Monday, February 05, 2007

Productions of a young man, old beyond his years

There are two pieces of poetry before us, today. We are most familiar with the productions of Chesterton's mature and established years, in which such vaunted masterworks as Lepanto and The Ballad of the White Horse came roaring into the world. However, it may prove surprising to some to discover that Chesterton was producing poetry and prose at a furious rate long before he was ever felt by his superiors to be even on the verge of amounting to something. His friends, of course, knew better, and so, perhaps, do we.

Two poems, then, as I said before. One was written at the age of sixteen; another around the age of eighteen. For my own part, though I have tried hard and long, I could not hope to approach such majesty with a hundred years of effort and learning behind me. Both are distinctly Christian in nature, though Chesterton's opinions on this score were far from fully formed at this point. The first, "Adveniat Regnum Tuum," would be an astonishing production from a man of any age. As it stands, it transcends astonishment. We may rather call it a sort of miracle.

Not that the widespread wings of wrong brood o'er a moaning earth,
Not from the clinging curse of gold, the random lot of birth;
Not from the misery of the weak, the madness of the strong,
Goes upward from our lips the cry, "How long, oh Lord, how long?"
Not only from the huts of toil, the dens of sin and shame,
From lordly halls and peaceful homes the cry goes up the same;
Deep in the heart of every man, where'er his life be spent,
There is a noble weariness, a holy discontent.

Where'er to mortal eyes has come, in silence dark and lone,
Some glimmer of the far-off light the world has never known,
Some ghostly echoes from a dream of earth's triumphal song,
Then as the vision fades we cry, "How long, oh Lord, how long?"
Long ages, from the dawn of time, men's toiling march has wound
Towards the world they ever sought, the world they never found;
Still far before their toiling path the glimmering promise lay,
Still hovered round the struggling race, a dream by night and day.

Mid darkening care and clinging sin they sought their unknown home,
Yet ne'er the perfect glory came--Lord, will it ever come?
The weeding of earth's garden broad from all its growths of wrong,
When all man's soul shall be a prayer, and all his life a song.
Aye, though through many a starless night we guard the flaming oil,
Though we have watched a weary watch, and toiled a weary toil,
Though in the midnight wilderness, we wander still forlorn,
Yet bear we in our hearts the proof that God shall send the dawn.

Deep in the tablets of our hearts he writes that yearning still,
The longing that His hand hath wrought shall not his hand fulfil?
Though death shall close upon us all before that hour we see,
The goal of ages yet is there--the good time yet to be:
Therefore, tonight, from varied lips, in every house and home,
Goes up to God the common prayer, "Father, Thy Kingdom come."
What is there to be said?

The second piece is perhaps better known, and had something of an important place in Chesterton's early years. We first see mention of it in Maisie Ward's treatment, thus:
Even now his school work had not brought him into the highest
form--called not the Sixth, as in most schools, but the Eighth: the
highest form he ever reached was 6B. But in the Summer term of 1892
he entered a competition for a prize poem, and won it. The subject
chosen was St. Francis Xavier. I give the poem in Appendix A. It is
not as notable as some other of his work at that time: what is
interesting is that in it this schoolboy expresses with some power a
view he was later to explode yet more powerfully. He might have
claimed for himself what he said of earlier writers--it is not true
that they did not see our modern difficulties: they saw through them.
Never before had this contest been won by any but an Eighth Form boy,
and almost immediately afterwards Gilbert was amazed to find a short
notice posted on the board: "G. K. Chesterton to rank with the
Eighth.--F. W. Walker, High Master."

The High Master at any rate had travelled far from the atmosphere of
the form reports when Mrs. Chesterton visited him in 1894 to ask his
advice about her son's future. For he said, "Six foot of genius.
Cherish him, Mrs. Chesterton, cherish him."
That poem now follows, and I will say that it was worth every laurel that was heaped upon it. There is a certain dolourous excellence to the piece that seems fitting to the gentleman in question, and to the task he undertook.
The Apostle of the Indies

He left his dust, by all the myriad tread
Of yon dense millions trampled to the strand,
Or 'neath some cross forgotten lays his head
Where dark seas whiten on a lonely land:
He left his work, what all his life had planned,
A waning flame to flicker and to fall,
Mid the huge myths his toil could scarce withstand,
And the light died in temple and in hall,
And the old twilight sank and settled over all.

He left his name, a murmur in the East,
That dies to silence amid older creeds,
With which he strove in vain: the fiery priest
Of faiths less fitted to their ruder needs:
As some lone pilgrim, with his staff and beads,
Mid forest-brutes whom ignorance makes tame,
He dwelt, and sowed an Eastern Church's seeds
He reigned a teacher and a priest of fame:
He died and dying left a murmur and a name.

He died: and she, the Church that bade him go,
Yon dim Enchantress with her mystic claim,
Has ringed his forehead with her aureole-glow,
And monkish myths, and all the whispered fame
Of miracle, has clung about his name:
So Rome has said: but we, what answer we
Who in grim Indian gods and rites of shame
O'er all the East the teacher's failure see,
His eastern church a dream, his toil a vanity.

This then we say: as Time's dark face at last
Moveth its lips of thunder to decree
The doom that grew through all the murmuring past
To be the canon of the times to be:
No child of truth or priest of progress he
Yet not the less a hero of his wars
Striving to quench the light he could not see,
And God, who knoweth all that makes and mars,
Judges his soul unseen which throbs among the stars.

God only knows, man failing in his choice,
How far apparent failure may succeed,
God only knows what echo of His voice
Lives in the cant of many a fallen creed,
God only gives the labourer his meed
For all the lingering influence widely spread
Broad branching into many a word and deed
When dim oblivion veils the fountain-head;
So lives and lingers on the spirit of the dead.

This then we say: let all things further rest
And this brave life, with many thousands more
Be gathered up in the eternal's breast
In that dim past his Love is bending o'er
Healing all shattered hopes and failure sore:
Since he had bravely looked on death and pain
For what he chose to worship and adore
Cast boldly down his life for loss or gain
In the eternal lottery: not to be in vain.
It's good stuff.

When one considers the sort of poetic work being conducted now among our sixteen- and eighteen-year-olds, one is moved to tears and anger by the comparison. I have known young men and women who really can write this well, and really could write this well, if only they would do it. But they busy themselves instead with the loose lady of free verse, producing beauty as fleeting as a good conversation. It does not endure; it only lingers on, fading, like the face of Moses.

Chesterton was a special case, it is true. We can not expect all of our young to be him. The world would be a nightmare if they were, for variety really means something, and that variety demands a variety of talent and capability. We need poor or self-indulgent or spiteful poets to set off those who are not.

I guess I just wish that our better ones didn't need so much setting off.

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