The Refiner’s Fire: G. K. Chesterton

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Eccentric Prince Of Paradox

Somehow it would seem an affront to Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born one hundred years ago this month, to attempt anything but a cheerful salute to his memory. Son of a Kensington estate agent, Gilbert contrived for himself a deprived background: “I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage … and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am.” On the second page of his Autobiography he tells of the maternal influence upon him. His father mentioned that he had been asked to go on The Vestry (parish council). “At this my mother … uttered something like a cry of pain; she said, ‘Oh, Edward, don’t!… We never have been respectable yet; don’t let’s begin now.’ ”

In 1887 Gilbert went to St. Paul’s School, where, apart from a certain talent in handling the English language, he did not distinguish himself. He left in 1892 and for three years studied art at the famous Slade School and English literature at London University. The writer in him won (he remained a competent artist), and a toe-hold was established in the world of words—reviewing, publisher’s dogsbody, freelance reporting. In 1900 he was on his way with publication of The Wild Knight and Other Poems. In 1901, to family misgiving, he married on a small income and boundless optimism.

Chesterton early discovered the value of paradox as “truth standing on its head to gain attention,” and exploited it to such good purpose that Fleet Street and Edwardian England took notice of the young man who had strong views on literary and social ...

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