I’ve just finished reading Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, by Kevin Belmonte. And now, I am trying to figure out how and what to tell you about the book, and about Chesterton himself. Let me point out that I am not a Chesterton scholar. Nor am I capable of thinking as deeply as Chesterton did, and my few simplistic thoughts and comments may not measure up, especially if you are one of those people that easily understand him.
This is not to say that the writings of Gilbert Keith Chesterton can’t be understood. Far from it. But he was such an artist with his words, and had such a love for things like paradox, allegory, and other stylistic devices (those things that I’ve long forgotten, since I was in school), that I have to stop and rethink many things that the brainier people have no trouble with. Chesterton loved to use descriptions that would make you stop and look at the item described (like say, a table or chair) as if you’d never seen it before.
I don’t remember exactly how I was introduced to the subject of G. K. Chesterton. It probably had something to do with Todd. Several summers ago, his love of all things C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton caused my summer staff girls and I to get curious. Before this, I was unaware that Lewis always said that reading Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man was what brought him back to Christianity. Definitely a reason to look Chesterton up, don’t you think? I was very familiar with Lewis, and not just because of the Narnia series. I’m always trying to read through Lewis’s books, but he also makes you think hard, and I regularly get distracted.
So, one day, I went online and found a link to a bunch of Chesterton quotes. I printed off about ten pages of them and took them back to the staff house, where my girls and I all sat to read through them. We would read aloud the ones we liked best, and pass the page on to the next person, when we’d finished. And then we’d start over. Of course, I couldn’t help but love an author that came up with quotes like these!
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” –G.K.C.
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” –G.K.C.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” –G.K.C
So, since I like to know about the authors, when I can, I picked up G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, by Dale Ahlquist. That did whet my appetite for the subject, but I either got distracted by work or thrown off by the endless chapters about Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism. I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t finish it, I’m just telling the truth.
And for many years, I’ve liked the bits and pieces that I’ve read about Chesterton, until I ran across Defiant Joy at the book store. While reading it, I’ve been checking my Kindle to see which books I had of his, and downloading (for free!) all the ones that weren’t in my Chesterton collection. I also have the main biography by Maisie Ward, too.
Again, I’m trying to figure out what to tell you about him. I became completely aware of how inefficiently I use the English language, and how dull our language seems to be, nowadays.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton started out to be an artist, but then he became a writer, and he incorporated his artistic vision into the written word. Defiant Joy is an excellent name for this book, because joy was one thing that characterized him. Apparently, it was a very pessimistic age, but he always purposed to find the joy in life… and, well, enjoy himself! He was a brilliant literary critic who lived out his faith, able to write a critique with flair and acumen, but he didn’t make it a personal attack, and his fellow authors respected and loved him.
Defiant Joy takes you through Chesterton’s life and literary career, book by book, and the chapters are concise and an easy length, so after each one, I wasn’t tired of the subject, but wanted to sit down and read that particular book, immediately. From his book of nonsense verses to the Father Brown detective stories to the critique of Charles Dickens (oh, I really want to read that) and finally, to The Everlasting Man, Kevin Belmonte only increases the reader’s craving to understand and know Chesterton better.
Every page shows you the intellect of this man, but he was also approachable, in person and in the written word. He was tall, hefty, friendly, loved food and drink, loved a good belly laugh, and had no interest in style. But seeing him in the street was not a cause for mockery, in his lifetime, it was a time for a smile of delight at the sheer joy contained in this man of massive body, heart, and mind.
Early in the biography, it told about how G.K.C. met his future wife, Frances.
“If I had anything to do with this girl I should go on my knees to her: if I spoke with her she would never deceive me: if I depended on her she would never deny me; if I loved her she would never play with me: if I trusted her she would never go back on me: if I remember her she would never forget me, I may never see her again. Goodbye. It was all said in a flash: but it was all said.” –G.K.C. (said to himself, upon setting eyes on Frances)
I absolutely love this. What woman wouldn’t want this to be said of her?
In recent years, I find that G. K. Chesterton isn’t as well-known as he should be, but I’m not the only one that’s trying to change that. He and C. S. Lewis should both be read, for their fiction and for everything else they’ve written. These men should not be forgotten.
And I find that I can’t tell you anything else. My words won’t convey the beauty of Chesterton’s words, even when I don’t completely understand him. How could this man write all that he did? He wrote acclaimed works on Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and St. Thomas Aquinas. He penned a play (at the instigation of his friend Bernard Shaw) called Magic, and it did extremely well on both sides of the pond. He wrote The Ballad of the White Horse, and some have suggested it to be one of the best example of narrative verse in that century. Obviously, The Everlasting Man was a huge influence on many later authors, and his detective tales are said to give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money (Father Brown didn’t need a Watson to get by).
I could go on and on about the books that I’m dying to read, and I only hope that I don’t get distracted from doing so. If I mix them in, as I read other works, I’m sure I can manage most of them. And though I probably won’t understand every point Chesterton puts across, I hope that I can still see the beauty and the joy in all that he wrote.
Just as a final thought, I was reading in the Psalms today, and I found a verse that Chesterton’s life and writings exemplified. For didn’t this man find the path to life everlasting, then revel in the joy of life on earth, following in the footsteps of Christ?
“Thou wilt show me the path of life. In thy presence is fullness of joy; at they right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” –Psalms 16:11