The Donkey

The Donkey

by G.K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked 
And figs grew upon thorn 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.
 

With monstrous head and sickening bray 
And ears like errant wings 
The devil's walking parody 
Of all four-footed things. 

The tattered outlaw of the earth, 
Of ancient crooked will; 
Scourge, beat, deride me: I am dumb, 
I keep my secret still.
 

Fools! For I also had my hour; 
One far fierce hour and sweet: 
There was a shout around my head, 
And palms about my feet.

______________________

This sixteen line poem is divided into four quatrains, with a rhyme scheme of ABCB DEFE GHIH JKLK. The odd-numbered lines of the poem are written in iambic tetrameter while the even numbered lines are written in iambic trimeter.

The poem is told from the perspective of the donkey. The first three stanzas paint the donkey, as told in the first person by the donkey, as a monstrous, ugly, and despised creature – created by the devil himself. In the last stanza, though, the perspective shifts and the donkey lets the Reader know that his moment of glory occurred when Christ rode him into Jerusalem – an event now remembered and celebrated as Palm Sunday.

Let’s look at the first stanza:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

Chesterton uses alliteration in the first two lines.

Without the benefit of the title, it is difficult to guess who is speaking in the first-person. Because of the title, though, we know in line four that the Speaker, “I,” is “the Donkey.” The picture painted of the time of his own creation is dark and magical. Forests walk, fish fly, and the moon is blood. We see in the donkey’s over-dramatic first stanza the beginning of a theme of self-loathing.

The second stanza:

With monstrous head and sickening bray
And ears like errant wings
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.

The donkey Speaker continues his self-description in the second stanza. He describes himself as having a “monstrous head,” “sickening bray,” “errant wings” for ears, and ultimately concludes that he is a mockery of four-footed animals, created by the devil. As self-perception goes, the donkey views himself as the worst of the worst. It is a bit silly, however, it is also relatable. Many people tragically view themselves in deeply negative ways and often cite reasoning not far afield from the reasoning given here by the donkey.

The third stanza:

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Scourge, beat, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Donkey’s loathing self-description continues. Not only is he a monster, as described in previous lines, in this stanza he tells the Reader that he is alone in the world and friendless. However, line twelve provides a turn in mood of the poem. All of the aforementioned horrors can be inflicted upon the donkey, and yet he will keep his secret.

What secret?

The fourth stanza:

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout around my head,
And palms about my feet.

In this stanza, the donkey throws away all of the negative self-description of the first three stanzas and we see instead the donkey’s pride step forward to take its place. He calls his deriders “fools” and tells the Reader that he had a fierce hour of greatness. Lines fifteen and sixteen describe what happened to the donkey, perhaps *this* donkey, on Palm Sunday. Jesus Christ made all the difference for the donkey. He can now endure anything.

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