Hail the Poets! Salute the Lunatics!

Welcome to my world! It is a glorious, upside-down landscape where clouds are mountains and trees hang downward as if baptized in wide blue sea. Can you see it? Take your time. If you need to, stand on your head.

The blog title arises from one of G.K. Chesterton’s most astonishing and yet little known novels titled The Poet and the Lunatics (Darwen Finlayson Limited, 1929,1962). 

The book’s protagonist is an artist named Gabriel Gale, who steps in to assist local police in solving a bizarre and inexplicable crime. He is deemed by these practical characters to be a lunatic, which Gale does not deny (though he prefers to think of himself as a poet). To the contrary, he asserts that when it comes to solving baffling crimes concocted in troubled minds, only the poets and lunatics — those who understand life’s impulses to the bone and see the world upside-down — can get inside the haunted thoughts of a criminal perpetrator and solve the crime, which he also did. Gale says to the police:

What you want is an unpractical man. That is what people always want in the last resort and the worst conditions. What can practical men do here? . . . A man must have his head in the clouds and his wits wool-gathering in fairyland, before he can do anything so practical as that. [This is] a practical example of the occasions when the poet can be more useful than the policeman.

Call me crazy, but I see the logic in that.  “Shall I tell you a secret?” Gale continues, “the world is upside-down. We’re all flies crawling on a ceiling and it is an everlasting mercy that we don’t drop off.” He cites Saint Peter, who died on a cross placed upside-down, as epitomizing the glory of seeing the world this way: “I’ve often fancied [Saint Peter’s] humility was rewarded by seeing in death . . . the landscape as it really is: with stars like flowers and clouds like hills and all men hanging on the mercy of God.”

Another poet and putative lunatic was an Irish saint who lived in the late sixth century, named Columcille of Iona (also known as Columba). He had been exiled from his native Ireland to the Scottish isle of Iona, returning to Ireland only once. He risked his freedom to take part in the assembly of Druim-Cetta in Ulster to defend the Order of Bards (poets) whose legitimacy was under assault by the king.

During the assembly, Columcille claimed that the future of Gaelic culture demanded that the work of the bards be preserved:

For you know that God himself bought three-fifties of Psalms of praise from King David . . . . And on that account it is right for you to buy poems of the poets and to keep the poets in Ireland. As all the world is but a fable, it were well for you to buy a more enduring fable . . . If poets’ verses be but fables So be food and garments fables, So is all the world a fable, So is man of dust a fable.

When one sees the world with the eyes of Columcille and feels its heartbeat as the heart of Gabriel Gale, one does not quiver before the world’s terms and its associated chaos. One does not fret about weekly news cycles. One becomes fearless. And fearlessness approximates the demeanor of people who claim to follow Jesus, himself a fearless man, who was lucid and kind, and also deemed a lunatic. He was unfazed. He understood that clouds are our mountains and upside-down trees our only escape route.

In this technological age the value of words has been cheapened. They fly across the globe in mere seconds attached to #hashtags that corral great numbers to a singular opinion about an issue or event that has been only superficially apprised; photographs reveal personal moments (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) that reach eyes of those who have no business looking. All of this invasive sometimes dehumanizing technology feeds the insatiable maw of the marketing machine. But let’s not dwell on negativities. Technology also is a powerful tool for that can be used for good. (Please “share” and “retweet” this posting on Facebook and Twitter, thank you.)

Even so, in these times as in all times, we need the voice of the poets, if for no other reason to slow us down and to remind us of the weight of a word. We need the sensibilities of the lunatics to help us step back, take a breath and see a clear picture beyond the din of contemporary urgencies.

Upon his death c.597, a cleric said of Columcille: “A beautiful attendance, he made a vigil of his life.” I do not claim to be cut from the cloth of a one such as Gabriel Gale or another such as Columcille. Yet with my voice as a writer along my road as a pilgrim it is my hope in this blog to write as one trying to see cloud-mountains, mysteries of life and faith amid machinations of a no-holds-barred culture. It is my hope to make a vigil of my words in this written space and to make them a beautiful attendance. It is a fool’s hope, for we live in a far too practical a world. But it is my hope. For there is simple beauty and holy significance everywhere in the surprising movements of God. Let us summon the right words to describe them. Let us write them.

Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe we may also speak.               

Saint Hilary (c. 315-368), Bishop of Poitiers

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About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.