As I Was Saying/Essay XXXVI
|Essay XXXV|| As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXVI: About Royal Weddings
I MAY explain that I am one of the people who really like weddings. Or, rather, to speak more strictly, I am one of the few people who admit, and even boast, that they like weddings. If I took quite simply and seriously the testimony of a long succession of individuals whom I have met, and with whom I have conversed on the topic, I should be bound to deduce that they all of them detest weddings. They always describe them as orgies of futility and fatigue; as occasions of flaunting vulgarity or sickly sentimentalism; as crushes and crowds of stuffy relations, made more insupportable by the intolerable presence of priests or parsons in churches or chapels; for it is generally agreed that having to have parsons is an even more horrible calamity than the horror of having any relations. In short, it may logically and definitely be deduced that most human beings abhor and repudiate weddings, especially these important weddings; which is why the church is always crowded to the roof with a mob big enough to burst all the doors and windows.
In fact, I have noticed that the person who claims to hate weddings is generally the person who makes them hateful. It is precisely the sort of lady who stands on a chair to count the duchesses, or talks in a loud voice about who might have married whom, who eventually staggers out of the crowd, laden with snapshots of all the wealthiest people and autographs of all the more vulgar celebrities, to cry aloud in utter weariness how much she loathes weddings. But all these loathsome things, including the lady herself, are not a wedding. When I say I like a wedding, I do not mean that I like what interrupts a wedding, stifles a wedding, obscures all sight or sound of a wedding, or distracts everybody's mind from the very idea of a wedding. I mean I like the idea of a wedding. This will be quite enough of a paradox for my fiendish critics to digest. The actual words of the Anglican Marriage Service, for instance, seem to me to be a triumph of the English tongue at least as great as anything in Milton or Shakespeare; and it can be said of them more than of most poems and even great poems that to any one who can feel them they are always fresh and even surprising. And they deal with things that have nothing whatever to do with the paltry frivolities or passing fashions of our particular state of society; which (let us hope) is passing too. They are really worthy to have been spoken over Adam and Eve, in a voice that breathes o'er Eden, not merely in a breath, but a thunder-clap.
Next, we may consider the aspect of one recent special occasion, in the sense in which it is quite truly called a historic occasion. The old forms of heraldry and chivalry, the ancient emblems of feudal or dynastic dedication, the varied colours of nationality, or the tremendous traditions of religion, which are by custom resurrected in such a ritual, are not merely false or merely futile things. They are generally a more genuine record of history than we find in the books of history; and certainly not so false, and not so futile, as the sort of journalistic history which is now popularized by the prigs who are the only educators of our uneducated plutocracy. They represent, of course, particular traditions and not the whole truth, particular loyalties and not all to which men should be loyal. But they represent them correctly and historically, and as they really were. They represent them much more truly than they are represented in the cheap educational works now so widely advertised, in which it is suggested that popular monarchies must have been unpopular because they had monarchs; or that ancient priesthoods must have been indefensible, because they defended themselves long enough to be called ancient. We hear a great deal in the historical world about the necessity of consulting contemporary documents. It is not sufficiently remembered that every costume or coat-of-arms, every flag or escutcheon, always is a contemporary document. Education itself might be educated, the happiest yet most helpless dream of our time, if people would only learn so much as the real history of a few uniforms or liveries.
Or again, the international aspect of such an occasion ought to interest any man who is, as every man obviously ought to be, both an internationalist and a nationalist. The fact that the bride represented the Royal House of Greece is alone enough to bring us back to a more liberal interest in Europe, which was one of the really marked superiorities of what is now derided as the liberal epoch. The queer provincial imperialism, now preached in so many parts of the Press, does not strike me as in any way superior to those hopes about the resurrection of Hellas, for which Byron died and Gladstone pleaded. Whatever agreements or disagreements there may be about details of diplomacy, every educated person must agree that the re-establishment of Greece was a landmark of history. It was the first modern constructive check, or obstacle, to the long unlimited and fatalistic landslide of Islam. Or again, the presence of the Greek priest and the grand Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox Church, side by side with the national tradition of Westminster, though neither is of my own cult, is a real reminder of the universal part played by religion in the past. It is certainly of far more interest to any thinking person than the unthinking ramblings about modern religion to be found in the modern newspapers. And the fact that the lady whom we all welcomed to the ruling family of our country is also connected with the heroic story of a Balkan people, may serve to remind us that epics and empire and a great peasant culture belonged to Serbia before politicians and pressmen had the fancy of calling it Yugoslavia.
Some of our journalists want to jockey us into a sort of Jingo pacifism; an insularity which essentially denies that we are a civilized country and a part of civilization. They would assure us feverishly that Dover can have no possible relation to Calais. They would insist that no single Englishman, in all history, has ever pronounced or mispronounced the name of Wipers. They must wonder artlessly why a seventeenth-century cannon in the Castle at Edinburgh still bears the name of Mons Meg. They may possibly be puzzled by the fact of an English country-house being called Blenheim or a London railway-station being called Waterloo. I do not know where they draw the line; but I must confess to a certain glee and gratification in the fact that this Royal Marriage did not even confine itself to a Channel-tunnel between Dover and Calais, but actually built a bridge that stretches across all Europe from the western extreme of Great Britain to the eastern extreme of Greece. It is the great defect of a mere mechanical machinery of majorities that it always leaves out that great democracy of the dead who are truly described as the great majority. Rituals and festivals, like those of a great national or international wedding-day, contain a thousand things to remind us that our countrymen inherit an experience much more lively and complex than any such local and temporary solution; and warn us against allowing the present to become more narrow than the past.