Chesterton On Democratic Civilization, Human Nature, and Telegraph Poles

Frequent contributor Mr. Chesterton here again, this time with a little story and rumination combination. What’s it about? Well, as my post title suggests, Democratic Civilization, Human Nature, and the titular Telegraph Poles. I’ve decided not to enclose the text in WordPress’ “block quotes,” because that narrows the margins and italicizes the text, making a piece even this long that much harder to read. Nonetheless, all that comes after Chesterton’s name below is his (but for one edit I made in brackets). Enjoy and ponder, please:


The Telegraph Poles

by G.K. Chesterton

My friend and I were walking in one of those wastes of pine-wood which make inland seas of solitude in every part of Western Europe; which have the true terror of a desert, since they are uniform, and so one may lose one’s way in them. Stiff, straight, and similar, stood up all around us the pines of the wood, like the pikes of a silent mutiny. There is a truth in talking of the variety of Nature; but I think that Nature often shows her chief strangeness in her sameness. There is weird rhythm in this very repetition; it is as if the earth were resolved to repeat a single shape until the shape shall turn terrible.

Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as “dog,” thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like “snark” or “pobble.” It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition. In the end a dog [looks] about as startling and undecipherable as Leviathan or Croquemitaine.

It may be that this explains the repetitions in Nature; it may be for this reason that there are so many million leaves and pebbles. Perhaps they are not repeated so that they may grow familiar. Perhaps they are repeated only in the hope that they may at last grow unfamiliar. Perhaps a man is not startled at the first cat he sees, but jumps into the air with surprise at the seventy-ninth cat. Perhaps he has to pass through thousands of pine trees before he finds the one that is really a pine tree. However, this may be, there is something singularly thrilling, even something urgent and intolerant, about the endless forest repetitions; there is the hint of something like madness in that musical monotony of the pines.

I said something like this to my friend; and he answered with sardonic truth, “Ah, you wait till we come to a telegraph post.”

* * * *

My friend was right, as he occasionally is in our discussions, especially upon points of fact. We had crossed the pine forest by one of its paths which happened to follow the wires of the provincial telegraphy; and though the poles occurred at long intervals they made a difference when they came. The instant we came to the straight pole we could see that the pines were not really straight. It was like a hundred straight lines drawn with schoolboy pencils all brought to judgment suddenly by one straight line drawn with a ruler. All the amateur lines seemed to reel to right and left. A moment before I could have sworn they stood as straight as lances; now I could see them curve and waver everywhere, like scimitars and yataghans. Compared with the telegraph post the pines were crooked-and alive. That lonely vertical rod at once deformed and enfranchised the forest. It tangled it all together and yet made it free, like any grotesque undergrowth of oak or holly.

“Yes,” said my gloomy friend, answering my thoughts. “You don’t know what a wicked shameful thing straightness is if you think these trees are straight. You never will know till your precious intellectual civilization builds a forty-mile forest of telegraph poles.”

* * * *

A Telegraph Pole

We had started walking from our temporary home later in the day than we intended; and the long afternoon was already lengthening itself out into a yellow evening when we came out of the forest on to the hills above a strange town or village, of which the lights had already begun to glitter in the darkening valley. The change had already happened which is the test and definition of evening, I mean that while the sun seemed still as bright, the earth was growing blacker against it, especially at the edges, he hills and the pine-tops. This brought out yet more clearly the owlish secrecy of pine-woods; and my friend cast a regretful glance at them as he came out under the sky. Then he turned to the view in front; and, as it happened, one of the telegraph posts stood up in front of him in the last sunlight. It was no longer crossed and softened by the more delicate lines of pine wood; it stood up ugly, arbitrary, and angular as any crude figure in geometry. My friend stopped, pointing his stick at it, and all his anarchic philosophy rushed to his lips.

“Demon,” he said to me briefly, “behold your work. That place of proud trees behind us is what the world was before you civilized men, Christians or democrats or the rest, came to make it dull with your dreary rules of morals and equality. In the silent fight of that forest, tree fights speechless against tree, branch against branch. And the upshot of that dumb battle is inequality-and beauty. Now lift up your eyes and look at equality and ugliness. See how regularly the white buttons are arranged on that black stick, and defend your dogmas if you dare.”

“Is that telegraph post so much a symbol of democracy?” I asked. “I fancy that while three men have made the telegraph to get dividends, about a thousand men have preserved the forest to cut wood. But if the telegraph pole is hideous (as I admit) it is not due to doctrine but rather to commercial anarchy. If any one had a doctrine about a telegraph pole it might be carved in ivory and decked with gold. Modern things are ugly, because modern men are careless, not because they are careful.”

“No,” answered my friend with his eye on the end of a splendid and sprawling sunset, “there is something intrinsically deadening about the very idea of a doctrine. A straight line is always ugly. Beauty is always crooked. These rigid posts at regular intervals are ugly because they are carrying across the world the real message of democracy.”

“At this moment,” I answered, “they are probably carrying across the world the message, ‘Buy Bulgarian Rails.’ They are probably the prompt communication between some two of the wealthiest and wickedest of His children with whom God has ever had patience. No; these telegraph poles are ugly and detestable, they are inhuman and indecent. But their baseness lies in their privacy, not in their publicity. That black stick with white buttons is not the creation of the soul of a multitude. It is the mad creation of the souls of two millionaires.”

“At least you have to explain,” answered my friend gravely, “how it is that the hard democratic doctrine and the hard telegraphic outline have appeared together; you have . . . But bless my soul, we must be getting home. I had no idea it was so late. Let me see, I think this is our way through the wood. Come, let us both curse the telegraph post for entirely different reasons and get home before it is dark.”

We did not get home before it was dark. For one reason or another we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods. When my friend, after the first five minutes’ march, had fallen over a log, and I, ten minutes after, had stuck nearly to the knees in mire, we began to have some suspicion of our direction. At last my friend said, in a low, husky voice:

“I’m afraid we’re on the wrong path. It’s pitch dark.”

“I thought we went the right way,” I said, tentatively.

“Well,” he said; and then, after a long pause, “I can’t see any telegraph poles. I’ve been looking for them.”

“So have I,” I said. “They’re so straight.”

We groped away for about two hours of darkness in the thick of the fringe of trees which seemed to dance round us in derision. Here and there, however, it was possible to trace the outline of something just too erect and rigid to be a pine tree. By these we finally felt our way home, arriving in a cold green twilight before dawn.

7 thoughts on “Chesterton On Democratic Civilization, Human Nature, and Telegraph Poles

  1. What they cursed for their various & differing reasons turned into their salvation. How ironic is the foolishness of man in his frequent despising of God’s providence because it was not done in the manner that he would prefer! Have been reading Chesterton’s “Everlasting Man” and he was shooting down the evolutionists way back in 1925! What an amazing and gifted writer; even our mutual friend says so.

  2. My heart is chilled at the thought of a forest of telegraph poles. I would weep to see it. But the point here is well-made, with the poles among the trees.

  3. The problem is not that there is a collusion between democracy and capitalism, a la De Tocqueville, that brings change of an unnatural uniformity and divisiveness which has humanity veering from more ‘natural’ relations and or surroundings.The problem is really that capitalism justifies itself by seeding a small degree of power to the masses through representative democracy. Were we to see direct democracy become the system of government the people would be in a position to determine whether they wanted these types of dehumanising developementls in the first place. Do human beings really want to be seen as commodifiable forms living within a simple cash nexus? I think if Carlyle and Chesterton were alive today they would say we all should decide.

  4. I’ve been thinking a bit about the end of the excerpt. They can’t find their way until they find the poles, again. What is that trying to say? I suppose it may be something alike to ‘they are beautiful when we need them.’ Or perhaps something a little less pointed, like ‘their utility is great in a pinch.’ But there is something about today’s poles and proles that gives it a bit more sinister. If a modern writer was chatting about all this I would think that the point is ‘whether you are lost or found, capitalism and democracy continue without you. Try to keep up or stumble around the dark. No one cares.’

    I can’t decide what sounds better or if any are the intention at all.

    1. I think that Chesterton related the end of this anecdote as a way of showing that the products of civilization are not always evil or a thing to be sad about. It is good for mankind to shape the world. That is not to say that all our shaping is good — for not all men are good or wise, and even the wisest and best fall to sin and are fools before God. But the marks of civilization can make the natural world less deadly and confusing to men, and that can be good. It’s hard to know exactly what Chesterton meant since I can’t talk with him nor do I have a written explanation from him; also, if this story really came from an actual experience, he may be just observing what happened rather than trying to force a meaning on it. But I think he would warn against the dual extremes: 1) worshiping scientific/technological progress and putting one’s faith in man’s conquest of nature, and in the process destroying nature without thought to its inherent value as part of God’s creation, and 2) worshiping an ideal of untouched nature and hating any attempt to shape, garden, or steward it.

      The telegraph poles are good things for transmitting telegrams, and their presence across the countryside may also help people lost at night find their ways safely home. The romantic poet may lament a loss of some sense of “wildness” to the land where they are, but these effects at least are good ones.

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