A Piece of Chalk
by G.K. Chesterton
Complete explanation and analysis of the essay ‘A piece of chalk’ alongside the original text
Original Text – 1
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
It was a nice cheerful morning when the clear sky looked blue, and the sunshine lighted up everything in the surroundings. Mr. Chesterton was on a summer holiday. He had nothing to do at his home. Perhaps, the urge to try to do something creative had gripped him. Wearing a hat and holding a walking stick, he set out on a long walk. Perhaps, he vaguely wanted to draw something. So, he picked up six bright-coloured chalks, kept them in his pocket and set out.
Original Text – 2
I then went into the kitchen (which, along with the rest of the house, belonged to a very square and sensible old woman in a Sussex village), and asked the owner and occupant of the kitchen if she had any brown paper. She had a great deal; in fact, she had too much; and she mistook the purpose and the rationale of the existence of brown paper. She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper he must be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do; indeed, it is a thing which I have found to be beyond my mental capacity. Hence she dwelt very much on the varying qualities of toughness and endurance in the material. I explained to her that I only wanted to draw pictures on it, and that I did not want them to endure in the least; and that from my point of view, therefore, it was a question, not of tough consistency, but of responsive surface, a thing comparatively irrelevant in a parcel. When she understood that I wanted to draw she offered to overwhelm me with note-paper.
On the way winding through a village in Sussex, he realized that he had not brought any paper with him. There was a home nearby. He went inside, and found a genial elderly woman busy in her kitchen. She appeared an ordinary person busy in her mundane duties. From her appearance, the author judged that the woman was rather plain, simple, and not quite interested in any type of intellectual pursuits. The author has used the words ‘square and sensible’ to express the initial impression the woman created in the author’s mind. He asked her if she had a piece or two of brown paper. The woman was more than helpful. Assuming that the visitor wanted the paper for packaging some items, she gave a nice lecture about the tenacity and strength of the paper she was offering. The author politely said that he wanted to draw something on it, and so, the ability of the paper to hold the colour put on it was more important than its toughness.
Original Text – 3
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I like the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
The author proceeded to explain why he needed the paper. He said the paper ought to be something like the October woods or beer, or like the way earth must have looked when it was first created. Quite apparently, all these ideas didn’t quite register in the woman’s mind. She was too worldly and ordinary a person to understand the author. She just gave the paper and the author kept it in his pocket. By that time, he was lost in the thoughts of how important are the things people keep in their pockets, like the little pocket knife. He remembered how he had planned to write a poem about the possessions in his pocket, but abandoned the idea because the poem would have been too long for modern day readers.
Original Text – 4
With my stick and my knife, my chalks and my brown paper, I went out on to the great downs…
I crossed one swell of living turf after another, looking for a place to sit down and draw. Do not, for heaven’s sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colours on brown paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature; also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of a cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all beasts. But though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of me. And this, I think, is the mistake that people make about the old poets who lived before Wordsworth, and were supposed not to care very much about Nature because they did not describe it much.
With the piece of paper and the chalks in his pocket, he started his walk. He walked o and on over long distances. Then he looked around for a place to sit down and draw. He never knew the urge to draw Nature would come to him. Instead, he toyed with the idea of drawing some random things like devils, ghosts, saints in their robes, or some such mythical characters. The author was thinking of things he could draw. He finally drew a cow, but it was so strange with seven horns. He wanted to draw the landscape, but the crayon he carried with him was not ideal to draw one. But, he was fascinated by the landscape around him. Wordsworth was a lover of Nature. He wrote many immortal poems based on Nature. Humans, in all ages, have loved Nature. So, to assume that Wordsworth was the first to discover the beauty of Nature is not correct.
Original Text – 5
They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more. They painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow, at which they had stared all day… The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten skies became the blue robes of the Virgin. The inspiration went in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo.
The great old thinkers and intellectuals who lived in this world before Wordsworth preferred to write about myriad abstract things, from literature to philosophy to science. Possibly, they found writing on these subjects more stimulating than writing on Nature. However, the fact remains that they went to the hilltops to write about their ideas. The solitude of the place fascinated them. They were engrossed in Nature deeply, but expressed their feelings about Nature much less. They used to stare at the falling white snow for great lengths of time, but they expressed it by just drawing a holy virgin in a white robe. In the same way, they used to look at the vast expanse of greenery all around them, but when it came to expressing their impression, they drew a Robin Hood in his green attire. They endlessly gaped at the vast blue skies, but it translated into a Virgin in her blue robes. Thus, Nature, like the rays of Sun (like the sunbeams) shrouded the thinkers, but the effect was spiritual (like the Apollo).
Original Text – 6
But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
When the author found a rock to sit on and began to draw, he discovered that he had left the white chalk piece behind at home. The white-coloured chalk is indispensible for drawing. For painters, and painting lovers, white is the colour to express a positive feeling, especially if the drawing was to be made on brown papers. So, its use is sp crucial for drawing on brown papers. Sadly, the author didn’t have it. White colour may appear to the lay man as no colour, but it registers itself so conspicuously on brown paper. Use of white colour on brown background has a powerful visual effect.
A red pencil is used to paint a red rose and a white pencil is used to draw stars. In religious practices white symbolizes purity. So, in religious congregations, the priests wear white robes.
Virtue is not the absence of vice, it is much more than that. White implies purity and good moral conduct. In the same way ‘mercy’ is not sparing someone from harsh punishment. It is something different. It can be a plain and positive thing like the Sun that one could or couldn’t have seen.
Original Text – 7
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.
Chastity does not mean upright behavior in sexual matters. Chastity exudes something radiant and pure, like the Joan of Arc. God has created this world using many subtle and subdued colours, but He has not used anything in gorgeous colours. This is why He uses the white colour in his creations. The intent is to not heighten any hue. The author argues that such liking for subtleness makes people today to wear clothing with sober colours, avoiding gaudy ones. He further argues that if white would be colour of negative or non-committal feelings, people would wear white robes for funerals, not the black dresses.
Original Text – 8
Meanwhile I could not find my chalk.
I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. There was no town near at which it was even remotely probable there would be such a thing as an artist’s colourman. And yet, without any white, my absurd little pictures would be as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it. I stared stupidly round, racking my brain for expedients. Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hour-glass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for his chemical experiments. I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece of the rock I sat on: it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do, but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
The author sat there a little perplexed. He hadn’t got the piece of white chalk. It was a remote place with virtually no human habitation nearby. So, the possibility of buying or borrowing a piece of white chalk was not there. The author felt restless thinking that the picture he was drawing was going to be incomplete. Thus, the ideas that stood behind the picture he did were to remain wrapped forever. It would be tragedy, he thought. It would be akin to thinking of a world with no good man in it. He stood up thinking of some innovative ways to get around this problem of absence of white chalk. Suddenly, an idea struck him, and he erupted into a ceaseless laughter and euphoria. He realized he was in a situation similar to a man standing in the Sahara desert and worrying about not having a palm of sand for his hour-glass, or a man in the midst of an ocean worrying about not having a little salt water to conduct his experiment. He found he was standing on a landscape made out of white chalk. It was so foolish, therefore, to be so concerned about a piece of chalk when he stood on a virtual field of white chalk. He picked up a chunk of the white chalk piece from the ground, and proceeded to complete his drawing using it to fill the places. He was overwhelmed with a sense f fulfillment. His drawing was now complete. His ideas and thoughts had found expression on the brown paper. He admiringly looked round and felt the Southern England was such a rich place. It was a piece of chalk!
Analysis of A Piece of Chalk
After reading this essay, many of us might conclude that this is a drab, worthless piece written by a witless, jobless old man who meanders in the countryside on a Sunday morning. This is natural, because the essay conceals so much more than it exhibits. How can a o piece of ordinary white chalk and a sheet of brown kitchen paper push a man to depths of reflective thought? This appears quite puzzling.
Chesterton was a thinking man — a man with a very creative mind. He understood philosophy as much as he relished writing about sleuths. In fact, during his time, he was acclaimed as the most versatile thinker and writer of English literature.
In this essay, the ordinary brown paper may be likened to an ordinary common man we come cross every day in our life. He can be plain and simple man with no vices. But, is it enough to lift him to an exalted position in society? The answer, invariably, is in negative. Absence of vice keeps a man from straying, being caught in the wrong side of law, facing social disgrace, ending up in jail etc. But, to deserve accolades from fellow humans, his life must have something else in his life. What is this mysterious element? This is what many people look around for, and feel frustrated with, when they don’t find it. This is the missing element. It can be a rare spark of literary or scientific talent, or a gift of spirituality, or some exemplary leadership quality, or some entrepreneurial acumen etc. These are there in abundance all around us, but we, somehow, miss them in our lives. Through this failing, we miss a great chance to elevate ourselves before our peers and the society, at large.
Chesterton alludes to this intriguing element through his white piece of chalk. In the countryside, the white lime stone is to be found everywhere, but he was so crestfallen for not having brought it from his home. After some looking around, he finds to his great delight and amusement that he was standing there right on a large piece of white stone. He breaks a small lump of it, and proceeds to complete his drawing on the brown paper. The painting gets completed. The morning’s work is accomplished.
While reading Chesterton’s essays, one must bear in mind that he was a true humanist. So, one should try to delve into his writings and discover the inner message he wants to convey. Only after one sees the inner meaning, the greatness of this essayist can be understood. For all English lovers, Chesterton is a role model for writing humorous, but fecund essays that hold relevance for all of us in our daily lives.