The Secret People

G. K. Chesterton was a prolific author of almost kind every – poetry, novels, apologetics, journalism. He wrote a poem called “The Secret People”, rich in historical allusions. Below is the poem, with some explanation and analysis. An uninterrupted version of the poem can be found here.

The Secret People

by G. K. Chesterton

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The gist of the poem is well-established in the first stanza – the English are the “Secret People”, both wise and helpless.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.

Even the British … The French came over multiple times, most notably the Normans, who conquered England and, rather than making it French, became English themselves.

The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.

“Bosworth” is evidently the Battle of Bosworth Field, fought in 1485. It was the conclusive battle of the War of the Roses, the civil war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England, was killed by Henry Tudor and his followers.

Henry Tudor, as the last Lancastrian noble with any claim to royal heritage, had been Richard’s rival. The Tudors fled first to Brittany, and then to France. In the Battle of Bosworth, there were more French mercenaries fighting on Henry’s side than there were Englishmen.

And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.

Here Chesterton first notes the growing greatness of the “King’s Servants”. The King, the following verses make plain, is Henry VIII, a king of the dynasty that had been founded when “the blood ran red to Bosworth”.

They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.

“Shaven men” is an antiquated term for monks, heralding back to the time when their custom of being clean-shaven set them apart. This is the Dissolution of the Monasteries that took place under Henry VIII. Following the establishment of the Church of England, and the king’s establishment as its head, the Crown disbanded the monasteries, convents, and friaries, confiscating their property and revenue.

The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

I love the first line of this – the inns of God, the wall of the weak.

A new stanza begins:

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.

This can be taken as a metaphor for the gradual devolution of the monarchy, until the kings of England were so stripped of power that they became figureheads. But it can also be taken as a historical event, with the King being Charles I and the King’s Servants Oliver Cromwell and company.

The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

The first line is another reference to the English officials who devoured ecclesiastical wealth. “The new religion” is Protestantism; some (English) Puritans were known to keep their Bibles in their boots – not least among them soldiers who fought for Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was a Protestant who believed that the Reformation had not been radical enough. He was a leader in the Parliament’s struggle against King Charles, and an advocate of his execution. After Charles was beheaded, they declared the United Kingdom a republic, calling it the Commonwealth of England.

Chesterton paints the English people as ambivalent to their ambitions: England talks of ale while they (the few) talk of freedom. This leads directly into the next stanza:

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.

From Charles and Cromwell Chesterton jumps about a century to the awakening of democracy and the rebellion against kings in America, France, and Ireland. The fire, Chesterton asserts, did not catch in England: They “knew not”, and “understood not”. Britain is a democracy, but Chesterton writes – as others have said – that while they adopted the forms, they did not really adopt the spirit.

Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,

This is what Chesterton has to say for his countrymen: Even if they weren’t free men, they were men, and even if they would always be weak, there was a time when no one could condemn them.

The naval battle of Trafalgar took place in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. The British dealt a significant and decisive defeat to Napoleon. La Albuera is a Spanish village that was the place of a battle between Britain and France during the Peninsula War – another installment of the Napoleonic Wars. The British were victorious over the French – and, more particularly, over Napoleon.

We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

If there is one word no one these days would apply to the French, it is “fierce”. The French have such a reputation for cowardice and weakness, it is good to remember that only two hundred years ago they were the terror of Europe. “The man who seemed to be more than a man” must be Napoleon, because Trafalgar and Albuera were British victories in the Napoleonic Wars. This is Chesterton’s history: The people of England, in breaking Napoleon, preserved the rule of their masters – and so broke their rights.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,

Once upon a time, “the squire” was a man of such power that some historians coined the term “squirearchy”. From the late 17th century to the early 20th century, English villages were dominated by one family that owned most of the land. The head of this family was known as “the squire”. Often the squire was the patron of the local parish, giving him authority to choose the rector. The squire was also the local justice of the peace, and a Member of Parliament.

Incidentally, those who have read The Flying Inn may be recognizing Philip Ivywood.

He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.

The phrase “cringing Jew” is painful to modern ears; “staggering lawyer” is not. Chesterton suggests that, perhaps, the seed of the squire’s downfall was sown in Napoleon’s defeat. On the other hand, perhaps not:

Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:

“Shades” is an old word for “ghosts”. Chesterton makes the squires – whose rise to power took place after the sacking of the monasteries – the class that plundered the monks. He creates an evocative image of the “shades of the shaven men” coming back “in shining shapes”. The squires’ ill-gotten gain, the poet suggests, brought them ill at last.

We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

With the dissolution of the squirearchy Chesterton again takes us forward about a hundred years, from the early 19th century to the early 20th century. In the next stanza he goes on to describe the new ruling class:

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

There is some wonderful writing in this stanza  – “they know no songs”, “bright dead alien eyes”, “They look at our labor and our laughter as a tired man looks at flies.” This last one tells us all we really need to know about the new lords and their relationship with the people. “Loveless pity” is an interesting and valuable phrase, putting into stark contrast the difference between loving someone and feeling sorry for him.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.

“Russia’s wrath” must be the overthrow of the Tsars, although that uprising brought anything but freedom. It may seem curious that Chesterton says that the Frenchmen rose first when the American revolution preceded theirs. This comes from a view of Chesterton’s that he expressed in A Short History of England:

“We did not really drive away the American colonists, nor were they driven. They were led on by a light that went before. That light came from France, like the armies of Lafayette that came to the help of Washington. France was already in travail with the tremendous spiritual revolution which was soon to reshape the world.”

It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.

“God’s scorn for all men governing” is an interesting phrase, and seems to indicate the truth that power and authority ultimately belong only to God. “It may be beer is best” is a cheerfully fatalistic line, and not without a tinge of irony. Fittingly, though maybe not intentionally, it echoes the earlier remark about ale. That remark was in reference to the Commonwealth of England, which collapsed after eleven years when they invited the son of the king they killed to come and reign over them.

But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

Chesterton finishes, and the end – to sound like the great author for a moment – is the beginning.

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