17. A Piece of Chalk

Introduction

[The first part of this introduction is repeated from that which was provided with “The True Romance,” an earlier reading.  I repeat it here for the benefit of those who may choose to read these things out of order, or who (for whatever reason) skipped the first one.]

The English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) constitutes one of those odd cases in which an author can be astoundingly prolific and popular during his own life and then completely neglected afterward.  He was a novelist, journalist, poet, playwright, religious apologist, art critic, historian, political theorist, world-traveler and cartoonist, moving in circles populated by the likes of H.G. Wells, J.M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw (authors whose popularity has endured somewhat more steadily, over the years).  He was beloved even by his ideological enemies (like Shaw, his best friend), and his death in 1936 was viewed as an international tragedy.  Pope Pius XI even sent a telegram of condolence addressed to the English people.  Nowadays you’d be lucky to find one person in a thousand who’s even heard of him, much less read him.

To give you some idea of just how prolific he was, consider this: he has something like a hundred books to his credit, and contributed to another hundred more.  He wrote roughly four thousand essays4000 – over the course of his employment with dozens of newspapers, magazines and journals, many of them simultaneously.  His collected poetry fills three 600-page volumes (two published, one still to come), and his Collected Works in their entirety currently occupy thirty-seven volumes, with another fifteen or so projected.

This essay – “A Piece of Chalk” – exhibits much of the style and subject matter for which he became famous.  His favoured mode of expressing ideas was through the use of paradox – what he described as truth standing on her head to attract our attention – and in “A Piece of Chalk” we can find that very much in play.  The tensions between being in nature and expressing the idea of it; of colour and the absence of colour; of landscape and object.  He does it all with his characteristic brevity and humour, and the result is a piece that’s accessible to everyone even if they don’t happen to be sitting in the English countryside.

Chesterton, along with the likes of Hilaire Belloc, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf and others, is one of the elements of what could be called a “Golden Age” of English essay-writing.  The heyday of the essay runs across centuries, to be sure, but it arguably found its most enduring form in the short, popular, basically friendly productions of early twentieth-century England.  It has much in common with the short story (or what we might more accurately call short creative non-fiction), and we can see its legacy in some of the newspaper columns – and even blog posts – of today.

This essay originally appeared as a column in the Daily News of Nov. 4, 1905; it was later reprinted in Tremendous Trifles (1909), one of his many essay collections.

A Piece of Chalk – By G.K. Chesterton (1905)

I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-colored chalks in my pocket. I then went into the kitchen (which along with the rest of the house, belonged to a very square and sensible woman in a Sussex village), and asked the owner and occupant of the kitchen if she had any brown paper. She had a great deal; in fact she had too much; and she mistook the purpose and the rationale of the existence of brown paper. She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper he must be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do; indeed it is a thing which I have found to be beyond my mental capacity. Hence she dwelt very much on the varying qualities of toughness and endurance in the material. I explained to her that I only wanted to draw pictures on it, and that I did not want them to endure in the least; and that from my point of view, therefore, it was a question, not of tough consistency, but of responsive surface, a thing comparatively irrelevant in a parcel. When she understood that I wanted to draw she offered to overwhelm me with note-paper, apparently supposing that I did my notes and correspondence on old brown paper wrappers from motives of economy.

I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only like brown paper, but I liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-colored chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it was too long and the age of great epics is past.

With my stick, my knife, my chalks, and my brown paper, I went out on to the great downs. I crawled across those colossal contours that express the best quality of England, because they are at the same time soft and strong. The smoothness of them has the same meaning as the smoothness of great cart-horses, or the smoothness of the beech-tree; it declares in the teeth of our timid and cruel theories that the mighty are merciful. As my eye swept the landscape, the landscape was as kindly as any of its cottages, but for power it was like an earthquake. The villages in the immense valley were safe, one could see, for centuries: yet the lifting of the whole land was like the lifting of one enormous wave to wash them all away.

I crossed one swell of living turf after another, looking for a place to sit down and draw. Do not, for heaven’s sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colors on brown drawing paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature; also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching by in a field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all beasts. 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. And this, I think, is the mistake that people make about the old poets who lived before Wordsworth, and were supposed not to care very much about Nature because they did not describe it much.

They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write about it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they drank it in, perhaps, much more. They painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow, at which they had stared all day. They blazoned the shields of their paladins with the purple and gold of many heraldic sunsets. The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten skies became the blue robes of the Virgin [1]. The inspiration went in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo [2].

But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all of my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here on a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a color. It is not a mere absence of color; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a color. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc [3]. In a word, God paints in many colors; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realized this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colorless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funeral of this pessimistic period. We should see city gentlemen in frock coats of spotless silver linen, with top hats as white as wonderful arum lilies. Which is not the case.

Meanwhile, I could not find my chalk.

I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. There was no town nearer than Chichester at which it was even remotely probable that there would be such a thing as an artist’s colorman. And yet, without white, my absurd little pictures would have been as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it. I stared stupidly round, racking my brain for expedients. Then I suddenly stood and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hourglass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for some chemical experiment. I was sitting in an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on; it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do; but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realizing that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilization; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.

Footnotes

[1] – The Blessed Virgin Mary of Christian (primarily Catholic) iconography.  Traditionally depicted wearing blue robes.

[2] – Apollo, ancient Greek and Roman god of the sun, medicine, hunting, truth, music, and much else besides.

[3] – Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431), French peasant girl who lead the French army to a series of astounding victories against the English and the Burgundinians during the Hundred Years’ War.

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