In his biography of St. Francis - St. Francis of Assisi - Chesterton argued that in order to look at Francis properly, we must assume that he was “a poet and can only be understood as a poet.”
In so describing St. Francis, Chesterton was describing himself. Indeed, it has become almost a cliché to say that no matter what Chesterton was writing about in his essays, biographies and criticism, there was often as much of Chesterton as there was of the subject. (And sometimes more.)
Chesterton was clearly a poet. The first two books he published were of poetry, and he ultimately published seven volumes of verse. Poems are scattered through his works, as are characters who are poets (such as Gabriel Syme of The Man Who Was Thursday and Gabriel Gale of The Poet and the Lunatics).
The quality of Chesterton’s poetry is mixed. Yet he persisted, and I believe it essential to understanding him as it is, he contends, to understanding St. Francis.
Chesterton here is using the word “poet” to mean not so much a published poet in the common sense, but rather a person with a particular way of viewing the world.
Chesterton noted that St. Francis was able to call all creation his brother and sister not because of some “sentimental pantheism” typical of romantic poets who used nature as an idealized background, but because he viewed each part of creation individually.
“Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background,” he wrote. “We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.
“In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.”
As for the human race, Chesterton noted, “It is even more true that (St. Francis) deliberately did not see the mob for the men. … He only saw the image of God multiplied but never monotonous. To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honoured all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all.”
This comes from a man who could write about a donkey or a cabman or St. Joseph and use them as a means to reflect on the universe, all the while respecting their individualism and reality.
The donkey of his famous poem was not some idealized donkey; he was a donkey with feelings and pride. The extraordinary cabman comes alive in Chesterton’s essay because he is not some abstract creation intended just to symbolize the demonic, but rather a real man who was either a thief or simply confused, or perhaps a bit of both with a touch of the demonic. And St., Joseph in yet another poem is not simply the plaster saint, but a man who feels desire and loss even as he accepts what God has asked.
St. Joseph becomes real, as do the donkey and cabman.
St. Francis saw the image of God in all creation – sun, wolf flame and all his other “brothers” and “sister” – in a personal and individual way, likewise, every person and thing had meaning to Chesterton. “It is impossible for something to signify nothing,” he wrote in A Handful of Authors.
St. Francis was full of a sense of wonder at creation. Chesterton also viewed the world with wonder, and lamented the fact that others often failed to see them
“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder,” he declared in Tremendous Trifles.
St. Francis celebrated the small and seemingly insignificant. Chesterton presented us again and again with what we would consider insignificant and pointed out their significance. Think only of his Father Brown mysteries to get a glimpse of his method.
Getting back to St. Francis the poet. Chesterton said, “But he had one poetic privilege denied to most poets. In that respect indeed he might be called the one happy poet among all the unhappy poets of the world. He was a poet whose whole life was a poem.”
I think the title of “happy poet” aptly describes both Chesterton and St. Francis.
And while Chesterton’s life is not often described as a poem, I think it is. But, of course, it would have to be an epic, complete with drama, humor, battles, romance, and a quest – a quest that, as his poet protagonist Gabriel Syme shows us, ultimately leads us to God.
Chesterton and St. Francis, those brother poets, are prodding us all to join in this quest.
For, as he notes in Come to Think of It, “What are poets for except to go about asking everyone whether they wake or sleep?”