Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fairyland amid the Factories

I’ve recently taken to reading my son poems each night. Among our recent reads were Chesterton’s “Song of the Children” and the poem below, “Modern Elfland.” I found it particularly interesting because Chesterton is often assumed – among other things, because of his advocacy of distributism – to have been an agrarian romantic.  And maybe he was.  But this poem suggests that, in city or countryside, among fields or factories, the spark of life exists and can be found anywhere. For those inspired by the Chestertonian vision, seeking out the “heart of fairyland” in the midst of modern life may be a more fruitful path than trying to rebuild a lost agrarian world which, for most of us, is probably out of reach.

Modern Elfland
By G. K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

From The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927) via the Poetry Foundation.  Picture from the Chesterton Debate Series.

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