To Edmund Clerihew Bentley


Edmund Clerihew Bentley
EC Bentley

Scott received a query about some of the allusions in the poem “To Edmund Clerihew Bentley”, which appears on the dedication page of The Man Who Was Thursday and he passed it along to me. Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875 — 1956) was, among other things, a boyhood friend of GK from the time they attended St. Paul’s together. 

 The first thing I should note is that this is the 100th anniversary of The Man Who Was Thursday, and appropriately enough, the novel was the main subject of the July/August edition of the greatest magazine in the world, Gilbert! This poem was covered on page 23, with some of the allusions explained. There is also a long article also in this issue about Bentley. 

Membership in the American Chesterton Society is highly recommended to all members of The St. Louis Chesterton Society. Gilbert! magazine is one benefit of membership, and getting the magazine opens up the world of GK and provides a way to read a little and learn a lot during those months we may not have the time to read a whole book (or even a few chapters). And although enough about this cannot be said, this is all I’ll say for now.

When reading Chesterton, Google and Wikipedia are your friends. But it must be noted that neither is entirely adequate, especially when reading rather than writing a thesis. Sometimes you just need an expert, and experts write Gilbert! magazine.

Now, on to the strange references.

 Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.

A white feather  was a symbol of cowardice.

I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;

 Paumanok is the Algonquian name of Long Island. Long Island was known evidently as a place where more traditional values held out against the depravity of Manhattan.

And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,

Oscar Wilde infamously wore a Green Carnation as a symbol, well he said it was a symbol of nothing. But it was noted that a number of his friends wore green carnations also. See the poem by Noël Coward in the link above. There was also an 1894 novel called The Green Carnation that made the meaning of the symbol pretty clear.

Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.
Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.

According to the article in Gilbert! Dunedin is the Scottish Gaelic name of the city of Edinburgh and “tusitala” is a Samoan word meaning “teller of tales” and was the name given the Scot Robert Lewis Stevenson during his stay in Samoa when he went to find clean air to ease his tuberculosis. 

We have seen the City of Mansoul

Also according to the article in Gilbert! Mansoul (lit. man’s soul) was the capital of the universe in the 1682 allegory by John Bunyan called The Holy War made by Shaddai upon Diabolus, for the Regaining the Metropolis of the World; OR, The losing and taking again of the Town of Man-soul. Evidently the sieges of Ladysmith and Mafeking during the Boer War, hated so much by Chesterton, reminded him of the siege against man’s soul and its hoped-for relief.

So, I hope this helps.


3 thoughts on “To Edmund Clerihew Bentley

  1. A small aside to the Paumanok = Long Island reference. I was reading a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Congregationalist minister in Brooklyn in the mid 1800’s and at that time L.I. was considered a world away from the city evils of Manhattan. And I can’t think of Brooklyn without recalling the intro to “Arsenic and Old Lace” directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant.

  2. I think Paumonok might also be a reference to Walt Whitman. This is from Leaves of Grass:

    Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born,
    Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother;
    After roaming many lands—lover of populous pavements;
    Dweller in Mannahatta, my city—or on southern savannas;
    (and so forth…)

    Note Chesterton’s use of “leaves of grass” a couple lines down.

  3. I have always seen this poem as a companion to his excellent essay “The War of the Gods and Demons” on the war between the Greeks and the Persians. “Can any man in his senses compare the great wooden doll, whom the children expected to eat a little bit of the dinner, with the great idol who would have been expected to eat the children? That is the measure of how far the world went astray, compared with how far it might have gone astray.”

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