Saturday 25 June 2016

The Secret People by GK Chesterton

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

Perhaps GK Chesterton's hour has come? 
If you have a Kindle e-book - why not treat yourself to the Delphi Complete Works - which costs almost nothing; or start collecting the paper editions secondhand. 
But where to start? Chesterton was a poet, novelist, playwright, extended non-fiction writer - but probably excelled at the short essay, above all. My personal favourites (and I have not read everything, by a long chalk):
Among novels: The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Among poems: The Ballad of the White Horse
Among Non-Fiction (and these are his best genre, for me): Heretics, Orthodoxy - and the early essay collections such as All Things Considered, and What's Wrong with the World.  
The Autobiography


David Stanley said...

Bruce, you must have been conditioning my mind over the years as I was reading this yesterday and quoting to various angry friends.
I managed to hold back the urge to post Kipling's Saxon poem.

Sean Cory said...

I discovered Chesterton about 10 years ago. Most of his works are available online and cost nothing. He is one of the greatest writers, thinkers and social critics of the last two centuries. That C.S. Lewis cites Chesterton as one of the primary influences that led him to Christianity is evidence of his worth. I believe Chesterton's work has seen a bit of a revival in recent years but not nearly as wide-spread as it should be. He was an ardent Catholic but his writings hold much wisdom and truth for all Christians.

pyrrhus said...

A masterful poem, somewhat after Kipling I think...Thanks!

Nancy said...

Wow, prophetic! I had never before seen this poem by GKC.

Ingemar said...

What about The Everlasting Man?

David Balfour said...

I have previously enjoyed reading "The man who was Thursday" and then picked up Chestertons complete works very cheaply on my Google Nexus. You tube as always is also an endless source of delightful media. I found this tonight from Catholic TV network and they have some very entertaining dramatisations of Chestertons work and biography:

Anonymous said...

"My personal favourites"...: yes! But I'd add, The Ball and the Cross among novels and A Short History of England (for a fascinating read, in any case, to weigh and debate within your own mind). I've also been enjoying various shorter, e.g., Great War propaganda-ish pieces, I'd never even heard of, thanks to audiobook versions free online (with, of course, varying quality and nationality of volunteer readers, but I'd say, always worth a try: or just click to their source-texts online). A fun approach is to try works mentioned as read by various Inklings...!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

Interestingly, although Chestrton was almost certainly the most effective Roman Catholic apologist writing in English since the Reformation, in my opinion his best work in this line was written when he was still officially a practising Anglican and before he actually croosed the Tiber and became a Roman Catholic.

Afterwards, there is always (to my mind) a sense of him writing inside a constraint, and therefore with an element of predictability (you know exactly where he is going, so there is not much excitement about the journay) - therefore I don't enjoy his post-conversion work as much.

Of course this may simply have been a waning of powers/ freshness with age - which is common enough.

(But those who like best GKC's later work will deny the premise.)

Alex said...

The Old Song:

Gabe Ruth said...

Regarding those old WW1 pieces, this thread is worth a look, especially the comments:

"All of which goes to show how very different and ultimately opposed are orthodoxy and conservatism." - an important thing for exiles to remember.

Also, though it belongs in the same category, "The Crimes of England" is great fun.

Anthony Milton said...

One should read this poem together with that other great poem which Chesterton wrote, 'O God of Earth and Altar, Bow Down and Hear Our Prayer'. This, of course, has become a hymn, when sung to that glorious tune 'Kings Lynn' arranged by Vaughan Williams.