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G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

Kingdom of Heaven

Said the Lord God, "Build a house,
⁠     Build it in the gorge of death,
Found it in the throats of hell.
⁠     Where the lost sea muttereth,
Fires and whirlwinds, build it well."

Laboured sternly flame and wind,
⁠     But a little, and they cry,
"Lord, we doubt of this Thy will,
⁠     We are blind and murmur why,"
And the winds are murmuring still.

Said the Lord God, "Build a house,
⁠     Cleave its treasure from the earth,
With the jarring powers of hell
⁠     Strive with formless might and mirth,
Tribes and war-men, build it well."

Then the raw red sons of men
⁠     Brake the soil, and lopped the wood,
But a little and they shrill,
⁠     "Lord, we cannot view Thy good,"
And the wild men clamour still.

Said the Lord God, "Build a house,
⁠     Smoke and iron, spark and steam,
Speak and vote and buy and sell;
⁠     Let a new world throb and stream,
Seers and makers, build it well."

Strove the cunning men and strong,
⁠     But a little and they cry,
"Lord, mayhap we are but clay,
⁠     And we cannot know the why,"
And the wise men doubt to-day.

Yet though worn and deaf and blind,
⁠     Force and savage, king and seer
Labour still, they know not why;
⁠     At the dim foundation here,
Knead and plough and think and ply.

Till at last, mayhap, hereon,
⁠     Fused of passion and accord,
Love its crown and peace its stay
⁠     Rise the city of the Lord
That we darkly build to-day.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London, England on the 29th of May, 1874. Though he considered himself a mere "rollicking journalist," he was actually a prolific and gifted writer in virtually every area of literature. A man of strong opinions and enormously talented at defending them, his exuberant personality nevertheless allowed him to maintain warm friendships with people — such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells — with whom he vehemently disagreed.

Chesterton had no difficulty standing up for what he believed. He was one of the few journalists to oppose the Boer War. His 1922 Eugenics and Other Evils attacked what was at that time the most progressive of all ideas, the idea that the human race could and should breed a superior version of itself. In the Nazi experience, history demonstrated the wisdom of his once "reactionary" views.

His poetry runs the gamut from the comic The Logical Vegetarian to dark and serious ballads. During the dark days of 1940, when Britain stood virtually alone against the armed might of Nazi Germany, these lines from his 1911 Ballad of the White Horse were often quoted:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Though not written for a scholarly audience, his biographies of authors and historical figures like Charles Dickens and St. Francis of Assisi often contain brilliant insights into their subjects. His Father Brown mystery stories, written between 1911 and 1936, are still being read and adapted for television.

His politics fitted with his deep distrust of concentrated wealth and power of any sort. Along with his friend Hilaire Belloc and in books like the 1910 What's Wrong with the World he advocated a view called "Distributism" that is best summed up by his expression that every man ought to be allowed to own "three acres and a cow." Though not known as a political thinker, his political influence has circled the world. Some see in him the father of the "small is beautiful" movement and a newspaper article by him is credited with provoking Gandhi to seek a "genuine" nationalism for India. Orthodoxy belongs to yet another area of literature at which Chesterton excelled. A fun-loving and gregarious man, he was nevertheless troubled in his adolescence by thoughts of suicide. In Christianity he found the answers to the dilemmas and paradoxes he saw in life. Other books in that same series include his 1905 Heretics and its sequel Orthodoxy and his 1925 The Everlasting Man.

Chesterton died on the 14th of June, 1936 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. During his life he published 69 books and at least another ten have been published after his death. Many of those books are still in print.

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