Christian History Home > Issue 75 > Genius with a Message
Genius with a Message
Every piece in Chesterton's immense body of published work bears the imprint of his soul.
Critics over the past century have sought to identify the fundamental Chesterton. He offers an answer in Orthodoxy: "The central Christian theology … is the best root of energy and sound ethics." Indeed, theology informs and connects everything he wrote: about 50 Father Brown stories; more than 85 major works in genres including novel, short story, poem, play, biography, lecture, and literary criticism; some 1,600 articles in The Illustrated London News; and countless other pieces.
Though Chesterton did not proclaim Christian faith until adulthood, inklings of faith appear even in his earliest work. More than 200 notebooks filled with his youthful writings were discovered just a decade ago beneath old clothing in a storage trunk in England, affording a glimpse of his developing spiritual thought and literary style. His early short story "The Wine of Cana," for example, includes the weighty line, "On that last night, in that dark garret, knowing that the gibbet hung above him, he gave those he loved a last symbol and memory."
Chesterton's first published work, a short piece in The Speaker, appeared in 1892. Soon his art college magazine, The Quarto, printed more of his work. Even as he studied visual art, he prepared for a career in publishing.
Chesterton's ability to write succinct, lively prose—and to write it quickly—suited him perfectly for newspaper publishing. London's Daily News picked him up in 1899, and The Illustrated London News gave him a regular column in 1905. His output proved so valuable that many of the essays were republished in book form.
Though produced for the boisterous world of Fleet Street, Chesterton's essays feature beautiful metaphors and deep theological insights. For example, "In Defence of Baby Worship" (from The Defendant, 1901) asserts:
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. … With each one of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial.
Other essay collections, such as All Things Considered (1908), continue the theological theme:
Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head. ("Wine When it is Red")
Many books ensued, including Varied Types (1908), Tremendous Trifles (1909), What's Wrong with the World (1910), Appetite of Tyranny and The Crimes of England (wartime books dealing with German thought, 1915), and Eugenics and Other Evils (1922). Fancies Versus Fads (1923) typifies his criticism of modernity, and The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929) exemplifies some of the specifically theological titles following his 1922 entry into the Roman Church.
Poems, plays, pictures
If Chesterton's first teenage essays gave way to such a string of collections, his first two books, published in 1900 (The Wild Knight and Other Poems and Greybeards at Play), introduced his poetry. On the divine presence within creation, Chesterton writes in "The Holy of Holies":
"Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature's crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest seeds."
"God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity—
"The Ballad of the Battle of Gibeon" (referring to Joshua as a figure of the incarnate Christ) and "By the Babe Unborn" are two well-known poems. "The Donkey," a unique perspective of the crucifixion, also is often quoted:
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