Was It Really G K Chesterton Who Said…

G K ChestertonI’ve been having a bit of a problem about G K Chesterton.

He was a great English writer around the turn of the 20th century. He is probably best known for his Father Brown mysteries. But he was more of what we think of as a public intellectual. He wrote about a great many things. And he influenced generations of writers. As diverse a collection as C S Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, and Neil Gaiman were all profoundly influenced by him.

I tend to think of him as a conservative thinker. But at this point, that phrase — “conservative thinker” — seems mostly a contradiction. But there was a time when this was not necessarily the case. It is, after all, possible to respect tradition and yet be open to change. I don’t think he was incorrect when he wrote, “He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative” — although I’m aware that a lot of conservatives think this without cause. Chesterton, however, was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw. The two of them apparently had wide ranging discussions during which they rarely agreed. I’m sure they disagreed about religion (Shaw was an atheist of my variety and Chesterton was a Christian) and politics (Shaw was a socialist and Chesterton wasn’t even keen on democracy).

But my problem has nothing to do with Chesterton’s beliefs. He is a highly quotable guy. In fact, in my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Chesterton appears on three pages with 30 different quotations. But the following one attributed to him in the pilot episode of Ripping Yarns is not there:

It is hard to nail down the quote, because even the director in this skit (Terry Jones) isn’t consistent. But I assume that this is the quote, “The follies of men’s youth are in retrospect glorious compared to the follies of old age.” It’s a great quote. I want to use it. But I think that it wasn’t Chesterton. And even in the skit, Michael Palin says, “I think it was…” So maybe they just figured that Chesterton had the kind of intellectual oomph they were looking for.

But I can’t seem to find the quotation anywhere except by people who got it from Ripping Yarns. Is it possible that Palin and Jones wrote it? The sentiment sounds eternal — like it is found somewhere in the Old Testament. At the same time, the sentence structure is lovely. But I don’t like feeling ignorant on this point. So if anyone knows anything, please let me know.

10 thoughts on “Was It Really G K Chesterton Who Said…

  1. I can’t answer your question about the quotation, but I did want to share one of my favoriate, humourous passages from Chesterton’s The Ball and The Cross (chapter 6):

    Though their pace was steady it was vigorous; their faces were heated and their eyes fixed and bright …
    “Are you all right?” said Turnbull, with civility. “Can you keep this up?”
    “Quite easily, thank you,” replied MacIan. “I run very well.”
    “Is that a qualification in a family of warriors?” asked Turnbull.
    “Undoubtedly. Rapid movement is essential,” answered MacIan, who never saw a joke in his life.

  2. It may be loosely based on The Rolling English Road, where the last verse goes
    “My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
    Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
    But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
    And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
    For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
    Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

  3. Thank you for exploring this quote. The source has plagued me since I first heard it on Ripping Yarns. If Monte Python alumni credit it to Chesterton, that should be validation enough–in some quarters at least.

    • I think that’s a good theory! Although I’m fine with saying, “I think it was Terry Jones and Michael Palin who said…”

  4. I can’t find quotes that I have read in books on the computer even, Frank.

    One I’ve read that I can’t find is by Queen Elizabeth blessing Oxford, another I tried to find was meant to be by Wagner, but may not be, as it was in a tongue-in-cheek comic book on genius.

    “The artist is Prometheus carrying a God-like torch of fire, and for this reason is doomed to an eternity of torment.”

    Richard Wagner

    “He’s worse than I thought!”

    Wagner’s psychiatrist.

    • That’s funny! The truth is, the internet is not quite the research tool that people often think. It’s hit-and-miss. With the Chesterton quote, however, I tend to think it’s just something Palin or Jones came up with. It’s a beautifully crafted sentence. Why not give it to Chesterton?!

  5. I’m so relieved to find this thread! I love the quote and skit. I’ve been trying find it for the opening of a novella I have written. I am still going to use it but won’t attribute to Chesterton. I would use Palin, but Jones obviously knows it better. So, I’m guessing he actually wrote it. Thanks!

    • It still bothers me. If you do happen upon it, please drop by and let me know!

      RIP Terry Jones, a very smart guy but also one of the greatest physical comedians of all time.

Leave a Reply