It’s not every day you find a poem narrated by a donkey! This one, by G.K. Chesterton (best known as the creator of Father Brown), is rather fun.
The Donkey by G.K. Chesterton
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.
The donkey, in deliberately unscientific language, invites the reader to enter the rather strange, eerie world (“some moment when the moon was blood”) of his birth – a time that seems almost magical. He then goes on to describe his own physical attributes and give us a sense of his bitter destiny.
Something went wrong when the donkey was created, some “ancient … will” was “crooked”. He is somehow an oddity amongst the animals of the world, an “outlaw”, he is contrary, and he looks peculiar and comic with “ears like errant wings”, “monstrous head”, and an unpleasant voice. He’s a parody of the Devil. He seems full of self-hatred and we only know of his identity through the title – the donkey does not name his identity.
At the end of the third stanza, the donkey informs us that he has a secret, and that secret is revealed in the last two lines of the poem. Christ rode him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and that one moment gives the donkey confidence in himself. In fact, he seems certain that the shouts and celebration were for him, rather than for Christ (showing that his view of himself is distorted to the end). It’s only in this final verse that he uses the pronoun “I” as he shows pride in his ungainly self because of that one moment.
G.K. Chesterton (Gilbert Keith) was an author and lay theologian. He was born in 1874 and died in 1936. He was very fond of turning ideas inside out, which earned him the nickname ‘Prince of Paradox’. This poem dates from 1927. He converted to Catholicism in his later years.
I am very fond of donkeys, so feel the poor beast is rather too hard on himself, but the poem is a wonderful example of how one brief shining moment can transform an individual’s view of his own worth.
You can listen to the poem here: