Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
"The Donkey"

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"The Donkey"

G. K. Chesterton

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Here is a great mystery, yet it stands before us in broad daylight:

“The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Let’s think about this a bit. It isn’t a touch of divine irony, fooling our reasonable expectations that the first should be first, or close to it, and the last should be last, as they always are, and as they seem to want to stay. Just consider it from a human point of view. The proud man is stuffed full of himself. He has no room for anything else. He can’t learn, because then he’d have to admit that he doesn’t know it all already. He finds it very hard to love, because when you love, you are brought out of yourself, for the true lover stands in wonder before the beloved, saying, “How good it is that you exist!” But the proud man is too much preoccupied in how he looks in the eyes of other people. He’s so rich in his own intellectual or material or even spiritual resources, he doesn’t know how poor he is, so he doesn’t get fed; it’s as if he had a kind of odd disease that keeps you from taking nourishment because you feel so utterly full. And what’s worse, you believe that you are utterly full.

In our Poem of the Week, G. K. Chesterton speaks as if with the voice of the one animal that seems a mockery of the horse that he ought to be, like a crazy joke that nature had played on him. The animal is the donkey. Do we talk about thoroughbred donkeys? Maybe — I’m not a farmer, so I can’t say for certain, but I can say that I’ve never heard it. Does anyone praise the sleekness and leanness and the glossy shine of the donkey? No, because the donkey is none of those things. He’s bulky and oddly shaped, and his hairs are coarse and dull. Does the donkey seem to anticipate the touch of man, to warm up to him, to say, with a gentle whinny, “I will agree to be your friend and your servant”? It’s not for nothing that we say that someone is as stubborn as a mule! And sometimes it’s good to be that mule: give me the stubborn and sure-footed mule on a path up the side of a cliff, and not the skittish aristocrat, the horse. But a donkey? He doesn’t even have that solid ornery good sense.

A freak of an animal, Chesterton says — created when figs grew on thorn trees, and the moon was blood red, and fishes flew in the sky. Well, perhaps it is not so bad a thing after all to be quite beyond good sense: I wouldn’t mind seeing thorns producing figs, and flying fishes would surely turn this old sinner the world upside down, as it deserves to be turned. Then is the donkey just a joke, with his big head and his noisy cry, an ornery outlaw, of crooked will? Let fools say so. For it was the donkey, not the thoroughbred, that had the great honor of bringing the Savior, the King of glory, into the city. Chesterton need not draw the scene for us in detail. The less said, the more powerful it is: a shout about his head, and palm branches at his feet.

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When fishes flew and forests walked
   And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.
“L’entree du Christ a Jerusalem,” Jean-Leon Gerome. Public Domain.

Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.

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