A free man blowing smoke rings from his pipe (Photo Lancia Smith)
I have been reading a collection of Ballades by GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and their friends and it prompted this more playful piece of light verse about the pleasures of smoking my pipe and composing verse in the ‘Temple of Peace’, my trysting place with the muse. I have slightly tweaked the Ballade form by playing variations on the repeating line rather than simply repeating it verbatim. You can hear the poem, as usual, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. The atmospheric photo is by the wonderful photographer Lancia Smith. I hope you all enjoy this, it goes out particularly to my generous friend Jerry Root who gave me one of the most beautiful pipes I possess.
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.9−3).
If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others, despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. One of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown stories, ‘The Hammer of God’, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour. In the story a curate who has constantly taken to ‘praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires’ is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from the heights. It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down from the heights to a proper place of repentance. Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:
‘I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ said Father Brown. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.’
‘Do you mean that one may fall over?’ asked Wilfred.
‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest …
After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. ‘I knew a man,’ he said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.’
Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.
‘He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.’
‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest.
I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.
WhenThe image above is from a sketch book of the painter Adam Boulter who sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) who sent me this sketch when we were working together on the In the Wilderness Exhibition for Westminster Abbey.
If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.
I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here
In our house we keep the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. The Christmas holidays are a time when I tend to take old favourite books of the shelf, get comfortable in an armchair and re-read and savour familiar passages as much for their familiarity as anything else. In particular I like to savour seasonal favourites, so I have been re-reading some short pieces on Christmas by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Some of these I have read aloud onto podcast and audioboo sites, so I thought I’d gather up the links and share them again with readers of this blog. First up is GK Chesterton’s wonderful little piece ‘The Shop of Ghosts; a good dream’, which I had the pleasure of reading aloud last year with my friends Jerry and Claudia Root and Pat and Den Conneen. Then, in three short parts, I have posted some readings from ‘A Remaining Christmas’, Hilaire Belloc’s wonderfully partial account of how he kept Christmas at Kingsland, his beloved old house in Sussex. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
In our house we keep the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. The Christmas holidays are a time when I tend to take old favourite books of the shelf, get comfortable in an armchair and re-read and savour familiar passages as much for their familiarity as anything else. In particular I like to savour seasonal favourites, so I have been re-reading some short pieces on Christmas by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Some of these I have read aloud onto podcast and audioboo sites, so I thought I’d gather up the links and share them again with readers of this blog. First up is GK Chesterton’s wonderful little piece ‘The Shop of Ghosts; a good dream’, which I had the pleasure of reading aloud tis year with my friends Jerry and Claudia Root and Pat and Den Conneen. Then, in three short parts, I have posted some readings from ‘A Remaining Christmas’, Hilaire Belloc’s wonderfully partial account of how he kept Christmas at Kingsland, his beloved old house in Sussex. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
I promised last time to tell you a little more about how I came upon these treasures of Chestertoniana,and what is to become of them now. The treasures are the gift of the wonderful collector and enthusiast in whose house I first saw them when I was a young man. He was a bookseller in Bedford and I remember making the journey, past the great statue of Bunyan, to look for what I thought would be an ordinary bookshop. But the address I had been given proved to be a private house in a quiet back street. The book seller who opened the door was an elderly man with a wonderfully warm countenance and a twinkle in his eye. He welcomed me in and let me browse amongst the books by Chesterton he had for sale, many rarities I had been looking for for years. And when he saw my enthusiasm and my exclamations of delight as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, he said ‘step in here I have some things you might enjoy seeing.’ I stepped into another room and there was the Theatre! The hat! the walking stick,! the wonderful old typewriter! the chair in which he sat to write, the curiously shaped walking sticks! the drawings in coloured chalks on brown paper, and shelf after shelf of GKC’s own personal books full of his inimitable annotations!
I looked up to see Aidan Mackey ( for it was he!) smiling with the pleasure of sharing things he loved with a fellow enthusiast. Over the years I came to know Aidan better and visited his magical house many times, gradually realising that I was in the presence of one of the greatest living authorities on GKC, full of a kind of tacit knowledge and familiarity which is not to be found in academia. When the time came for him to retire from book-selling there was a circle of friends, of whom I am one, who formed the Chesterton Library Trust to fulfill his three specific wishes for this collection; that it should be kept together, that it should remain in England, and that it should be made accessible to scholars and to the wider public. And now at last we are going to be able to do all these things. The Library Trust which is affiliated to the GK Chesterton Institute, has at last finished cataloguing the collection and will loan the whole collection to the Oxford Oratory who will display it and make its treasures accessible not only to scholars but to any Chesterton fans, and there will be many, who make the pilgrimage to Oxford to see these things. They are currently housed in the Oxford Centre for Faith and Culture, and available, by appointment for scholars to consult, but as of next year they will be housed, and displayed for all to see in the Chesterton room in the new study centre at the Oratory in Oxford.
A Piece of Chalk
That Piece of Chalk!
And now, as I review these treasures in my mind, my eyes light on a piece of chalk! When I first held it in my hand, and looked also on his chalk drawings on brown paper I remembered the opebing of GKC’ own ‘blog post’ on A Piece of Chalk in Tremendous Trifles:
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
Ah how often I also reluctantly tear myself away from that delicious task! so we follow GKC downstairs where he asks someone for brown paper to draw on, she wants to give him nice crisp expensive white drawing paper but Chesterton just wants the stuff that parcels were wrapped in:
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
So off he goes with his paper, coloured chalks, a pocket-full of jingling oddments and a head-full of potential poems. But when he gets out on to the great wide Sussex Downs, he realises he has forgotten something!
I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun
There is so much glorious truth in this reflection on goodness as a positive force and reality in the world, a ‘sun-clad power’ as Milton called it, and all springing from a reflection on chalk drawing, but then chalk drawing is maybe where all human art started. Then comes the wonderful ‘turn’ in this essay, the sudden realisation that he is sitting up there on the chalk downs, the very chalk that whitens the white cliffs of Dover!
I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on; it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do; but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
I wonder, as I think of him ‘sitting on an immense warehouse of chalk’, how often we are sitting, unthinking on a vast warehouse of the very resources we need for any task. Desparately searching around in shops for prefab, pre-packed items, prefab, pre-packed ideas, when all we need do is dig a little deeper into the vast resource of our own mind and consciousness, our memory imagination, and maybe digging a little deeper right down into The Ground of our Being, who is God, the one in whom we are being ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ If we dug deep enough we might find what Chesterton called, in another place ‘the buried sunrise of wonder’. but that’s another tale for another time.
glorious things drawn with coloured chalks on good brown paper!
If GK Chesterton had been born in my generation he would have been a natural-born blogger! As it is, he invented blogging before his time and used the best technology availabe to get his brief, pithy, brilliant posts out there.
Let me explain. Chesterton published a regular series of short, topical thought-provoking essays in all kinds of journals and newspapers, and towards the end of his life, when he was too hot for some big publishing house to handle, in his own paper GK’s Weekly. But what makes him a natural born blogger is the ways he approached the task. In the preface to Tremendous Trifles, a collection of some of his very best, he says something that will ring bells with many bloggers about the way what he writes has to be both personal and public. He calls his writing:
“a sort of sporadic diary—a diary recording one day in twenty which happened to stick in the fancy—the only kind of diary the author has ever been able to keep. Even that diary he could only keep by keeping it in public, for bread and cheese.”
Now what’happens to stick in his fancy’ is always a particular thing, an object, an image, a visual clue, something that catches the eye and opens the mind’s eye. He explains his approach like this:
“As the reader’s eye strays, with hearty relief, from these pages, it probably alights on something, a bed-post or a lamp-post, a window blind or a wall. It is a thousand to one that the reader is looking at something that he has never seen: that is, never realised.”
Chesterton wonders whether by writing he might help us to see, whether he
“could not write an essay on such a post or wall… even write the synopsis of an essay; as “The Bed-Post; Its Significance—Security Essential to Idea of Sleep—Night Felt as Infinite—Need of Monumental Architecture,” and so on…. [or] sketch in outline his theoretic attitude towards window-blinds, even in the form of a summary. “The Window-Blind—Its Analogy to the Curtain and Veil—Is Modesty Natural?—Worship of and Avoidance of the Sun, etc., etc.”
Then he addresses his readers in an inspiring call to work at seeing, in a passage which I think should be written in gold letters above every blogger’s desk ( or on the wallpaper of their iPad!):
“None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don’t let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”
Well in what follows I am going to try! GKC keeps his promise in Tremendous Trifles and ‘blogs’ about stray cats and coloured clouds, about a piece of chalk, the contents of his pockets, a man running after his hat, a magical toy theatre. These were all glorious starting places, all portals and gateways into wider realms.
And with his help I am going to do the same.
A Secret Revealed
For now it is time for me to reveal a wonderful secret. These treasures, these starting places, these tactile little nuggets of his life, have not been lost. I have held in my hand the piece of chalk he picked up from white horse down:
The chalk he picked up from White Horse Vale, the pen with which he wrote the poem!
and the pen with which he wrote the Ballad of the White Horse! I have worn the hat that so often blew and flew from a head so full of ideas!
Yours truly wearing that hat!
I have played with the magical toy theatre of which he said:
‘All the essential morals which modern men need to learn could be deduced from this toy’
The Magical Toy Theatre!
I am one of the stewards and guardians of these treasures for the Chesterton Library Trust, and at last we have the good news that these wonderful things, together with a library of Chesterton’s personal books, full of his annotations,will soon be properly housed, displayed and available for people to see! In my next post I will tell you the story of these treasures, the trust we have formed to look after them, and where they will soon be housed and displayed.
In the meantime, by way of anticipating that display, I am going to do a series of blog posts on the very things GKC had in front of him on his desk, and about which he himself ‘blogged’, so coming soon:
A Piece Of Chalk, A Hat To Run After, A Tale Of Two Sticks! And of course A Toy Theatre!
I have had a very positive response to that posting, so at the request of a number of people I have now made a recording of the entire poem which I have organised into 9 podcasts with links to all 9 episodes gathered onto this page.
As I remarked on the 9/11 anniversary ,the poem, whose own 100th anniversary falls this year, is as much a poem about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.
Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.
You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.
My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.
The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite: