G.K. Chesterton.

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variety, vivacity, and fulness of life; oligarchy was the world's first
experiment in liberty. But now they have adopted the opposite ideal of
'good form,' which may be defined as Puritanism without religion. Good
form has sent them all into black like the stroke of a funeral bell.
They engage, like Mr. Gilbert's curates, in a war of mildness, a
positive competition of obscurity. In old times the lords of the earth
sought above all things to be distinguished from each other; with that
object they erected outrageous images on their helmets and painted
preposterous colours on their shields. They wished to make it entirely
clear that a Norfolk was as different, say, from an Argyll as a white
lion from a black pig. But to-day their ideal is precisely the opposite
one, and if a Norfolk and an Argyll were dressed so much alike that they
were mistaken for each other they would both go home dancing with joy.

The consequences of this are inevitable. The aristocracy must lose their
function of standing to the world for the idea of variety, experiment,
and colour, and we must find these things in some other class. To ask
whether we shall find them in the middle class would be to jest upon
sacred matters. The only conclusion, therefore, is that it is to
certain sections of the lower class, chiefly, for example, to
omnibus-conductors, with their rich and rococo mode of thought, that we
must look for guidance towards liberty and light.

The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang. Every
day a nameless poet weaves some fairy tracery of popular language. It
may be said that the fashionable world talks slang as much as the
democratic; this is true, and it strongly supports the view under
consideration. Nothing is more startling than the contrast between the
heavy, formal, lifeless slang of the man-about-town and the light,
living, and flexible slang of the coster. The talk of the upper strata
of the educated classes is about the most shapeless, aimless, and
hopeless literary product that the world has ever seen. Clearly in this,
again, the upper classes have degenerated. We have ample evidence that
the old leaders of feudal war could speak on occasion with a certain
natural symbolism and eloquence that they had not gained from books.
When Cyrano de Bergerac, in Rostand's play, throws doubts on the reality
of Christian's dulness and lack of culture, the latter replies:

'Bah! on trouve des mots quand on monte à l'assaut;
Oui, j'ai un certain esprit facile et militaire;'

and these two lines sum up a truth about the old oligarchs. They could
not write three legible letters, but they could sometimes speak
literature. Douglas, when he hurled the heart of Bruce in front of him
in his last battle, cried out, 'Pass first, great heart, as thou wert
ever wont.' A Spanish nobleman, when commanded by the King to receive a
high-placed and notorious traitor, said: 'I will receive him in all
obedience, and burn down my house afterwards.' This is literature
without culture; it is the speech of men convinced that they have to
assert proudly the poetry of life.

Anyone, however, who should seek for such pearls in the conversation of
a young man of modern Belgravia would have much sorrow in his life. It
is not only impossible for aristocrats to assert proudly the poetry of
life; it is more impossible for them than for anyone else. It is
positively considered vulgar for a nobleman to boast of his ancient
name, which is, when one comes to think of it, the only rational object
of his existence. If a man in the street proclaimed, with rude feudal
rhetoric, that he was the Earl of Doncaster, he would be arrested as a
lunatic; but if it were discovered that he really was the Earl of
Doncaster, he would simply be cut as a cad. No poetical prose must be
expected from Earls as a class. The fashionable slang is hardly even a
language; it is like the formless cries of animals, dimly indicating
certain broad, well-understood states of mind. 'Bored,' 'cut up,'
'jolly,' 'rotten,' and so on, are like the words of some tribe of
savages whose vocabulary has only twenty of them. If a man of fashion
wished to protest against some solecism in another man of fashion, his
utterance would be a mere string of set phrases, as lifeless as a string
of dead fish. But an omnibus conductor (being filled with the Muse)
would burst out into a solid literary effort: 'You're a gen'leman,
aren't yer ... yer boots is a lot brighter than yer 'ed...there's
precious little of yer, and that's clothes...that's right, put yer cigar
in yer mouth 'cos I can't see yer be'ind it...take it out again, do yer!
you're young for smokin', but I've sent for yer mother.... Goin'? oh,
don't run away: I won't 'arm yer. I've got a good 'art, I 'ave.... "Down
with croolty to animals," I say,' and so on. It is evident that this
mode of speech is not only literary, but literary in a very ornate and
almost artificial sense. Keats never put into a sonnet so many remote
metaphors as a coster puts into a curse; his speech is one long
allegory, like Spenser's 'Faerie Queen.'

I do not imagine that it is necessary to demonstrate that this poetic
allusiveness is the characteristic of true slang. Such an expression as
'Keep your hair on' is positively Meredithian in its perverse and
mysterious manner of expressing an idea. The Americans have a well-known
expression about 'swelled-head' as a description of self-approval, and
the other day I heard a remarkable fantasia upon this air. An American
said that after the Chinese War the Japanese wanted 'to put on their
hats with a shoe-horn.' This is a monument of the true nature of slang,
which consists in getting further and further away from the original
conception, in treating it more and more as an assumption. It is rather
like the literary doctrine of the Symbolists.

The real reason of this great development of eloquence among the lower
orders again brings us back to the case of the aristocracy in earlier
times. The lower classes live in a state of war, a war of words. Their
readiness is the product of the same fiery individualism as the
readiness of the old fighting oligarchs. Any cabman has to be ready with
his tongue, as any gentleman of the last century had to be ready with
his sword. It is unfortunate that the poetry which is developed by this
process should be purely a grotesque poetry. But as the higher orders of
society have entirely abdicated their right to speak with a heroic
eloquence, it is no wonder that the language should develop by itself in
the direction of a rowdy eloquence. The essential point is that somebody
must be at work adding new symbols and new circumlocutions to a

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a
moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every
day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many
sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social
relations 'breaking the ice.' If this were expanded into a sonnet, we
should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of
everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature,
over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the
living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a
kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white
elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away
with them - a whole chaos of fairy tales.

* * * * *


The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are,
first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in
consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is
possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools
and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of
a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the
universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a
transcendent common-sense. The fascination of children lies in this:
that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put
again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those
delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark
these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within
every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on
the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system
of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion
teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand
the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we
have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the
stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is
the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and
which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies
and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to
appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has
properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find
new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not
found - that on which we were born.

But the influence of children goes further than its first trifling
effort of remaking heaven and earth. It forces us actually to remodel
our conduct in accordance with this revolutionary theory of the
marvellousness of all things. We do (even when we are perfectly simple
or ignorant) - we do actually treat talking in children as marvellous,
walking in children as marvellous, common intelligence in children as
marvellous. The cynical philosopher fancies he has a victory in this
matter - that he can laugh when he shows that the words or antics of the
child, so much admired by its worshippers, are common enough. The fact
is that this is precisely where baby-worship is so profoundly right. Any
words and any antics in a lump of clay are wonderful, the child's words
and antics are wonderful, and it is only fair to say that the
philosopher's words and antics are equally wonderful.

The truth is that it is our attitude towards children that is right, and
our attitude towards grown-up people that is wrong. Our attitude towards
our equals in age consists in a servile solemnity, overlying a
considerable degree of indifference or disdain. Our attitude towards
children consists in a condescending indulgence, overlying an
unfathomable respect. We bow to grown people, take off our hats to them,
refrain from contradicting them flatly, but we do not appreciate them
properly. We make puppets of children, lecture them, pull their hair,
and reverence, love, and fear them. When we reverence anything in the
mature, it is their virtues or their wisdom, and this is an easy
matter. But we reverence the faults and follies of children.

We should probably come considerably nearer to the true conception of
things if we treated all grown-up persons, of all titles and types, with
precisely that dark affection and dazed respect with which we treat the
infantile limitations. A child has a difficulty in achieving the miracle
of speech, consequently we find his blunders almost as marvellous as his
accuracy. If we only adopted the same attitude towards Premiers and
Chancellors of the Exchequer, if we genially encouraged their stammering
and delightful attempts at human speech, we should be in a far more wise
and tolerant temper. A child has a knack of making experiments in life,
generally healthy in motive, but often intolerable in a domestic
commonwealth. If we only treated all commercial buccaneers and bumptious
tyrants on the same terms, if we gently chided their brutalities as
rather quaint mistakes in the conduct of life, if we simply told them
that they would 'understand when they were older,' we should probably be
adopting the best and most crushing attitude towards the weaknesses of
humanity. In our relations to children we prove that the paradox is
entirely true, that it is possible to combine an amnesty that verges on
contempt with a worship that verges upon terror. We forgive children
with the same kind of blasphemous gentleness with which Omar Khayyam
forgave the Omnipotent.

The essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we
feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some mysterious
reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be supernatural. The
very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels;
we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a
microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see
the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to
think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like
imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the
leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we
feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of
stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a
deity might feel if he had created something that he could not

But the humorous look of children is perhaps the most endearing of all
the bonds that hold the Cosmos together. Their top-heavy dignity is
more touching than any humility; their solemnity gives us more hope for
all things than a thousand carnivals of optimism; their large and
lustrous eyes seem to hold all the stars in their astonishment; their
fascinating absence of nose seems to give to us the most perfect hint of
the humour that awaits us in the kingdom of heaven.

* * * * *


In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the
popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of
many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer
bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are
bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a
book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams of
psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter
evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance than
railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many
good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more
fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story would probably
be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that
many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good
detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a
story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of
committing it. To persons of somewhat weak sensibility this is natural
enough; it must be confessed that many detective stories are as full of
sensational crime as one of Shakespeare's plays.

There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective
story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good
epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate
form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages as an agent
of the public weal.

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it
is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is
expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among
mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that
they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our
descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the
mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees.
Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious
the detective story is certainly the 'Iliad.' No one can have failed to
notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London
with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of
elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual
omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the
city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the
guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the
reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to
it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively
signalling the meaning of the mystery.

This realization of the poetry of London is not a small thing. A city
is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while
Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious
ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may
not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no
brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol - a message
from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The
narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention,
the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick
has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every
slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate
covered with addition and subtraction sums. Anything which tends, even
under the fantastic form of the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, to assert
this romance of detail in civilization, to emphasize this unfathomably
human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. It is good that
the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at
ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh
might be a notorious thief. We may dream, perhaps, that it might be
possible to have another and higher romance of London, that men's souls
have stranger adventures than their bodies, and that it would be harder
and more exciting to hunt their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But
since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson)
decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the
great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must
give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of
pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or
the common as commonplace. Popular art in all ages has been interested
in contemporary manners and costume; it dressed the groups around the
Crucifixion in the garb of Florentine gentlefolk or Flemish burghers.
In the last century it was the custom for distinguished actors to
present Macbeth in a powdered wig and ruffles. How far we are ourselves
in this age from such conviction of the poetry of our own life and
manners may easily be conceived by anyone who chooses to imagine a
picture of Alfred the Great toasting the cakes dressed in tourist's
knickerbockers, or a performance of 'Hamlet' in which the Prince
appeared in a frock-coat, with a crape band round his hat. But this
instinct of the age to look back, like Lot's wife, could not go on for
ever. A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the
modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective
stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.

There is, however, another good work that is done by detective stories.
While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so
universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and
rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the
mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of
departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the
unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to
remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic
world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but
the traitors within our gates. When the detective in a police romance
stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists
of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that
it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure,
while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic
conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and
wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of
man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring
of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable
police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a
successful knight-errantry.

* * * * *


The decay of patriotism in England during the last year or two is a
serious and distressing matter. Only in consequence of such a decay
could the current lust of territory be confounded with the ancient love
of country. We may imagine that if there were no such thing as a pair of
lovers left in the world, all the vocabulary of love might without
rebuke be transferred to the lowest and most automatic desire. If no
type of chivalrous and purifying passion remained, there would be no one
left to say that lust bore none of the marks of love, that lust was
rapacious and love pitiful, that lust was blind and love vigilant, that
lust sated itself and love was insatiable. So it is with the 'love of
the city,' that high and ancient intellectual passion which has been
written in red blood on the same table with the primal passions of our
being. On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet
anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk,
like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun
by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not
realize what the word 'love' means, that they mean by the love of
country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something
of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his
fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a
national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that
a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only
his son. Here clearly the word 'love' is used unmeaningly. It is the
essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone
who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This
sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was
the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like
Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would
think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My
mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink
he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be
in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or
not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and
raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When
that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all
the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or
the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid
counsellor the best. Love is drawn to truth by the unerring magnetism of
agony; it gives no pleasure to the lover to see ten doctors dancing with
vociferous optimism round a death-bed.

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England,
which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to
us to have none of the marks of patriotism - at least, of patriotism in
its highest form? Why has the adoration of our patriots been given
wholly to qualities and circumstances good in themselves, but
comparatively material and trivial: - trade, physical force, a skirmish
at a remote frontier, a squabble in a remote continent? Colonies are
things to be proud of, but for a country to be only proud of its
extremities is like a man being only proud of his legs. Why is there not
a high central intellectual patriotism, a patriotism of the head and
heart of the Empire, and not merely of its fists and its boots? A rude
Athenian sailor may very likely have thought that the glory of Athens
lay in rowing with the right kind of oars, or having a good supply of

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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Defendant → online text (page 6 of 7)