Chesterton Lectures on Legend & Literature (Audio & Transcript)

Ladies and gentleman, you will be very naturally puzzled, by my occupying any space, let alone so much space in this somewhat crowded but very distinguished assembly. And you will naturally ask why any words of mine need be added to the distinguished and beautiful words of that great veteran genius of literature whom we have the honor of having with us today.

Especially as I have no kind of claim to deal with the things which he has dealt. I do not know the dominions as he knows them. I have traveled here and there in the miserable character of giving lectures, but not other ways. And I have no special reason for claiming to express a hospitality toward Canadians which would be expressed by every person on the street outside, as enthusiastically as by me.

Let me say then quite briefly that my reason for accepting this invitation and for being here today, is quite simply a desire to return hospitality. I remember that I was received by this great Canadian literary society when I first appeared in the great American city where I first lectured with a hospitality for which I shall never be able to give sufficient thanks. And I think we shall all agree that whatever controversies or arguments rage about the character of what used to be called colonial life, at least the ancient human traditional virtue of hospitality is there flamboyant and magnificent in a degree almost unknown in our more fatigued society.

All I know was that the Canadian literary society rushed out as it were – full of hostility – wanting to welcome anybody from England, any stray traveler. In the confusion of the moment I was mistaken for a literary man and was dragged in to partake of that glorious camaraderie.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought of trying to explain that I was a lecturer, but that wouldn’t do because some of them had been to my lecture. Then I thought, could I say I was a journalist, but I was quite sure that would not go down. God forbid that I should commit so ghastly an error as doing what I well know to do the one unpardonable sin, of confusing for a single moment the two great commonwealths that occupy the northern continent of America.

I think it is true to say that the ideal of a press man, that the strenuous virtue required of a journalist, is somewhat similar in Canada and the United States. A press man means a very different person from me.

One glance at me would show that I had never crashed through a skylight in order to interview a celebrity. That I had not slid through a door that was almost shut in my face by somebody who wanted to keep me out of his bedroom. That I had never performed any of those things which are the glory of journalism in the great world beyond the sea.

Therefore I was – as I say – in despair, and I had to pretend to be a literary man for the rest of that occasion, and I grieve that it is necessary to continue that pretense even for this brief luncheon hour. And one of the first necessities of the pretense of course is to talk about things you do not understand – one of which is Canada, so far as I am concerned.

But may I say this. In addition to having experienced what nobody, not a dog or cat and hardly a vegetable, could fail to appreciate, the magnificent cordiality and courtesy of the Canadians considered as hosts.

I had also seen brief as was my visit, and that is Canada. I have been twice in Canada. Once about twelve years ago when I lept across the border from america – it was in the earlier days of prohibition. it gives me a peculiar sense of gratification – that though I, who have said almost as much in abuse of the British empire or British government as Mr Kipling has said in praise of them – I am glad to say enough of Englishman that it gives me a glow of pride to twice in the same hundred years men have escaped from the American republic to Canada to find freedom.

I was not exactly like the poor black people who ran out, swam across the river, or whatever they did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; many could point out differences between us. But the principle was still the same, and it is certainty true that in both cases, there had been maintained – under the English flag – the tradition of freedom.

There is another thing, however, that I should like to say that concerns my second visit. The first time as I say I merely escaped, like an ordinary fugitive slave or runaway nigger, across the border. And I didnt’ know very much about canada, because you don’t know much about canada if you merely go into at that end.

Every nation has a back door and a front door, and with Canada the front door is the back door. The last time I went I sailed up the Saint Lawrence, that most magnificent and glorious of all entries to any civilization or any domain – a thing that truly opens a new world. And then I knew the Canadians had the foundations of all literature and culture in them, because they had truly and indeed a country.

I’m not going to describe that country, that’s your business, you are Canadian literary men. But you saw at once that there was that kind of vast natural background which is necessary to the growth of literary creation. And the other thing that I think is needed for all literature, and is perhaps the key to the difficulty that some have found about literature in the new countries.

I do not say myself at all that it is a real difficulty, far less an insuperable difficulty. But it is a difficulty that many critics would raise – I think – who understand such problems. At the back of all literature there must be a legend; a thing must grow out of something – probably entirely false, in the sense of mythical, not entirely false but largely false. For instance, I should say the story that the story of the Mayflower as commonly told is almost entirely false.

But it is a legend, it lives, it has done things. And anybody sailing up the Saint Lawrence will see where the legend of Canada begins, which is behind all literature. And I cannot tell you – least of all in this brief and inadequate speech – what my feelings where when I mounted to those heights of Abraham where the great battle was fought. And where I was – I will not say ‘pleased’ for those words are foolish – I was uplifted in the worthy sense in which great poetry or great music or even great mathematics or philosophy uplift a man; by finding that upon that crest they had set up a monument in noble Latin – in the original international language of Christian men – which commemorated together the names of James Wolfe and de Montcalm.

And I remembered that the great french gentlemen who died in arms, and that bourgeois boy of genius – the most generous and full of the most genial fighting spirit of fall the heroes of England alone to be named with a Nelson. he whose statue still stands swinging a saber somewhat awkwardly in the great statue in the little town of Westerham where he was born.

That those two great heroes are celebrated together in the universal language of Europe, upon the height that his called the height of Abraham – upon the battlefield. That is what I call a legend, and that should be the beginning of literature. I have great pleasure in seconding the spirit.


ChestertonprofileG.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton was an influential English figure during the early 20th Century. Eminently quotable and often referred to as the ‘prince of paradox’ and the ‘apostle of common sense’, Chesterton was a prolific writer and a mountainous intellect with an uncanny knack for turning a phrase. While primarily a journalist writing for the Daily News, the Illustrated London News, and his own G.K.’s Weekly, Chesterton was also a novelist, lay theologian, poet, philosopher, dramatist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist. [continue reading…]

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