Editor's 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.

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