restricted access G. K. Chesterton
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[ 369 G. K. Chesterton The Tablet, 167 (20 June 1936) 785 I never met Gilbert Chesterton, and my acquaintance with him was limited to a little formal correspondence on one or two occasions, either about a contribution I wanted from him or about some book I sent him;1 but his disappearance, from a world such as that we live in, is one of those which give even to us who did not know the man, a sense of personal loss and isolation. The notices that I have seen in the general Press seem to me to have exaggerated Chesterton’s achievements in some obvious respects, and to have ignored his achievements in much more important ones. His poetry was first-rate journalistic balladry, and I do not suppose that he took it more seriously than it deserved.2 He reached a high imaginative level with The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and higher with The Man Who Was Thursday, romances in which he turned the Stevensonian fantasy to more serious purpose. His book on Dickens seems to me the best essay on that author that has ever been written.3 Some of his essays can be read again and again; though of his essay-writing as a whole, one can only say that it is remarkable to have maintained such a high average with so large an output. But it is not, I think, for any piece of writing in particular that Chesterton is of importance, but for the place that he occupied, the position that he represented, during the better part of a generation. And when I say “place” or “position” I attach significance also to his development, to his beginnings as well as to his ends, and to the movement from one to the other. To judge Chesterton on his “contributions to literature,” then, would be to apply the wrong standards of measurement. It is in other matters that he was importantly and consistently on the side of the angels. Behind the Johnsonian fancy-dress,4 so reassuring to the British public, he concealed the most serious and revolutionary designs – concealing them by exposure, as his anarchist conspirators chose to hold their meetings on a balcony in Leicester Square.5 (The real Johnson, indeed, with his theology, politics and morals, would be quite as alien to the modern world of public opinion as Chesterton himself.) Even if Chesterton’s social and economic ideas appear to be totally without effect, even if they should be demonstrated to Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 370 ] be wrong – which would perhaps only mean that men have not the goodwill to carry them out – they were the ideas for his time that were fundamentally Christian and Catholic.6 He did more, I think, than any man of his time – and was able to do more than anyone else, because of his particular background, development and abilities as a public performer – to maintain the existence of the important minority in the modern world. He leaves behind a permanent claim upon our loyalty, to see that the work that he did in his time is continued in ours. T. S. Eliot Notes 1. TSE wrote to Chesterton, who died on 14 June, on several occasions between 1928 and 1930, primarily with regard to his essay “Is Humanism a Religion?,” printed in the Criterion of Apr 1929. On 8 Mar 1929, TSE sent him a copy of his recent essays, presumably For Lancelot Andrewes (L4 463), and on 19 Feb 1930, he sent him Frank Morison’s book Who Moved the Stone? (1930) soliciting his opinion on it. 2. His obituary in the Times of 15 June stated: “As a poet his output was constant; epigrams and satire came to him as readily as epic; there were both sonority and fine imagination in his best poems” (17). 3. The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904); The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908). Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906) was on TSE’s reading list in his Syllabus for a Tutorial Class in Modern English Literature (1916) (1.481). In his letter to Chesterton of 8 May 1929, expressing the desire to meet him in the summer, TSE wrote: “Your study of Dickens was always a delight to me” (L4 493). TSE discussed Chesterton, including The Man Who Was Thursday, in his 1933 Harvard lectures for English 26 (4.763-67). 4. Chesterton liked dressing up as Samuel Johnson. His obituary in the...


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