Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Polish Ideal

May 6, 2015

by G.K. Chesterton

Bogurodzica - Jozef Brandt

There are certain things in this world that are at once intensely loved and intensely hated. They are naturally things of a strong character, and either very good or very bad. They generally give a great deal of trouble to everybody, and a special sort of trouble to those who try to destroy them. But they give most trouble of all to those who try to ignore them. Some hate them so insanely as to deny their very existence; but the void made by that negation continues to exasperate those who have made it till they are like men choked with a vacuum. They declare that it shall be nameless, and then never cease to curse its name. This curious case is perhaps best illustrated by example. One example of it is Ireland. Another example is Poland.

Within ten minutes of my stepping from the train on to Polish territory I had heard two phrases – phrases which struck the precise note which thus inspires one-half of the world and infuriates the other half. We were received by a sort of escort of Polish cavalry, and one of the officers made a speech in French – a very fine speech in very good French. In the course of it he used the first of these two typical expressions: “I will not say the chief friend of Poland. God is the chief friend of Poland.” And he afterwards said, in a more playful and conversational moment: “After all, there are only two trades for a man – a poet and a soldier of cavalry.” He said it humorously, and with the delicate implication, “You are a poet and I am a soldier of cavalry. So there we are!” I said that, allowing for the difficulty of anybody having anything to eat if this were literally true, I entirely accepted the sentiment, and heartily agreed with it. But I know there are some people who would not understand it even enough to disagree with it. I know that some people would furiously refuse even to see the joke of it. There is something in that particular sort of romance, or (if you will) in that particular sort of swagger, which moves them quite genuinely to a violent irritation. It is an irritation common among rationalists, among the drier sort of dons, and among the duller sort of public servants.

Now, if all those Polish officers had been Prussian officers, if their swagger had consisted of silently pushing people off the kerbstone, if their ceremony had consisted not in making good speeches but in standing in a row quite speechless, if their faces had been like painted wood and their heads and bodies puffed up with nothing but an east wind of pride, they would not have irritated this sort of critic in this sort of way. They would have soothed him, with a vague sense that this is what soldiers must be. I do not say he would approve of everything they did, but he would accept what they were. It would not anger him or even seem to him absurd, as it does to me, who belong to the other half of mankind. But what does anger him, what does seem to him absurd, is the idea of a soldier civilized; the man who is no more ashamed of the military art than of any other art, but who is interested in other arts – and interested in them all like an artist. That the man in uniform should make a speech, and, worst of all, a good speech, seems comic – like a policeman composing a sonnet. That he should connect a horse-soldier with a poet appears meaningless, like connecting a butcher with a Buddhist monk. In one historic word, these people hate and have always hated the Cavalier. They hate the Cavalier especially when he writes Cavalier songs. They hate the knight when he is also a troubadour. They can understand Ironsides solemnly killing people in the fear of the Lord, as they can understand Prussian soldiers solemnly killing people in the fear of the War-Lord. But they cannot tolerate the combination of wit and culture and courtesy with this business of killing. It seems especially preposterous when the Cavalier adds to all his other dazzling inconsistencies by being quite as religious as the Ironside. The last touch is put to their angry bewilderment when the man who has talked gaily as if nobody mattered except lancers and lyric poets says, with the same simplicity and gaiety, “the only friend of our country is God.”

These critics commonly say that they are irritated with this romantic type because it always fails; so they are naturally even more irritated when it very frequently succeeds. People who are ready to shed tears of sympathy when the windmills overthrow Don Quixote are very angry indeed when Don Quixote really overthrows the windmills. People who are prepared to give a vain blessing to a forlorn hope are not unnaturally annoyed to find that the forlorn hope is comparatively hopeful and not entirely forlorn. Even the most genial of these realists, Mr. Bernard Shaw, would be a little vexed if he had to reverse the whole moral of Arms and the Man and admit that the Arms counted for a little less and the Man for a little more. He would be slightly put out, perhaps, if the celebrated artillery duel really took place, and the sentimental Sergius blew the realistic Bluntzschli to pieces. But that is almost exactly what has really happened in modern Europe to-day. That is what happened, for instance, when the practical Mr. Broadbent went bankrupt in his Other Island.

When the Poles defeated the Bolshevists in the field of battle, it was precisely that. It was the old chivalric tradition defeating everything that is modern, everything that is necessitarian, everything that is mechanical in method and materialistic in philosophy. It was the Marxian notion that everything is inevitable defeated by the Christian notion that nothing is inevitable – no, not even what has already happened. Mr. Belloc has put the Polish ideal into lines dedicated to a great Polish shrine –

Hope of the Half-Defeated; house of gold;
Shrine of the sword and tower of ivory.

Before I leave these Polish cavaliers I may remark that I had another chance of seeing them at the jumping competitions in the Concours Hippique, and I will only mention one incident and leave it, for it is something of a parable. The course consisted of the usual high obstacle, but there was one which was apparently of a novel pattern and practically insuperable. Anyhow, one after another in that long procession of admirable riders, French, Polish, and Italian, failed at this final test till failure came to be treated as a matter of course; even experts on such occasions differ about the degrees of merits and misfortunes, and I am not an expert at a horse show. One of the Lancers playfully asked me if I was going to compete. I made the obvious answer that, mounted on my favorite elephant, I would undertake to step over many of the fences, though certainly no the last fence of all, which I doubt if a giraffe could bestride. But the general feeling seemed to be that I should be more useful as an obstacle than a surmounter of obstacles, and that, if I lay down on the course, it might be even worse than the worst obstacle.

There was some amusement and some pity for one young Pole – who was, I believe, a novice or relatively untried person – whose mount in some fashion stumbled so that the rider was shot over the horse’s head. At least, I thought he was shot over the horse’s head, and then discovered, amid some amazing and jerky gyrations, that he was what can only be called clinging to the horse’s ears. While the horse danced about the course in a dégagé manner, the rider seemed to crawl down his neck in some incredible way and rolled back into the saddle. He found one stirrup and tried in vain to find the other. Then he gave it up – the stirrup, not the race. He cleared a fairly low obstacle before him, and then, seeming to gather a wild impetus from  nowhere, with one stirrup flying loose and swaying in the saddle, he charged the last impossible barrier, and, first of all that company, went over it like a bird. And someone said at my elbow with a sharp exclamation, in English: “That’s just like the Poles!”

Hope of the Half-Defeated; house of gold…

G.K. Chesterton at work


G.K. Chesterton was one of the wittiest public champions of (ultimately Catholic) Christianity in the twentieth century. Famous for his girth as for his love of paradox, he was also one of the English language’s greatest rhetoricians. 

This piece was originally published in The Illustrated London News, July 2, 1927. It was digitized by Martin Ward, whose collection of Chesterton’s works can be found online here.


Care to comment?

You must be logged in to post a comment.