A happy birthday to G. K. Chesterton, born today in 1874. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, opens with a gem of a standoff between two rival poets. It’s a pungent, vitriolic affair, the best poet-on-poet action this side of The Savage Detectives, and in celebration of its author I reprint it here at length.
To set the scene: say you’re a hotshot poet at a garden party in Saffron Park, a suburb of London where your versification is known to be the best around. But wait—some other, new poet shows up, all cock-of-the-walk. Who’s this asshole? The two of you get to exchanging words, only to find that your worldviews are not just incompatible but riven, sundered, wholly opposed.
On the side of the anarchic and chaotic, there’s Mr. Lucian Gregory—“His dark red hair parted in the middle … and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture.” And defending all things orderly and punctilious, there’s Mr. Gabriel Syme, “a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair.” The passage below finds them expounding, ardently and hilariously, on their respective poetics. For my money, Gregory has the more compelling argument, but Syme is the more masterful rhetorician.
Gregory resumed in high oratorical good humour. “An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything … The poet delights in disorder only … Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it … Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride … every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”
Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.
“And even then,” he said, “we poets always ask the question, ‘And what is Victoria now that you have got there?’ You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.”
“There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be seasick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting … It is things going right,” he cried, “that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”
The Man Who Was Thursday is in the public domain.