[A] captain facing a “rage for suicide” seized upon a woman “as a proper example to the rest.” He ordered the woman tied with a rope under her armpits and lowered into the water: “When the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about half way down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appearing red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle.”

– Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007)


When cultivated cranks say that rustics do not talk of Nature in an appreciative way, they really mean that they do not talk in a bookish way. They do not talk bookishly about clouds or stones, or pigs or slugs, or horses or anything you please. They talk piggishly about pigs; and sluggishly, I suppose, about slugs; and are refreshingly horsy about horses. They speak in a stony way of stones; they speak in a cloudy way of clouds; and this is surely the right way. And if by any chance a simple intelligent person from the country comes in contact with any aspect of Nature unfamiliar and arresting, such a person’s comment is always worth remark. It is sometimes an epigram, and at worst it is never a quotation.

– G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

An artist is someone who believes in art, who believes that art reflects something which is real in life, who tries to see and reveal to others what life is in his own time by making it art. If he panders to his time, saying what his time says no matter how his art cries out against him, he is a witch, and dangerous: Tennyson, for instance, in his praise—or seeming praise—of what happened at the valley of death. If he panders to tradition, paying no mind to the howls and whimpers and giggles of his age, he is a self-righteous pedant and nostalgia-monger, an impediment to civilized progress.

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)

Since bad art has a harmful effect on society, it should never go unchallenged; but since the bad artist (like the good one) is an artist at all only because he claims he is, and has gotten at least one other person to believe him, how is he to be challenged? The only available rules are those of the gunfighter.

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)

Fairy tales are the only sound guidebooks to life; I like the Fairy Prince to ride on a white pony out of his father’s stables, which are of ivory and gold. But if in the course of his adventures he finds it necessary to travel on a flaming dragon, I think he ought to give the dragon back to the witch at the end of the story. It is a mistake to have dragons about the place.

– G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

This elderly man, very kind, very cordially mediocre, was content to relax his mind and let the years roll by him. He had amassed a fine library of his own works, which he lent out to strangers and which no one in Paris ever read. Every year, in the spring, he would replenish his ideas in Germany. Fat and unwashed, he carried with him everywhere a roll of dirty paper that could be seen protruding from his pocket: he used to stop on street corners and consign his passing thoughts to this filthy scroll. On the pedestal of his marble bust, he had with his own two hands traced the following inscription, borrowed from a bust of Buffon: god, man, nature, he has explained them all. Delisle de Sales had explained them all! Such pomposities are quite amusing, but also quite disheartening. Who can flatter himself and claim that he has real talent? Might it not be that, so long as we live, we are under the sway of an illusion similar to that of Delisle de Sales? I would wager that some author who is reading this sentence believes himself a writer of genius and is in fact nothing but a cretin.

– François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800 (New York: NYRB Classics, 2018)

For the robbers have not vanished from the old high forests to the west of the great city. The thieves have not vanished; they have grown so large that they are invisible. You do not see the word “Asia” written across a map of that neighbourhood; nor do you see the word “Thief” written across the countrysides of England; though it is really written in equally large letters. I know men governing despotically great stretches of that country, whose every step in life has been such that a slip would have sent them to Dartmoor; but they trod along the high hard wall between right and wrong, the wall as sharp as a swordedge, as softly and craftily and lightly as a cat. The vastness of their silent violence itself obscured what they were at; if they seem to stand for the rights of property it is really because they have so often invaded them. And if they do not break the laws, it is only because they make them.

– G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

Poets draw out the shy refinement of the rabble. Where the common man covers the queerest emotions by saying, “Rum little kid,” Victor Hugo will write “L’art d’etre grand-pere”; where the stockbroker will only say abruptly, “Evenings closing in now,” Mr. Yeats will write “Into the twilight”; where the navvy can only mutter something about pluck and being “precious game,” Homer will show you the hero in rags in his own hall defying the princes at their banquet. The Poets carry the popular sentiments to a keener and more splendid pitch; but let it always be remembered that it is the popular sentiments that they are carrying. No man ever wrote any good poetry to show that childhood was shocking, or that twilight was gay and farcical, or that a man was contemptible because he had crossed his single sword with three. The people who maintain this are the Professors, or Prigs.

– G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

There is very little ground, either from reason or observation, to conclude the world eternal or incorruptible. The continual and rapid motion of matter, the violent revolutions with which every part is agitated, the changes remarked in the heavens, the plain traces as well as tradition of an universal deluge, or general convulsion of the elements; all these prove strongly the mortality of this fabric of the world, and its passage, by corruption or dissolution, from one state or order to another. It must therefore, as well as each individual form which it contains, have its infancy, youth, manhood, and old age; and it is probable, that, in all these variations, man, equally with every animal and vegetable, will partake.

– David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1758)

Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind.

G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

I have never understood what people mean by domesticity being tame; it seems to me one of the wildest of adventures. But if you wish to see how high and harsh and fantastic an adventure it is, consider only the actual structure of a house itself. A man may march up in a rather bored way to bed; but at least he is mounting to a height from which he could kill himself. Every rich, silent, padded staircase, with banisters of oak, stair-rods of brass, and busts and settees on every landing, every such staircase is truly only an awful and naked ladder running up into the Infinite to a deadly height. The millionaire who stumps up inside the house is really doing the same thing as the tiler or roof-mender who climbs up outside the house; they are both mounting up into the void. They are both making an escalade of the intense inane. Each is a sort of domestic mountaineer; he is reaching a point from which mere idle falling will kill a man; and life is always worth living while men feel that they may die.

– G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)