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
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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,...
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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 is obvious, however, that is not a mere pastime for him, but something which he takes with great seriousness, as well as with much exuberance of spirit. One is moved to see what he has written in prose on the subject. He makes one of the characters in The Four Men deliver a comic tirade on the excellence and wholesomeness of well-made verse. He writes more soberly in an essay on José Maria de Heredia:—
A man determined to produce the greatest things in verse takes up by nature exact and thoughtful words and finds that their rhythm, their combination, and their sound turn under his hand to something greater than he himself at first intended; he becomes a creator, and his name is linked with the...
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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, and a man who, though in a few things wide of the mark and partisan, is yet worth a dozen of his more popular contemporaries.
To speak of Mr. Belloc here as a poet simply may seem strange to some to whom he is memorable chiefly for the excellent prose of his essays or for such exhilarating books as The Four Men and The Path to Rome. There have moreover been other manifestations of his protean spirit; there are the political novels, the biographical studies, the military histories—and how well Mr. Belloc can describe a campaign in its essentials, and what a suggestive book is Warfare in England!—there are the children's books, and finally a most entertaining History of England, though it strays...
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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 of the soul. That is certainly true of Belloc. His poetry reflects the amazing diversity of his life, and so it may not be out of place in this Introduction to give an outline of some of those events and experiences that find an echo in his poems. This relationship between his writings and his life is, of course, also evident in his prose works, and when critics remark upon—sometimes even complain of—his versatility and the staggering variety of his output, what they are really noting is the scope of his experience accurately recorded by a mind alive with creative power.
Obviously there will be some episodes in such a life which have left a deeper impression than others, and though all must have had a part in the making...
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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 Matilda indulges in the harmless practical joke of summoning a fire brigade when there is no conflagration to be extinguished, and is later consumed in the flames that devour her aunt's residence. And another little girl, Rebecca Offendort, is presented by the author as receiving nothing more than her just deserts when a marble bust of Abraham knocks her flat and kills her—all because she had 'slammed the door for fun'. The similarity with the tragic world described by Lukàcs, in a passage quoted by Lucien Goldmann in The Hidden God, is quite remarkable, for when we read that the God of this world 'sweeps from the ranks of men all those who have, by the slightest gesture, made in the most fleeting and forgotten moment of time, shown...
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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 what is even more remarkable is that the likeness of thought has been emphasised, not the diversity of temperament.
It is easier, perhaps, to isolate and discuss ideas, the matter and substance of a man's work, than to attend to the less tangible elements of tone, mood, and style. Yet—for a writer, at least—the style is the man. This is true even in prose. In poetry it is the root of the matter. And it is as poets that I wish to discuss and compare G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
This will seem positively perverse to readers of The Chesterton Review or G.K.'s Centenary Appraisal. These pages offer a riches of reflection on fiction, journalism, Distributism, biography, theology,...
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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 remained his poetry. What he wished to be remembered for is collected in a slim volume called Complete Verse. Had circumstances been otherwise, he probably would have written ten volumes of poetry and very little else. Whereas the subject of his prose was the struggle of men in the world, their attempt to create a set of reasonable and just institutions that would allow them to lead civilized lives, the subject of his poetry was the perennial theme of man's struggle against his mortality. Belloc put into prose what he wanted the world to hear; he saved for his poetry what he had to say.
In addition to his serious poetry, Belloc wrote several books of light verse, most of which is collected today under the...
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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, Belloc's reputation as a poet has declined to the point where his serious verse is only known or appreciated by a small band of enthusiasts. At the best of times, he is a very uneven poet. And the things he was good at have never been less admired by critics than now: lyric facility, metrical fluency, and the self-consciously 'beautiful' effects which have made 'Georgian' almost a term of abuse. At times, in this 1896 volume he approaches (though never here achieves) the technical virtuosity of A. E. Housman or Yeats, only to cascade into rhymes which seem too easy, or effects which seem mannered rather than meant.
The Moon is dead. I saw her die.
She in a drifting cloud was drest,
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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.
Could Belloc himself have written two sentences with more of a sting? He needed the £7.7s, so he wrote about how to spend a million, just as he wrote scores of other articles that he did not care about. His attitude toward his prose—including most of his one hundred and fifty books—was simple: "Write and write and write and then offer it for sale, just like butter."
But Belloc loved his poetry. With the sole exception of the novel, Belinda, the poetry was the only writing that he took seriously enough to revise. He concludes "Stanzas Written on Battersea Bridge During a South-Westerly Gale" by describing himself as one who "nor even in my rightful garden lingered." The manuscript...
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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 his verse collections and that Roughead apparently did not know existed. Most of the verses date from 1911-1913, when he was devoting the bulk of his energies to muckraking journalism. These political poems are, on the whole, technically sophisticated yet aesthetically flawed. Several, however, most notably those in which Belloc invokes himself as a comic character, are first-rate. The uncollected verse shows the considerable extent to which Belloc succeeded in transforming contemporary political intrigue and corruption into sharp-edged satires.
Several of the uncollected poems are nonpolitical lyrics and light verse that might have fit comfortably in one or another of Belloc's collections. "Stop-Short," for instance, is a...
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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 Hamilton October 8, 1907
In England before the First World War it seems (in historical reverie) always to have been a summer afternoon. This may owe something to half-conscious effects lingering in the mind of scenes in Impressionist paintings, their joy in light and foliage and, above all, their virtually uninterrupted affirmation of gaiety and color and pleasure. It may owe something to late nineteenth-century poetry and its celebration of landscape. Certainly it owes much to the fact that, since the First World War, the emotions of the West have undergone a shattering confrontation with a barbarism far worse—colder and more malignant—than anything in previous Western experience.
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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 describing Dr. Goebbels. Was all this hatred inspired solely by Belloc's anti-Semitism? If so, why was not similar odium heaped on the work of Dickens, or Thackeray, or T.S. Eliot, or G.K. Chesterton, or Virginia Woolf, or Proust, by the bien-pensant critics? They were all writers who had written anti-semitic things, quite as offensive as Belloc at his worst. Then I began to notice that some English writers do on occasion write with positively virulent hatred of Proust; a more likely explanation of the English critics' hatred of Belloc was that he was half French.
They disliked his uncompromisingness, his disparaging view of English political systems and (often the same thing) English humbug, as of English food and...
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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.
Compares and contrasts the comic verse of the two poets.
Additional coverage of Belloc's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 106, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 19, 100, 141, 174; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 18; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.
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