Tarnmoor’s ABCs: G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton with Admirer

Chesterton with Admirer

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today, we’re at the letter “G”:

This is my first ABC entry about the writers who have most influenced me. Interestingly, I discovered all of them right around the same time, just after 1970. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is the only one of them who might very well be declared a saint of the Catholic Church during my lifetime—or not. Roman Catholic Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England, has ordered an examination into the life of the author, which is the usual first step on the road to beatification and, eventually, canonization. Feeling is strong both for and against his sainthood, some alleging that he was anti-Semitic, though I have never seen any evidence to that effect.

GKC was incredibly prolific, writing journalism, fiction, essays, poetry, plays, biography, and political and religious works. I started by reading his essays (mostly published as journalism), then moved on to his fiction, and in the end reading as much of everything as I could find. He is probably one of the most quotable writers of the Twentieth Century. The following is from my favorite of his novels, The Man Who Was Thursday:

He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.

And again:

Syme had for a flash the sensation that the cosmos had turned exactly upside down, that all trees were growing downwards and that all stars were under his feet. Then came slowly the opposite conviction. For the last twenty-four hours the cosmos had really been upside down, but now the capsized universe had come right side up again.

Following is a poem called “A Ballad of Abbreviations,” making fun of how Americans replace simple Anglo-Saxon terms with clumsier circumlocutions:

A Ballad of Abbreviations

The American’s a hustler, for he says so,
And surely the American must know.
He will prove to you with figures why it pays so
Beginning with his boyhood long ago.
When the slow-maturing anecdote is ripest,
He’ll dictate it like a Board of Trade Report,
And because he has no time to call a typist,
He calls her a Stenographer for short.

He is never known to loiter or malinger,
He rushes, for he knows he has ‘a date’ ;
He is always on the spot and full of ginger,
Which is why he is invariably late.
When he guesses that it’s getting even later,
His vocabulary’s vehement and swift,
And he yells for what he calls the Elevator,
A slang abbreviation for a lift.

Then nothing can be nattier or nicer
For those who like a light and rapid style.
Than to trifle with a work of Mr Dreiser
As it comes along in waggons by the mile.
He has taught us what a swift selective art meant
By description of his dinners and all that,
And his dwelling, which he says is an Apartment,
Because he cannot stop to say a flat.

We may whisper of his wild precipitation,
That it’s speed in rather longer than a span,
But there really is a definite occasion
When he does not use the longest word he can.
When he substitutes, I freely make admission,
One shorter and much easier to spell ;
If you ask him what he thinks of Prohibition,
He may tell you quite succinctly it is Hell.

You can find many of Chesterton’s best works available for free from Gutenberg.Com or for cheap from E-Book vendors.