Wednesday, June 14, 2006
The death of the man who lived
Today, on June 14th, we come at last to the most dolorous end of the journey that was Gilbert Chesterton's life.
Throughout the course of this venture we have seen him in all his glory, and, what is more from a Christian perspective, his shortcomings as well. We have seen him with his God; we have seen him with his People; we have seen him with his Wife. The three most definitive aspects of Gilbert's life were relationships, and in this we can see even the phantom of advice.
The last days were marked by hardship, but also by triumph. Most importantly for his fans, Gilbert finally completed his infamous Autobiography in 1936, the very year of his passing. It is fortunate indeed for us that this analysis of his own life and times should sneak in, as it were, under the wire. But there is a somber aspect to it. Could it be that, having offered up the tale of his life as he saw it, from start to finish, Gilbert came to feel that there were no more chapters left to write? Was the book as much a valediction as it was a summary of all that had passed?
Whatever the case may be, the Autobiography was the last book he was to write, though one would not know it by reading the thing. There is in that text all of the lively energy of a man of thirty (who has lived, it must be granted, somewhat more broadly than most), and it was taken by those who did not know him well that he remained as spritely as ever he was, faculties blazing and heart burning, ready to lead them even further down the road to roundabout in the years that were to come.
But those who knew him best - and by dint of this knowledge were around him frequently - knew that all was not well. Gilbert lived up to the curse of the most powerful intellectuals: an immortal mind trapped in frail, unsuitable flesh. Thomas Aquinas was similarly afflicted; so too, we might say, is Stephen Hawking. Gilbert was always a big man, as you will recall, but his wondrous bigness was fast becoming too much for a man of his age and health to handle. There had already been serious concerns about the ability of his heart to sustain his form, and his feet to move it about; both of these worries now bore miserable fruit.
More tragic still, his latter days - that time of life often called "the second childhood" - were spent in the shadow of the evident moral collapse with regard to Abyssinia of the Italy he had so loved, as well as the rise of Hitler and all of the evils that would attend that name. His friends and colleagues at his magazine, G.K.'S Weekly, did him no favours with their constant infighting about such looming circumstances, and their constant demands that he arbitrate their disputes added heavily to the burdens he already bore. In a time when a man should be at peace, in reflection on all the good that has come to him, it is poor meat indeed for him to be rather assailed, provoked and dismayed by even those closest to him.
1936 was spent in quietude, broken only by a brief tour of France in an attempt to cheer Gilbert up. The voyage certainly lifted his spirits, but did little to restore his health.
The last days found him confined to his home, frequently to bed. The strain of his constant writing and dictating had led to severe fatigue, and he was frequently found asleep at his desk. Fr. Vincent McNabb was at last summoned, and stood by with Frances when the end was upon Gilbert. There are many stories about these final hours, and all of them are touching. Fr. Vincent kissed Gilbert's writing pen, which lay on a nearby table, never to inscribe again. He also intoned the Dominican Salve Regina over Gilbert's prostrate form, an act that Maisie Ward calls a fitting tribute to "the biographer of St. Thomas."
Reports on Gilbert's last words vary, and I confess that I can find no definitive answer as to what they were. The two competing traditions are both of things that were certainly said by him in those final hours, but I do not know which came first, or which came after. The most likely candidate is his light awakening from his final lapse, turning to Frances and saying, "hello, my darling," and turning to his secretary, Dorothy Collins - for whom both he and Frances felt an almost parental affection - and saying, "hello, my dear."
Maisie Ward's biography suggests, alternatively, that the last from those lips was almost a warning: "The issue is quite clear now. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side."
For the man who said so much, in so many paradoxes, it is perhaps fitting that there be some ambiguity as to his last testament on this Earth. Whatever his pronouncement was, however, Gilbert Keith Chesterton passed on June 14th, 1936; a Sunday. The funeral was held in Beaconsfield, at the little church that Gilbert and Frances had so generously helped bring into being. Mourners arrived from all over England, Europe, and the United States. The procession passed in a ramshackle way through the small village, passing the local bars and barber shops that were Gilbert's haunts during his long and pleasant time in town.
He was laid to rest in the churchyard; the spot was marked by a monument produced by Eric Gill, a friend of the Chestertons'. Two years later, Frances followed Gilbert to his rest; Dorothy Collins would live on in Beaconsfield until 1988, when she too went to meet her maker. The two are interred at Gilbert's side.
What can be said about Gilbert Chesterton that has not been said already? The time that my colleagues and I have spent in describing his life to you has been, in many ways, a labour of love. A diversity of interests has given us all our own styles and successes, but our unified admiration for Gilbert has brought us together here and now. In him we have found much more than a great man of letters, a gifted apologist and a man consumed by love. We have found almost the friend we never knew.
This unbridgeable gap between us and him is something that we must bear, and is in itself almost an example of tragedy. Gilbert once wrote, in one of my favourite of his essays, that "if ever there was a woman who was manifestly meant, destined, created, and as it were crying aloud to be carried off by Don John of Austria, or some such person, it was Mary Queen of Scots." The two never met, however, and a similar gloom afflicts us now. If ever there were an age that was manifestly designed, as it were, to be put right by Gilbert Chesterton, it is this one.
And we have met him, make no mistake; but he has travelled beyond the silent sea, where we can not follow. And if we did, we should not return.
So I say to you, my friends: raise your glass tonight, wherever you are, in field or forest, concrete womb or wide-open sky. Raise your glass in tribute to Gilbert, and in tribute to the majesty of God's creation. Gilbert was not the new Adam; that position has been taken, and his successor has done him credit. However, there may be something in him being the new Abel.
So burn, then, solemn and reminscent eyes, as you behold what has been wrought by the century that followed in his stead with all of the envy and ravages of Cain.
Tributes and condolences at the time of his death
The Archbishop of Westminster
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Robert Lynd, of the News Chronicle
Fr. Vincent McNabb
J.K. Prothero (Mrs. Cecil Chesterton)
W. R. Titterton
Walter de la Mare
Pope Pius XI
And so concludes our extended look at the life of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a gentleman of great sense. We invite you to offer up comments about him and his legacy in the combox below, as well as thoughts about this venture in general, or, really, anything you'd like to say at all. If you've been following along, we want to hear from you!
On behalf of Eric, Lee, Alan, Kyro, Joe and myself, I will close by thanking you for reading, and offering up hopes that we will continue to enjoy your custom in the future.