G.K. Chesterton once said, “If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.” What a beautiful goal. In his lifetime, G.K. Chesterton wrote oodles of wonderful things, from the Fr. Brown mystery stories to poetry to philosophy to an essay in the defense of Santa Claus. What with all those masterpieces he left behind, I'm sure he's put a touch of rosy sunset into somebody's life.
As a matter of fact, I'm 100% certain that he has. I'm 100% certain because at least one of those somebodies is me.
Chesterton's poem The Battle of Lepanto is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature I have ever come across in my life. Admittedly, the first time I read it, I had positively no idea what it was about. It went right over my head. A year, or a few years, later, I came back to it. This time it made a little more sense. When I tackled it line by line, I could actually understand it - and I found that it was quite beautiful. The next thing I knew, I wanted to memorize it. And I did. I spent a couple of days last summer reading it over and over again, verse by verse, repeating it to myself until I knew it by heart.
I've never regretted that use of my time. In the year since I've memorized that glorious poem, I don't know how many times I've recited it to myself. How many times it has lifted me from the depths of apathy into the heights of elation. How many times it has soothed by rumpled spirits and brought a smile to my face. How many times it has lulled me to sleep on a restless night. How many times it has occupied my mind and kept me from slipping into less edifying thoughts that may well have harmed my soul. How many times it has reminded me that life is worth living, that the world is brimming with hope, that no matter how bad things get good will always triumph over evil.
There are a dozen things about this poem that never fail to make me see all the world in a rosy and glorious light. Sometimes it is the rollicking rhythm dotted with delightful snatches of alliteration-
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold,
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper-kettle drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes!
Sometimes it is the vivid imagery all brimming with bright colors -
They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
Fallen skies! Evil hues! Eyeless creatures! I could sit there forever just picturing what that looks like! The entire poem is just teeming with interesting wordings and imaginative takes on the world; even if I don't understand exactly what's going on, I can still take immense pleasure in the very way the words sound. And speaking of the sea's green hells, not to shock anyone reading this, but sometimes the very strong and even gory words Chesterton uses add a whole lot of vigor and fun to the poem -
Don John pounding on the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting in of holds...
But I think the very best thing about this little masterpiece is its theme (which could not possibly come out so beautifully if there weren't so many glittering jewels of phrases and sentences in it). At the climax of the story, our hearts soar high as we hear the triumph of nobody over sultan, Christian over infidel, good over evil, worded in exultant bursts of poetry like the pealing of a clear gold bell -
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
It is a glorious resolution of an epic conflict, one that always makes me feel better than I did at the beginning of the poem.
One touch of rosy sunset? G.K. Chesterton has put far more than one touch of rosy sunset to my life. I wonder if he had any idea, when he wrote that poem so long ago, how much it would mean to one little girl nearly 80 years after his death.
We might never know how the good things we do affect those who come after us. It could be that some achievement of ours which seems trivial at the time will have a great impact on the life of someone we will never know. And this is one of the reasons we should strive for beauty: we never know who else may profit from our chase after loveliness.
This realization can change the way we live. Something which has no beauty, no truth, no goodness in it is not worth our time or effort. But if all we do is motivated by a search for and love of the higher and better things, then who knows? We may very well be responsible for putting a touch of rosy sunset in someone's life.
And, as G.K. Chesterton says, anyone who has done that may rest assured with the knowledge that he, a simple member of the human race, has worked with God.
(Oh, and by the way, you really must read The Battle of Lepanto if you haven't already. Here's a link:
Do, do, do give it a try. You may have to read it ten times before it makes sense, but, if you ask me, it's worth it.) :)