As he rode out to war the great gate in the deep wall of Assisi resounded with his last boast, "I shall come back a great prince."

A little way along the road his sickness rose again and threw him. It seems highly probable, in the light of his impetuous temper, that he had ridden away long before he was fit to move. And in the darkness of this second and fare more desolating interruption, he seems to have had another dream in which a voice said to him, "You have mistaken the meaning of the vision. Return to your own town." And Francis trailed back in his sickness to Assisi, a very dismal and disappointed and perhaps even derided figure, with nothing to do but wait for what should happen next. It was his first descent into a dark ravine that is called the valley of humiliation, which seemed to him very rocky and desolate, but in which he was afterwards to find many flowers.

But he was not only disappointed and humiliated; he was very much puzzled and bewildered. He still firmly believed that his two dreams must have meant something; and he could not imagine what they could possibly mean. It was while he was drifting, one might even say mooning, about the streets of Assisi and the fields outside the city wall, that an incident occurred to him which has not always been immediately connected with the business of the dreams, but which seems to me the obvious culmination of them. He was riding listlessly in some wayside place, apparently in the open country, when he saw a figure coming along the road towards him and halted; for he saw it was a leper. And he knew instantly that his courage was challenged, not as the world challenges, but as one would challenge who knew the secrets of the heart of a man. What he saw advancing was not the banner and spears of Perugia, from which it never occurred to him to shrink; nor the armies that fought for the crown of Sicily, of which he had always thought as a courageous man thinks of mere vulgar danger.

Medieval Leprosy
Medieval Leprosy
Francis Bernadone saw his fear coming up the road towards him; the fear that comes from within and not without; though it stood white and horrible in the sunlight. For once in the long rush of his life his soul must have stood still. Then he sprang from his horse, knowing nothing between stillness and swiftness, and rushed on the leper and threw his arms around him. It was the beginning of a long vocation of ministry among many lepers, for whom he did many services; to this man he gave what money he could and mounted and rode on. We do not know how far he rode, or with what sense of the things around him; but it is said that when he looked back, he could see no figure on the road.
MAISIE WARD: In St. Francis, Gilbert saw the apotheosis of his old boyish thought - that thanksgiving is a duty and a joy, that we should love not "humanity" but each human.
Medieval Lady with Organ Tapestry
Medieval Lady with Organ Tapestry
The transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution; by which one for whom all things illustrate and illuminate God becomes one for whom God illustrates and illuminates all things. It is rather like the reversal whereby a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower, and say afterwards that all flowers reminded him of his lady. A saint and a poet standing by the same flower might seem to say the same thing; but indeed though they would both be telling the truth, they would be telling different truths. For one the joy of life is a cause of faith, for the other rather a result of faith.
MAISIE WARD: Saint Francis and The Everlasting Man seem to me the highest expression of Gilbert's mysticism. I have hesitated to use the word for it is not one to be used lightly but I can find no other. Like most Catholics I have been wont to believe that to be a mystic a man must first be an ascetic and Gilbert was not an ascetic in the ordinary sense. But is there not for the thinker an asceticism of the mind, very searching, very purifying?
Cave Paintings at Lascaux, France
Cave Paintings at Lascaux, France
The human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the cave-man and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals.

The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night.

The Nativity
The Nativity
It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a CaveMan, and, had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously colored upon the wall of the world ; but the pictures that he made had come to life.
MAISIE WARD: The Everlasting Man was largely written to correct the chidishly simple story of a regular progress of history, which H.G. Wells had popularised in his Outline of History. Its contentions were, in essence, two. Man was not, Chesterton argues, as so many maintained, an animal, who merely differed in degree from other animals. Man was unique and differs in kind. And likewise Christ was not, as so many maintain, a man who merely differed in degree from other men. He was unique, and differed in kind.
The Nativity
Saints Lawrence and
Thomas Aquinas
by Fra Angelico
The last of Chesterton's great biographies, composed just three years before his death in 1936, was of St Thomas Aquinas.

It is generally admitted to be one of his most masterful works.

Professor Gilson, the great Thomist scholar, hailed it with despair, saying that he himself had devoted his whole life to Saint Thomas, and Chesterton, writing in the midst of half a hundred other businesses, had left him and all his other fellow professionals outdistanced.
CHESTERTON: The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense. For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that paradoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head.

The Nativity
Oliver Wendell Holmes
This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind. Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms. But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessaries are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense. Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, "Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn."

So much is familiar; but what is not even now realised is that not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.


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Michael Ffinch
Michael Ffinch

There is an excellent biography by the late poet Michael Ffinch, reviewed anonomously:
An affectionate, perceptive biography of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whose spiritual and intellectual life seems far more interesting at this remove than most of his vast writing output. Poet Flinch had access to a wealth of previously unexamined notebooks, letters, and other source material in the keeping of Dorothy Collins, GKC's secretary for the last 10 years of his life and his literary executor. In the event, the Ffinch entry (which includes a generous sampling of its subject's prose and poetry) is more tellingly detailed than either Maisie Ward's discreet (and official) biography (1944) or GKC's selective autobiography, published posthumously in 1936.

Basically a learned journalist, Chesterton (who was born in London in 1874) is best remembered for his Father Brown detective stories, plus a handful of poems, e.g., "Lepanto" and "The Rolling English Road." Never wholly free of Financial worries, he was a prolific producer of articles, sociopolitical commentary, literary criticism, essays, novels, plays, and verse that earned him great popularity with post-Victorian readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

GKC was also a widely respected lecturer (a talent he eventually used on radio) and an intimate of his era's leading men of letters--Hilaire Belloc, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, et al. While much of Chesterton's work has proven ephemeral, Ffinch brings to vivid life the religious and social passions that informed it. In his persuasive view, GKC, who embraced both Catholicism and Distributism (an economic system based on employee equity) during the 1920's, was at heart a lover of liberty.

In brief, the author concludes that Chesterton, whose childlike sense of wonder never faltered throughout his life, found freedom in serving God through one true church. In addition to being an articulate and clever defender of the Faith, Chesterton was a visceral anti-Semite. Ffinch deals forthrightly with this aspect of his subject's character as he does with GKC's on-the-record admiration for Mussolini and reasoned rejection of the Nazis. Covered as well are Chesterton's hearty appetites for food, drink, and boon companionship, which made him larger than life--literally as well as figuratively. Beneath the often eccentric bonhomie and facile creativity, though, Ffinch finds a lively, ordered mind whose principal consolations were the eternal verities of Rome. Without overstating the case for Chesterton's enduring worth, Flinch has done a fine job of bringing an altogether engaging and surprisingly complex literary figure into focus in the context of his times. The text has photographs (not seen), plus a half dozen delightful line drawings, four of which were done by GKC.