Over the past few weeks, I’ve written essays on some significant anniversaries that fall in 2016, including the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the nine-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Now, as this year falls into Fall and prepares to go the same way as all its predecessors, I thought I’d remember another anniversary that falls in 2016 and will pass away with it. This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the passing of G.K. Chesterton.
This being so, there seems no better way to celebrate than to look at the way in which his passing affected his contemporaries.
Let’s begin with Arthur Bryant, an historian greatly admired by Churchill, who succeeded Chesterton as the weekly columnist for the Illustrated London News, after Chesterton’s death. Here’s what he had to say about Chesterton in his column published on All Hallows Eve in 1936:
There are many whose names appear on no Christian calendar, who by struggle and endeavour and conquest earned their right to be included among the saintly company. Of such was that very wise and good man who for thirty-one years prior to this summer contributed to this page. Gilbert Keith Chesterton spent his whole life in teaching others how to live. The very sound of his name is like a trumpet call. To him the world was like a strenuous field in which one went about doing battle with evil in order that good might endure. If from his generation one had to select one man who might have stood as a type of Don Quixote or of St George who slew the dragon, it was he. If any literary name of our age becomes a legend it will be his…He was the kind of man of whom Bunyan was thinking when he drew the picture of Mr Greatheart. His sword was at the service of pilgrims. And what a sword it was! …His Catholicism was an all-comprehending democracy…I never met a more generous man, and I never saw a happier. And I do not believe there is anyone who had the inestimable privilege to know GKC who would not say the same. It is right that he should be remembered on the day set apart for recollection of the saints of God.
Such words of praise, as effusive as they are true, would be hard to follow. Yet the spontaneous expressions of love from his many friends, written in private correspondence to Frances, his wife, and quoted in Nancy Carpentier Brown’s excellent biography, The Woman Who Was Chesterton, illustrate the saint that he was. “My dear Francis,” wrote Maurice Baring, a great friend of Chesterton and a novelist whose neglect is a scandal, “there is nothing to be said, is there, except that our loss, and especially yours, is his gain…. O Frances! I feel as if a tower of shelter had tumbled and my crutch in life had gone.”
“The world,” wrote Ronald Knox, “can console itself for the loss of what he might have written, by having all that he wrote…. He has been my idol since I read Napoleon of Notting Hill as a schoolboy.”
“God gave him to England,” wrote Fr. Vincent McNabb, “and England gave him to the —as one of God’s best gifts to England for three centuries.” The priest then praised Chesterton’s mind and heart, connecting the latter to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
His mind alone would have been gift enough for any land to make its boast. But we who knew his heart … felt that it almost dwarfed his mind with its greatness.
Today we are listening to our Blessed Lord telling us about His Heart.… He tells us how He could not rest until all the poor of the village and the roadside shared his ‘good cheer.’ That was Gilbert’s heart; and also Christ’s.
Significantly, Chesterton was not only admired by his co-religionists, such as Baring, Knox and McNabb. Bryant was not a Catholic, nor was George Bernard Shaw. Bryant was of the so-called “right” (whatever that really means) and Shaw was of the “left,” but they were united in their love and praise for the great man whose death they lamented. “It seems the most ridiculous thing in the world,” wrote Shaw, “that I, eighteen years older than Gilbert, should be heartlessly surviving him…. The trumpets are sounding for him.…”
From Rome, two popes paid tribute. Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, who would become Pope Pius XII less than three years later, sent a telegram on behalf of the current pope, Pius XI: Holy Father deeply grieved death Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, devoted son holy Church, gifted defender of the Catholic Faith. Stop. His Holiness offers paternal sympathy people of England, assures prayers dear departed, bestows apostolic benediction.
“He was a glorious man,” wrote J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, “lovable beyond words and I think the greatest literary figure left to us. One aspect of him that I have not seen mentioned but that is clear to me is that he was such a gentleman. Chaucer’s perfect knight. He was this beyond compare.”
Hilaire Belloc, perhaps Chesterton’s greatest friend, to whom Chesterton devoted a whole chapter in his autobiography, was, for once, lost for words. On the day of Chesterton’s funeral he was found weeping inconsolably in Beaconsfield’s Railway Hotel. “There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,” Belloc had written, “than laughter and the love of friends.” He had lost a friend and with him much of the laughter had passed from life.
As for Chesterton, he was laughing still, in the manner he had prophesied in his poem “The Skeleton”:
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
No; I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
It was hid so carefully
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.