Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Essaying and the Strain of
Incarnational Thinking
G. K. Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk”

“Your business is not to catch men with show,

With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—”
… … … … … … … … … ….
Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can’t stop there, must go further
And can’t fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
When what you put for yellow’s simply black,
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks naught.
Why can’t a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order?

―Robert Browning, “Fra Lippo Lippi”

G. K. CHESTERTON’S “A PIECE OF CHALK” is a strikingly beautiful essay, elegantly written and full of noble sentiments. Sentences and sententiae alike charm and beguile even jaded undergraduates. Who but can marvel at such craftsmanship as these words incarnate: “But though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of me”; “They [‘the old poets who lived before Wordsworth’] preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more”; “The inspiration went in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo” (250).

I said that this essay beguiles, and that is apparent from the opening sentence, pleasantly in face of the essay’s brevity (barely three pages in The

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