The Original Firmamentalist

The guv’nor

It’s appropriate for the Firmamentalist’s first post to show where I have taken the title of this blog from. It’s where I’ve taken most of my titles from–the poetry of G. K. Chesterton.


I remember, I remember
Long before I was born,
The tree-tops where my racial self
Went dancing round at morn.

Green wavering archipelagos,
Great gusty bursts of blue,
In my race-memory I recall
(Or I am told I do).

In that green-turreted Monkeyville
(So I have often heard)
It seemed as if a Blue Baboon
Might soar like a Blue Bird.

Low crawling Fundamentalists
Glared up through the green mist,
I hung upon my tail in heaven
A Firmamentalist.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I am too fat to climb a tree,
There are no trees to climb;
Instead, the factory chimneys rise,
Unscaleable, sublime.

The past was bestial ignorance:
But I feel a little funky,
To think I’m further off from heaven
Than when I was a monkey.

~G.K. Chesterton (1925)

Like a lot of Chesterton’s writing, which are mostly mined for quotations these days, it has been written in a seemingly off-hand fashion, but there’s actually a lot going on beneath the surface here. The verse form and structure is taken from Thomas Hood’s poem I Remember, I Remember, written 100 years before Chesterton’s version. Hood is not remembered now as much as he used to be, people either tend to focus on his syrupy lyrics (which I Remember, I Remember certainly is), or his humorous poems which hinge on an ingenious use of punning, sometimes to layer the meaning three deep.

The other obvious references–much more obvious to the modern reader–are to Darwinism and the idea of a “race-memory”, or what Jung termed the collective unconscious, both of which ideas (unlike Hood) are still taught in school. It should also be stated contextually that Chesterton is a Christian, having converted to Catholicism from Protestantism within the last three years. This poem therefore is an amusing fusion of the idea of Creationism and Evolution, using the idea of a shared race memory to catalyse the two.

Now, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, fifteen years before Chesterton was born. And although there will probably always be people arguing the Evolution/Creation debate, the conflict was hardly current at the time of Chesterton’s writing. And even Jung’s concepts had long since filtered, fittingly, into the collective conscious. So what inspired Chesterton to make such a statement?

One possible impulse could have come from the The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes trial, also referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial which took place during the same year that Chesterton wrote this poem. John Scopes was being sued by the state of Tennessee for teaching evolutionary theory to a high school class while he was a substitute teacher. There is too much in the case to sum up, but the result of it was a ruling and a fine against John Scopes, and a further polarisation of the issue in the public awareness.

Then comes this poem which reconciles both the Old Testament and scientific evidence very easily and lightly. The poem itself is written from the perspective of “A Dazed Darwinian”, and although that could mean that Chesterton is creating a straw-man to make light of, the description of the poet as being “too fat to climb a tree” certainly fits Chesterton. The viewpoint of the poem is consistent with the rest of his writing, so it is safe to assume that Chesterton himself is speaking through this poem. Ultimately, he says that Darwin’s propositions in no way contradict any description of humanity’s creation in Genesis, and in fact each side of the “debate” can illuminate the other and perhaps give us a much fuller picture of what happened. This idea is not rare in Christian Theology, witness Karl Barth’s letter to his niece, written in 1965, but because of its nuance, it is often shouted down by both sides of the debate, which is usually characterized as a stark atheist/religious rally point by both sides.

And in the middle of that poem is that beautiful word that only Chesterton could have created: Firmamentalist. Meaning, presumably, a person who is rooted in the firmament, a more medieval word for the stars and the heavens, rather than the fundament, the earth and the dirt. And this is what Chesterton is so wonderful at–the turning of an idea or an assumption on top of itself, and in doing so making you realise that the preconceived fact has always been on its head all along, and he has merely turned it right-side up for the first time.

Fun fact: I have met the young girl in this photo--G K Chesterton's god-daughter. She was a very elderly lady who stayed in the rest home down the street from one of my houses in Oxford.

Fun fact: I have met the young girl in this photo–G K Chesterton’s god-daughter. She was a very elderly lady who stayed in the rest home down the street from one of my houses in Oxford.