Essay Mondays: Chesterton


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Interestingly, my four essay selections for this week all explored the lighter side of the form, which, considering the heaviness of The Waves and the fact that I'm in the midst of preparing for a big event, came as a welcome change. It's difficult to choose among the four frothy concoctions Lopate dished out; they're all delightful, from Max Beerbohm's lovable grump about why he never, of his own volition, chooses to go out for a walk, and the same author's meditation on that wonderful kind of laughter that gathers so much steam as to be self-sustaining; to G.K. Chesterton's gentler yet slightly more substantive pleas for cultivating a romantic appreciation of life's inconveniences ("On Running After One's Hat").

I think the one I'll write about, though, is Chesterton's "A Piece of Chalk," in which the author takes us on a light ramble in the undulating hills of English countryside, his coat pocket stuffed with colored chalks and brown paper with which he hopes to while away some time making drawings.

Do not, for heaven's sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colors on brown paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature; also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts.

Lopate likens Chesterton's gentle, jovial tone to that of a "favorite uncle," and I think he's right on the money. I can understand why this essayist was so popular in his time: he is easy to spend time with; his prose is fluid and engaging; he is occasionally self-effacing (as in the "easier to draw" comment), but never annoyingly or compulsively so; he is quite religious, but with a broad, appreciationist type of religious morality that religious and non-religious readers alike could relate to. This last is particularly true of people reading Chesterton in his own time and context. To modern ears a few of his comments do seem a bit Christian-chauvinist, as above when he refers to pre-Christian times as "before the dawn of right." I found myself inclined to keep reading him despite this, however, because of the unexpected and appealing quality of his observations, and the way his light, conversational tone floats me along.

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 pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.

I wouldn't say Chesterton blew my mind, but he was a highly enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, and I have to admire his technique: such lightness of touch is always surprisingly difficult to achieve.

Next week: Two great essays by (of all people) Virginia Woolf, and one long piece by George Orwell. After that we're leaving Britain, my friends.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • First of all, congratulations on your impending Celebration. Your dress is gorgeous. I love that you and David have been so thoughtful about it and are creating something so meanigful.

    Second, I've read this Chesterton essay before and really enjoyed it. I would have loved that book of poems about things in his pocket. Have you ever read his fiction? I've read The Man Who Was Thursday and it is delightfully bizzare sort of Adventures of Baron Munchausen bizzare.

  • Score!!! I always wondered what you looked like, Emily, and I hope that doesn't sound too stalkerish since I think you and David make such a cute couple and I wonder what all my blogger friends look like anyway. Nice to put a picture to the face behind the writing, though! P.S. I'll be back to talk about Chesterton later, so you don't have to get too weirded out about this comment, ha ha!

  • Stefanie: Thanks for the congratulations! :-) We're having fun, especially now that all the major details are in place. Re: the book, I had never heard of Chesterton before reading these two essays, but on the strength of them I would definitely check out fiction of his, and I'm not surprised it's delightfully weird.

    Richard: Not stalkerish, don't worry! I wonder what all my blog friends look like too. Thanks for the nice words; we are excited. :-) (If you watched that video, you have even seen me with a bad head cold. Yikes!)

  • I remember also really enjoying Chesterton when I read him. Thanks for this reminder to revisit his essays. "Favorite uncle" indeed!

  • I am sorry but I did not get beyond the celebration part. Outstanding! So happy for you both! The dress is gorgeous too! Every detail that you shared suggests a level of thought and meaning that bodes so well for a wonderful future together. So glad you shared! (Must stop here. Have run out of the ubiquitous exclamation marks in my storage. But happy unions make me so emotional! Oops, there's another one.)

  • The pictures are wonderful, Emily. Reminds me of when I made my wedding dress, so and so many years ago. May you and David enjoy many happy years together. And I like your words on Chesterton, too. I read Manalive several months ago and loved it, plan to read another Chesterton novel soon. I've had the Lopate book ever so long; something interrupted my reading. With your reminder, maybe now I'll get back to it.

  • Rebecca: You're welcome! He seems like the type that would be lovely & comforting to revisit. :-)

    Frances: Aw, thank you so much! I've been resisting making my book blog into Partnership Celebration Central, but glad I shared as well, since people are saying such nice things. It will be our tenth anniversary, so we figured it was time to do SOMETHING. :-D

  • Julia: Thanks so much for the kind wishes. :-) We are excited. (Making a dress for such an event is high-stakes sewing, isn't it?) I'm surprised that so many people have read novels or essays by Chesterton; I'd never heard of him before Lopate introduced us, but am now curious to check out his fiction.

  • Congratulations, first of all! I have some Chesterton fiction to read, which I'm looking forward to, as well as the essays, of course. I'm so, so glad there are lots of great essayists out there still to explore! I'm loving your series of posts on them, and am curious what you will say about Woolf and/or Orwell. The two Woolf essays he includes are fabulous.

  • Dorothy: Thanks for the congratulations! Yes, I've read both Woolf essays before & "Street Haunting" is one of my all-time favorites, so the Orwell will have to work hard to top it! It's fitting I happen to be reading it right now, since we originally considered including essays for Woolf in Winter but ended up deciding against it.

  • Congratulations on your big event! It looks like it will be incredibly special & very YOU. Can't believe you have time to read with all that going on :)

  • Marieke: Thank you so much! Yes, very "us" - perhaps to a confusing degree for some people, but hey - at least there will be great food, wine & company. And as for reading in the midst of preparation: can you say "procrastination"? ;-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography