Wonder and the Wooden Post

by G. K. Chesterton (1912)

Black night had shut in my house and garden with shutters first of slate and then of ebony; I was making my way indoors by the fiery square of the lamplit window, when I thought I saw something new sticking out of the ground, and bent over to look at it. In so doing I knocked my head against a post and saw stars; stars of the seventh heaven, stars of the secret and supreme firmament. For it did truly seem, as the slight pain lessened but before the pain had wholly passed, as if I saw written in an astral alphabet on the darkness something that I had never understood so clearly before: a truth about the mysteries and the mystics which I have half known all my life. I shall not be able to put the idea together again with the words upon this page, for these queer moods of clearness are always fugitive: but I will try. The post is still there; but the stars in the brain are fading.

When I was young I wrote a lot of little poems, mostly about the beauty and necessity of Wonder; which was a genuine feeling with me, as it is still. The power of seeing plain things and landscapes in a kind of sunlight of surprise; the power of jumping at the sight of a bird as if at a winged bullet; the power of being brought to a standstill by a tree as by the gesture of a gigantic hand; in short, the power of poetically running one's head against a post is one which varies in different people and which I can say without conceit is a part of my own human nature. It is not a power that indicates any artistic strength, still less any spiritual exaltation; men who are religious in a sense too sublime for me to conceive are equally without it. Of the pebble in the pathways of the twig on the edge, it may truly be said that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see these things and have not seen them. It is a small and special gift, but an innocent one.

As my little poems were mostly bad poems, they attracted a certain amount of attention among modern artists and critics; I was told that I was a mystic and found myself being introduced to whole rows and rows of mystics; most of them much older and wiser than I. Of course, there were professional quacks and amateur asses among them; but not in much larger proportion than would have appeared among politicians or men of science or any other mixed convention. There was the long-faced, elderly man, who said, in a deep bass voice like distant thunder: “What we want is Love”; which was true enough, if to want means to lack. There was the little, radiant man, who radiated all his fingers outwards and cried: “Heaven is here! Is is now!” as if he were selling something, as he probably was. There was the chirpy little man who took one confidentially into a corner and said quietly: “There is no true difference between good and bad, false and true; they are alike leading us upwards.” He was easily disposed of; merely by asking, if there was no difference between good and bad, what was the difference between up and down? But it would be gravely and grossly unjust to suggest that any of these represented the modern mystics whose acquaintance I made. I met many men whom history and literature will rightly remember. I met the man who was and is by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades. For I will not call Mr. Yeats an English poet; I will only say that I should be sorry to see him translated into any other language. I met a man like Mr. Herbert Burrows who, almost alone among men in my knowledge, contrived to combine an Oriental and impersonal religion with that hard fighting and hot magnanimity which we in the west mean when we are speaking of a man. There were great poets and great fighters, then, among these modern mystics whom I met; and their genius and sincerity, as well as their mysticism, led me to conclude that they were quite right. And yet there was something inside me telling me, which what I can only call a stifled scream, that they were quite wrong. It was the same for that matter with my early economic opinions. I was a Socialist in my youth; because the attack on Socialism, as then conducted, left a man no choice except to be a Socialist or a scoundrel. But, even then, long before I ceased to be a Socialist, long before I heard of peasant ownership or any other escape from our present disgrace, I had felt by a sort of tug in my bones that the Fabians and the Marxians were pulling the world one way when I wanted it to go the other. So I felt about great mystics like Mr. Yeats; about sane thosophists like Mr. Burrows. I felt, not merely that their mysticism was in flat contradiction to mine—more even than materialism. I went on feeling this; it took me a long time to give it even an obscure expression. I never found a really vivid expression until I knocked my head against the post. The expression that leapt to my lips then, I am (as I say) forgetting slowly.

Now what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. When they said that a wooden post was wonderful (a point on which we are all agreed, I hope) they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. “Dream; there is no truth,” said Mr. Yeats, “but in your own heart.” The modern mystic looked for the post, not outside in the garden, but inside, in the mirror of his mind. But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy's dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards for ever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. And as the mirrors of the modern mystic's mind are most of them curved and many of them cracked, the post in its ultimate reflection looked like all sorts of things; a waterspout, the tree of knowledge, the sea-serpent standing upright, a twisted column of the new natural architecture, and so on. Hence we have Picasso and a million puerilities. But I was never interested in mirrors; that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection—or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

When the modern mystics said they liked to see a post, they meant they liked to imagine it. They were better poets than I; and they imagined it as soon as they saw it. Now I might see a post long before I had imagined it—and (as I have already described) I might feel it before I saw it. To me the post is wonderful because it is there; there whether I like it or not. I was struck silly by a post, but if I were struck blind by a thunderbolt, the post would still be there; the substance of things not seen. For the amazing thing about the universe is that it exists; not that we can discuss its existence. All real spritiuality is a testimony to this world as much as the other: the material universe does exist. The Cosmos still quivers to its topmost star from that great kick that Dr. Johnson gave the stone when he defied Berkeley. The kick was not philosophy—but it was religion.

Now the mystics around me had not this lively faith that things are fantasies because they are facts. They wanted, as all magicians did, “to control the elements”; to be the Cosmos. They wished the stars to be their omnipresent eyes and winds their long wild tongues unrolled; and therefore they favoured twilight, and all the dim and borderland mdeiums in which one thing melts into another—in which a man can be as large as Nature and (what is worse) as impersonal as Nature. But I never was properly impressed with the mystery of twilight, but rather with the riddle of daylight, as huge and staring as the sphinx. I felt it in big bare buildings against a blue sky, high houses gutted or still empty, great blank walls washed with warm light as with a monstrous brush. One seemed to have come to the back of everything. And everything had that strange and high indifference that belongs only to things that are… You see I have not said what I meant: but if you admit that my head and the post were equally wonderful, I give you leave to say they were equally wooden.