Terrible Harmony

Thoughts Inspired by Garry Wills’s Great Book on Chesterton

Thoughts Inspired by Garry Wills’s Great Book on Chesterton

I can identify the exact moment I fell in love with G.K. Chesterton. Many years ago, as I read The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time, I came across this line by Gilbert Syme, the narrator: “Just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.” It hit me like a bolt of lightning that here was a man that knew that all was one, and that everything affected everything else. Indeed, why not by the light of the tree?

Decades later, I finally read Garry Wills’s first book, Chesterton. It is not only the best work about the author I have ever read, and perhaps one of the best works of literary criticism I have read for many a year, but it made me come to several realizations:

  1. Chesterton was not some sort of Jolly Green Giant: What peace he finally attained was hard won.
  2. As the First World War and the books he wrote at that time showed, he was a very indifferent political propagandist (see The Appetite of Tyranny and The Utopia of Usurers).
  3. When Chesterton finally converted to Catholicism in 1922, he became another type of propagandist—one for his faith—but considerably more effectively than in his political work.
  4. Perhaps Chesterton’s most interesting work came before the Great War.

The best thing about Chesterton is Wills’s detailed analysis of the early work, including the poems “The Wild Knight” and “The Ballad of the White Horse” and most particularly, my favorite GKC book, The Man Who Was Thursday.

In an essay on dreams in The Coloured Lands, Chesterton wrote one of the most cogent expressions of the complexity of his dance with joy and nightmare:

In this subconscious world, in short, existence betrays itself; it shows that it is full of spiritual forces which disguise themselves as lions and lamp-posts, which can as easily disguise themselves as butterflies and Babylonian temples…. Life dwells alone in our very heart of hearts, life is one and virgin and unconjured, and sometimes in the watches of the night speaks in its own terrible harmony.

I have only one minor quibble, and that is that Wills downplayed much of Chesterton’s fiction, which was almost always good, from his earliest Father Brown stories (which he covers) to such titles as The Club of Queer Trades, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, The Return of Don Quixote, and The Poet and the Lunatics. At the same time, what Wills does accomplish is to excellent that I cannot but see myself re-reading this excellent book, and maybe even searching for a hardbound copy for my burgeoning GKC collection.