Sunday, May 29, 2011

`The Only Way to Enjoy Even a Weed'

G.K. Chesterton, the most volubly entertaining of writers, was born on this date in 1874; or, as he puts it in the opening sentences of “Hearsay Evidence,” the first chapter of his Autobiography:

“Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.”

The Chesterton charm, anathema to some, is unapologetically on display – the love of paradox turning convention on its ear (“mere authority”), Dickensian inflation, Christian deflation and the flow of prose saved from mere journalese by incorrigible wit. As with any prolific writer, especially one who accepts the simple exchange of words for money (that is, a journalist), much of Chesterton’s work deserves forgetting, but much deserves wonder and gratitude. Read the Autobiography and its great final chapter, “The God with the Golden Key.” Chesterton tells us he grew “more and more disposed to seek out those who specialised in humility.” What follows is his inspired meditation on the dandelion:

“To take a convenient tag out of my first juvenile book of rhymes, I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking as a dandelion…in substance what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.”


George said...

For the unfamiliar looking for an inexpensive introduction, or for the long-time reader looking to avoid retyping, the English computer scientist Martin Ward has a substantial list at

Fran Manushkin said...

I think Chesterton was the merriest writer who ever lived. He makes ME happy to be alive.