Poetry Survey Series Post Five: The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton

The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton : The Poetry Foundation.

Dear Readers, I’ll let you read this one over at the Poetry Foundation website, because it’s a good opportunity to introduce yourselves to probably the most complete and interesting poetry website out there (if you havn’t already.)

This is another short lyrical poem from among my youthful favorites. It appeals to the earthier, more emotional side of piety in that very Roman Catholic manner.

I’ve been mainly starting with these simpler poems because I want to emphasize that erudition needs a foundation in simplicity. The more easily reached pleasures move us to reach for those a little farther out on the branch. When I get tired or I start to feel unusure about what good poetry really is, I go back to where it all started.

After this I have one or two more short simple poems that I want to share, and then we may begin to go a little deeper. Thanks to those of you who are sticking with me.

13 thoughts on “Poetry Survey Series Post Five: The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton

  1. If you’ve read the poem, what do you think of the diction? The poetry of Chesterton provides a good opportunity to discuss the question of poetic diction because almost his whole effect, both in prose and poetry, depends on the precise choice, order, and combination of words that he uses – in other words, on his diction.

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  2. G. K. was clever guy. Sometimes too clever, I think. In this poem, for example, he drops hints about the meaning in the first stanza with the words”thorn” and “blood.” There might also be general references to Christianity in the first line (fish), and the last (“I was born”)

    The second stanza presents evil, almost satanic references, and the third stanza brings one and two togethrt: evil in the first half and the welcomed, (chosen,?) fate of Jesus in the last half. All the key words work this way.

    By the time we get to the final stanza, although we are not prepared for the change is the speaker-donkey’s tone (“Fools! “) – – we may actually have forgotten that it is a donkey speaking, I did – – the message becomes clearer in the succession of five heavily stressed single syllable words, so that the easy rhythm, and positive images, ” shout” and “palms,” emphasize the larger message of Christianity; namely, that the least recognized, least “valuable” things/people (the donkey seems like a person through his expressions) may actually be closer to Christ and carry Him/His message to the great city that is the world.

    The reason I said “too clever” is that the poem works like a kind of code. It’s fun to work it out, but does not encourage rereading and pondering.

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    • Albert, I think that’s a good start, and you’ve gone partway into the poem. And I admit, if all you see in the earlier part of the poem are references to evil, then the about-face at the end will seem pretty extreme. It’ll feel like the poet jumped out at you and said “boo!” and of course that’s pretty childish! Too clever, by far.

      But, I don’t think the poem has to be read that way. Granted the word “devil” is pretty strong and it may be hard to imagine that as referring to anything other than evil. However, if you remember the “Old Nick” tradition in English folk-literature, and similar traditions in other nations, you will be able to coneive of the devil, as an imaginative element, being rather grotesque, tricky, incorrigible, and subversive than simply “evil.” My guess is that “Old Nick” was a transitional imaginative form from the Norse Loki, the Trickster.

      How do we know that Chesterton is using the devil in this way? Well, I would say first of all the over-all flow of thought. But since that’s the way I read, and not the way you read, I think I can turn it around and take it word by word and add it all up at the end. First of all, the devil is said to have made the donkey a “parody of all four-footed things.” Parody is a type of humor, so I think that’s a really good clue.

      But to go back to the beginning of the poem, I think you have to picture in your mind’s eye the flying fish, the walking forests (this is before Tolkein, remember, so don’t include any Entish gravity or grace) and the thorn-producing figs. This is not a world that ever existed. It’s improbable, grotesque, and weird.

      So the donkey says, “I must have been born in a world like that.” In other words, Chesterton is telling us that donkeys are improbably, grotesque, and weird. The second verse confirms this interpretation with more direct speech. His head is monstrous: this probably doesn’t mean big, but “like a monster” and of course in classical literature a monster is any beast that is put together from parts of other beasts. How is a donkey’s head like a monster? Well, it has ears that look like wings! Hah hah. Errant wings in fact – wings that have erred, have gone astray from some proper place like a bird’s body and ended up on the head of this animal that would otherwise look rather like a horse! And don’t forget that sickening cry. The donkey is not just lowly: as Chesterton’s imagination would have it, the donkey is downright freakish! He lacks all music, all grace, all elegance, all sweetness, all grandeur – anything that would make us think, “Golly, this would make a good religious symbol!”

      Not only that, but he makes a very poor poster-child for innocence and obedience. Even the lowly and the ugly could win regard for these qualities! The donkey, however, is known everywhere he is employed as the most obstinate and stubborn servant of man among the beasts!

      Now it’s true that “Fools!” could be startling if you have allowed yourself to forget that the donkey is speaking. But may I suggest, with all respect, that remembering that fact is the reader’s responsibility? On the other hand, if you have remembered this fact, and if you have followed the description of the donkey from “freakish” to “stubborn ass” then the brayed “Fools!” could hardly be surprising. Why not? Man has starved, scourged, and derided him – his own self-derision is a mockery of man’s estimate of him.

      The intensity of the poet’s feelings is apparent here. The tattered outlaw which everyone else curses and flogs was instantly tamed by the Savior’s hand. We are meant to be surprised. I am surprised, and moved, everytime I read it. I am sometimes a donkey. I often feel that people who judge me are fools – not beacause I am not monstrous or freakish, but because for all they know I, too, have had my “far fierce hour and sweet.” The Savior is no respector of persons.

      And you are right about those syllables. The meter does not stress them all, but they are all emphasized by the fact that each one is a long syllable. Each one must be pronounced in the way that people pronounce words of passion.

      I think you are right that some of the words early on hint at the ending.

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  3. See? See what a good practicing literay critic can do? You have opened up parts of the poem that I had not adequately accounted for, and you reminded me of the importance of understanding individual words in their context. (though in my defense, I somehow felt justified in rereading backwards, so that once I got to “palms” and realized what was going on, it seemed OK to use that to create a context for the rest of the poem. I admit that reading that way is taking liberties and stretching criticism a bit much.)

    But here’s a question: do you think the poet is saying that the donkey is really a “tattered outlaw” who needed to be “tamed” by Jesus? I can see that the concept of donkey-in-us fits that interpretation, but that depends on our agreeing, as readers, that the popular stereotype of a donkey as an ugly, stubborn object of scorn is actually true, whereas my understanding is that people in the Middle East at that time recognized how strong and valuable and suitable to their environment a donkey was. In fact, it is we who have created the stereotype. So again, is Chesterton working with that stereotype (as I think you are suggesting), or is he using it against us, against superficial popular values, to show (as I stated in my interpretation) that things are not what they appear and that God works in all sorts of surprising ways?

    Another related question: why would the donkey bray “Fools!” if he is the donkey-in-us who needs to be “tamed”? Shouldn’t he be calling himself that, much like some of us feel we should do when we say that that we” are the worst of sinners”? (Lord have mercy. . .) is this a kind of inappropriate arrogance on his part, and therefore a weakness in the poem?

    I must admit that I am liking the poem more and more. I even found myself saying some of the lines as I was working in the yard this afternoon. I almost have the whole thing memorized, which is probably the best way to really “read” any poem of merit.

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    • Albert, I think it’s fine to re-read backwards. I think it’s fine to read in any order, any number of times, during the critical reading. At some point, however, the goal is to be able to see the poem whole, not in its parts. At that moment, you hope the meaning leaps intuitively into your mind, and you partake of the energy, the flavor, the spirit, that the poet has left there for you.

      Now me, I tend to read intuitively first ( I get a sketch of the whole picture) and then I have to go back and pick up the little bits that I missed, and fill out my specific understanding of what has been said. I gather you read a little differently – you start with the individual bits, and add them up to the whole thing. And I think that is just fine. These are legitimate differences between people. It sounds like people are always telling you to read in context. But I think it would be better if you read the way you are built to read – isn’t that better for all of us? Presumably, you should be able to end up with the whole poem, the full context, if you read carefully enough in the word-by-word manner. But if you force yourself to try to read intuitively, I would think that would end in a muddle where you are simply skimming, and missing things.

      But all that is just my guess from what you’ve said.

      Anyway, my challenge, when I am defending my reading of the poem to you, is to start where you start. And that’s a challenge I relish. But not one I have been completely successful with, I guess.

      Now, I am preparing a comment that addresses everything you’ve said here, but do you mind if I suggest some reading, first? I think it will lay the foundation for what I want to say. I want to make sure that you and I share the requisite background material to have this discussion.

      If you are interested, then please go here first:

      http://www.ciudadseva.com/sevacity/stories/en/chesterton/cockneys_and_their_jokes.htm

      The point of this reading is to make sure you are familiar with something about Chesterton and the way he thought. You should read “democracy” not as a political system, but as meaning “ordinary working-class people” because this is what it means in Chesterton’s broad-stroke way of talking. However, I think you can safely skip the first two paragraphs. It is his words about “vulgar jokes” that are most telling.

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      • I made it through Chesterton’ article, trying hard to resist arguing with him as I went. His turning things upside down sometimes gets in the way (for me) of his insights. Also, I am troubled by a haughty, know-it-all stance that (I think) resides down deep in his world view. I know that you respect his work, and I want to–so I am withholding judgment while I reflect again on his ideas about humor. And about his main idea here,

        which I take to be that unenlightened (I. E. Not educated at Oxford and therefore not skeptical of traditions, thus enabling them to be in touch with deeper truths than are “revealed” to the rational mind) persons, the ordinary citizens, have something important in their spontaneous expressions that are worth attending to.

        I agree with that idea, even though I disagree that making fun of foreigners can be the result of a deeper theological intuition.

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        • I don’t think most of that matters to our purpose. We are simply trying to determine what, exactly, Chesterton has done with the “stereotype” of the donkey.

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          • I just thought of a word in the first stanza that could effectively eliminate the fanciful element from the poem, and thus make way for another interpretation, one that probably comes closer to yours than mine. What if the word “surely” were understood as a kind of signal that the three-word declarative sentence which ends the stanza is really meant to be a subjunctive, as in “SURELY I must have been born at an abnormal time, considering what I look and act like” (as described in the second stanza).

            And if it is not an imaginary donkey, it’s exaggerated depiction in the second stanza suggests that this is not an actual donkey either, but one that the poet is using to speak about us human creatures (after all, the donkey does talk), who, because of sin, are ugly spiritually. We understand our spiritual deformity (“tattered outlaw” – “crooked will”) but we are also made fun of because of our faith. However, it is really they, the skeptics who reject Christ, who are the “Fools!” We have the secret to true beauty and importance: we carry Christ before the world and (my added image) within us. .

            * * *

            Oh my, I fear I may be trying too hard. But I do think that word “surely” has some significance. It calls attention to itself because of the abrupt change in sound – two stressed syllables together at the beginning of a line which is preceded by three lines of almost perfectly regular da-DUM rhythm.

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            • I think that works very well. The “surely” is tongue-in-cheek for sure. 😉 Grammatically, it functions just as you have said – there’s no other possibility.

              I think you’ve pretty much got it now; when you see Chesterton standing behind the poem, roaring with laughter, your picture will be complete.

              Also, from your comments here, it seems as if you are constrained between an imaginary donkey and an actual donkey.

              But imaginary is not the same thing as imaginative. ‘Imaginary’ means something that isn’t real, like an imaginary friend or an imaginary number.

              But ‘imaginative’ means the product of the human faculty of imagination.

              And imagination is not the ability to make things up, but rather the ability to form images around ideas. Chesterton has abstracted the donkey as an imaginative element. That is, he pictures the donkey as the donkey exists in the literate, imaginative mind – and used the image he finds there for his own poetic purposes.

              As comparison:

              http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176031

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            • To clarify, I don’t believe that what you have called the “donkey-in-us” is actually in the poem. That was just my explanation of why I liked it.

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  4. And another thing: if the donkey is is “improbable,” , a creature of the imagination, half humorous, half weird, almost a kind of myth, what does that say about Jesus? Does he exist more in a fanciful world of ours, according to the poem (and therefore the poet)?

    I didn’t want to ask that question, because I know how GKC would answer. And you too. So I am wondering if the contrast between imagination and truth is intended by the poet, or is it a weakness in the poem?

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