Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a strange little book. Written in 1904, it provides a look at the Orwellian year of 1984. In Chesterton’s vision, modernism’s takeover of England involves a culture of no imagination or romance and a constitution headed by a randomly selected king. And then one day the random selection process elects as king a fool critical of dry modernity. King Auberon tries to create a facetious veneer of medieval pageantry by inventing histories for the boroughs of London, designing new, colorful symbols for each, and encouraging them to do battle with one another in a show of patriotism.
By placing patriotism in the city, Chesterton has finally revealed to me why that sentiment was so important to him. The details that brought it all together for me come in Book III, about halfway through. The random selection process works also at more local levels, and it picks out Adam Wayne for provost of Notting Hill, and Adam Wayne is an actual romantic. There’s no veneer here; Wayne is a true patriot. He writes a book of poetry about the city unlike any written before; in his book, instead of “paying a compliment to a hansom cab” by comparing it to a spiral seashell, he pays his compliment to a whirlwind by comparing it to the hansom cab. In other words, wandering clouds and virgin woods don’t supply the ground of his romantic view; the city does. Having grown up in the city, “he saw the street-lamps as things quite as eternal as the stars.” “Nature puts on a disguise,” Chesterton’s narrator says later, “when she speaks to every man; to this man she put on the disguise of Notting Hill.” And elsewhere: “A street is really more poetical than a meadow because a street has a secret. A street is going somewhere.”
My train of thought put it all together in this way. The poetical yen looks for secrets; it tries to find the mask “Nature” has put on so it can pull that mask off. That mask might take the civilized form of a street or a street light, but Chesterton would have to admit that for a poet, of course, even a meadow has a secret to reveal. The romantic hears the whisper from beyond and sees whatever surrounds him as the local mask. If he grows up in a city, the mask of mystery is an urban mask; if in the country, a bucolic one. His home, then, always holds a special place for him because its features, be they gas lamps or dark forests, represent the conduits through which he first hears the Voice.
Chesterton’s view makes sense to me now, but the romantic streak didn’t show itself that way in me at all. I don’t feel much patriotism for the St. Louis suburb I grew up in. I think I may have heard the whisper in the backyard trees, but as far as geography goes, a much louder voice called to me from distant mountains. My heart salutes Montana more readily than it does Missouri. Some romantic rumblings, though, come independent of location. Even in my adolescent home, I certainly heard the voices of the Muses, especially Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, and Urania. The first time I heard Chicago’s “Make Me Smile,” I felt an overwhelming call from a distant homeland I never knew I belonged to, and I suppose I should say that I’ve had a patriotic devotion to that band ever since. Similarly, the first piece of literature that completely captured me with its charms was A Tale of Two Cities, so a substantial portion of my patriotism is directed toward the Kindgom of Dickens.
I don’t think I’ll come back to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but it’s taught me a few things. I’ll see the patriotism more clearly in Chesterton now, and I’ll see Chesterton in the street lights. More importantly, I hope to see the Homeland more often in all these things.