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The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton has an interesting dedicatory poem: "To Edmund Clerihew Bentley".

The author seems to be describing a period of doubt and spiritual bleakness he passed through, and some of the signs of hope he relied upon. It contains some interesting references that are not clear to me. I'm particularly interested in the line which mentions Dunedin and Samoa:

I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain--
Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.
Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.

Dunedin is a minor city in New Zealand, and Samoa of course is a small South Pacific nation. I'm guessing that someone of Chesterton's generation would have thought of it as an exotic South Seas island, with associations of cannibalism, barbaric rituals and the prospect of "forbidden fruit" not easily accessible within the strict social conventions of Victorian England. He might have thought of Dunedin as an outpost of civilization within that part of the world. Tusitala is probably a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson who spent the last years of his life in Samoa where he was known by that name, which means "Teller of tales".

Do we have any clue what Dunedin and Samoa might have meant in this context, or what they might "say" to each other? Ideally this would be from Chesterton's own writings, but anything that might shed light on the author's intention would be acceptable.

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    I won’t hazard an answer, but it’s possible he is referring to the original Dunedin; Edinburgh, RSL’s birthplace.
    – Spagirl
    Jan 17 at 22:44
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    The general sense of the poem, as I understand it, is that modern theories and ideologies, such as Darwinism and economics, made life seem sterile and deterministic. Tales of pure-hearted heroism provided an alternative vision that he seized on. So RSL seems important here and Dunedin would fit as a reference to RSL's birthplace.
    – Batperson
    Jan 17 at 23:08
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    "Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born," is the opening phrase of a poem of Walt Whitman's. ("Starting from Paumanok" in Leaves of Grass.) Jan 17 at 23:31
  • @Batperson As you mention economics, of course Edinburgh was also the home of the Scottish Enlightenment with Hume writing on Human Nature and Smith on the Wealth of Nations scotland.org.uk/history/enlightenment
    – Spagirl
    Jan 18 at 8:45
  • I guess the Scottish Enlightenment would be one of the intellectual currents Chesterton reacted to. So perhaps that was Dunedin. That would make Samoa the opposite pole - human, heroic and life affirming.
    – Batperson
    Jan 18 at 20:04

1 Answer 1

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The reference is to the author Robert Louis Stevenson, and comes among other passages alluding to other authors - Walt Whitman ("leaves of grass"), Oscar Wilde ("Green Carnation"), John Bunyan ("Mansoul"). Chesterton was eventually to write a biography of Stevenson, in 1927, but also wrote about him in Twelve Types (1902), The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), and briefly in other works.

In Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy by William Oddie (OUP, 2008), this passage is glossed as follows:

Tusitala is the name of the Samoan natives for Stevenson (it means 'story-teller'); Dunedin is the Gaelic form for Edinburgh, Stevenson's birthplace; Samoa, of course, is where Stevenson settled and finally died. Stevenson, according to Cecil, 'was the only writer who could be said to compete' with Whitman as an influence on the young Gilbert. His explanation was that his was a philosophy in which 'It was a fine thing that the weak should take the sword and conquer the strong.'

"Cecil" here is Cecil Chesterton, brother to G. K., and author of G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908).

In Twelve Types, G. K. Chesterton wrote:

Now if there was one point that Stevenson more constantly and passionately emphasised than any other it was that we must worship good for its own value and beauty, without any reference whatever to victory or failure in space and time. 'Whatever we are intended to do,' he said, 'we are not intended to succeed.' That the stars in their courses fight against virtue, that humanity is in its nature a forlorn hope, this was the very spirit that through the whole of Stevenson's work sounded a trumpet to all the brave.
[...]
The conception which unites the whole varied work of Stevenson was that romance, or the vision of the possibilities of things, was far more important than mere occurrences: that one was the soul of our life, the other the body, and that the soul was the precious thing. The germ of all his stories lies in the idea that every landscape or scrap of scenery has a soul: and that soul is a story. Standing before a stunted orchard with a broken stone wall, we may know as a mere fact that no one has been through it but an elderly female cook. But everything exists in the human soul: that orchard grows in our own brain, and there it is the shrine and theatre of some strange chance between a girl and a ragged poet and a mad farmer. Stevenson stands for the conception that ideas are the real incidents: that our fancies are our adventures.

This conception of Stevenson is strongly related to the novel that follows. Chesterton saw Stevenson as expressing a kind of positive, defiant optimism - as well as love of adventure - which was the antidote to (as he saw it) the malaise of the turn of the century. His journey to Samoa, though undertaken in the depths of illness, was emblematic of that adventurous spirit. And in the poem, Stevenson is associated with positive and direct revelation ("truth", "clear", "day") in contrast to the silence of church bells, and the withering of Wilde's set - seen by GKC as overly ironic, cynical, and lacking in moral grounding.

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  • Great answer! Welcome to the site.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 20 at 17:08
  • That's just the sort of answer I'd hoped for, thanks David!
    – Batperson
    Jan 21 at 18:52

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