And in all the forms of art which peculiarly belong to civilisation, [Alexander Pope] was supreme. In one especially he was supreme—the great and civilised art of satire. And in this we have fallen away utterly.
So Chesterton wrote in one of the finest essays from one of his best collections of essays: Varied Types—or, as it was known in England, Twelve Types. Varied Types represented a new direction for Chesterton. Where The Defendant had been a whimsical, often irreverent romp, the essays in Varied Types recalled the criticism he had brought to bear in writing reviews like “Velasquez and Poussin.” He scrutinized with an artist’s eye and a mind steeped in literature and literary understanding. It is one of Chesterton’s best books, and one that rewards rereading.
Chapter 7 of Defiant Joy, examines G.K. Chesterton’s book of essays entitled Varied Types which was reviewed with high praise by The New York Times. The essays included discussions on, as the Times said: “Charlotte Brontë, William Morris, Byron’s optimism, Pope’s satire, and Stevenson’s literary merit—not to mention Tolstoi’s and Savonarola’s religious and literary attributes.” It was classical Chesterton. The work was both scholarly and approachable with a generous dusting of wit throughout. His insight exceeded his youth as demonstrated in the following excerpt regarding the Brownings:
As one might expect, Robert Browning was discussed in Chesterton’s essay, and when he was, Chesterton paid husband and wife a tribute that reveals his indebtedness to them both. They had helped him understand the generosity of people at their best, and the limitations of human nature.
“Mrs. Browning and her husband,” he wrote,
were more liberal than most Liberals. Theirs was the hospitality of the intellect and the hospitality of the heart, which is the best definition of the term. They never fell into the habit of the idle revolutionists of supposing that the past was bad because the future was good, which amounted to asserting that because humanity had never made anything but mistakes it was now quite certain to be right.
Here was the kind of wisdom that writers discover, if they find it at all, only after a lifetime of experience and reflection. The man who penned these words was in his late twenties. Chesterton possessed a wisdom, and a gift, as singular as it was rare.
Why is it remarkable to encounter humility in the work of young writers?
D I G D E E P E R
Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Sources & Resources
“Mr. Chesterton’s Essays,” New York Times, in the Saturday Review of Books, 7 March 1903, BR15.
Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).