Sub-Versive Poet

He has been called “the best writer of the 20th century.” Not easily measured and more a matter of opinion, I think, but there are others who’ve used similar descriptions to emphasize his genius. In a letter to his friend Sheldon Vanauken, C. S. Lewis described one of this man’s books (The Everlasting Man) as “the best popular apologetic I know.” Another writer, T. S. Eliot, described his poetry as “first-rate journalistic balladry.Three_acres_and_a_cow

If you haven’t guessed his name yet, he is Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton, a literary giant and dominant figure in twentieth century London, a man who is best known for his Father Brown mysteries, but was equally at home writing (and speaking) on a multitude of topics.

The self-portrait at right, Three Acres and a Cow, provides a hint of Chesterton’s great wit. A large man at 6 feet 4 inches and almost 300 pounds, Chesterton acknowledged his girth and borrowed this slogan to describe himself, though it was initially coined to describe the desirable size for an individual citizen’s sustainable land holdings. In another example of Chesterton’s self-deprecation, during World War I, a woman queried why he wasn’t “out at the Front” and he replied, “If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.”

The author of books (both fiction and non-fiction), essays, short stories, poems and plays, Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936. He was married to a woman named Frances Blogg. (Hmm … was she perhaps originator of … wait for it … the modern day blog? Of course, I jest, but I had to suggest it.)

Anyone who has a penchant for famous or inspiring quotes has likely run across something from Chesterton. He is eminently quotable (in my view). Probably one of my favorite quotes came from his book, What’s Wrong With the World?:  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Indeed.

Not to be confused with Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (a much longer work), Chesterton’s twelve-line verse Elegy in a Country Churchyard was included in a collection of poems (The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses) published in 1922. (The link opens a LibriVox audible copy of the book.) Though a hundred years have passed since the poem was written, Chesterton’s Elegy has currency even today.

My preference for slightly subversive (as in incendiary) poetry – poetry that challenges something about the status quo, whether social or political in nature – should be fairly obvious to people who’ve read my previous posts. This Chesterton poem challenged the cultural norms of his day (and even of today) in his British homeland. I enjoy reading this kind of poetic commentary wrapped nicely in a simple twelve-line verse.