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The Greatness of Bottom: GK Chesterton on the Hero of Midsums

February 15th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I am a big fan of both G.K. Chesterton and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  (You can read some of my thoughts about the latter here.)

I had read G.K.'s reflections on Bottom before, but when Peter Leithart posted them in full, I thought it was time to share some of them here.  For this Friday, here are a giant's thoughts on the profound simplicity of one of Shakespeare's most lovable characters:

“And it is this natural play between the rich simplicity of Bottom and the simple simplicity of his comrades which constitutes the unapproachable excellence of the farcical scenes in this play. Bottom’s sensibility to literature is perfectly fiery and genuine, a great deal more genuine than that of a great many cultivated critics of literature - ‘the raging rocks, and shivering shocks shall break the locks of prison gates, and Phibbus’ car shall shine from far, and make and mar the foolish fates,’ is exceedingly good poetical diction with a real throb and swell in it, and if it is slightly and almost imperceptibly deficient in the matter of sense, it is certainly every bit as sensible as a good many other rhetorical speeches in Shakespeare put into the mouths of kings and lovers and even the spirits of the dead. If Bottom liked cant for its own sake the fact only constitutes another point of sympathy between him and his literary creator. But the style of the thing, though deliberately bombastic and ludicrous, is quite literary, the alliteration falls like wave upon wave, and the whole verse, like a billow mounts higher and higher before it crashes. There is nothing mean about this folly; nor is there in the whole realm of literature a figure so free from vulgarity. The man vitally base and foolish sings ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’; he does not rant about ‘raging rocks’ and ‘the car of Phibbus.’

“Dickens, who more perhaps than any modern man had the mental hospitality and the thoughtless wisdom of Shakespeare, perceived and expressed admirably the same truth. He perceived, that is to say, that quite indefensible idiots have very often a real sense of, and enthusiasm for letters. Mr. Micawber loved eloquence and poetry with his whole immortal soul; words and visionary pictures kept him alive in the absence of food and money, as they might have kept a saint fasting in a desert. Dick Swiveller did not make his inimitable quotations from Moore and Byron merely as flippant digressions. He made them because he loved a great school of poetry. The sincere love of books has nothing to do with cleverness or stupidity any more than any other sincere love. It is a quality of character, a freshness, a power of pleasure, a power of faith. A silly person may delight in reading masterpieces just as a silly person may delight in picking flowers. A fool may be in love with a poet as he may be in love with a woman. And the triumph of Bottom is that he loves rhetoric and his own taste in the arts, and this is all that can be achieved by Theseus, or for the matter of that by Cosimo di Medici.

“It is worth remarking as an extremely fine touch in the picture of Bottom that his literary taste is almost everywhere concerned with sound rather than sense. He begins the rehearsal with a boisterous readiness, ‘Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweete.’ ‘Odours, odours,’ says Quince, in remonstrance, and the word is accepted in accordance with the cold and heavy rules which require an element of meaning in a poetical passage. But ‘Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweete,’ Bottom’s version, is an immeasurably finer and more resonant line. The ‘i’ which he inserts is an inspiration of metricism.”

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.