On the Soul, and Poetry with GK Chesterton

My husband recently read me this lovely piece from The Soul of Wit, a compilation on the subject of Shakespeare, taken from GK Chesterton’s works. It was so lovely, I thought I would share.

“But in a much deeper sense, Shakespeare was classical, because he was civilized. Voltaire criticized him as a barbarian. But he was not a barbarian. The Germans have even admired him as a German; but by some strange accident of birth, he was not even a German. The point here, however, is that the classical spirit is no matter of names or allusion. I will take only one example to show what I mean by saying that Shakespeare was every bit as classical as Milton. Just before Othello kills his wife, he utters those words:

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

I can again thy former light restore,

Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,

Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat

That can thy light relume.

Let me explain why I find it convenient to my argument to take this phrase as a type of the classical. Every classical phrase means much more than it says; in contrast with the too vivid and violent modern phrase, which says much more than it means. Whether it be romanticism in the ninteenth century, or realism in the twentieth century, its weakness is that it says so much more than it means. The phrase of Shakespeare, like the phrase of Virgil, is always much greater than its occasion. The cry of Othello goes far beyond the death of Desdemona; it goes far beyond death itself; it is a cry for life and the secret life. Where is the beginning of that bewildering splendour by which we are; why can we not make life as we can make death? It may be worth remarking in passing that even chemists who once claimed to manufacture everything, who could make synthetic leather or linen, have finally agreed that they cannot make synthetic life. They tell us that peculiar conditions must have existed once somewhere; though their laboratories should surely be capable of creating any conditions that could exist anywhere. But the point for the present is that this profound resonance, striking such echoes out of such hollows and abysses, could not be thus achieved without a very deep understanding of classical diction. It could not be done without the word “Promethean”‘ without the legend of Prometheus; with those rolling polysyllables that are the power of Homer and Virgil. In one practical and prosaic sense, of course, a man might say what Othello says. He might say, “If I kill this woman, how the devil am I to bring her to life again”; but hardly with majesty; hardly with mystery; not precisely with all those meanings and echoes of meaning which belong to a great line of verse. But we need hardly condescend to deal with the realistic critic; the serious gentleman who points out the unquestionable fact that a man just about to smother his wife with a pillow does not talk about Prometheus or speculate on the spiritual origin of life. It is enough to tell him, to his bewilderment, that the soul never speaks until it speaks in poetry; and that in our daily conversation we do not speak; we only talk.”

Discovering the Inner Life Poetry Uncategorized

Watergirl View All →

Just a little flower, turning her face to find the sun. I don’t always feel his rays on me, but when I do, the warmth and the feeling is simply wonderful, and I never want to be in the shadows again. Isn’t he lovely?

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