Tag Archives: 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 Queen of Seven Swords

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:

Despite its humble length (50 pages), this book was an admittedly difficult read for theological reasons, focusing as it does on adoration to Mary. (Other reviews mentioned this, but most lack enough detail to deter a serious, though Protestant, Chestertonian, such as myself.) The poetry itself was beautiful; much of it has the same lilting meter found in Myers’ famous Saint Paul. In its prosody, it follows the same sort of patterns seen in Chesterton’s general collections like The Wild Knight and Other Poems. But unlike the others, it lacks variety of subject matter.

Most readers will either love or hate this book, depending solely on whether they allow for prayer to Mary. For my part, I have always found prayer to the departed saints (including Mary) to have no biblical backing whatsoever; the practice stems from culture and custom, not from wholesome spirituality. The New Testament authors ring with one accord the glorious news that we have become “a kingdom of priests,” fully entitled to “boldly approach the throne” on our own behalf but not on our merits, needing no other surety than the blood of the Lamb.

The eponymous cycle of poems turns on a metaphor of Mary having seven swords in her (see Luke 2:35), which are the swords of seven saints (which he admits are purely fanciful, not reflecting a historical reality).

Favorites were “St. George of England,” and “A Little Litany.” Other than these, there is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t relate directly to the honor of Mary. There are romantic, medieval-sounding themes and Robin Hood and King Arthur receive prominent mention, but mainly as adorers of Mary, whom the author calls by various honorifics, such as “Our Lady,” “Our Mother,” “the Queen of Angels” and “the Mother of the Maker”—an unbiblical falsehood that has been the constant stumbling block of millions of Muslims, who are told in the Quran that we believe God and Mary literally begot Jesus together.

Of the hymns to Mary, “The Black Virgin” was probably the most interesting for theological reasons, dealing with cultural expression of religion.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book at all to Protestant readers. Let not its rarity make it seem a jewel to you; not all rarities are precious.

St. George of England

Mine eyes were sealed with slumber; I sat too long at the ale.
The green dew blights the banner; the red rust eats the mail.
And a spider spanned the chasm from the hand to the fallen sword,
And the sea sang me to sleep; for it called me lord.

This was the hand of the hero; it strangled the dragon’s scream,
But I dreamed so long of the dragon that the dragon was a dream:
And the knight that defied the dragon deserted the princess.
Her knight has stolen her dowry; she has no redress.

Mirror of Justice, shine on us; blaze though the broad sky break
Show us our face though it shatter us; shatter and shake us awake!
We were not tortured of demons, with Berber and Scot,
We that have loved have failed thee! Oh, fail us not!


Source: G. K. Chesterton, The Queen of Seven Swords. London: Sheed & Ward, 1926, p. 49.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Here and Here Alone

“Here and here alone
Is given thee to suffer for God’s sake.
In other worlds we shall more perfectly
Serve Him and love Him, praise Him, work for Him,
Grow near and nearer Him with all delight.
But then we shall not any more be called
To suffer, which is our appointment here.
Canst thou not suffer then one hour? or two?
And while we suffer let us set our souls
To suffer perfectly, since this alone—
The suffering—which is this world’s special grace,
May here be perfected and left behind.”

Source: Mrs. Hamilton King. Quoted in Herbert Alfred Birks, Jesus, A Man of Sorrows: Lent Addresses. 1900.

Review: Poems (C. S. Lewis)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.

Overview: This little volume of poems was arranged posthumously from sundry sources, including many plucked from The Pilgrim’s Regress. There is in general a strong overlap in subject matter with both Lewis’ fiction (“Narnian Suite,” “Wormwood,” “The Dragon Speaks”) and his nonfiction (“Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Divine Justice”). Walter Hooper has arranged the poems along the lines of their themes, beginning with the most ambitious.

Though enjoyable, it will never enjoy as wide an appeal as Lewis’ fiction or Christian living titles, since much of the material is written for a literary audience. If you enjoyed his excursions and ramblings in God in the Dock, or The Pilgrim’s Regress, or George MacDonald’s poetic works, you would probably enjoy this book.

In terms of form, all of the poems are very short except for two or three, and almost all of them rhyme, sometimes incorporating sonnets, other times incorporating classical metrical schemes.

Meat: There are several hidden gems in here whose original sources are no longer available. “The Turn of the Tide” is a favorite, which conceptualizes Bethlehem in terms of spiritual combat. The poems from The Pilgrim’s Regress—which, like The Lord of the Rings or Phantastes, mixes poetry with its prose—stand alone quite well.

Not surprisingly, Eden is a major theme: see “The Future of Forestry,” “Adam Unparadised,” and “Eden’s Courtesy,” for a few. Other Old Testament characters are dealt with (“Solomon,” “The Late Passenger”), though none so seriously or so often as Eden, which is seen as a hint of the new creation that will be:

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell. (“What the Bird Said Early in the Year”)

Lewis’ intellectual independence is also seen in some of the more sarcastic works, like “An Exposulation: Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction” and “Evolutionary Hymn.” His odes to Andrew Marvell and John Milton are also notable in the context of his academic position.

Bones: Christian readers expecting didactic theological insights would feel for the most part short-changed by Lewis’ poetry. The book is, for the most part, a literary effort, and therefore has little in the way of moral imperative. Part I especially—pages 1-49, more than a third of the book—is replete with classical references (“And Peleus took the Nereid Theris …”) which are lost on almost all modern readers.

Overall, this collection is well worth having, but most people will prefer to cherry-pick poems with intriguing titles rather than read the whole book.

Review: The Diary of an Old Soul

Rating: ★★★★

Full Title: A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul.

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: MacDonald arranged this book into 366 daily readings, most of which are devotional and meditative. Each day has a seven-line stanza, many of which are addressed as prayers. (John Keble, an Anglican, had produced the much more popular “Christian Year” about 50 years earlier.)

This is probably MacDonald’s best book of poetry, though he has many. His poetry is a mix of the sentimental (very accessible) and more classical attempts (very inaccessible).

Meat: The stanzas here are simple, devotional thoughts and prayers, many of which can help to express a longing for God. Like the Epistle of James, MacDonald is always stirring his readers to be “doers, and not hearers only.” He speaks from the heart and speaks to the root of the spiritual life.

Bones: MacDonald’s poetry here is simple, and occasionally simplistic. My only other criticism is that MacDonald is so introspective. It can be rather angsty at times.

Quotes:

“When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire,—
Oh, be thou then the first, the one thou art;
Be thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.”
(January 10)

This book is free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and on LibriVox.

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.

Joy and Peace in Believing

Source: William Cowper, Olney Hymns.

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let th’ unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens,
Will give his children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.