Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From W.R. Titterton

What shall we do without him? You who knew him as I did, and had for him as deep an affection, are bewildered by our loss. As a family when their father dies, so we are stricken. No need to tell you what he had done, or what he stood for. All that's in our blood. Nor can I describe him. He is too big, and too near; as well as too simple. The best I can do is to try to recall some memories o fhim.

The last memory is of him sitting beside me on the platform of Essex Hall. he was too crippled with arthritis to stand up when he spoke; yet when I had my head turned from him I got the illusion that he was on his feet, fighting with the old vehement gaiety. Well, his spirit never grew old. Not longer before that, when I went down to Beaconsfield to get him to talk for the papers, ever and again his head went up, and out came that deep-throated laugh that was like the challenge of a trumpet. But there was a time, not so long ago either, when his rising converted the dullest debate into a festival, his very entry into a room was like sunburst. You see him, don't you, towering suddenly beside the chairman, his big jolly face lit with laughter and loving kindness, as he tosses his boyish curls - Don John of Austria, with the brave locks curled - and falls on with lusty joy!

Don John? Oh well, I always say Gilbert Chesterton as a Knight. God knows that he seemed like the last Knight in England taking weapons from the wall.

"The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has song
That once went singing southward when all the world was young."

When he came into the office, big soft hat on head, huge cloak flapping round him, I always imagined a sword by his side. He was all compact of chivalry. If he had a weakness in polemic, it was that he hated to hurt. Yet in a good cause, the good old cause, he could, against the urge of the heart, be ruthless. But he had to be roused. Chivalrous, and one of the few instinctive democrats that I have known! The mystical doctrine of the equality of man was to him a self-evident fact like granite. Yet, though he felt superior to no man, he was the humblest of them all. And the simplest. Stranger still in a democrat, it was the simple people he liked best and respected most.

Of course he loved children, being a child. When he used to dawn on me in the office, the wraith of a cigarette sprouting from beneath his fierce moustache, and the pince-nez perpetually tumbling from before those wise, bold, innocent eyes, and the big cloak trailing, I knew that here was a child upon whom "the shades of the prison-house" had never closed, who trailed the clouds of glory still. Prison-house! You can imagine what the wise child would have had to say about that vile slander on God's world.

I think it was his humility and simplicity that led the mandarins to underrate his verse. The usual poet dramatizes himself - writes in a toga with a laural wreath cocked over one eye. But G.K.C. wrote poetry as he drank wine or ate bread and cheese, and had as much zest for a squib as an epic. And so, if you please, the author of "The Ballad of the White Horse," and "Lepanto" and twenty more of the major poems in English literature was not a "dedicated poet" like the solemn Johnnies who... but never mind! All this talk doesn't account for him - a child who was a very wise man, a gay companion who was profoundly serious, a simple soul who gloried in tumultuous decoration. But the Gothic he loved gives us a hint. The surface of his work is often a riot of decoration. Yet the outline is sane and simple, the bulk of it is majestic, and inside it is a shrine.

And this may be added: We may say of his work what Walt Whitman said of The Leaves of Grass: "Comrade this is no book. Who touches this touches a man."

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