About the Past


Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, c.1801

by G.K. Chesterton

New movements in literature are those which copy the last century but one. If they copy the last century, they are old-fashioned; but if it is quite clear that they are much more than a hundred years old, they are entirely fresh and original. It is true that there are certain literary men, claiming to inaugurate literary movements, who try to avoid the difficulty by various methods; as by writing their poetry upside down, or using words that consist entirely of consonants; or publishing a book of entirely blank pages, with a few asterisks in the middle to show that there is a break in the narrative. These or similar scribes are conjectured to be trying to copy the literature of the next century. They may freely be left for that century — to forget. Moreover, parallel perversities, if not exactly the same ones, are also to be found scattered through the centuries of the past. Of such a kind, for instance, were the Renaissance games or sports which consisted of shortening or lengthening the lines of poetry, so as to make the whole poem a particular shape, such as the shape of a heart or a cross or an eagle. Anyhow, if we eliminate a few such eccentric experimentalists, who think they anticipate the intelligence of the future by being unintelligible in the present, the general rule about change and rejuvenation in literature is much as I have stated it. It is essential for the pioneer and prophet, not so much to go forward very far, as to go back far enough. The general rule is to skip a century, as some hereditary features are said to skip a generation. There is something very odd about this system of alternation, black and white like a chessboard. It is as if every man always hated his father and adored his grandfather.

About some epochs of culture, all this is fairly well known and fairly widely admitted. Most people realize, for instance, that the Romantics of the nineteenth century were appealing back to the more purely poetical poets of the seventeenth century, against the almost prosaic poets of the eighteenth. Indeed, Romanticism, though it so often went with Revolutionism, was in its very nature a more general appeal to the past. Perhaps the most genuinely and practically effective popularizer of the new Romanticism was Sir Walter Scott, whose truest title is The Antiquary. But the same is true, of course, of the other Romantics who were not, as Scott was, personally Tory and traditional. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” was taken as the very type of a new and original and even fantastic form in literature. Yet the “Ancient Mariner” has a form, and it happens to be an entirely antiquated form. The Ancient Mariner was a very Ancient Mariner. Even Byron was always looking backward, and he died not for the modern Liberals, but for the ancient Greeks. Had he been a true Progressive, and observed the gradual improvement in all things, by the substitution of higher for lower civilization, he would, of course, have preferred to reverence the more recent phenomenon of the Turks. But, generally speaking, it is true to say that the modern Romantics were not really looking to the sunrise; they were pursuing a most gorgeous and glorious sunset, of which the last trail and after-glow vanished with Crashaw and the Cavalier mystics. The men of the nineteenth century were following the men of the seventeenth century; the last century but one. Anyhow, the last century is the last century men will follow.

What is not so clearly seen is that the same is true of the twentieth century; and the twentieth century also is copying the last century but one. In short, it is copying the eighteenth century, and especially all that was most hated and condemned in the work of the eighteenth century. This is specially true of two outstanding features which many have thought to be a great deal too outstanding. They specially imitate, among the elements of the eighteenth century, its coarseness and its coldness. I do not necessarily use these terms merely as terms of abuse; it is much more important that the new writers themselves will use them as terms of praise. They would describe the coarseness as candour and the coldness as detachment; and in this again the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries would meet. But we get no farther in such a matter by selecting terms of praise or blame for an objective fact of history. A young writer to-day does not admit that he is less educated because he uses the words which old writers learned in the gutter and the greasy tavern. He does not admit that he is less humanistic because his characters behave in as inhuman a manner as the tricky and treacherous and heartless lovers in the old cynical comedies.

These new writers are making a new attempt to find civilization along the old rationalistic road, which is now nearly two hundred years old, rather than along the romantic road, which is only a hundred. Allowing for the inevitable but incidental difference in the details of the day, which have to be discussed, the spirit of the Very Modern Young Man is the spirit of a man in a three-cornered hat and a powdered wig. Much as may be said about disorder in the arts, there is another side to the recent realism of literature. It has its own kind of neatness, just as it has its own kind of nastiness. The same can be said of the detailed drawings of Hogarth. Even its extravagances are more often satires and less often visions. Mr. Aldous Huxley much more clearly suggests a return to Swift than an extension of Yeats. Mr. Yeats will not care about that, partly because he is too great a man to care, and partly because nobody has a finer admiration for Swift than he. But obviously the ruthlessness of Brave New World is more like the ruthlessness of Gulliver’s Travels than it is like the more optimistic ruthlessness of the nineteenth-century visits to Utopia or the Earthly Paradise, in books like News from Nowhere or New Worlds for Old. It is equally obvious, in the debates about sex, that men like Mr. Aldous Huxley, following on men like Mr. Bernard Shaw, have been merely rebelling against that Romance which was itself a rebellion; rebellion against the realism and common sense of the age of rapiers and snuff-boxes. Much that is called immoral in a modern novel might have been called highly moral in an eighteenth-century tract, warning the young of the close connexion between the girls and the gallows. Sentimentalism is a mere catchword; but, anyhow, we do not entirely solve the puzzle we call Progress by looking at the pictures of The Rake’s Progress or The Harlot’s Progress. Those who despise sentimentalism now have rather a tendency to talk as if nobody had ever despised sentimentalism before. And so the rather feverish youthful genius in Chelsea or Bloomsbury feels that he alone has flung off all the fetters of all the ages when he braces himself with a bold effort to say something daring and destructive and then says exactly what Dr. Johnson would have said.

Nobody supposes such parallels are complete. Nobody supposes that such comparisons are concerned with mere copies. It does not follow that the new writer has not something in him that is really new; or, what is much more important, something that is really his own. The point is that such inspiration as he does invoke does not come from the newer things, but rather from the older things. The poets of the Sitwell family, for instance, have been both chaffed and flattered for introducing newer things; but, in fact, they are particularly fond of the older things. Their taste in gimcracks is exactly the eighteenth-century taste; when one of them gives Apollo a “golden peruke,” we see a hundred embroidered pictures or painted tiles in old mansions and museums; and Miss Edith Sitwell has written what would be the best, if it were not the only, sustained eulogy on Pope.

Piece first published in As I Was Saying, by G.K. Chesterton, 1936

About the Author:

G.K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) was an English writer.