For Persons of the Name of Smith

by G. K. Chesterton

Some time ago Mr. C. F. G. Masterman led a vigorous attack upon my timid and humble optimism, and declared in effect that when I maintained a poetry in all things it was I who supplied it. I wish I could claim that I had ever supplied poetry to anything; it seems to me that I am at the very best a humdrum scientific student noting it down. The sentimentalists, the sons of a passionate delusion, are those who do not think everything poetical. For they are wholly under the influence of words, of the vague current phraseology, which thinks "castle" a poetical word and "post-office" an unpoetical word, which thinks "knight" a poetical word and "policeman" an unpoetical word, which thinks "eagle" a poetical word and "pig" an unpoetical word. I do not say that there is not truth in this as a matter of literature; I do not say that in pure technical style there is not a difference between eagles and pigs. All I wish to point out is that the ordinary man in the street when he says that there is no poetry in a pig or a post-office is, in fact, merely intoxicated with literary style. He is not looking at the thing itself; if he did that he would see that it was not only poetical, but obviously and glaringly poetical. He thinks a railway-signal, let us say, must be prosaic, because there is no rhyme in it. But if he looked straight and square at what a railway-signal is, he would realise that it was, to take a casual case, a red fire or light kindled to keep people from death, as poetical a thing as the spear of Britomart or the lamp of Aladdin. It is, in short, the man who thinks ordinary things common who is really the man living in an unreal world.

But of all the examples of this general fact that have recently been called to my notice, there is none more peculiar and interesting than that of the family name of Smith, in which we have a splendid example of the fact that the poetry of common things is a mere fact, while the commonplace character of common things is a mere delusion. For, if we look at the name Smith in a casual and impressionable way, remembering how we commonly hear it, what is commonly said about it, we think of it as something funny and trivial; we think of pictures in "Punch," of jokes in comic songs, of all the cheapness and modernity which seem to centre round a Mr. Smith. But, if we look at the plain word itself, we suddenly behold a poem. It is the name of a great rugged and primeval craft, a trade that is in the bones of every great epic of antiquity, a trade on which the "arma virumque" have everlastingly depended, and which they have repeatedly acclaimed. It is a craft so poetical that even the babies of village yokels stand and stare into the cavern of its creative violence, with a dim sense that the dancing sparks and the deafening blows are in some way wonderful, as the shops of the village cobbler and the village baker are not wonderful. The mystery of flame, the mystery of metals, the fight between the hardest of earthly things and the weirdest of earthly elements, the defeat of the unconquerable iron by its only conqueror, the brute calm of Nature, the passionate cunning of man, the origin of a thousand sciences and arts, the ploughing of fields, the hewing of wood, the arraying of armies, and the whole beginning of arms, these things are written with brevity indeed, but with perfect clearness, on the visiting card of Mr. Smith. The Smiths are a house of arrogant antiquity, of prehistoric simplicity. It would not be at all remarkable if a certain contemptuous carriage of the head, a certain curl of the lip, marked people whose name was Smith. Yet novelists, when they wish to describe a hero as strong and romantic, persistently call him Vernon Aylmer, which means nothing, or Bertrand Vallance, which means nothing; while all the time it is in their power to give him the sacred name of Smith, this name made of iron and fire. From the very beginnings of history and fable this clan was gone forth to battle; their trophies are in every hand, their name is everywhere; they are older than the nations, and their sign is the Hammer of Thor.

Anyone whose name is Smith may be connected with a Smith who was a lawyer in the reign of Henry VIII, or a Smith who was a Colonel in the British army at Blenheim, or a Smith who was a Cavalier, or a Smith who was a Puritan, or a Smith who was a Bishop, or a Smith who was hanged. All this kind of historic information exists in very perfect form. But it must be remembered that the origin of a great family should be not merely historic, but also prehistoric. Every single practical and triumphant thing in this world has begun, not with an accuracy, but with a legend. These dim, gigantic fables are the origins of all practical things. And behind the dimmest and most gigantic Smith, we may see the more tremendous outlines of the formless and fabulous Smith who was the son of Vulcan and the first conqueror of iron. The shame which many people feel about owning to such a patronymic or tracing its origin, is an extraordinary thing, but it is part of a very deep and general evil which has been going on for some time back. The interest in race, the interest in genealogy, which were professed by the ancient aristocratic world, were not bad things; they were in themselves good things. It is, at least, as reasonable to investigate the origin of a man as to investigate the origin of a cowslip, or a periwinkle, or a prairie dog; the herald with his tabard and trumpet holds his perfectly legitimate place beside the botanist and the conchologist and the natural history expert. What was wrong with the old heraldic speculations was not that they existed, but that they did not go far enough. They did not interest themselves in the blood of the yokel and they mystic paternity of the tinker. In other words, the evil was not that there was too much genealogy, but that there was not enough. And the real work to which democracy ought to address itself is that of extending this racial interest to the case of all ordinary men, of teaching the butcher to be proud of his grandfather, and the railway porter to remember his name with pride. For the single case of the name "Smith" is sufficient to indicate what profundities of origin and significance lie in all our names. The case of Smith is no mere accident; the case would be the same with any one of the common names which we account prosaic or absurd. "Jones" is more mean and preposterous even than Smith, and even those who bear the name of Jones do not probably remember that it is but a corruption of the name that Christ loved. There is not one of us that is not of noble origin, whatever we may be in essence.

Published in the _Daily News_, November 28, 1902.

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