The Horrible History of Jones
G. K. Chesterton
for medium high voice and piano
Jones had a dog; it had a chain;
Not often worn, not causing pain;
But, as the I. K. L. had passed
Their 'Unleashed Cousins Act' at last,
Inspectors took the chain away;
Whereat the canine barked 'Hooray!'
At which, of course, the S. P. U.
(Whose Nervous Motorists' Bill was through)
Were forced to give the dog
For being Audibly at Large.
None, you will say, were now
Save, haply, Jones - the yard was void.
But something being
in the lease
About 'alarms to aid the police,'
The U. S. U. annexed
For having no sufficient guard.
Now if there's one condition
The C. C. P. are strong upon
It is that every house one buys
have a yard for exercise;
So Jones, as tenant, was unfit,
His state of
health was proof of it.
Two doctors of the T. T. U.'s
Told him his
legs, from long disuse,
Were atrophied; and saying 'So
From step to
higher step we go
Till everything is New and True.'
They cut his legs
off and withdrew.
You know the E. T. S. T.'s views
Are stronger than
the T. T. U.'s:
And soon (as one may say) took wing
The Arms, though
not the Man, I sing.
To see him sitting limbless there
Was more than
the K. K. could bear.
'In mercy silence with all speed
there are no hands to feed;
What cruel sentimentalist,
O Jones, would
doom thee to exist -
Clinging to selfish Selfhood yet?
Weak one! Such
reasoning might upset
The Pump Act, and the accumulation
Let us construct you up a bit - '
fell off when it was hit:
Then words did rise and honest doubt,
four Commissioners sat about
Whether the slash that left him dead
off his body or his head.
An author in the Isle of Wight
[ 1 ]
Observed with unconcealed delight
land of just and old renown
Where Freedom slowly broadened down
From Precedent to Precedent.
And this, I think, was what he meant.
[ 10 pages, 4' 45" ]
G. K. Chesterton
This dark tale in rhyme of ever more aggressive bureaucracy and
governance tells of the downward spiral for one Mr. Jones from
charitably motivated actions under law to utter depravity, also under
law. The political parties -- all actors named by abbreviations -- play
their dread parts to the ultimate conclusion. The belief in the modern
welfare-oriented state and the rhetoric through which it is purveyed to
the public is not new. Plato told of the argument from millennia ago.
Britannica summarizes the argument nicely:
"Gorgias holds that rhetoric
is the queen of all 'arts.' If the statesman skilled in rhetoric
is clever enough, he can, though a layman, carry the day even
against the specialist. Socrates, on the other hand, declares
that rhetoric is not an art but a mere 'knack' of humouring the
prejudices of an audience."
In the modern state, many state enterprises are presented through the
guise of being for the "good." Among the "good" in the twentieth century
were the Nazi's reprehensible Jewish laws attempting to rid whole
nations of Jewish "contagion," the enthusiastic adoption of eugenicist
Margaret Sanger's "planning" of parenthood which has become the
sacrosanct and state-sponsored aborting of "unwanted" millions per year,
and the long-held allegiance to the capital punishment wherein errors in
judicial procedure and outcome cannot be overturned. The arguments of
politics are, as Socrates so well suggested in a lesson which should be
heeded today, often a mere knack of humoring the prejudices of an
Early on a Socialist and later an avowed anti-Socialist who became
clearly skeptical of government, Chesterton saw political movements as
capable of a kind of creeping incrementalism, layer after layer of well
intentioned laws piling on, eventually becoming a repressive
system in which the "good" was so clearly subsumed to government that an
individual but contrary understanding of "good" itself became a
political offence. The seminal work of George Orwell, at one time also a
Socialist, in "Animal Farm" and "1984" tells metaphorical stories of the
state in which "good" is defined in law, with dire result. Lest this
seem fiction, the history of the Third Reich, Mussolini's Italy, the
Vichy government, the Soviet gulag and Maoist China's Cultural
Revolution, among others of ghastly proportion, all tell the same tale.
This "same tale" begins, as so many did, pleasantly. A modest
introduction brings the opening theme -- a waltz in C major, which
vacillates initially between C and D major. This is meant
dramaturgically to hint at the individual citizen who vacillates between
political positions never realizing how fate is tempted by the smallest
A program note to explain Chesterton's use of initials to name political
parties should be made. It is, of course, common practice throughout
Europe. In Germany, this year's government is ruled in a coalition by
the CDU and SPD, while the FDP and others play outsiders roles. In the
United States, the Republicans' Grand Old Party is often abbreviated the
GOP, and the Democrats' ruling council is called the DNC.
It is interesting that modern politics seems to favor the general over
the specific, the slogan over the unambiguous policy statement and the
abbreviation over a meaningfully chosen name, all the while the old
adage reminds us that the "devil is in the details"
As the continuing return to the waltz theme begins to break apart, other
tonal regions creep into the progression, indicating the coming
dissonances as the dissonance of the story unfolds. The polytonal twist
makes harmonies collide as the doctors diagnose Jones with "atrophied"
legs and amputate -- apparently with his consent, since no mention is
made of Jones not consenting. One considers the historical details of so
many "villagers" marched off by "liberators" to their graves, when
perhaps an uprising would have been much more appropriate. There is at
this point in the story no Warsaw uprising, no counter-revolution, no
resistance. This is what trust in the "political process" often achieves
-- misplaced trust.
And so into the tale step the "empathetic," who would save the sufferer
from his suffering by inflicting yet more "mercy." By this time, the new
key signature of C flat brings the performer far away from many common
tones with the original C major, a reflection of how far "concern" may
carry one into murderousness without too much notice and displacement.
The waltz has disintegrated, and the ensuing quasi-recitative includes
the title of the poem itself, indeed a "horrible history." But such a
history does not end with the death of one. Rather it continues as the
bureaucrats play further through their ongoing work of empty
disputation. After all, that is the mother's milk of the politician and
bureaucrat who so easily and step by step encroach into freedom for
their own "common good." One need only think of so many revolutions
which resulted in death and enslavement of millions, a most modern
[ 3 ]
A final reprise of the C major waltz, now in lower and more somber
A-flat, accompanies the last lines, as Chesterton nods at the meaning of
The enemies of freedom are not merely the fascistic socialists for whom
the "common good" becomes an instrument of enslavement and death, but
those who refuse the lesson given us from centuries ago -- from Socrates
through Chesterton and to today -- with each small step further towards
the "common good" which crushes by degree the "individual good." With
the recurrence of the waltz theme comes the necessity to see this same
story is enacted all over again, a truth of human history.
Must this be the reality of modern life, or is there a chance that
Tennyson's notion as again stressed by Chesterton might hold sway? Shall
we see yet more "banded unions persecute opinions, and induce a time
when single thought is civil crime, and individual freedom mute?" The
likely answer remains -- sadly yes. Would that it were not so.
A cycle of six of G. K. Chesterton's poems is titled
Drolleries and Wisdom.
The score for The Horrible History of Jones is available as a
free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording
of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer.
Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.
History of Jones
[ 1 ]
The poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), lived on the Isle of Wight for
the last 40 years of his life. "A land ... precedent' are from Tennyson's
"You Ask Me, Why." The full text speaks of a sentiment quite like the more
humorous poem by Chesterton, and with which Chesterton obviously agrees.
Freedom remains the freedom to speak one's mind, and to oppose that freedom
tends towards fascistic rhetoric that is "a mere 'knack' of humouring the
prejudices of an audience." [ Britannica ]
You ask me, why, tho' ill at ease,
Within this region I
Whose spirits falter
in the mist,
And languish for the purple seas.
It is the land that freemen till,
The land, where girt
with friends or foes
A man may speak the thing he will,
A land of settled government,
A land of just and old
Where Freedom slowly
From precedent to precedent;
Where faction seldom gathers head,
But, by degrees to
The strength of some
Hath time and space to work and spread.
Should banded unions persecute
Opinions, and induce a
When single thought is
And individual freedom mute,
Tho' power should make from land to land
The name of Britain
trebly great --
Tho' every channel of
Should fill and choke with warm sand --
Yet waft me from the harbor-mouth,
Wild wind! I seek a
And I will see before
The palms and temples of the South.
[ 2 ]
"The devil is in the details."
German-American architect, Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), used this German
German, "Der Teufel steckt im Detail." Mies' early Expressionist memorial to
the murdered Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, dedicated
in 1926, was demolished by the Nazis, reminding us that governments often,
easily and willfully destroy. Mies was formative in the modern skyscraper
movement, and director of the School of Architecture at Chicago's Armour
Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology), after fleeing the
Nazi travesty in Germany. Among his many buildings are included the Seagram
Building in New York City, the Bacardi Building in Mexico City, One Charles
Center office building in Baltimore, the Federal Center in Chicago, the
Public Library in Washington, D. C, and the Gallery of the Twentieth Century
(later called the New National Gallery) in Berlin, dedicated in 1968.
originally as a German or Swiss French proverb, an inverse of the quote is
ascribed to the early twentieth century Swiss architect, "Le Corbusier"
whose real name was Charles-Joseph Jeanneret. He created a movement known as
the International Style. Known for his designs with unusual curves and
unconventional shapes, he suggested that "God is in the details." But God is
not the devil, and the "goodly" outcome of Chesterton's "The Horrible
History of Jones" is most assuredly not godly.
manifestos by Le Corbusier (1887-1965) --
The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (1925) and The
Radiant City (1933), he called for a dramatic break with the past,
demanding that "existing centers must come down. To save itself every great
city must rebuild its center." He advocated high-rise tenements in a
movement called Urbanism, and is quoted as saying "by law, all buildings
should be painted white." He imagined massive apartment buildings -- which
later generations of architects laughing term "Collectorates" --
housing as many as forty thousand people, and a Modernist, urbanist movement
architecture as a tool of social collectivism was spawned. He is
quoted, "All cities have fallen into a state of anarchy." Oddly as some of
Le Corbusier's buildings which turned into slum areas are being razed,
perhaps his designs were also not as godly as he portrayed them to be.
Rather they ultimately contributed to the "anarchy" against which he
proposed his answer. History appears to yet again be correcting the
"collective" which deprive individuals of their individualism for the sake
of a collectivist's notion of the "common good." Oddly, some of Le
Corbusier's still prized designs are for single, smaller buildings including
churches and furniture. They, of course, remain "individual," not a part of
some massive collective --
the ready-made slum which he did not foresee as the error of his
political opinion blinded the novelty of his individual artistic vision.
se cache dans les détails." The notion is however not that new as a proverb.
(circa 4 BCE - 65 CE) wrote "Errare humanum est. Perseverare diabolicum."
[To err is human. To repeat error is of the devil.]
repetition of horrendous state-sponsored acts as Chesterton's poem outlines
is so easily in man's recent political history worldwide; that man has not
learned this lesson since the time of Seneca seems proof that the political
animal is ultimately not about heeding the lessons of history, about
classical learning nor about the "common good." Those who would argue
against this argue against centuries of wisdom, the most enduring of the
arts, architecture and literature, and the most productive of thinkers down
through the ages.
[ 3 ]
The clarity of Chesterton's tale is reflected in the reality that Jones is
"the forgotten man," a phrase telling much about "the reformer, the social
speculator, and philanthropist...." One reads:
soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is
suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law
passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine
what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for
X... What I want to do is to look up C... I call him the forgotten man...
He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, the
social speculator, and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get
through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many
burdens which are laid upon him." In "The Forgotten Man and Other
Essays," by William Graham Sumner, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven,
Yale University Press, 1918).