Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Americanisation, by G K Chesterton

The British poet, novelist and essayist Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) made a visit to the United States in 1920 and one result was his poem “Americanisation” in which he made clear his horror at the prospect of American culture invading the United Kingdom. It is a fear that many have shared, and continue to do so down to the present day.

As might be expected from a humourist such as Chesterton, the tone of the poem is light-hearted with plenty of puns, word play and clever couplets, but the chief effect of the humour is to convey feelings that are sincerely felt.

The poem comprises five stanzas, each of six short lines with an ABCBDD rhyme scheme. The emphasis of each stanza lands firmly on the closing couplet, the lines of which have four stresses instead of the three of the preceding lines.

First stanza

Britannia needs no Boulevards,
No spaces wide and gay:
Her march was through the crooked streets
Along the narrow way.
Nor looks she where, New York's seduction,
The Broadway leadeth to destruction.

One unexpected aspect of this poem is that Chesterton’s target is not just the United States with its predilection for seeking to reproduce itself in other parts of the world. This is apparent from the first stanza that begins: “Britannia needs no Boulevards, / No spaces wide and gay”, in that the boulevard is a French invention. However, the closing couplet, with its inclusion of the punning “Broadway”, places the focus firmly on New York: “Nor looks she where, New York’s seduction / The Broadway leadeth to destruction”.  The reference here is to the line in St Matthew’s gospel (King James version) that reads: “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction”.

Second stanza

Britannia needs no Cafes:
If Coffee needs must be,
Its place should be the Coffee-house
Where Johnson growled for Tea;
But who can hear that human mountain
Growl for an ice-cream soda-fountain?

In the second stanza it is another French innovation, the cafĂ©, that is criticised, although Chesterton grudgingly admits that coffee can be allowed in. Even so, the proper place for its sale is the coffee-house, “Where Johnson growled for tea”. In his maturity Chesterton was a large man, as was Dr Johnson, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Chesterton expected his readers to make the connection and see him in Johnson’s place. If so, there is self-deprecation in the concluding couplet which, as in the first stanza, switches the focus to the United States: “But who can hear that human mountain / Growl for an ice-cream soda-fountain?”

Third stanza

She needs no Russian Theatrey
Mere Father strangles Mother,
In scenes where all the characters
And colours kill each other--
Her boast is freedom had by halves,
And Britons never shall be Slavs.

The third stanza turns the reader’s attention to Russia, and specifically to Russian drama with its savagery and violence in which “… all the characters / And colours kill each other”. The mention of “colours” is probably a reference to the recently-concluded Russian Civil War that was fought between the Communist reds and Tsarist whites, and it therefore implies that, in Russia, violence is not confined to the stage but spills over into real life. This contrasts with the situation in Britain, where things are done “by halves” because of typical British restraint. The final line: “And Britons never shall be Slavs”, is word-play based on the line in “Rule Britannia” to the effect that: “Britons never will be slaves”.

Fourth stanza

But if not hers the Dance of Death,
Great Dostoievsky's dance,
And if the things most finely French
Are better done in France--
Might not Americanisation
Be best applied to its own nation?

The fourth stanza supplies the “turn” in this poem, in that the examples of European influence on “Britannia” are used to argue the case against Americanisation. “Great Dostoievsky’s … Dance of Death” is declared to be unsuited to the British character, and “… the things most finely French / Are better done in France”. This being the case, says Chesterton, why cannot American influence be similarly resisted?

Fifth stanza

Ere every shop shall be a store
And every Trade a Trust . . .
Lo, many men in many lands
Know when their cause is just.
There will be quite a large attendance
When we Declare our Independence.

The final stanza laments the prospect of “shops” becoming “stores” and businesses being turned into trusts, and also points out that the United States does not have a world monopoly on standing against injustice (“ … many men in many lands / Know when their cause is just”). Chesterton ends his poem with a call for a new Declaration of Independence, this time on the part of Great Britain against the United States.


Although Chesterton’s complaint is expressed in fairly mild terms, and the specific incidences of American influence that he cites are relatively trivial in importance, there is a more serious concern that underlies the poem. World War I concluded in 1918 after the United States had come to the aid of Europe, and President Woodrow Wilson had been a dominant influence on the Versailles Peace Conference that followed (it was his “Fourteen Points” that formed the basis of the final treaty). There were therefore mixed feelings among Europeans about how grateful they were expected to be; they knew that their freedom owed much to the United States, but on the other hand they now wanted to get back to running their own affairs.

In this poem, Chesterton is expressing a common view among his fellow countrymen, which is that the price for gratitude should not be total surrender, in cultural terms, to the nation that deserved to be thanked.  The growing cinema industry was almost entirely American in origin, with British actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel having to leave Britain in order to make a career in movies. Along with the craze for American films came the other trappings of popular culture, including Coca-Cola and “ice-cream soda-fountains”.

One wonders what Chesterton would have made of Americanisation in Britain nearly a century later, with Starbucks, MacDonalds and many more such enterprises swamping British towns and shopping “malls”, not to mention the steady encroachment of American words and expressions on British English. Many people would say that he had little to complain about by comparison, and some would say that his warnings should have been heeded much more closely.

© John Welford

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