"With Considerable Art" Chesterton on Blake, Browning, and Shaw

By Blackstock, Alan | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

"With Considerable Art" Chesterton on Blake, Browning, and Shaw


Blackstock, Alan, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


ALTHOUGH G. K. Chesterton wrote literary biographies throughout his career (his first was Robert Browning in 1903 and his last Chaucer in 1932), three volumes in particular--Robert Browning (1903), George Bernard Shaw (1909), and William Blake (1910)--not only display Chesterton's critical creativity at its peak, but also illustrate most clearly his critical practice of treating his subject as an occasion to explore what he saw as far more important questions than those which tended to obsess conventional Victorian biographical criticism: questions of historical circumstances, influences, schools, and stylistics. In his account of the "very flattering" invitation he received from John Morley to write the Browning volume for the English Men of Letters series (an invitation that placed him in the company of such established critics and authors as Sir Edmund Gosse, Sir Leslie Stephen, Henry James, and Anthony Trollope), Chesterton utters this disclaimer:

I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book about love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art.... There were very few facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong. (Autobiography 101)

Chesterton is here indulging in his characteristic exaggeration of his own unfitness as a literary critic, but his description of his aim and method is true not only of Robert Browning but of all his literary biographies. Despite this disclaimer, however, in those works to be examined here, Chesterton does indulge the reader with some discussion of the historical circumstances, influences, and stylistic characteristics of Browning, Blake, and Shaw; nevertheless his larger purpose is always to employ the opportunities these artists afford him to explore the larger and loftier concerns of love, liberty, God, and the hope of the world, and in the process to defend these verities against the mood of pessimism and decadence he sees as threatening to erode them in the eyes of his contemporaries. Sylvere Monod compared Chesterton's obsession with the French Revolution to Mr. Dick's obsession with King Charles's head (484), but in these biographies the king's head becomes a Gorgon's, whose multiple faces include Puritans, mystics, and Irishmen, Gnostics and agnostics, aesthetes and decadents, and, as always, democracy and orthodoxy as the means of salvation.

Chesterton's approach to biography also might be called metabiography, inasmuch as these biographies concern the nature, art, and purpose of biography as much as they do their purported subjects. All three commence with a challenge to the conventional biographical structure that begins with the birth of its subject, an approach Chesterton finds needlessly limiting and contrary to what he sees as the eternal nature of art and artists and the purpose of biography itself. All three begin by calling attention to the limitations imposed by conventional biographical form--"so-and-so was born in 17 to--and--in the town of S "--and a caveat alerting the reader that what Chesterton purposes to engage in will be something quite different. Chesterton opens William Blake--which Garry Wills has called "probably Chesterton's best piece of criticism" (89)--with the pronouncement, "William Blake would have been the first to understand that the biography of anybody ought really to begin with the words, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and earth'" (1). "Blake's life of Blake," Chesterton reminds us, would have begun not with his birth in 1757 but with "the giant Albion.... the golden pillars that covered the earth at its beginning and the lions that walked about in their golden innocence before God ... All the biggest events of Blake's life would have happened before he was born." However, says Chesterton in a nod to the expectations of conventional readers, "I will resist the temptation [to begin at creation] and begin with the facts. …

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