Tag Archives: Early 20th-century poetry

Review: The Wild Knight and Other Poems

Rating: ★★★★½

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.”

Overview:

If you have not read any of Chesterton’s poetry, The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) is a great place to start. It holds the distinction of being G. K. Chesterton’s second published book out of a corpus that spans over 100 volumes over four decades (1900-1936).

Published at the turn of the 20th century, when the author was in his mid-twenties, the volume has almost nothing of the archaisms and classicisms that keep modern readers away from older poetry. Just as Chesterton’s other works, it strikes a balance between profound insight and childlike whimsy.

Among all his works of poetry, the more serious (or semi-serious) poems are found in The Wild Knight (1900), The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Poems (1915), and The Ballad of St. Barbara (1922). Those four volumes deal with many Christian themes and will probably be enjoyed by serious readers. Very different in tone are the light little collections Greybeards at Play (1900) and Wine, Water and Song (1915), which make quick and light reading, but don’t offer much in the way of hidden treasure.

Meat:

Among my favorites from this volume included “The Human Tree”, “The Donkey”, “Ecclesiastes”, and “A Portrait”.

“The Human Tree” is, to me, a striking picture of divine forbearance, reminiscent of the doctrine of kenosis found in Philippians 2.

“The Donkey”—about the donkey that carried Jesus during the Triumphal Entry—is frequently quoted by Ravi Zacharias and other Christian authors.

Many of Chesterton’s poems, both here in and in his 1915 volume of Poems, deal with Christmas themes, and these were later arranged into a pamphlet called Christmas Poems (1929).

Bones:

Like any good poetry, the author’s meaning is not always on the surface, and so I can’t say that these books make suitable devotional reading. Chesterton was a literary genius and sometimes makes use of archaisms that are not to be found in my little dictionary. Many poems will have to be read twice or thrice, but then, if that weren’t true, what is poetry for?

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub, mobi, html), Online Literature (html), Kindle Store (mobi)

Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

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.”

Overview:

The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.

Meat:

White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)

Bones:

Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.

Quotes:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.

 

 

 

The Human Tree

Source: G. K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight & Other Poems

Many have Earth’s lovers been,
Tried in seas and wars, I ween;
Yet the mightiest have I seen:
Yea, the best saw I.
One that in a field alone
Stood up stiller than a stone
Lest a moth should fly.

Birds had nested in his hair,
On his shoon were mosses rare,
Insect empires flourished there,
Worms in ancient wars;
But his eyes burn like a glass,
Hearing a great sea of grass
Roar towards the stars.

From them to the human tree
Rose a cry continually:
‘Thou art still, our Father, we
Fain would have thee nod.
Make the skies as blood below thee,
Though thou slay us, we shall know thee.
Answer us, O God!

‘Show thine ancient fame and thunder,
Split the stillness once asunder,
Lest we whisper, lest we wonder
Art thou there at all?’
But I saw him there alone,
Standing stiller than a stone
Lest a moth should fall.