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Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Ed Peters

I've had the experience, I dunno how many times, of reading some great works of literature, and then perhaps even reading some good commentaries on them, and only then reading GCK's remarks on them and being struck by the sensation of --how to put it?-- almost never having really read the original in the first place.

Geeze louise. GKC's literary criticism is simply a must-read.

Sandra Miesel

But his history here is absolute tosh, Ed. A few examples: why is Henry II's French blood "fresher" than that of Stephen, given that both had French fathers? Henry wasn't trying to impose Roman Law. That never happened in England and wouldn't even happen in France for centuries. Canon law, on the other hand, was grounded in Roman Law although not yet codified. The Kingdom of France was much smaller than Henry's domain and its rulers had little power outside the Ile de France. The Magna Carta (supported by Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury) drew a condemnation from Pope Innocent III, who put England under interdict for several years to punish John for signing it. "Criminous clerks" included every man in any degree of Holy Orders, not just actual ministers of the Church. GKC is good at rhetorical flourishes but don't take him as a serious guide to history.


And that comment requires this shirt be linked to:

The contribution of which makes it like we're on Facebook. WILL YOU FRIEND ME GUYS?

My only on-point contribution is that it doesn't seem apparent the 'fresh French blood' means anything more or less than Henry II's parentage, irrespective of anyone else's. His was fresh, wasn't it? I'm not very sure Chesterton means it either way here. It is a rhetorical aside, a jumping off point to segue into the detached idea of law, so maybe that's not the thing to quibble on, but thought it would be worth a sed contra.

Ed Peters

I didn't say, history. I said, literature. Happy New Year. :)

Sandra Miesel

But GKG doesn't illuminate our reading of the CANTERBURY TALES. Although the pilgrims are going to the shrine, they don't discuss St. Thomas. He's not even mentioned by name in the Prologue since Chaucer could count on readers knowing who the "hooly blisful martir" of Canterbury was.

I realize my lack of enthusiasm for Chesterton puts me at odds with practically everyone but his fans take his judgments far too seriously. The essay above is about any number of things except the historical Plantagenets.

Ed Peters

"his fans take his judgments far too seriously."

His fans might, but his friends don't.

Robert Miller

My problem is not with Chesterton, but with Chaucer.

I always have thought that his tales were tawdry and tiresome. And especially spare me when they are rendered in Old English. The centuries-old academic cult of Chaucer is one with the cult of all English puffery and its puffers: Magna Carta, Ockhamism, the Book of Common Prayer, Elizabeth II, the King James Bible, Milton, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, the "Glorious Revolution" and "Bill of Rights", Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Whiggery, Queen Victoria, Mill, High Anglicanism, and the list goes on -- right down to the Beatles, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Di and Elton John, Rowan Williams...

The purpose of the English nation seems to be to seek the homage and adulation of the rest of the world for its exceptionalist and particularist "grand isolation" from the rest of the (once Christian) world. Sound like another country across the Atlantic?

Let's not forget Belloc's judgment that, without England's feckless and venal defection, the Church would have overcome the Protestant Revolt.

Nick Milne

The essay above is about any number of things except the historical Plantagenets.

Sandra, whatever your own opinion of GKC may be, please understand that what you've said here is understood by his fans (and friends) almost as a matter of course. We know he's like this. Heck, even he knows he's like this, as he makes clear in the Autobiography; indeed:

"I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong."

I know you're an historian, and so these things concern you more than most. Many of Chesterton's fans aren't, though, but they aren't credulous buffoons, either.

In any event, I've often thought that we'd be able to get something really great out of someone for whom the two greatest influences were GKC and Matthew Arnold, but I've never encountered such a person :/

Sandra Miesel

Yes, Nick, GKC's haphazard way with simple facts does irritate me. Would it have cramped his style to be more accurate? You say you know he's using the alleged subjects of his essays as pegs to hang his opinions on, but I think a lot of contemporary Catholic readers treat his work as expressing special Catholic Truths.
I will grant that GKC wrote some good poetry.

When I was active in science fiction fandom, I kept colliding with people in comparable fashion over the merits they saw in Kipling. (I wound up co-editing two anthologies of sf influenced by Kipling.) RK and GKC mirror each other to a fair degree. It would be an interesting lit crit project to compare them.

Ed Peters

Right guys. I know two constellation-calibre Catholics who dislike GKC, and they are both professional historians.

RM, you're a bit tough on "England" when you say or quote approvingly "without England's feckless and venal defection" etc.e tc. "England" was forced out of communion at sword point by tyrranical monster and a handful of psychopathic syncophants. As Belloc notes elsewhere, it took a good three generations for England's Catholics flowers to die at the root.

One of the few bright spots on modern England's history, btw, is the very recent willingness of so many Brits to admit, finally, that Yes, HRHH8 was a disaster, after all. That has come about just in my lifetime.

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