Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Wild Heart of Truth Unwon

Ballade of a Historical Sceptic
by G. K. Chesterton

I can't keep histories in my hat,
I vow that there is truth in none;
I vow each author, bright or flat,
Is lying like a Rescued Nun;
Lord Mayors of London, one by one,
Have portraits in the "Daily Mail";
I only trust Dick Whittington
Because it is a fairy-tale.

I don't believe our sires begat...
I don't believe our race begun...
"Up Guards and at--". But did they at?
"Do the French run?"--And did they run?
I doubt if Waterloo was won:
Yet till the final fires assail
I'll cry "St George for Albion!"
Because it is a fairy-tale.

Ariel at evening on a bat,
Godiva glorious in the sun,
Come nearer than the college rat
To the wild heart of truth unwon;
A truth like Friar Tuck to stun,
A justice like St George in mail,
This thing may really yet be done
Because it is a fairy-tale.

Prince, you have sworn, to bell and gun,
To guard the poor within your pale;
Suppose you did it, just for fun,
Because it is a fairy-tale.

Not Chesterton's strongest ballade, but the Envoy is excellent. The 'Rescued Nun' bit is a crack against the Maria Monk genre of memoirs, at one time popular, about nuns escaping from convents into Protestantism. Dick Whittington is an excellent example for what Chestrton has in mind in the first stanza: Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor of London in the late medieval period, but also became a character in a very famous folktale, in which he begins life as a poor orphan but rises to wealth and power because his cat has an almost preternatural competence in catching rats. The point, of course, is that while Dick Whittington was a real Lord Mayor of London, what really makes him worth keeping 'in your hat' (unlike almost every other Lord Mayor of London) is that he is the Dick Whittington of the children's story -- just as all the history of England won't raise your spirit to do great deeds or even good deeds for her, or fight with the fire of conviction, unless some of that history also becomes a fairy-tale.

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