Introductory Note:

Hang around me long enough, and you’ll learn two things early on. The first is that I adore the writings of G.K. Chesterton. The second is that I sing incessantly. And I don’t just sing songs that everyone accepts to be songs. Nope, I sing songs in the moment, often made up on the spot. Some activities just call for singing. Mine don’t always make sense, but they almost always have pretty good rhymes. This annoys my daughter (13) to no end; thankfully, my husband still finds it charming.

“Chesterton was a profoundly incarnational person,” writes Richard Foster in his introduction to “A Magical Universe” in Devotional Classics. It is no wonder, then, that Chesterton would ponder the rites of singing in medieval occupations—an act that often lifted the labors of working men and women to a holy endeavor—and then notice how our modern professionals keep strangely mum while on the job. And no wonder, too, that Chesterton would try to offer his own “few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen” to a banker and post-office employee with predictable (and comical) results. Where will these little birds who won’t sing find that connection to ritual and uplift that raises the mundane to the sacred in this “warp and woof of our very earthy existence”? Chesterton offers a clue.

I hope you’ll find a moment to sing today, and if I catch you at it, I’ll join in the chorus (with a swing of joy and energy)!

Justine Olawsky

On my last morn­ing on the Flem­ish coast, when I knew that in a few hours I should be in Eng­land, my eye fell upon one of the details of Goth­ic carv­ing of which Flan­ders is full. I do not know whether the thing is old, though it was cer­tain­ly knocked about and inde­ci­pher­able, but at least it was cer­tain­ly in the style and tra­di­tion of the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages. It seemed to rep­re­sent men bend­ing them­selves (not to say twist­ing them­selves) to cer­tain pri­ma­ry employ­ments. Some seemed to be sailors tug­ging at ropes; oth­ers, I think, were reap­ing; oth­ers were ener­get­i­cal­ly pour­ing some­thing into some­thing else. This is entire­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic of the pic­tures and carv­ings of the ear­ly thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, per­haps the most pure­ly vig­or­ous time in all his­to­ry.… If there was one thing the ear­ly medi­ae­vals liked it was rep­re­sent­ing peo­ple doing some­thing – hunt­ing or hawk­ing, or row­ing boats, or tread­ing grapes, or mak­ing shoes, or cook­ing some­thing in a pot.… A mass of medi­ae­val carv­ing seems actu­al­ly a sort of bus­tle or hub­bub in stone. Some­times one can­not help feel­ing that the groups actu­al­ly move and mix, and the whole front of a great cathe­dral has the hum of a huge hive.

.… .

But about these par­tic­u­lar fig­ures there was a pecu­liar­i­ty of which I could not be sure. Those of them that had any heads had very curi­ous heads, and it seemed to me that they had their mouths open. Whether or no this real­ly meant any­thing or was an acci­dent of nascent art I do not know; but in the course of won­der­ing I recalled to my mind the fact that singing was con­nect­ed with many of the tasks there sug­gest­ed, that there were songs for reapers and songs for sailors haul­ing ropes. I was still think­ing about this small prob­lem when I walked along the pier at Ostend; and I heard some sailors utter­ing a mea­sured shout as they laboured, and I remem­bered that sailors still sing in cho­rus while they work, and even sing dif­fer­ent songs accord­ing to what part of their work they are doing. And a lit­tle while after­wards, when my sea jour­ney was over, the sight of men work­ing in the Eng­lish fields remind­ed me again that there are still songs for har­vest and for many agri­cul­tur­al rou­tines. And I sud­den­ly won­dered why if this were so it should be quite unknown, for any mod­ern trade to have a rit­u­al poet­ry. How did peo­ple come to chant rude poems while pulling cer­tain ropes or gath­er­ing cer­tain fruit, and why did nobody do any­thing of the kind while pro­duc­ing any of the mod­ern things? Why is a mod­ern news­pa­per nev­er print­ed by peo­ple singing in cho­rus? Why do shop­men sel­dom, if ever, sing?

.… .

If reapers sing while reap­ing, why should not audi­tors sing while audit­ing and bankers while bank­ing? If there are songs for all the sep­a­rate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the sep­a­rate things that have to be done in a bank? As the train from Dover flew through the Ken­tish gar­dens, I tried to write a few songs suit­able for com­mer­cial gen­tle­men. Thus, the work of bank clerks when cast­ing up columns might begin with a thun­der­ing cho­rus in praise of Sim­ple Addition.

Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o’er.
Hear the Stars of Morn­ing shout­ing: Two and Two are four.’
Though the creeds and realms are reel­ing, though the
sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watch­es, Two and Two are Four.
There’s a run upon the Bank–
Stand away!
For the Man­ager’s a crank and the Sec­re­tary drank,
and the Upper Toot­ing Bank
Turns to bay!
Stand close: there is a run
On the Bank.
Of our ship, our roy­al one, let the ring­ing leg­end run,
that she fired with every gun
Ere she sank.

.… .

And as I came into the cloud of Lon­don I met a friend of mine who actu­al­ly is in a bank, and sub­mit­ted these sug­ges­tions in rhyme to him for use among his col­leagues. But he was not very hope­ful about the mat­ter. It was not (he assured me) that he under­rat­ed the vers­es, or in any sense lament­ed their lack of pol­ish. No; it was rather, he felt, an inde­fin­able some­thing in the very atmos­phere of the soci­ety in which we live that makes it spir­i­tu­al­ly dif­fi­cult to sing in banks. And I think he must be right; though the mat­ter is very mys­te­ri­ous. I may observe here that I think there must be some mis­take in the cal­cu­la­tions of the Social­ists. They put down all our dis­tress, not to a moral tone, but to the chaos of pri­vate enter­prise. Now, banks are pri­vate; but post-offices are Social­is­tic: there­fore I nat­u­ral­ly expect­ed that the post-office would fall into the col­lec­tivist idea of a cho­rus. Judge of my sur­prise when the lady in my local post-office (whom I urged to sing) dis­missed the idea with far more cold­ness than the bank clerk had done. She seemed indeed, to be in a con­sid­er­ably greater state of depres­sion than he. Should any one sup­pose that this was the effect of the vers­es them­selves, it is only fair to say that the spec­i­men verse of the Post-Office Hymn ran thus:

O’er Lon­don our let­ters are shak­en like snow,
Our wires o’er the world like the thun­der­bolts go.
The news that may mar­ry a maid­en in Sark,
Or kill an old lady in Fins­bury Park.
Cho­rus (with a swing of joy and energy):
Or kill an old lady in Fins­bury Park.

And the more I thought about the mat­ter the more painful­ly cer­tain it seemed that the most impor­tant and typ­i­cal mod­ern things could not be done with a cho­rus. One could not, for instance, be a great financier and sing; because the essence of being a great financier is that you keep qui­et. You could not even in many mod­ern cir­cles be a pub­lic man and sing; because in those cir­cles the essence of being a pub­lic man is that you do near­ly every­thing in pri­vate. Nobody would imag­ine a cho­rus of mon­ey-lenders. Every one knows the sto­ry of the solic­i­tors’ corps of vol­un­teers who, when the Colonel on the bat­tle­field cried Charge!” all said simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Six-and-eight­pence.” Men can sing while charg­ing in a mil­i­tary, but hard­ly in a legal sense. And at the end of my reflec­tions I had real­ly got no fur­ther than the sub-con­scious feel­ing of my friend the bank-clerk – that there is some­thing spir­i­tu­al­ly suf­fo­cat­ing about our life; not about our laws mere­ly, but about our life. Bank-clerks are with­out songs, not because they are poor, but because they are sad. Sailors are much poor­er. As I passed home­wards I passed a lit­tle tin build­ing of some reli­gious sort, which was shak­en with shout­ing as a trum­pet is torn with its own tongue. THEY were singing any­how; and I had for an instant a fan­cy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature is hunt­ed and has fled into sanctuary.

Sourced from Tremen­dous Tri­fles via Wik​isource​.org.

PC: Via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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