Thursday, December 06, 2012

Chesterton, Cheese and Poetry


This morning on Twitter, a friend quoted G K Chesterton: The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.  The original sentence by Chesterton, which appears in an essay appropriately entitled, Cheese, doesn't have 'the' at its beginning, but is otherwise as writ.   Cheese can be found in a collection of Chesterton's essays entitled, Alarms and Discursions,which, it turns out, I have on my shelves - it's one of about twenty-five Chesterton titles I have, many of which I haven't read, for the reason that I collected them faster at one point than I could keep up with reading them.  Chesterton is a superb writer, but can't be skimmed.  Skim him and you miss his point - in fact you're likely to miss several points, as he's prolific in points.  

Anyway, Cheese is a delightful piece of nonsense, and if you want to read it without borrowing my copy it's reproduced in full on the blog NMissCommentor - the blog is written by an American lawyer named Tom Freeland, but isn't entirely about things legal, as the post on Chesterton and cheese shows.

When I read that Tweet this morning I thought unto myself (instantly going into poetic mode) that it would be fun to write a poem on Cheese.  Perhaps not, though Cheese as a word has the advantage of having quite a few rhymes available to it, if you want to rhyme.  Apart from the obvious, there's frieze, knees, wheeze, sleaze, Chinese, trustees, trapeze, Congolese, journalese, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

Before setting to on my poem I thought I'd see what other people had written on the subject, since I couldn't believe that Chesterton was entirely right on the lack of cheese poetry.  For starters, there was Chesterton's own effort - in this case a piece of nonsense parodying a better-known poem.  It comes from another collection of essays, A Miscellany of Men, and the essay is entitled The Poet and the Cheese.  (If you want to borrow this book from me, you'll have to wait until I find out why it's not in its place on the shelves.)

SONNET TO A STILTON CHEESE
Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby; England has need of thee, and so have I - She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour, League after grassy league from Lincoln tower To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen. Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men, Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more, And pure religion reading 'Household Words', And sturdy manhood sitting still all day Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core; While my digestion, like the House of Lords, The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
You can read the complete essay on The Literature Network, if you're of a mind.  
There's actually a blog called The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. It's only marginally about Chesterton, and much more about cheese.  (Note that the 'The' has crept into their heading again.)  The link I've just given you is to the post on Chesterton and cheese, but there's also a post on poets writing on cheese in which Chesterton's parody is joined by a tiny W H Auden poem, and three other poets unknown to me.  (I think they're local, like the cheese Chesterton preferred.  He was a locavore, according to Freeland.)   
Marcia Vanderlip, in the Columbia Daily Tribune, wrote an article on the very subject I'm discussing, but when she got the poets to write about cheese, they wrote in prose.  
The minor poet, John Armstrong, who lived in the 18th century, wrote a poem on Cheshire cheese which contains a line that has been immortalised on the Net as being one of the worst lines in poetry:
....that which Cestria sends, tenacious paste of solid milk...  Armstrong seemed prone to writing heavy-duty poetry on difficult subjects - check out the brief Wikipedia entry on him.  And I don't know what Cestria means: although there are plenty of places in the UK named after it.  
There was a contemporary of Chesterton's, James McIntyre,a Canadian poet who was willing to write poetry on any subject his neighbours required, and he became known primarily as the Cheese Poet, because he had a kind of predilection for poems on cheese. He had one failing: he couldn't write very well.  He still managed to publish two books of poetry but his work passed out of favour until some of his poems were anthologised in a 1997 publication called Very Bad Poetry.  This included his masterpiece and possibly best-known poem, Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds.  A brief sample:
We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze;
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed, soon you'll go
To the provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
But even the best of authors (though not necessarily men who were also the best of poets) have their low points.  For one last example, here's Arthur Conan Doyle using cheese allegorically, and also a little over-earnestly:
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
  And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
  And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
  And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
  Not one of them thought of a cow.
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