When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorns, 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.
G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936
I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.
The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.
It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.
The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:
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.
On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.
The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”