November 07, 2011

Oddie Biography of GKC

There's a quote from Chesterton's autobiography that refers to a William Henley poem which begins:
"OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul."
Contra that, the GK Chesterton writes:
"I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation if he were a lost soul...I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley, for my unconquerable soul...but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered."
What a profound sense of gratitude!

I was interested to read, in William Oddie's biography, Chesterton's view of Wilde and the decadents and I found, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a strong moral streak that preceded his conversion. Even as a semi-pagan he recoiled, almost instinctively and without the defense of doctrine, from pleasure-seeking as the end all and be all:
"[Walter] Pater's root mistake, revealed in his most famous phrase [asking us] to 'burn with a hard, gemlike flame' is that you cannot handle flames. You cannot handle passions. His error is precisely that he wishes us to treat flames as one treats gems. He will burn his fingers."
And then of Pater's insistence of "enjoying the moment for the moment's sake" Chesterton wrote:
"You cannot have glorious moments and enjoy them 'simply for those moments' sake'. For suppose a man has a truly glorious moment, not something about a bit of enamel, I mean, but something violently and painfully happy. A moment of ecstasy in first love, for instance, or a moment of victory in battle. The lover enjoys the moment, but not for the moment's sake. He enjoys it for the woman's sake. The warrior enjoys the moment for the sake of the flag. The cause of the flag may be foolish. The love may be calf-love and last a week. But the patriotic soldier thinks the flag immortal; the lover thinks his love will never die. These moments are full of eternity: these moments are splendid because they do not seem momentary. Man cannot love mortal things; he can only love immortal things for an instant."

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