1 July 2020 Susannah

G.K. Chesterton & ‘The Donkey’

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:

Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Donkey, https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-xhksx
Body image credit- G.K. Chesterton, https://www.flickr.com/photos/levanrami/33870342528

Comments (13)

  1. Helen Gentle

    I had a couple of donkey darlings on my Hunter Valley farm in the 80s. They are beautiful, intelligent, delightful creatures. They have deep, soulful eyes and absolutely delightful, soft, inquisitive ears. They run rings around horses in intelligence, and, like cats, remain true to themselves when silly humans think they know better.
    A donkey will enter a new paddock, check the perimeter fence, for escape routes, find the water and shade and settle in. A horse, on the other hand, will run straight through the nearest fence!
    My female donkey, Lady, really preferred to be ridden home, not out. She would walk slowly and reluctantly until I headed her home, then she was off! Young Patrick, our male, would be calling her from the paddock. I miss them.
    GK Chesterton clearly never had a friendship with a donkey.

  2. Robin Apps

    The poem made me cry. However, I think the donkey knew who was on his back. His secret, being that he carried God on his humble back. Therefore he became the most important animal in the whole world.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the thought that he carried Christ on his back is his one shining moment which gives meaning to his existence. It is a moving poem, isn’t it.

    • Chris

      Totally agree with this interpretation, i thought that was the whole focus of the poem -not the donkey itself

  3. Wendy Gill

    I love this poem and I love donkeys. My husband, when at King’s College in 1956 was required to learn, with his class for English homework, a short poem or sonnet regularly. “The donkey” was one of them. He was delighted when I played the reading to him and was able to quote it word for word to me.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad the poem brought back good memories for your husband. I also love donkeys. One of my best ever days on tour was walking in the Cevennes in France with a donkey, in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine.

  4. Gail Shore

    I came across this poem about sixty years ago and loved it so much I memorised it. So subtle and sad, then ironic. There used to be a donkey in a field near where I live now. Whenever I passed, he would come and put his big grey head through the wire fence and we’d have a little chat. We both knew the secret he was keeping. On a humorous note: A good name for a donkey is Oatie. Then he would be your donkey Oatie.

  5. Susannah Fullerton

    Well, if I am ever lucky enough to have a donkey, he would definitely be named Oatie, or (if female) it would have to be Modestine after Stevenson’s donkey in his wonderful travel book. I am so glad you enjoyed the poem – it is very quirky and rather fabulous.

  6. Lois Cubbin

    Loved the poem about the donkey. And very clever name “Oatie”.
    Dont’ forget Balaam’s donkey who talked – in Numbers 22. Not so silly !

  7. Donna Fletcher Crow

    This has long been one of my favorite poems. So glad you highlighted it!

  8. Susannah Fullerton

    I only came across this poem for the first time recently, and it has been lovely to hear from so many people who learned it at school or have loved it for years. It has had excellent feedback and proved a popular choice.

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