On Frances and Chesterton, Men and Women

Gilbert and Frances Chesterton

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.”

 

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

 

GK Chesterton

 

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

GK Chesterton

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

GK Chesterton

 

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. “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.)

 

 

  1. GK Chesterton, The Crystal, Collected Works, vol. X
  2. GK Chesterton , The Everlasting Man, The War of the Gods and Demons
  3. GK Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
  4. GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

Slaying Giants, With GKC

Jack the Giant Killer
Mr. Chesterton; turning my world upside down, bringing back my humanity, and killing me softly… That is, killing the “giants” that roamed about in my head, that I may be free to be born a child once more. I don’t quite know how all those ascetic and gnostic notions ended up in there, but they did. The idea that in order to be strong, I must care less. It is good to see whence the spirits came, and what nonsense they all come to in the end.
“The modern world, when it praises its little Caesars, talks of being strong and brave: but it does not seem to see the eternal paradox involved in the conjunction of these ideas. The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong.
…But the old hero was a being who, like Achilles, was more human than humanity itself. Nietzsche’s Superman is cold and friendless. Achilles is so foolishly fond of his friend that he slaughters armies in the agony of his bereavement. Mr. Shaw’s sad Caesar says in his desolate pride, “He who has never hoped can never despair.” The Man-God of old answers from his awful hill, “Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow?” A great man is not a man so strong that he feels less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more. And when Nietszche says, “A new commandment I give to you, `be hard,'” he is really saying, “A new commandment I give to you, `be dead.'” Sensibility is the definition of life. “
~GK Chesterton
“A great man is not a man so strong that he feels less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more.” I feel that in my desire to grow great, I have grown rather small…

A Fixed Star

The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility. A man who believes something is ready and witty, because he has all his weapons about him. He can apply his test in an instant. The man engaged in a conflict with a man like Mr. Bernard Shaw may fancy he has ten faces; similarly a man engaged against a brilliant duellist me fancy that the sword of his foe has turned into ten swords in his hand. But this is not really because the man is playing with 10 sorts, it is because he is aiming very straight with one. Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star and the earth whizzes below him like a Zoe trope.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Searching for Clarity

Thank you, Nessa.

Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions. GK Chesterton

Truths That Stand Tall as Towers


(And can stand re-posting.)

“This: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. ‘Man’ is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation.”

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Poetry, Justice, Providence and Destiny


The doctrine of divine Providence, Boethius complains, rather aggravates then solves the real problem: why is justice – certainly “poetic justice” – so unapparent in the course of events? Philosophia has two replies (which I will condense).
1. It is all justice. The good are always rewarded and the wicked always punished, by the mere fact of *being* what they are. Evil power and evil performance are the punishment of evil will, and it will be infinite since his soul is immortal (as philosophy, no less than theology, asserts). The passage looks back to Virgil’s hell whose inhabitants ausi omnes immane nefas ausoque potiti, “all purposed dreadful deeds, and got their way.”
And yet, pleads Boethius, it is very strange to see the wicked flourishing and the virtuous afflicted. Why, yes, replies philosophy;
“Everything is strange until you know the cause.”
2. That which “in the citadel of the divine simplicity” is Providence, when seen from below, mirrored in the multiplicity of time and space, is Destiny. As in a wheel, the nearer we get to the center the less motion we find, so every finite being, in proportion as he comes near to participating in the Divine (unmoving) nature, becomes less subject to Destiny, which is merely a moving image of eternal Providence. That Providence is wholly good.
We say that the wicked flourish and the innocent suffer. But we do not know who are the wicked and who are the innocent; still less what either need. All luck, seen from the center, is good and medicinal. The sort we call “bad” exercises good men and curbs bad ones – if they will take it so. Thus if only you were near the hub, if you participate in Providence more and suffer destiny less, “it lies in your own hands to make your fortune what you please”. Or, as Spencer turns this passage, “each unto himself his life may fortune”.

The Nameless Star

On the Principles of Democracy, Coming back for more with Chesterton

 I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton

Wonder, With GKC (of course)

In any intellectual corner of modernity can be found such a phrase as I have just read in a newspaper controversy: “Salvation, like other good things, must not come from outside.” To call a spiritual thing external and not internal is the chief mode of modernist excommunication. But if our subject of study is mediæval and not modern, we must pit against this apparent platitude the very opposite idea. We must put ourselves in the posture of men who thought that almost every good thing came from outside–like good news. I confess that I am not impartial in my sympathies here; and that the newspaper phrase I quoted strikes me as a blunder about the very nature of life. I do not, in my private capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

GK Chesterton, A Short History of England, Chapter 6