When Fishes Flew

It was the loud and persistent cries that led me to them.  The harsh foghorn bellowing echoed eerily in and around the open buildings.  Once I found the pair of them, I was struck by the sheer volume of their voices in comparison to their physical size.  There’s nothing cute about a donkey braying.

These were a couple of seaside donkeys wintering on a local farm.  I spent a few minutes stroking their noses and tickling their ears, and a favourite poem from my schooldays came to mind –

Seaside donkeys wintering on a local farm
Seaside donkeys wintering on a local farm

 

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.

Chesterton captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode, and his writing style is famous for its seeming impossibilities.  In the first stanza a donkey speaks; the first three stanzas emphasize strangeness. The fishes that flew, the forests that walked and the figs that grew upon thorn are all, of course, impossible events. The suggestion is that the donkey is also an ‘impossible’ and strange animal.  The head of a donkey looks monstrous and the animal brays a sickening cry and has ears like wandering wings.

The donkey’s ancient, crooked will describes a well-known historical stubbornness and tendency to rebel against his masters.  Whipped, mocked and without food, the donkey still stubbornly keeps his secret in this poem.  The animal narrator is saying that all those who feel that a donkey is worthless are fools themselves, because once a long time ago a donkey had a fierce yet sweet hour when he carried Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, and the crowds cheered and threw palm leaves in his path as a symbol of victory.

I’ve always enjoyed G K Chesterton’s work, and for me his description of the donkey in this poem provides a perfect portrayal of the donkeys I was drawn to the other day.

According to Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, “’The Donkey’ is a microcosm of Chesterton and his philosophy. Already present in this sweet little poem are all the elements that would fill his writing for the rest of his life: paradox, humour, humility, wonder, the defence of the poor and the simple, the rebuke of the rich and worldly wise. The other recurrent theme, seen in Chesterton’s work is the presentation of a character we would at first dismiss, but who surprises us by being in direct contact with Truth itself.  Be careful before you call someone an ass.  He may be carrying Christ.”

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