Hilaire Belloc 1870–1953
(Full name Joseph Hilaire Pierre Sébastien Réné Swanton Belloc) English poet, essayist, travel writer, biographer, critic, historian, and novelist.
At the turn of the century Belloc was considered one of England's most provocative essayists and a talented poet. In fact, Belloc and his long-time friend and collaborator G. K. Chesterton have been lauded by W. H. Auden as the best light-verse writers of their era, with Belloc's Cautionary Tales considered by some his most successful work in the genre.
The son of a French father and English mother, Belloc was born in St. Cloud, France, but raised in England, studying at the best private schools. From his studies and his travels between England and France, he acquired cosmopolitan interests in history, polemics, and literature. After brief service in the French military and a brilliant stint at Oxford's Balliol College, Belloc began writing for various London newspapers and magazines. His first book, Verses and Sonnets, appeared in 1896, followed by The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, which satirized moralistic light verse. Illustrated with superb complementary effect by his friend Basil T. Blackwood, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, according to critics, contains much of the author's best light verse, as do such later collections as More Beasts (for Worse Children), The Modern Traveller, and Cautionary Tales. But Belloc perceived his primary role as that of polemicist and reformer, whose work must reflect his desire for Europe's spiritual, social, and political return to its monarchist, Roman Catholic heritage.
The period between the century's turn and the mid-1920s was the time of Belloc's widest fame and influence. Throughout these years his name and reputation were frequently linked in the public mind with G. K. Chesterton, whom Belloc had met around 1900 when each was a contributor to the radical journal the Speaker. In Chesterton, Belloc found a talented illustrator of his books, a friend, and a man who shared and publicly advocated many of his own religious and political views. They published their political ideas in the Eye Witness, a weekly political and literary journal edited by Belloc, which became one of the most widely read periodicals in pre-war England. By the 1930s, Belloc's writings lost popularity on account of his strong anti-Semitic and pro-Catholic viewpoints. Embittered that his opinions were no longer taken seriously and that his creative gifts were diminishing,
Belloc spent the last years of his career writing histories and biographies. In the early 1940s, after authoring over 150 books, he was forced into retirement by age and a series of strokes. He spent the last ten years of his life in quiet retirement at his longtime home in rural Sussex, dying in 1953.
In his widely known verse for children, Belloc assumed the perspective of a ridiculously stuffy and pedantic adult lecturing children on the inevitable catastrophes that result from improper behavior. Among his outstanding verses of this type are "Maria Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage," "Godolphin Home, Who Was Cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Bootblack," and "Algernon, Who Played with a Loaded Gun, and, on Missing his Sister, Was Reprimanded by His Father." Like his children's verse, Belloc's satiric light verse is characterized by its jaunty, heavily rhythmic cadences and by the author's keen sense of the absurd, as reflected in "East and West" and in "Lines to a Don." In addition to writing light verse, Belloc also wrote many serious poems and sonnets, which are commonly concerned with the human struggle against the idea of mortality. Of these, "Heroic Song in Praise of Wine" and "The Prophet Lost in the Hills at Evening" are among the most acclaimed of his poems.
Belloc has received the most critical praise for his amusing verse for children, in particular The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales. Commentators laud his sharp mockery of human pretensions and his rhythmic language, and compare these books to the works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. This simple, humorous verse was commercially and critically popular, as was his other light verse that incorporated more mature themes and situations. Belloc's other poetry, collected in such volumes as Sonnets and Verses, garnered mixed assessments from reviewers. Some viewed the verse as superficial and mechanical, yet many critics considered the poetry charming and straightforward.
The Bad Child's Book of Beasts 1896
Verses and Sonnets 1896
More Beasts—For Worse Children 1897
The Modern Traveller 1898
Cautionary Tales 1907
New Cautionary Tales 1930
The Verse of Hilaire Belloc 1954
Collected Verses 1958
Other Major Works
Danton (biography) 1899
Lambkin 's Remains (fictional biography) 1900
Robespierre (biography) 1901
The Path to Rome (travel sketches) 1902
Caliban's Guide to Letters (satirical essays) 1903
Avril (essays) 1904
Emmanuel Burden (novel) 1904
On Nothing (essays) 1908
Marie Antoinette (biography) 1909
On Everything (essays) 1909
The French Revolution (history) 1911
The Four Men (travel sketches) 1912
The Servile State (essay) 1912
The Jews (essay) 1922
The Cruise of the "Nona" (travel sketches) 1925
A Companion to Mr. Wells's "Outline of History" (criticism) 1926
Many Cities (travel sketches) 1928
Milton (biography) 1935
Elizabethan Commentary (history) 1942
Selected Essays (essays) 1948
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Hilaire Belloc," in Joyce Kilmer. Volume Two: The Prose Works, edited by Robert Cortes Holliday, Kennikat Press, 1918, pp. 62-77.
[In the following essay, Kilmer terms Belloc as a natural poet better known for his prose.]
Far from the poets being astray in prose-writing (said Francis Thompson), it might plausibly be contended that English prose, as an art, is but a secondary stream of the Pierian fount, and owes its very origin to the poets. The first writer one remembers with whom prose became an art was Sir Philip Sidney. And Sidney was a poet.
This quotation is relevant to a consideration of Hilaire Belloc, because Belloc is a poet who happens to be known chiefly for his prose. His Danton and Robespierre have been read by every intelligent student of French history, his Path to Rome, that most high-spirited and engaging of travel books, has passed through many editions, his political writings are known to all lovers—and many foes—of democracy, his whimsically imaginative novels have their large and appreciative audience, and his exquisite brief essays are contemporary classics. And since the unforgetable month of August of the unforgetable year 1914, Hilaire Belloc has added to the number of his friends many thousands who care little for belles lettres and less for the French Revolution—he has become certainly the most popular, and by general opinion the shrewdest and best informed, of all chroniclers and critics of the Great War.
There is nothing, it may be said, about these achievements to indicate the poet. How can this most public of publicists woo the shy and exacting Muse? His superabundant energy may now and again overflow in little lyrical rivulets, but how can he find time to turn it into the deep channels of song?
Well, what is the difference between a poet who writes prose and a prose-writer who writes verse? The difference is easy to see but hard to describe. Mr. Thomas Hardy is a prose writer. He has forsaken the novel, of which he was so distinguished a master, to make cynical little sonnet portraits and to pour the acid wine of his philosophy—a sort of perverted Presbyterianism—into the graceful amphora of poetic drama. But he is not a poet. Thackeray was a prose-writer, in spite of his delicious light verse. Every novelist writes or has written verse, but not all of them are poets.
Of course, Sir Walter Scott was first of all a poet—the greatest poet who ever wrote a novel. And no one who has read Love in the Valley can hesitate to give Meredith his proper title. Was Macaulay a poet? I think so—but perhaps I am in a hopeless minority in my belief that the author of The Battle of Naseby and The Lays of Ancient Rome was the last of the great English ballad makers.
But this general truth cannot, I think, honestly be denied; there have been many great poets who have devoted most of their lives to writing prose. Some of them have died without discovering their neglected talent. I think that Walter Pater was one of these; much that is annoyingly subtle or annoyingly elaborate in his essays needs only rhyme and rhythm—the lovely accidents of poetry—to become graceful and appropriate. His famous description of the Mona Lisa is worthless if considered as a piece of serious æsthetic criticism. But it would make an admirable sonnet. And it is significant that Walter Pater's two greatest pupils—Lionel Johnson and Father Gerard Hopkins, S.J.,—found expression for their genius not in prose, the chosen medium of their "unforgetably most gracious friend," but in verse.
From Walter Pater, that exquisite of letters, to the robust Hilaire Belloc may seem a long journey. But there is, I insist, this similarity between these contrasting writers, both are poets, and both are known to fame by their prose.
For proof that Walter Pater was a poet, it is necessary only to read his Renaissance Studies or his interpretations—unsound but fascinating—of the soul of ancient Greece. Often his essays, too delicately accurate in phrasing or too heavily laden with golden rhetoric, seem almost to cry aloud for the relief of rhyme and rhythm.
Now, Hilaire Belloc suggests in many of his prose sketches that he is not using his true medium. I remember a brief essay on sleep which appeared in The New Witness—or, as it was then called, The Eye Witness—several years ago, which was not so much a complete work in itself as it was a draft for a poem. It had the economy of phrase, the concentration of idea, which is proper to poetry.
But it is not necessary in the case of Hilaire Belloc, as it is in that of Walter Pater, to search pages of prose for proof that their author is a poet. Now and then—all too seldom—the idea in this man's brain has insisted on its right, has scorned the proffered dress of prose, however fine of warp and woof, however stiff with rich verbal embroidery, and has demanded its rhymed and rhythmed wedding garments. Therefore, for proof that Hilaire Belloc is a poet it is necessary only to read his poetry.
Hilaire Belloc is a poet. Also he is a Frenchman, an Englishman, an Oxford man, a Roman Catholic, a country gentleman, a soldier, a democrat, and a practical journalist. He is always all these things.
One sign that he is naturally a poet is that he is never deliberately a poet. No one can imagine him writing a poem to order—even to his own order. The poems knock at the door of his brain and demand to be let out. And he lets them out, carelessly enough, setting them confortably down on paper simply because that is the treatment they desire. And this happens to be the way all real poetry is made.
Not that all verse makers work that way. There are men who come upon a waterfall or mountain or an emotion and say: "Aha! here is something out of which I can extract a poem!" And they sit down in front of that waterfall or mountain or an emotion and think up clever things to say about it. These things they put into metrical form, and the result they fondly call a poem.
There's no harm in that. It's good exercise for the mind, and of it comes much interesting verse. But it is not the way in which the sum of the world's literature is increased.
Could anything, for example, be less studied, be more clearly marked with the stigmata of that noble spontaneity we call inspiration, than the passionate, rushing, irresistible lines "To the Balliol Men Still in Africa"? Like Gilbert K. Chesterton and many another English democrat, Hilaire Belloc deeply resented his country's war upon the Boers. Yet his heart went out to the friends of his university days who were fighting in Africa. They were fighting, he thought, in an unjust cause; but they were his friends and they were, at any rate, fighting. And so he made something that seems (like all great writing) an utterance rather than a composition; he put his love of war in general and his hatred of this war in particular, his devotion to Balliol and to the friends of his youth into one of the very few pieces of genuine poetry which the Boer War produced. Nor has any of Oxford's much-sung colleges known praise more fit than this
But perhaps a more typical example of Hilaire Belloc's wanton genius is to be found not among those poems which are, throughout, the beautiful expressions of beautiful impressions, but among those which are careless, whimsical, colloquial. There is...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Belloc's Verses," in The Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 1923, p. 744.
[In the following essay, the critic offers a mixed review of the poems comprising Sonnets and Verses.]
Mr. Belloc, who has been of our times one of the most copious writers in prose, has issued, apart from skits and books for children, only three volumes of verse. The first, which soon disappeared, handed on some pieces to the second; the second is now superseded by this third, which includes it and some new poems. Therefore he, agod fifty-three, presents to us as a lifetime's work in verse, some hundred and sixty pages and a hundred odd pieces, many of which are very short. It...
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SOURCE: "Hilaire Belloc as Poet," in The Bookman, Vol. LXXIX, No. 469, October, 1930, pp. 22-3.
[In the following essay, Pennington provides a positive assessment of Belloc's verse.]
A critic has recently reminded us that Mr. Belloc has just turned sixty. A good age, and well employed, when we consider the fruits of Mr. Belloc's thirty-five years of writing. For no man surely can look back with more pride upon work that has always been honest and well done, loyal to a constant ideal, courageous and sincere, and not infrequently of a high degree of beauty. This was a happy reminder of an anniversary if it sends a few more readers to a good writer and a clear thinker,...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Sonnets & Verses, Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1954, pp. xiii-xxiii.
[In the following essay, Jebb explores the autobiographical aspects of Belloc's poetry.]
In the latter years of his life Belloc often repeated that what he would wish to be remembered by was his verse. He was a firm believer in the Muse—that influence outside himself that inspires the poet—and so he treated his verse almost as though it had been written by someone else.
But though the Muse may inspire, the content and form of a man's verse is his own, dictated to him by his vision, his ideals, and the events of his life; for poetry is the spokesman...
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SOURCE: "The Cosmic Pessimism of Hilaire Belloc," translated by Philip Thody, in The University of Leeds Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, May, 1970, pp. 73-88.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic analyzes Belloc's Cautionary Verses from a metaphysical perspective and compares it to other works of English literature.]
The serious foreign reader of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses cannot fail to be impressed by the immense and tragic discrepancy between the misdeeds described and the punishments inflicted. A small boy called James runs a few steps from his nurse while on an innocent visit to the zoo, and is eaten alive by a lion. A little girl called...
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SOURCE: "Different Worlds in Verse," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 232-45.
[In the following essay, White contrasts the poetry of G. K. Chesterton and Belloc.]
It is almost a Chestertonian paradox that an eyewitness cannot see clearly. Only at a distance, across a gulf of years and the confusion of a turbulent century, is it possible to see that mythical beast, the Chesterbelloc, in true perspective. "What is remarkable," says Belloc's biographer Robert Speaight [in Spode House Review, December 1974-January 1975] "is that two men whose temperaments were so diverse should have thought alike on every conceivable question." But...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry," in Hilaire Belloc, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 24-53.
[In the following essay, Markel discusses the defining characteristics of Belloc's poetry.]
During a writing career of more than forty-five years, Hilaire Belloc turned out almost one hundred and fifty prose works. With only a handful of exceptions, writing these books was an enormous chore for him, what one commentator calls his "sad campaign for a livelihood." Belloc's aggressive and domineering personality prevented him from long remaining anyone's employee, so he turned his antipathy for socialists, atheists, and Darwinians into a lifelong vocation.
But Belloc's real love...
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SOURCE: "Early Married Life: 1896-1899," in Hilaire Belloc, Atheneum, 1984, pp. 66-91.
[In the following excerpt from his biography of Belloc, Wilson offers a mixed assessment of Belloc's poetry]
The first book which Belloc published was a small collection entitled Verses and Sonnets in 1896. 'I do not think that this book excited a ripple of attention at the time, and yet some of the poems in it have lived, and are now found in many anthologies, where as the verse which at this time was received with a clamour of applause is nearly all of it not only dead but buried and completely forgotten." That was Maurice Baring's judgment in 1922. Since that time,...
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SOURCE: "The Manuscript Poetry of Hilaire Belloc," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. XII, No. 2, May, 1986, pp. 221-29.
[In the following essay, Markel asserts that some of Belloc 's unpublished verses are "equal in quality to his best published poetry."]
On January 13, 1911, the Northern Newspaper Syndicate responded to Hilaire Belloc's offer to write an article for them:
We are pleased that you are agreeable to write for us and as to title, we think if the article is called "What can be done with a Million" it would serve our purpose. As to terms, for the short article we require we do not see our way to pay more than £7.7s....
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SOURCE: "Hilaire Belloc's Uncollected Political Verse," in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1989, pp. 143-56.
[In the following essay, Markel surveys the style and themes of Belloc's unpublished political poetry, maintaining that he "succeeded in transforming contemporary political intrigue and corruption into sharp-edged satires. "]
W. N. Roughead begins his preface to the 1970 revised edition of Hilaire Belloc's Complete Verse, "This book contains what I believe to be the whole of Belloc's poetry." However, Belloc published some thirty additional poems, most of which are political satires, that he himself did not include in any of...
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SOURCE: "The Poet of Europe," in Acts of Recovery: Essays on Culture and Politics, University Press of New England, 1989, pp. 83-92.
[In the following essay, Hart emphasizes the importance of history and politics in Belloc's work.]
Have you seen the Pope's gentle remarks to the Modernists? They are indeed noble! I could not have done it better myself. He gently hints they can't think, which is true. The old Heretics had guts, notably Calvin, and could think like the Devil, who inspired them. But the Modernists are inspired by a little minor he-devil, with one Eye and a stammer, and the result is poor.
Belloc to Dorothy...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Complete Verse, Pimlico, 1991, pp. iii-x.
[In the following essay, Wilson provides a brief and favorable overview of Belloc's poetry.]
When my biography of Hilaire Belloc appeared in 1983, it was discussed on a television programme. I watched with some trepidation, since the reviews of my book, which had been appearing in the English newspapers during the previous two weeks, had displayed a passionate hostility to Belloc—one critic stating that 'as a man, Belloc must have been about as congenial as nuclear waste', and another writing about Belloc's supposed 'malignity' in tones which would have required little modification if he had been...
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Speaight, Robert. The Life of Hilaire Belloc. London: Hollis & Carter, 1957, 552 p.
Biographical and critical study of Belloc.
Sherbo, Arthur. "Belated Justice to Hilaire Belloc, Versifier (1870-1953)." Studies in Bibliography 45 (1992): 251-64.
Analyzes Belloc's revisions to his poetry.
White, Gertrude M. "True Words in Jest: The Light Verse of Chesterton and Belloc." The Chesterton Review VI, No. 1 (Fall-Winter 1979-1980): 1-26.
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