Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How Chestertonian of Belloc!

(Caution! this post has some funny stuff in it, or at least our test subject laughed when reading it. Please put down any drinks. You have been warned.)

How much did Hilaire Belloc like to read GKC? Well, he wrote a poem to explain:
I like to read myself to sleep in Bed,
A thing that every honest man has done
At one time or another, it is said,
But not as something in the usual run;
Now I from ten years old to forty one
Have never missed a night: and what I need
To buck me up is Gilbert Chesterton,
(The only man I regularly read).

The 'Illustrated London News' is wed
To letter press as stodgy as a bun,
The 'Daily News' might just as well be dead,
The 'Idler' has a tawdry kind of fun,
The 'Speaker' is a sort of Sally Lunn,
The 'World' is like a small unpleasant weed;
I take them all because of Chesterton,
(The only man I regularly read).

The memories of the Duke of Beachy Head,
The memoirs of Lord Hildebrand (his son)
Are things I could have written on my head,
So are the memories of the Comte de Mun,
And as for novels written by the ton,
I'd burn the bloody lot! I know the Breed!
And get me back to be with Chesterton
(The only man I regularly read).


Prince, have you read a book called "Thoughts upon
The Ethos of the Athanasian Creed"?
No matter - it is not by Chesterton
(The only man I regularly read).
[by Hilaire Belloc, quoted in Ward's Return to Chesterton]
No matter how much we like reading Chesterton, it is all too easy to misquote him. Which is good, because he so often misquoted so many authors! But we must remember how he wrote his articles - as he walked up or down a staircase, or standing at the door while the messenger waited for him to finish - without books, or computers, or anything else but his wonderful memory. So when a famous Chesterton scholar tells us "angels fly because they take themselves lightly" we smile, and murmur, "how like GKC he is!"

You will be even more amused to learn that Belloc misquoted GKC in his small but excellent book written after GKC's death:
Whenever Chesterton begins a sentence with, "It is as though," (in exploding a false bit of reasoning,) you may expect a stroke of parallelism as vivid as a lightning flash. Thus if some ass propounds that a difference of application destroys the validity of a doctrine, or that particulars are the enemies of universals, Chesterton will answer: "It is as though you were to say I cannot be an Englishman because I am a Londoner," or "It is as though you were to say that I cannot be an Englishman because I travel," or "As though you were to say Brown and Smith cannot both be Englishmen because one of them talks West Country and the other North Country."
[HB On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters 37-38]

I looked into this, and was able to find the phrase "It is as though" only two times in my current collection of GKC - whereas, the similar but not identical "It is as if" appears over 250 times. How very Chestertonian of Belloc!
An aside: if you are not happy with my making a picky distinction between these two phrases, you are neither a tech (who use them for passwords) nor a lit'ry scholar (who write dissertations on such things) - I will deal with this in a future post.
So if you are like Belloc and "regularly read" GKC, and want to laugh yourself to sleep sometime, go over the list of these appearances. Here's just a handful, just from the ILN for 1908:

It is as if two duellists had to fight with sharp swords, but one was allowed to wear a shirt and not the other. [like they do in pick-up basketball?]

It is as if we heard a man accused of being short of one leg, and then only discovered long afterwards that the accuser was a centipede.

It is as if I (being entirely ignorant of botany and chemistry) said that the beanstalk grew to the sky because nitrogen and argon got into the subsidiary ducts of the corolla. [A Toyota?]

It is as if one read, "Great excitement has been caused in Rotten Row, in the west of London, by the fact that the centaur, previously seen by several colonels and young ladies, has at last been stopped in his lawless gallop." Or it is as if one saw in a newspaper: "Slight perturbation has been caused at the west end of Margate by the capture of a mermaid," or "A daring fowler, climbing the crags of the Black Mountains for a nest of eagles, found, somewhat unexpectedly, that it was a nest of angels." [Wow, was he reading Rowling, perhaps?]

It is as if you were to say, "The magic of a baby to its mother is that it contradicts the idea of a decrease in population," or "The magic of a lady's portrait treasured by a lover is that it will assist him to identify her body at an inquest. " [Hmmm - "magic" - I guess so.]

It is as if the correspondence between two paralytics should entirely consist of threats of horsewhipping.

It is as if a man said, "The only Macintosh I wear is 'The Pirates of Penzance'"; "The only toothpick I carry is 'Paradise Lost'."

(If you're still wide awake, I'll dredge up some more; just let me know.)


  1. "Lines to a Don" is still my favorite Belloc poem about Chesterton, but I like this one too!

  2. When every other site out there is far more wrong than right,
    When cyberspace is overgrown, itself a world wide weed,
    Then I click my Chester-link and find this blog a beaming light
    (The only site I regularly read)

  3. I need Belloc's poem "the Rebel," mentioned in GKC's autobiography. About cutting off the horses at the knees? I love Belloc, because he knows his stuff; he's the only military historian I regularly read.

    Belloc's funny poetry tends to be funnier than GKC's...mostly because he's really mean. And his sad stuff is sadder, because he's probably suffered more.

  4. Yes, some of Belloc's poetry is tremendous and tremendously melancholy but without self-pity - existentially melancholy, you might say. And his view of history is so comprehensive. He sees the big picture and presents it.


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