Review: Greybeards at Play

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full Title:  Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen, Rhymes and Sketches

Genre: Poetry, humor.

Overview:

Greybeards at Play is Chesterton’s first published book. He published it in 1900 at the ripe age of 26, so “greybeard” is used with tongue in cheek. This kind of dichotomy or paradox is a major pattern that marks his entire writing career, and looms large in almost every book he wrote. Aging and youth is also a favorite theme of Chesterton in his prose and poetry, used, for instance, in the introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday:

The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

Meat:

The four poems play on philosophical themes and mock, to some extent, the high-faluting learning that he probably encountered during his London education. (Supposedly, Chesterton’s alma mater had the highest rate of Oxbridge admissions in the country.) This quick book makes fun and relaxing reading and the illustrations make it a treasure from Chesterton’s early career.

The whimsical monochrome illustrations accompanying the poetry will remind some of children’s books like those of Shel Silverstein, but the poetry is not really for children, hence the title.

If you have enjoyed Chesterton’s Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) or Poems (1915), you will likely enjoy a quick romp through Greybeards at Play, although Greybeards is not as serious as most of his other poetry. If you enjoy the humor in his poetry and the lilt of English “doggerel,” you could also take a peak at Wine, Water and Song, which is all doggerel.

Bones:

These poems are fun, but the book goes by fast, and they are not Chesterton’s best poems (as reflected in the rating).

When I first read the Kindle edition of this book, I wondered at the brevity of it. The word count is only 1675. The reason is that the illustrations are missing in some editions. Chesterton himself created these illustrations, and as far as I know this is the only book he illustrated. He had taken classes at Slade School of Fine Art (UCL), focusing on illustration. If you do read this book, make sure you find an illustrated edition, such as the free HTML version on Project Gutenberg.

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