An unlikely subject therefore for a poet to focus on. Yet, at the start of the twentieth century GK Chesterton did just that, creating in The Donkey a simple ballad with a surprising twist.
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still. …
As such it feels an outsider, a misfit in a slick world, unable to curtail its desires and self-expression to fit the mores of modern society. Because it its ‘crooked will’ others have rejected the Donkey, mocked it, ill-treated it and punished it (the scourge was a multi-strand whip with sharp stones or twists of metal designed to tear the flesh from whatever was being beaten).
Hidden joy?But, amazingly, this Donkey has a secret hope, a memory that outweighs all its privations.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
It remembers going for a noisy walk…..
One hour trotting near palm trees is enough to make up for society’s – and the Donkey’s self – hatred?
Missing the pointWell, if we leave it there, we have entirely missed Chesterton’s point. But to feel the punch of the poem, we you need to know a bit more about the subtext (see previous blog, 4.3.15).
The Donkey’s ‘sweet’ hour was the occasion related in the New Testament when, a week before he died, Jesus chose an ass to sit on and ride into the city of Jerusalem. He was greeted rapturously at the time, with people waving palm branches and throwing them down, along with their cloaks, to create a ‘royal causeway’ for the man they anticipated as king (an event commemorated by Christians as Palm Sunday). An easy retelling of the story can be found at Crossref-it.info or you can read the original in Matthew 21:1-11.
For the Donkey, the amazing fact was that a monarch (the ruler of all the earth according to Christian belief) chose this rejected, unattractive beast for the greatest honour it could ever experience. Chesterton portrays Jesus choosing the unloved and unlovable ass and touching its life with glory.
The poet is reminding us that those we overlook or shy away from are actually special. If you think you are the misfit, remember what this simple poem tells you.
Palm Sunday is celebrated this weekend.