G. K. Chesterton was what we would call a major public intellectual. A leading essayist, newspaper columnist, novelist, mystery writer, polemicist, and theologian, he was a friend and intellectual opponent of the other major figures of his day, notably George Bernard Shaw. He entered the Church in 1922, at the age of 48, and died in 1936. He wrote over one-hundred books and hundreds of so far uncollected essays. In them, however, he rarely wrote about death.
Chesterton scholar Kevin Flaherty explains: “It appears that Chesterton didn’t write much about Death because of the death of his older sister, Beatrice, when he was three years old. His father, Edward, was traumatized at her loss. He turned her portrait around to the wall and disposed of all her belongings. His mother was instructed never to mention Beatrice’s name again. As boys, Gilbert and his brother Cecil were never allowed to see a funeral pass by. Gilbert seems to have inherited some of his father’s fear of death and sickness. His childhood friend, Annie Firmin, related how in later years when his father was dying, Chesterton ‘only with real pain and difficulty . . . summoned sufficient fortitude to see the dying man’.”
The world mourns in black, but the Church mourns in violet — one of the many instances of the fact that the Church is a much more cheerful thing than the world. Nor is the difference an idle accident; it really corresponds by chasms of spiritual separation. Black is dark with absence of colour; violet is dark with density and combination of colour; it is at once as blue as mid night and as crimson as blood.
And there is a similar distinction between the two ideas of death, between the two types of tragedy. There is the tragedy that is founded on the worthlessness of life; and there is the deeper tragedy that is founded on the worth of it. The one sort of sadness says that life is so short that it can hardly matter; the other that life is so short that it matters for ever.
— From “King Edward VII,” a London Illustrated News column collected in The Glass Walking Stick
We are all in a boat which will certainly drown us all, and drown us equally, the strongest with the weakest; we sail to the land of an ogre, edax rerum, who devours all without distinction. And the meaning in the phrase about being all in the same boat is, not that there are no degrees among the people in a boat, but that all those degrees are nothing compared with the stupendous fact that the boat goes home or goes down. . . . Almost the most arresting and even startling stamp of the solidarity and sameness of mankind is precisely this fact, not only of death, but of the shadow of death.
— From “The Secret Society of Mankind” collected in Fancies vs. Fads
Chesterton’s fiance Frances lost her beloved sister Gertrude, who died in an accident. In one of his letters, Chesterton quoted a friend who’d written after the death of the skeptical philosopher T. H. Huxley, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of one of his saints.”
The friend, I remember, thought it “a curious remark about Huxley.” It strikes me as a miraculous remark about anybody. It is one of those magic sayings where every word hits a chain of association, God knows how.
“Precious” — we could not say that Gertrude’s death is happy or providential or sweet or even perhaps good. But it is something. “Beautiful” is a good word — but “precious” is the only right word.
It is this passionate sense of the value of things: of the richness of the cosmic treasure: the world where every star is a diamond, every leaf an emerald, every drop of blood a ruby, it is this sense of preciousness that is really awakened by the death of His saints. Somehow we feel that even their death is a thing of incalculable value and mysterious sweetness: it is awful, tragic, desolating, desperately hard to bear — but still “precious.” . . .
I do not know what Gertrude’s death was — I know that it was beautiful, for I saw it. . . . We do not feel that it is so beautiful now — why? Because we do not see it now. What we see now is her absence: but her Death is not her absence, but her Presence somewhere else. That is what we knew was beautiful, as long as we could see it. Do not be frightened, dearest, by the slow inevitable laws of human nature, we shall climb back into the mountain of vision.
— From Maisie Ward’s biography Gilbert Keith Chesterton
It would be good if we expected a bell to ring towards the end of a sunset. It would be good if we thought the clock might strike while we were in the perfect pleasure of staring at sea and sky. Such a sudden check would bring all our impressions into an intense and enjoyable compass, would make the vast sky a single sapphire, the vast sea a single emerald. After long experience of the glories of sensation men find that it is necessary to put to our feelings this perfect artistic limit. And after a little longer experience they find that the God in whom they hardly believe has, as the perfect artist, put the perfect artistic limit — death.
— From “January One,” a Daily News column published in Lunacy and Letters
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
No; I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
It was hid so carefully.