I have recently been reading Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who Was Chesterton, and an interesting pair of poems caught my attention. The poems highlight some of the differences between Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, and I enjoyed seeing the contrast, and the glimpse of their relationship the poems provided. The first poem was written by Gilbert, to his wife, after what seems like a faux pas on Gilbert’s part. Introducing the poem, brown says: “He describes her as calm, reasonable, wise, and thoughtful; while he himself is a wild, swaggering fool:
The House of Charity
I know that Wisdom is throned among you –
Our Lady of laurels, Our Lady of scrolls.
You take heed of your ways and ponder –
The choosing of roads, the weighing of souls
In the new calm air of the age of reason
I swagger foolishly unafraid
With one poor tune amid all your music,
The tinkling tune of a man and a maid.
Ye that are wise – ye are also pitiful
Though I have smitten you – you can smile,
Thus I have walked from the womb of my mother
Never reeking of ditch or stile.1
Waste it is in the well-laid garden
When into its boundaries breaks the sea
But the old wild ocean hath one law only –
Ponder a little: and pardon me.
Ah, love, I love in the old plain fashion,
With the old god’s curse on this coward’s head.
Heeds any eyes less bright than the dearest
Hears any words out of lips less red.
I sinned: I fell: and all about me
Is darkness: Can you forgive me, dear?
I loved old Love to ride with banners
And blow the trumpet and shake the spear.
I lie in the wreck of my own strange folly
With a faint, fierce hope – that far within
In the shade of your face may be God’s own secret
A hidden smile and a pardoned sin.
GK Chesterton 2
Apparently Chesterton was forgiven, and he and Frances were happily married shortly afterward. But things had not been easy on a personal side for Frances; her sister had recently passed. Not long afterward, her brother is found drowned.3 Brown says:
“Once again, intense suffering flooded into Frances’s life, and she struggled to understand. She felt suddenly lost, floundering, not knowing how to handle yet another family crisis. Inconsistent with her usual response, Frances consulted with a medium in an attempt to contact the spirits of her dead brother and sister. Why did she do this? She wanted to know where they were. She needed assurance: were they at peace or not? In heaven or not? Whatever she saw in the glass ball made her scream. Gilbert wrote a poem, “The Crystal.”
I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,
And round that holy hair, round and beyond
My Frances, my inviolable, screamed
The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.
Close to that face, a window into heaven,
Close to the hair’s brown surf of broken waves
I saw the idiot faces of the ghosts
That are the fungus, not the flower, of graves.
You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade
You who were sceptered with thistle’s bloom,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these
The lying crystal and the darkened room.
Leave the weird queens that find the sun too strong,
To mope and cower beneath Druidic trees,
The still, sweet gardens of the dastard’s dream,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these?
Low fields and shining lie in in crystal-land
Peace and strange pleasure: wonder-lands untrod,
But not plain words, nor love of open things,
Truth, nor strong laughter, nor the fear of God.
I will not look: I am a child of earth,
I see the sun and wood, the sea, and grass.
I only saw one spirit. She is there
Staring for spirits in a lump of glass. 4
In The Crystal, Chesterton is clearly chiding Frances for going about things the wrong way, and for looking for answers in the darkness of dead crystal balls and mediums, instead of in the light of a living and good God. (Man desiring and seeking the gods that “got things done” was an idea he explores to more depth in other works, like The Everlasting Man.5)
In the light of these two poems, there seemed to glow a quiet and natural portrait of the traits and strengths of a woman, and of a man – at least of the man and woman who shared the name of Chesterton. Here was a man who saw ideas with such a startling power of focus and clarity, that other things occasionally got left in the dust of his “trek for truth.” (Like his clothes, money or train tickets.) But Frances – according to Gilbert himself – also saw certain things clearly; she was “wise and thoughtful,” while he sometime lay in the wreck of his “own strange folly.” She saw to all the forgotten things left by Gilbert, and cared lovingly for Gilbert as well. I saw what a good and beautiful thing it was that Frances had Gilbert, and that Gilbert had her; each filled a place in the other that was lacking. Perhaps it could be said they were not a perfect pair, but they came together and made a beautiful whole, and together they have blessed us all.
“I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.” 6
There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. 7
- Stile; A series of steps or rungs by means of which a person may pass over a wall or fence that remains a barrier to sheep or cattle.
- GK Chesterton, The House of Charity; Courtesy of John M. Kelly Library Rare Books, Archival & Manuscript Collections of G.K. Chesterton Microfiche Collection (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- “Found drowned” was the polite term used in those days for suicide. G.F. Watts, the painter whom Gilbert wrote a biography of in 1904, painted “Found Drowned,” picturing a young lady, lying half out of the sea, clutching a locket in her hand (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- GK Chesterton, The Crystal, Collected Works, vol. X
- GK Chesterton , The Everlasting Man, The War of the Gods and Demons
- GK Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
- GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare