Chesterton the Poet | Michael J. Lichens | Catholic World Report
Although often overlooked today, G. K. Chesterton's wide-ranging poetry has been praised by atheist Christopher Hitchens, novelist Graham Greene, and poet W. H. Auden.
"A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words." — Robert Frost
In his otherwise disparaging review of Dr. Ian Ker’s G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, the late atheist critic Christopher Hitchens noted that he and Ker were in agreement “on the high quality of Chesterton’s poems.” Hitchens had many unkind comments about a whole host of Catholic writers but on the subject of Chesterton’s poetic works, he found within the rhymes “his magic faculty of being unforgettable.”
This will come as a surprise for many, even as G. K. Chesterton’s work has undergone something of a renaissance with practically all his work being brought back into print. However, few are aware of his poetry outside of his drinking poems and what W. H. Auden called “the best pure nonsense verse in English.” Chesterton's poetry sold well in his own time and earned him praise, but even the great Bombastic Journalist thought of himself as “a very minor poet.” So it is that few people today neither read much of his poetry nor are familiar enough with it to see the brilliance hiding beneath the careful rhymes and whimsical verse.
With the renewed interest in Chesterton and his work, we should not neglect the contribution he made to English verse, which is at times child-like as it explores the deep mysteries of faith and existence with the very heart of a child he was so praised for possessing. While his poetry might have seemed archaic compared to the great modernist poets of the twentieth century, his desire to express beauty and truth within a traditional rhyming and sometimes iambic form left a legacy of good and unforgettable poems that are worthy of study and memorization.
Wine, Water, and Song
The majority of those who have encountered Chesterton’s poetry have most likely heard his drinking ballads as they are recited before or after a pub crawl. With the right cadence, these particular verses are a golden mean between traditional drinking songs and rowdy poetry. His most famous one is “The Rolling English Road,” a poem against temperance societies and possible prohibition in England:
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.
The rolling drunkard and road in this case is part of a theme underlying much of Chesterton’s work: looking back on the English way of doing things in defense against what he saw as the rising tide of the cult of progressivism. Like many historians, Chesterton saw the pub and the pint as essential to the English soul as the ancient footpaths of central England. Even in something as simple as a pint of ale, the Chestertonian sees a highly traditional practice worth protecting and preserving.
This particular view of the pub as a citadel against modern errors was also echoed in “The Ballad of an Anti-Puritan”: