“The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,” quipped G. K. Chesterton circa 1910. But Chesterton lied. For by that time, James McIntyre (1827-1906), The Cheese Poet, had already lived an entire artistic career devoted to turophilia, the love of cheese.
I could say more, but it would be best to let titans like Chesterton and McIntyre fight this one out for themselves, allowing you the reader to decide. Chesterton’s widely-quoted remark was made in his book Alarms and Discursions, in the chapter called “Cheese.” Here is the context:
My forthcoming work in five volumes, “The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature” is a work of such unprecedented and laborious detail that it is doubtful if I shall live to finish it. Some overflowings from such a fountain of information may therefore be permitted to springle these pages. I cannot yet wholly explain the neglect to which I refer. Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. Virgil, if I remember right, refers to it several times, but with too much Roman restraint. He does not let himself go on cheese. The only other poet I can think of just now who seems to have had some sensibility on the point was the nameless author of the nursery rhyme which says: “If all the trees were bread and cheese”–which is, indeed a rich and gigantic vision of the higher gluttony. If all the trees were bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part of England where I was living. Wild and wide woodlands would reel and fade before me as rapidly as they ran after Orpheus. Except Virgil and this anonymous rhymer, I can recall no verse about cheese. Yet it has every quality which we require in exalted poetry. It is a short, strong word; it rhymes to “breeze” and “seas” (an essential point); that it is emphatic in sound is admitted even by the civilization of the modern cities. For their citizens, with no apparent intention except emphasis, will often say, “Cheese it!” or even “Quite the cheese.” The substance itself is imaginative. It is ancient–sometimes in the individual case, always in the type and custom. It is simple, being directly derived from milk, which is one of the ancestral drinks, not lightly to be corrupted with soda-water.
Thus Chesterton. But what of McIntyre? The sight of his greatest poem should be enough to show how badly Chesterton mis-spoke:
Ode on the Mammoth Cheese
Weight over seven thousand pounds.
We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please.
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to to send you off as far as
The great world’s show at Paris.
Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.
We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.
Silent, GK? Silent on the subject of cheese, you say? Was McIntyre silent? Indeed, no. Long before Chesterton turned his attention to cheese –perhaps himself aspiring to the title “The Cheese Poet,” and perhaps moved by envy to neglect the title’s holder– James McIntyre had sung the praises of the queen.