Frye and Chesterton (2): “The Great Western Butterslide”

 chesterton

As I said in my previous post on this topic, Frye often uses G. K. Chesterton as an example of a critic whose judgments are always overly affected by his beliefs and commitments.  This is perhaps somewhat unfair to Chesterton, who celebrated the genius of Charles Dickens, someone who had no great love of Catholicism, or dogmatic religion, or the middle ages.  Ian Ker, in The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, refers to Chesterton’s “Dickensian Catholicism.”  I find there is a kind of exuberant excess in Chesterton’s style that evades the reduction of his work to the articulation of a set of beliefs.  Ker makes an eloquent case for placing Chesterton alongside the great Victorian cultural prophets such as Carlyle, Arnold and Newman. I wonder if “Chesterton” for Frye was more a symbol of a certain kind of neo-Thomist intellectual for whom he had little time, and who would have been likely to have admired Chesterton, than a considered reflection on the writer himself.

 Frye’s bluntest comment on Chesterton that I am aware of (perhaps Bob Denham can let me know of a better one!) comes in the Notebooks on Romance: “Catholic thinkers like Chesterton pretend that medieval life was an ideal along with medieval art, and was so because everybody was agreed on a central myth of concern. That’s shit” (CW 15:320).  But unlike many Catholics who looked back to the middle ages, Chesterton described himself as a liberal and a democrat in politics.

 One of Frye’s most colourful expressions is “the great western butterslide,” by which he means the myth of decline that held that at a certain point the organic unity and spiritual harmony of western culture was irretrievably lost, and things declined to their present desperate state (or “Pretty Pass,” as Frye put it in a 1953 review of Allen Tate (CW 21:177; see also Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22:319).  Ruskin identified this cultural “Fall” with the Renaissance; for others it was the Protestant Reformation that was the cause of all our problems.  I first encountered the intriguing word “butterslide” when reading Frye;  Germaine Warkentin notes that he was familiar with it as a bobsledding term, and she also cites the OED: “butter-slide, a slide (SLIDE n. 9) made of butter or ice; also fig.” (CW 21:495n4).

The Victorian medieval revival gave rise to a lot of “butterslide” models of history (it is really the opposite of the famous Whig interpretation of history), and in The Well-Tempered Critic Frye tells an amusing story about one adherent of such views:

I had a student once who was shocked to hear me refer to “Good King Wenceslas,” * at a carol-singing gathering, as a silly poem.  Investigation disclosed that he thought it had been written in the thirteenth century, and that anything coming from that age breathed a spirit of the simple piety of an age of faith which, etc., etc.—from there one goes on to St. Thomas Aquinas and the Chartres Cathedral.  I explained that this narrative did not come from the thirteenth century, but was a kind of Victorian singing commercial, whereupon he lost all interest in “Good King Wenceslas,” because he also held the view that anything written in the mid-nineteenth century was too contemptible for words.  Such critical water-wings do no great harm as long as they are eventually dispensed with, but this is only an obviously naïve example of a very common form of misplaced concreteness.  He had, after all, derived these notions from some book with a butterslide theory of Western culture, according to which this or that spiritual or cultural entity was “lost” after Dante or Raphael or Mozart or whatever the author was attaching his pastoral myth to.  (CW 21:386-87)

[*The words to “Good King Wenceslas” are by John Mason Neale (1818-66), a scholarly Anglo-Catholic clergyman who translated many traditional hymns from Greek and Latin into English, and through his scholarly work made the liturgy and history of the Orthodox Church known to the English-speaking world.  He is venerated today by the Anglican Church (his commemoration is on 7 August in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada).  While they were both Christian clergymen, Neale in most ways seems the antithesis of Frye in terms of their respective understanding of Christian belief and practice!  “Good King Wenceslas” is a “Christmas” carol—actually written for St. Stephen’s day, 26 December—that  has long divided people; while a much-loved piece, its words are often ridiculed or characterized as doggerel.]

Interestingly, Chesterton agreed with Frye at least about Pre-Raphaelite medievalism: for him Dickens exemplified the true spirit of medieval Catholicism, of Chaucer, in spite of Dickens’s own dislike of both the middle ages and the Catholic church:

Upon him descended the real tradition of “Merry England,” and not upon the pallid mediaevalists who thought they were reviving it.  The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day.  Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages.  He was much more mediaeval in his attacks on mediaevalism than they were in their defences of it.  It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.  Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every man telling a tale.  Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in men’s motley trades.  Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story.  Rossetti’s Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the Wife of Bath.  (Charles Dickens, 1906)

As an aside to this discussion, I was struck by another passage in Chesterton’s Charles Dickens where he contrasts Victorian realism with what he calls “folklore, the literature of the people”: “Our modern novels, which deal with men as they are, are chiefly produced by a small and educated section of society.  But this other literature deals with men greater than they are – with demi-gods and heroes; and that is far too important a matter to be trusted to the educated classes.”  The downplaying of literary realism, and the classification of literature based on the power of the hero in relation to that of the audience, both show an affinity with the critical principles that Frye set out in the Anatomy.

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