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The Rolling English Road -- G K Chesterton

And who better to follow Belloc than Chesterton... (thanks to Vikram Doctor
for the suggestion)
(Poem #228) The Rolling English Road
 Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
 The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
 A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
 And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
 A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
 The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

 I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
 And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
 But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
 To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
 Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
 The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

 His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
 Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
 The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
 But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
 God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
 The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

 My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
 Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
 But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
 And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
 For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
 Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
-- G K Chesterton
Another poet who has been conspicuous by his absence. Chesterton is slightly
better known for his prose, including many highly acclaimed works of
criticism, and the magnificent Father Brown stories, which rank among the
all time classics of detective fiction. However, his poetry is well worthy
of notice, being almost uniformly excellent (no easy feat, even for the
better poets), and almost always enjoyable. Like most of my favourite poets,
Chesterton displays a rare mastery of versification - the rhythms of speech
blending smoothly and easily into the rhythms of the poem, with not a
syllable out of place.

As for today's poem, it's probably the best known of his poems, and my
favourite for several reasons. Firstly, as I have mentioned before, I'm
predisposed to like poems about roads, and this is an excellent example,
with the easy flowing rhythm and the alliteration reinforce the image of the
rolling, rambling road. The language is an intriguing blend of the informal
- almost colloquial - and the high poetic. The mood likewise ranges from
humorous[1] to thoughtful, and in the end, serious. But it is not necessary
to analyse the poem in order to enjoy it - simply read it, not quite aloud,
but shaping your lips over the syllables, and let the verses wash over you
as you follow, with Chesterton, the rolling English road.

[1] see http://www.geocities.com/~bblair/0529.htm

Notes:

 baggonet: obs. or vulgar form of bayonet

 Kensal Green: A famous English cemetery - see
 <http://www.xs4all.nl/~androom/dead/kensal.htm>

 Interestingly, there's a pub called Paradise, or in full Paradise, by way
 of Kensal Green (that being the nearest Tube stop). Almost certainly
 post-facto, but it made me laugh.

Biography:

  Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith)

   b. May 29, 1874, London
   d. June 14, 1936, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, Eng. English critic
   and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories, known also for
   his exuberant personality and rotund figure.

   Chesterton was educated at St. Paul's School and later studied art at
   the Slade School and literature at University College, London. His
   writings to 1910 were of three kinds. First, his social criticism,
   largely in his voluminous journalism, was gathered in The Defendant
   (1901), Twelve Types (1902), and Heretics (1905). In it he expressed
   strongly pro-Boer views in the South African War. Politically, he began
   as a Liberal but after a brief radical period became, with his Christian
   and medievalist friend Hilaire Belloc, a Distributist, favouring the
   distribution of land. This phase of his thinking is exemplified by What's
   Wrong with the World (1910).

   His second preoccupation was literary criticism. Robert Browning
   (1903) was followed by Charles Dickens (1906) and Appreciations and
   Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911), prefaces to the
   individual novels, which are among his finest contributions to
   criticism. His George Bernard Shaw (1909) and The Victorian Age in
   Literature (1913) together with William Blake (1910) and the later
   monographs William Cobbett (1925) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1927)
   have a spontaneity that places them above the works of many academic
   critics.

   Chesterton's third major concern was theology and religious argument.
   He was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1922.
   Although he had written on Christianity earlier, as in his book
   Orthodoxy (1909), his conversion added edge to his controversial
   writing, notably The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), his
   writings in G.K.'s Weekly, and Avowals and Denials (1934). Other works
   arising from his conversion were St. Francis of Assisi (1923), the essay
   in historical theology The Everlasting Man (1925), and St. Thomas Aquinas
   (1933).

   In his verse Chesterton was a master of ballad forms, as shown in the
   stirring "Lepanto" (1911). When it was not uproariously comic, his
   verse was frankly partisan and didactic. His essays developed his
   shrewd, paradoxical irreverence to its ultimate point of real
   seriousness. He is seen at his happiest in such essays as "On Running
   After One's Hat" (1908) and "A Defence of Nonsense" (1901), in which
   he says that nonsense and faith are "the two supreme symbolic
   assertions of truth" and "to draw out the soul of things with a
   syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook."

   Many readers value Chesterton's fiction most highly. The Napoleon of
   Notting Hill (1904), a romance of civil war in suburban London, was
   followed by the loosely knit collection of short stories, The Club of
   Queer Trades (1905), and the popular allegorical novel The Man Who Was
   Thursday (1908). But the most successful association of fiction with
   social judgment is in Chesterton's series on the priest-sleuth Father
   Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), followed by The Wisdom .
   . . (1914), The Incredulity . . . (1926), The Secret . . . (1927), and
   The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). Chesterton's friendships were with
   men as diverse as H.G. Wells, Shaw, Belloc, and Max Beerbohm. His
   Autobiography was published in 1936.

                -- EB

57 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Joseph Barbiero said...

This should lead one to look into all his works.

James E. Bauer said...

This is a rollicking poem, and to read it aloud --- even if only in the mind
--- is to join the admirable Chesterton on an incomparable toot! His firm
belief in the Personal God, as apprehended in his poetry and his prose, led
to his living his life as a journey of discovery of the one-and-only Person
that he was created to be. See further his poem, The Strange Music, for an
insight into that journey. We should be so lucky as to live that way. A
wonder-full Man!

Anonymous said...

I don't understand it

Anonymous said...

Is it purely alliteration: Birmingham/Beachy Head, Glastonbury/Goodwin Sands, etc. or is there some other significant connection, as with Paradise and Kensal Green?

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