Tuesday, 20 December 2011

G K Chesterton: 'For a War Memorial'

Towards the end of this post is a question to which I hope that one of my readers may have the solution.

As reported previously, I am currently editing a large anthology of First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics. Each poem will be annotated and given a date of composition. Allusions to places, poems, battles, and so on will be noted and explained.

Charlotte Mew will be represented by three poems, the longest of which is 'The Cenotaph'. The poem first appeared in The Westminster Gazette on 7 September 1919, and it seems reasonable to assume that Mew wrote it in July or August of that year. The word 'Cenotaph' (from the Greek for 'empty tomb') was current thanks to Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose wood-and-plaster structure was unveiled at Whitehall in July 1919; he replaced it with a near-identical stone structure at the same spot in 1920. (Lutyens had been commissioned to design a 'catafalque'; the 'cenotaph' was his own term.)

Mew may also have known Lutyens’s plans for a more elaborate war memorial in Southampton, a city which she passed through regularly on family trips to the Isle of Wight.
However, neither the London nor the Southampton Cenotaph depicts what Mew describes: 'Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head’. Her poem is an example of what John Hollander calls 'notional ekphrasis'—the verbal representation of an imaginary work of art.

Mew's was by no means the only poem to consider the proprieties and the inadequacies of war memorials at that time. G. K. Chesterton's 'For a War Memorial' (below) was collected in The Ballad of St Barbara and Other Verses (1922). Chesterton's editor, Aidan Mackey, proposes a date of composition between 1918 and 1920, and he has told me that he considers 1919 most likely. The mystery is: who had read whom? 'The hucksters haggle in the mart', Chesterton begins, either remembering or inspiring Mew's depiction of 'every busy whore's and huckster's face / As they drive their bargains' in 'the Market-place'.

In the absence of further evidence, I have to assume that Chesterton had read Mew. But if any reader knows of an earlier publication date for Chesterton's poem, please let me know.

For a War Memorial
(Suggested Inscription probably not selected by the Committee.)

The hucksters haggle in the mart
The cars and carts go by;
Senates and schools go droning on;
For dead things cannot die.

A storm stooped on the place of tombs
With bolts to blast and rive;
But these be names of many men
The lightning found alive.

If usurers rule and rights decay
And visions view once more
Great Carthage like a golden shell
Gape hollow on the shore,

Still to the last of crumbling time
Upon this stone be read
How many men of England died
To prove they were not dead.


  1. Could both Mew and Chesterton have derived the word from a third source? Personally I'd associate 'huckster' with Yeats more than any other poet.

  2. Sullivan's Chesterton bibliography does not mention a magazine publication before the poem was collected in The Ballad of St Barbara. Yet the poem seems to be linked to a specific occasion (assuming the Committee is an actual one, not merely fictitious), and is making a public statement. I wonder if it featured in any of GKC's many public speeches. He wrote so much that he's a difficult author to keep track of.

  3. When it comes to placing Chesterton's poem, the crucial question is perhaps: Which was the Committee that would not have suggested it?
    I've a hypothesis that may or may not be right.
    When the Cenotaph was erected, it was under the auspices of Sir Alfred Mond, a target of some of Chesterton's most vitriolic journalism. In issue after issue of his weekly paper, 'The New Witness' in 1918, Mond was accused of being a traitor to Britain, since some of his firms had allegedly traded with the enemy. Mond was, of course, Jewish, and the attacks on him were part of the consistent anti-Semitism of the paper. (T.S. Eliot's 'A Cooking Egg', written at about this time, mentions Mond in a mocking way that may hint at this controversy.)
    The contrast in Chesterton's poem between righteous soldiers and ignoble profiteers was a trope very often found in writing of the time, but Chesterton's choice of the word 'usurers' is one that chimes with anti-Semitic discourse. Is Chesterton making an implicit contrast between the 'men of England' who died, and the man heading the committee formed to commemorate them, whom he would not have regarded as a 'man of England'. At one point, he (probably jokingly, though it's a sinister joke) suggested that Jews should be tolerated in England, and should be allowed to hold any job – as long as they wore Arab robes to signify their foreignness.)
    That kind of animus does not seem to be there in Mew's poem. The question is, which memorial could she be thinking of? Very few WW1 memorials showed the figure of a Winged Victory, or any other symbol of triumphalism. But by September 1919 very few memorials had been built, and the cenotaph was still just a plaster-and-lath temporary structure, so I think that it is just an imaginary memorial that she is writing about.

  4. Happy New Year! Thank you for the suggestions. I think that 'huckster' was current because of Yeats, but I also think that the conjunction of 'huckster', the market-place, and the war memorial, as well as the conflict between capitalism and remembrance, prove that the later of the two poems knows the earlier.

    Very interesting about the 'usurers'. I think that your suggestion is right, George. And my best guess for the composition date of Mew's poem is July 1919, in the three weeks between the commission of the cenotaph and its unveiling. That would give Mew the freedom to create her own cenotaph without reference to Lutyens's wood-and-plaster structure.