Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Thursday Post

An American Poet

Over 200 times GKC invokes the name of Walt Whitman - in books from NNH to STA, from Browning to Chaucer, from Heretics to The Thing. An entire essay (ILN June 13, 1925, CW33:569) was about him, and it appears in Maisie Ward's biography of GKC over two dozen times, calling the discovery of his poems a "powerful influence in the direction of mental health" for the young GKC: "I shall never forget," Lucian Oldershaw writes, "reading to him ... in my bedroom at West Kensington. The seance lasted from two to three hours, and we were intoxicated with the excitement of the discovery." [Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 50]
Click here to discover more about Whitman.We who delighted in the thrills of ChesterCon 2007 saw how it provides a foretaste, a vague hint, of what GKC calls the "Inn at the End of the World" (in Dickens CW15:209 and NNH CW6:371) and which the Bible reveals in somewhat greater detail. Among our many researches, we must consider how Chesterton saw this in Whitman's works:
The whole point of Walt Whitman, right or wrong, is that the great heart of man should be an inn with a hundred doors standing open. It is that there should be a sort of everlasting bonfire of special rejoicing and festivity for all men that come and all things that happen; that nothing should be thought too trivial or too dull to be accepted by that gigantic hospitality of the heart. [GKC ILN June 13 1925 CW33:572]

Perhaps even more important for us is how Whitman played a role in GKC's philosophical and spiritual development. GKC gave us some insight into this difficult and personal matter:
I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered. This way of looking at things, with a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude, was of course, to some extent assisted by those few of the fashionable writers who were not pessimists; especially by Walt Whitman, by Browning and by Stevenson; Browning's "God must be glad one loves his world so much", or Stevenson's "belief in the ultimate decency of things". But I do not think it is too much to say that I took it in a way of my own; even if it was a way I could not see clearly or make very clear.
[GKC, Autobiography CW16:97, emphasis added]

This phrase "one thin thread of thanks" is one of the most important of the great Chestertonian motifs. It may be that GKC has added to the famous "five proofs" for the existence of God by giving us "the argument from thanksgiving"... certainly it is worth investigation. And just as Aquinas accumulated references, both in support and in attack of each of his questions, so too we shall have to lok at Whitman if we want to understand more about the Chestertonian motif of thanskgiving. Perhaps someone from the "American Whitman Society" (if such exists) might give us some insight into this poem by GKC, which somehow summarizes this entire point:

I cannot count the pebbles in the brook.
Well hath He spoken: 'Swear not by thy head,
Thou knowest not the hairs,' though He, we read,
Writes that wild number in His own strange book.

I cannot count the sands or search the seas,
Death cometh, and I leave so much untrod.
Grant my immortal aureole, O my God,
And I will name the leaves upon the trees.

In heaven I shall stand on gold and glass,
Still brooding earth's arithmetic to spell;
Or see the fading of the fires of hell
Ere I have thanked my God for all the grass.
[GKC, CW10:209]
I almost forgot! If you want to read some Whitman, you might check out Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition available from Dover Publications.

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