Interview with G. K. Chesterton
Everyone knows Mr Chesterton's appearance, 'a good portly man, i' faith,
and a corpulence', like Falstaff. His writings, too,
have become familiar, winning many disciples, especially among the young. At Oxford the Chestertonian and the Shavian are
well-known types: the Shavian enthroned above human emotion is clever, but a prig; the Chestertonian, less brilliant, is more
likeable. He doesn't care for advanced ideas, but he would like to combine wit and probity. So he welcomes a writer who
defends old modes of thought with humour, and attacks modern thinkers on the ground that they are antiquated bores in
Yet underlying Mr Chesterton's geniality there is a real bitterness,
at times the impatient intolerance of a man defending a
difficult position. I was interested to see if this intolerance would be greater or less in speech. On the whole I found it far less.
Mr Chesterton began with characteristic words, 'I am always ready to
be interviewed, for I hold the theory, nowadays
completely forgotten--as forgotten as this matchbox was still this moment (fishing a box out of a bowl on the
mantelpiece)--the theory that the Press is a public agora. I should not refuse an interview even to a paper owned by
one of those capitalist millionaires, whom I hate. Nowadays the Press merely echoes the powerful; its real aim should be to
give the public a chance to state its views.
'And now what do you want me to talk about? I am ready to give my opinion
on any question, whether I know something
about it or not. No, I'm not an Imperialist in the modern sense; the only theory of Imperialism that seems to me sound is
Dante's. He defended the Roman Empire as the best human government, on the definite ground that the best human
government would probably crucify God. Caesar had to be lawful; because Christ had to be killed by law.
'Neither do I believe in Cosmopolitanism: nowadays it's either run by
financiers for their own profit, or it's the product of
Atheistic Socialism, as in Germany. Christ didn't come to bring peace among the nations. When He said that a man should
turn the other cheek, I fancy He meant that a man, when attacked, should humiliate his enemy by treating him with sudden
and unexpected contempt.'
He paused with a smile to ask me what questions I really wanted to put.
I wished to find out what he thought about writers
dead and living, for I had noticed that he never spoke of literature for its own sake, but only with reference to what some
would call broader issues. And now, though beginning to see that, whatever the subject, he would always be pulled back to
express certain theories on life, I put a direct question to him:
'You are very hostile, aren't you, to the literary movement in the eighties and nineties?'
'Yes, I am. How can I make my feeling clear? It seems to me that at
that time the two great ideals of life were dead. The
French Revolution, so people thought, had destroyed Christianity, and the decadents didn't even believe in the French
Revolution. They cared nothing either for the rights of man or the rights of God.'
'You don't like Housman's Shropshire Lad, then?'
'It's marvellous,' he answered, 'the singing beauty of it is extraordinary.
But it was written by the devil. The suffering in
Housman or in Hardy is evil--utterly unlike Milton's dignified sorrow. Peasants don't feel like that. Of course, we are
all melancholy at times: you and I will quite probably be melancholy before we go to bed to-night. But really from the way
they write, you'd think Hardy and Housman had been kicked through every village, and ducked in every horse-pond
throughout the kingdom. In a healthy society you get the heroic peasant romances of France and Spain and Italy. But with a
landed aristocracy like ours you get A Shropshire Lad and those Wessex stories.'
The words 'landed aristocracy' struck a danger-note, and I hurriedly
asked him what he thought of Wells. 'He's inconclusive:
his limitation is an unlimited mind. You know the sort of pocket-knife that boys love, and I love, too, furnished with every
possible implement? Wells is like that knife, except that he hasn't got any nippers. He never really gets to grips with anything;
doesn't know what a full-stop is. Those rows of dots that he puts at the end of his sentences represent him to me. He's like a
hat floating on the sea of modern thought; you think that every wave will throw it on the shore, but there it is, still bobbing up
and down. It hasn't got any tentacles; it can't grip. Of course Wells has a wonderful mind: Tono-Bungay is a great novel.
People say his books are immoral, but that's all nonsense.
'Shaw is a greater fighter than Wells, but he loses terribly through
fear of his emotions. The way he talks about love seems to
me merely mad.'
'What do you think of Arnold Bennett?'
'He seems to me rather like Hardy and Housman; somebody must have broken his back.'
'But surely,' I remonstrated, 'he has real, genial humour?'
'Certainly: he is like that glorious hero of his, The Card, he has contributed
to the greatest of causes, the "great cause of
cheering us all up". Still I suspect he's against real joy. But it's difficult to talk about him. His books are finished works of art,
and you can't discuss them simply because they are finished.'
'Do you agree with Frank Harris on Shakespeare?'
'Well, I think the book a blow to the Baconians, but he makes too much
of Shakespeare's difference from the rest of us. We
are all as poetical as Shakespeare; but we don't happen to be such great poets. Our temperaments are the same, but you and
I haven't got the mind to write lines like "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools ..."'
'You don't think the artist as near the centre of things as the ordinary man, do you?'
'No, I don't. Most people consider the joys and sorrows of the working-man
chaotic and comic--only fit for a
music-hall sketch. To me his emotions seem more permanent, less sophisticated than those of the artist. If Edward I came to
life, he'd understand the workman, but Heaven only knows what he'd make of some of our modern artists.
'I put the artist and man of action on the same level. Byron worked
through the medium of words; Napoleon through the
medium of bayonets. I don't know that there's much to choose between them, though I own to a slight preference for
'Then, who do you think the highest type of man?'
'The saint: St Francis of Assissi could judge both Byron and Napoleon.
By the way, a dialogue between the three would be
'But, to take a greater artist than Byron, do you think Shakespeare could be judged by St Francis?'
'Yes; Shakespeare had got some of the literary man's vices. He talked
too much about fame; the saint doesn't bother whether
he'll outlive marble or the monuments of princes.'
The argument seemed to me unreal: St Francis too had his flaws. Self-torture
is a vice as much as self-indulgence, though
I went on: 'Don't you think the artist is underpraised nowadays in comparison with the practical man?'
'Yes. I don't think the balance is fairly held. Of course, one's sympathies
aren't always on the same side. If a band of
troubadour poets--manly, virile fellows--were bayonetted by a regiment of Prussian soldiers, I'd naturally
sympathize with the poets. But if Nero--that eminent aesthete--collected a body of aesthetic young Romans
round him, and proceeded to live for the moment's sake, I should be delighted to see a troop of Dacian legionaries disturbing
the artistic harmony in their rude, artless fashion.'
The illustrations interested me; the second was so much more vivid and
realistic than the first. It seemed that Mr Chesterton
could not sympathize with the artist till he had pictured him as manly and virile, the characteristic qualities of the man of action.
However, I still pressed the point.
'Don't you think minor poets are unfairly sneered at nowadays?'
'Yes; and as a minor poet I feel it deeply. Journalists can't hit out
at the powerful; they'd lose their jobs. So they hit the minor
poet. It's like a man who has lost his nerve on the hunting field, but goes about boasting that he still hunts beetles.'
Mr Chesterton had missed my point. He thought minor poets should be
spared, because they were beetles; clearly he didn't
think capitalists the real beetles, and artists, however minor, the real powers.
The talk wandered over many subjects, lasting altogether two hours.
A real kindness and sympathy, never quite hidden even
when he was most intolerant, gave charm to everything he said. The flow of quaint imagery showed a quick receptive mind:
the love of old fixed certainties a shrinking from the unknown future. The greatest souls search the darkness that lies in front,
their backs turned to the pleasant landscapes of the past. The rustic inn where the countrymen gather stands back from the
main road. One should not linger there; it charms as fatally as the arbour of the decadents.