The Rolling English Road
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton is one of a number of writers from the beginning of the 20th century who were literary giants in their day, but whose reputation has faded with time. We might recall the names of writers from this period like Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but there are many others whose names we struggle to remember and, if we do, recall anything they may have written. GK Chesterton is in the ranks of these mostly forgotten contemporary writers (and friends) such as Hilaire Belloc, Max Beerbohm, Jules Verne, Henry Rider Haggard, John Buchan and Baroness Emma Orczy: literary renown is a transient phenomenon.
GK Chesterton wrote over 80 novels and biographies, several hundred poems, over 200 short stories, 4,000 newspaper articles and essays, a dozen or so plays, and about 150 radio talks; he wasn’t just a literary giant either as he was also 6 foot 4 inches tall (1.93m) and weighed over well over 20 stone (130 kg) too. Despite this broad range of writing, he mainly thought of himself as a journalist.
Like most of his writing, his poetry was very accessible, and The Rolling English Road demonstrates this with its wit, regular rhythm, rhymes and alliteration. There’s the subliminal declaration of his values that appreciates the wandering journey rather than the controlled planning of both the Romans and Napoleon, and it was written as a joyous celebration of insobriety at a time when a temperance movement was threatening to impose restrictions on the drinking of alcohol; indeed, its original title was A Song of Temperance Reform. (His efforts were only partially successful as the temperance movement succeeded to the extent that the Licencing Laws were first introduced a few years later during the First World War.) The poem is also forgiving of the exuberance of youth in which one is most likely to over-indulge, and casts a doleful eye on our destiny as we age and, via the decent inn of death, head for Paradise by way of Kensal Green – ie the big London cemetery that is one of the so-called “magnificent seven” cemeteries built in the 19th century to replace the profusion of smaller, overcrowded parish cemeteries. (The other six are at West Brompton, Highgate, Abney Park, Tower Hamlets, West Norwood and Nunhead.)
Chesterton wrote seriously on the social and economic issues of the day and very much enjoyed a good humoured argument in which he would use wit and absurdity to promote his views. Like others of that period in the late 19th century he progressed from being an Anglican towards embracing Roman Catholicism. His original ambition was to be an artist and he attended the Slade School of Art in London. In many respects his views were liberal in that he was vehemently opposed to British imperial ventures, to eugenics, and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. He contributed to the development of the principle of distributism, a forerunner of “small is beautiful” economics, in which production would be in the hands of small businesses, the self-employed and workers’ cooperatives, and the principles of subsidiarity would ensure that each aspect of society was organised into the smallest viable units.
My earliest knowledge of Chesterton was limited to the Father Brown stories and a few poems, but I was fortunate to visit the Chesterton museum at Westminster College in Oxford: it was a room set out as an imagined study of hsi, with a selection of his possessions to provide a degree of authenticity – a hat, his pince-nez, typewriter, desk and chair, books and notebooks, etc. It is in the process of being re-installed in a central London location but that move has been disrupted by Covid-19 of course, and I’ll welcome the opportunity to re acquaint myself with it when it reopens.