The Donkey: A Lenten Unit Study for High School Students


The Donkey 

by G. K. Chesterton

the donkeyWhen 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 cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will
Starve, scourge, 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 about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

A Lenten Unit Study for High School Students

by Maureen Wittmann

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was a prolific author, writing on a variety of topics including religion, economic theory, and philosophy. He wrote poetry, plays, novels, and the famous Father Brown detective series. Chesterton’s most famous novel was The Man Who Was Thursday, which is about a policeman who infiltrates a secret organization of anarchists. Although it has been more than seventy-five years since Chesterton’s death, he continues to be one of the most quoted authors of our times.

I love Chesterton because he has a way of bringing clarity to the most muddled of subjects. Sadly, many people believe that Chesterton is too difficult to read and don’t make an attempt to tackle his writings. I do admit I find a second, more careful, reading is sometimes necessary when I read Chesterton’s heavier works, but it is usually because I am so astounded at the man’s wit I want to make sure I understand him correctly.

A convert to the Catholic Church in 1922, Chesterton’s private writings show his desire to move toward the Church as early as 1911. It is believed his long wait was due to his desire to have his wife Frances convert alongside him. After all, it was Frances who led him from Unitarianism to Anglicanism. Chesterton’s conversion was the big news of his day. The kind of news that is discussed around the water cooler at the office. Chesterton wrote of his decision, “The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic, is that there are 10,000 reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

His poem, and the subject of our unit study, The Donkey was published long before his conversion. It appeared in 1900 along with another favorite Chesterton poem By the Babe Unborn in his collection The Wild Knight and Other Poems. This collection can be found in Inkling Press’ G.K. Chesterton’s Early Poetry (available from Many of Chesterton’s poems can also be found for free to read online. Simply plug “Chesterton poetry” into your favorite search engine.

In my desire to do an in depth study on The Donkey, I looked for help from a seventy-four-year-old book by Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. In this classic, Mr. Adler sets down rules for finding understanding from books. I think one can apply these rules to understanding poetry as well. Adler tells us if we decide a book is over our head, and we look for others to explain the book to us (through commentaries, other books, or lectures), then we are doing a disservice to the original work, and to ourselves. Chesterton’s poem may, at first, appear hard to understand. Yet, if one takes on the challenge they will be rewarded in the end, and the reward is great.

In order to truly learn we need to understand, not just remember facts. When a writer is sharing something above our heads, we must rise to understand what the writer is trying to communicate to us. One rule Adler gives us is to pick out and interpret the important or most-repeated words in a book or, in this case, the poem. Then discover the important sentences. If the words in a sentence have more than one meaning, analyze the sentence and decide the author’s intent.

Adler also tells us reading should not be a passive activity. For example, ask the poem questions. Of course the poem is not alive and cannot answer. Therefore, you need to find the answers yourself. What does Chesterton mean by “When fishes flew”? When were “palms laid before [the donkey’s]feet”?

It would be easy to search out commentaries on the poem in order to find others’ opinions on The Donkey, but we would only learn of other’s opinions, rather than truly understanding the poem.

Parents, do not analyze the poem for your student. Instead encourage him to find meaning and understanding for himself, by using the steps mentioned here.

One of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is the opportunity to grow in knowledge alongside our children. Reading Chesterton is a wonderful way to discover great literature together.

Activities and Discussion

Begin by reading the poem aloud to your students and follow with these steps:

1. If you don’t already have a poetry notebook, start one. All of the poems you study should be copied into this notebook along with any notes. Now copy The Donkey by hand into your poetry notebook. Take time to reflect on the meaning of Chesterton’s words and write these reflections in your notebook.

2. Look at the individual words, rather than the poem as a whole. Look up the meaning of the words in the dictionary. Words such as monstrous, tattered, and outlaw have strong visual meanings.

3. Read each line individually and try to imagine what Chesterton was thinking as he wrote them. Ask yourself, “What pictures did he have in his mind as he created this poem?”

4. As you discover understanding of the poem, ask yourself how the poem relates to you as a creature of God, as a Catholic. How does the poem reflect Chesterton’s faith?

5. Search out other poems by Chesterton. Most can be found online. One source is  Or check your library for The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton. Can you see any similarity between The Donkey and Chesterton’s other poems, either in style or content? Is there a marked or subtle difference, if at all, between his work before and after his 1922 conversion?

6. Read Chesterton’s conversion story. For the complete story in Chesterton’s own words, find his out-of-print book The Catholic Church and Conversion or visit It can also be found in print as part of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume 3 [Ignatius Press].

7. Check out Chesterton’s books, fiction, and nonfiction. (Homeschool Connections, the Catholic online curriculum provider, offers several self-study courses on Chesterton’s books.) Reading his works may help you find understanding in how Chesterton thinks and may help you answer further questions about The Donkey.

8. Once you have followed these steps, only then look for commentaries on The Donkey to see how your understanding of the poem compares with the opinions of others. (Parents: One is listed at the end of this article, but don’t peek until you’ve come up with your own opinion of The Donkey.)

9. Read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. Though originally published in 1940, it is still in print today.

10. Follow up with Nancy Carpentier Brown’s unit study on Chesterton’s poem Lepanto found at

11. Nancy Carpentier Brown also writes high school literature guides for various works by Chesterton. See for availability of these great, yet inexpensive, guides. If you have younger siblings, consider reading Mrs. Carpentier Brown’s retelling of the Father Brown mysteries (also found at Hillside Education) aloud to them.

The Donkey Commentary from “Chesterton 101”

From the American Chesterton Society:

The Donkey is a microcosm of Chesterton and his philosophy. Already present in this sweet little poem are all the elements that would fill his writing for the rest of his life: paradox, humor, humility, wonder, the defense of the poor and the simple, the rebuke of the rich and worldly wise. The other recurrent theme, seen in everything from his Father Brown stories to his public debates, is the presentation of a character we would at first dismiss, but who surprises us by being in direct contact with Truth itself. Be careful before you call someone an ass. He may be carrying Christ.”

Dale Ahlquist
President, American Chesterton Society

Visit the American Chesterton Society for more great Chestertonian information.

Copyright 2014, Maureen Wittmann


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1 Comment

  1. Hello,

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    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

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