Hilaire Belloc

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2665

Hilaire Belloc enjoyed playing with various forms of verse while adhering to the ideals of the classics. His range was unusual: He could write, with almost equal facility, a heroic poem or an epigram, a sonnet or a ballade, a satire or a piece of nonsense verse.

What Belloc praised in others’ verse he tried to achieve in his own. He said, in a preface to Ruth Pitter’s poetry, that the classical spirit, which involved “rhythmic effect without emphatic lilt,” subtlety without obvious complexity, and artistry without artifice, was almost unknown in his time. In his preface to D. B. Wyndham Lewis’s book on François Villon, he remarked that the clarity, relief, and vigor mentioned by Lewis were qualities of “hardness,” explaining that the marks of hardness were inevitability, the sense that to change a line would be to destroy it; a sense of sequence, of smooth linking; and economy of speech. Belloc’s most successful poems, particularly his epigrams, have this intensity.

“Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine”

Belloc was classical in his ideals but innovative in his practice. His classicism bore poetic fruit in his “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine,” probably his best-known poem. The work (which was influenced by the French writer Clément Marot’s vineyard song) was finished in 1928, although fragments of it had appeared earlier. Although it is a poem of praise treating a subject in an exalted way, Belloc the classicist is careful to refer to it as a heroic poem rather than an ode, for it is written in neither the Pindaric nor the Horatian form. The poem changes direction several times and ranges from heroic to mock-heroic.

The first stanza begins in the classical convoluted manner with infinitives of purpose, followed by several lines giving appositives for wine, and finally, five lines below the infinitives, the material to which they refer, an admonition to the Ausonian Muse. The stanza thus incorporates the classical statement of theme with the invocation of the Muse. The invocation to the Ausonian Muse, however, is amusing, since there was no Muse of lower Italy, thus making the reader suspect a partly humorous purpose in the elaborate beginning. The poet personifies wine as a mysterious friend of humanity, begetter of the arts and avenger of wrongs, and he calls upon the Muse to praise and enthrone it.

In the second stanza, the poet requests the Muse to sing of how the Charioteer from Asia with his panthers and the thyrsus twirling came to Greece. The wine of the first stanza has become Dionysus the god. Belloc achieves a sense of anticipation in his description of the ill-at-ease sea, the sudden glory of the mountain, the luminous sky, and the wind with the wonderful word that goes before the pageantlike progress. The group becomes a “something” or a shining cloud as it passes over the land; but everywhere it goes there is the miracle of the creation of vines, exuberantly portrayed with a double exclamation. The god is not named here; he is only alluded to by his characteristics. The next stanza shows the vines spreading everywhere, even as far as Africa, but also covering human habitations, thus being both wide and deep, exotic and domestic. In the next section, the day ends with Dionysus completing his journey, going from Spain to Ocean, where Hercules adores him. The author alludes to Hercules, expecting that his readers will have read of the Pillars of Hercules. The next section consists of only a single line, set off for emphasis, stating that the wine is better than riches or power.

The poet then seems to see people who breathe foul air from a well that is oozing slime along the floor of Hell and asks a rhetorical question concerning their identification—rhetorical because he answers it himself. They are the brood of sin, the cursed water-drinkers, and he says with ironic humor that their mothers must have been gin-sodden. This section is mock-heroic and satirical; Belloc attempts to guess their genealogy in the classical manner, calling them white slugs, an apt use of insect imagery to indicate their lack of vitality and character. Those who drink water instead of wine must, by implication, disapprove of it. Thus he uses the explosive “What!” to show indignation that the human race that was exiled from Paradise should have to suffer an evil (these people) with every good (the wine). In the next stanza, he says that even these filthy creatures were permitted to exist in the shadow of the bright Lord, an ambiguous term probably meaning Christ or Dionysus. Like John Milton, Belloc blends classical motifs with such Christian ones as Paradise. Whoever is contaminated by these creatures is condemned to drink the beverage of beasts. In the next section, the poet declares that the grapes are raised in vain for such as these in the various wine-growing regions to which he refers and, again proceeding in the negative, says that it is not for them “the mighty task/ Of bottling God the Father in a flask.” The imagery is once more ambiguous, ostensibly Christian but possibly classical. He compares the dull, lifeless behavior of the water-drinkers with the inspired creativity of the wine-drinkers, who have companions in their sleep, as Dionysus had Ariadne. He exhorts the reader to forget the water-drinkers, to form the Dionysian ring and let Io sing. The inclusion of Io in the poem is appropriate since her frenzied condition produced by the gadfly sent by Hera was akin to the divine frenzy of the followers of Dionysus; furthermore, Io was an ancestor of Semele, the mother of Dionysus.

In the next stanza, Belloc addresses Dionysus directly as “Father Linaean” and entreats him not to abandon ruined humanity, as the other gods have done, attributing both architectural elements and rhyme to the god. The following stanza praises the god in three lines stating his powers of enlightening seers, making statues live, and making the grapes swell. In a pastoral strain, he wishes a peaceful life for a farmer; but, knowing that this is not possible, he remembers that all must face their passion (a Christian concept) and gives examples of ironic unsung tragedies.

The last stanza dramatizes old age and death in a series of images. He, too, having wasted long labor, will leave the sun and walk with the shadows, will look at the plain, not at the mountain, and will be alone with nothingness before him. The image of God becomes a military one, understandable in Belloc, who loved the military life: His Comrade-Commander (Christ) will drink with him in His Father’s Kingdom. When the hour of death comes, Belloc says, let his youth appear with a chalice bearing an engraved blessing for his dying lips. His youth is here personified to provide a contrast to his age, but the image of a youth with a chalice also suggests Dionysus, who was portrayed as a youth in later representations, one of whose attributes was the kantharos, a large two-handled goblet. Dionysus was associated with death and the afterlife through the story of his descent into the underworld to rescue his mother and, in Thrace and in Orphic mythology, his death and resurrection. The ending of the poem would seem to be Christian in its references to wine as sacramental, although the image of wine as his last companion and of wine as raising the divine is not necessarily so. Belloc skillfully blended Christian and classical references in this unusual poem. His sonnet XXXVI, in praise of wine, ascribed its creation to the Christian God, who made people vintners as well as bakers so that they could have the sacraments. Belloc, it may be added, also wrote several drinking songs.

“On a Dead Hostess”

The epigram is another classical form employed by Belloc, possessing that element of hardness that he so much admired. He achieved great economy in his use of comparisons. “On a Dead Hostess” begins with an explicit comparison of the subject to other people in this “bad” world by stating two superlatives. The hostess is lovelier than all others and better than everyone else; she has smilingly bid her guests goodnight and gone to her rest, a metaphor for her quiet death, mentioned only in the title. Belloc achieved delicacy here by implying rather than stating. In some of his epigrams suitable for inscriptions on sundials, the shadow represents death, as in one which says that “Loss and Possession, Death and Life are one,/ There falls no shadow where there falls no sun.” In a few words, he conveys the idea of the positive inherent in the negative, the theme of John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy.” In some of his humorous sundial epigrams, the sundials identify themselves as such and make some wry comment, such as that it makes a “botch/ Of what is done far better by a watch,” and “I am a sundial/ Ordinary words/ Cannot express my thoughts on birds.”

Epigrams

The epigrams were generally published for the first time in the collected poems of 1938, while the epigrammatic Juliet poems were privately printed in 1920 and 1934. Thus, some of these poems have not been as accessible as some of his lesser efforts. Many of the Juliet poems are compliments, some of them making use of classical allusions. In “The little owl that Juliet loved is dead,” he explains that Pallas Athene took him, since “Aphrodite should not keep her bird,” thus identifying Juliet with Aphrodite. In “On a Sleeping Friend,” he declares that when she awakens, Dawn shall break over Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Belloc experimented with French forms, particularly the ballade and triolet. The triolet, which rhymes abaaabab, lines 1, 4, and 7 being identical, is appropriate for playful praise, but Belloc used it for more serious themes. The triolet beginning “The young, the lovely and the wise” says that they are intent on their going and do not seem to notice him. This makes him wonder about “my losing and my owing,” presumably the things he has lost and the things he intended. In addition to the repetition of line 1 in lines 4 and 7, line 2 is repeated as line 8, thus giving the poem a strong echoic quality. Delicacy is also achieved by ambiguity; the reader is not exactly sure what is meant by the young’s “going.” It may be their going out into the world, being on their own. The young people are certain that they know where they are going, paying no attention to others. On the other hand, their “going” may be their death, to which the young are indifferent but about which older people are very much concerned.

“Your life is like a little winter’s day”

Belloc considered the sonnet to be the “prime test of a poet,” as he said in his book Milton (1935). The sonnet “Your life is like a little winter’s day” has a delicacy comparable to “The young, the lovely and the wise,” and again an ambiguity contributes to the delicacy. It speaks directly to the reader, using “you” throughout, giving unusual immediacy to the subject of death. In the first line, the poet compares “your” life to a “little” day in winter, while the second line elaborates with a mention of a “sad” Sun rising late and setting early; thus life seems sad and wintry. The third line questions your going away, since you have just come; and the fourth line elaborates, saying that your going makes evening instead of noon. The reader is thus likened to the winter Sun, and the theme of departure is introduced. The next quatrain compares life to something else that is “little,” a flute lamenting far away, beyond the willows. Willow trees are associated with sorrow and death. “A long way off” at the beginning of line 6 is repeated at the beginning of line 7, and because the music is far away, only its memory is left in the breeze. The poet implies that life is faintly heard, like the flute. The octave is Shakespearean in form, but the sestet reverses the usual rhyming couplet at the end, placing it at the beginning of the sestet. The sestet’s rhyme scheme is eefggf, enabling another rhyming couplet, gg, to appear where it is hardly expected, before the last line. The sense of reversal and paradox of the rhyme scheme conveys the ironic nature of the subject matter. The third comparison here is that life is like a pitiful farewell that is wept in a dream, with only shadows present. Belloc’s ending is couched in religious terms; he calls the farewell a benediction that has no fruit except a consecrated silence. The benediction or farewell is whispered and comes too late, so that there is no response to it. The three comparisons, a little day in winter, a flute playing at a great distance, and a farewell made too late in a dream, all contribute to the sense of being incomplete. Life is unfulfilled, fleeting, and inconsequential, and the reference is not only to life in general but also to “your” life. This discrepancy between expectation and actuality is reinforced by the unexpected rhyme scheme.

“The End of the Road” and “To Dives”

Belloc also experimented by trying to make the rhythm of a poem simulate the action. “The End of the Road” is a poem about the successful completion of Belloc’s difficult journey to Rome and is reminiscent of the Carmina Burana of the Middle Ages. He manages to portray a rollicking hike by using many variations of the word “walked,” by inverting the subject, and by making trochaic lines with a tripping meter: “Walked I, went I, paced I, tripped I.” He goes on in that way for eleven lines, changes to Latin, then back again to English, calling on the major, doubtful, and minor prophets, among others. Another poem in which he tries to imitate motion by meter is his “Tarantella,” in which he simulates the beat of the dance with short lines and internal rhymes.

Belloc’s inventiveness extended to his satirical poems. “To Dives,” the name meaning “rich man” in Latin, was inspired by Belloc’s indignation at instances of unjust social and financial influence; it was written a week after Sir Henry Colville, commander of the Ninth Division in South Africa, was dismissed without court martial or public investigation. In “To Dives,” Belloc adopts the manner of Horatian rather than Juvenalian satire, avoiding the fiery directness of some of his other satirical poems, including the sonnet “Almighty God, whose justice like a sun,” which speaks indignantly of the plight of the poor. Belloc satirizes himself as well as his subject, saying to Dives that when they both go to Hell, Dives will stagger under his pack. Charon the ferryman will tell Dives that his baggage must go overboard.

There are many humorous touches here, including the formal address and the many possessions, including the fifteen kinds of boots for town, and the gifts for those already there, such as the working model of a burning farm to give to the little Belials, as well as the three biscuits for Cerberus. Dives assures Belloc that he will not burn with him, though he will have to leave his possessions behind and enter Hell as tattered and bare as his father was when he pushed a wheelbarrow (Belloc’s smirk at the nouveau riche). When Charon sees how lightly the poet is provided with such things as honor, laughter, debts, and trust in God, he lets him pass, having tried to write poetry himself.

The poem ends with the rhetorical question to Dives as to who will look foolish, Dives, Belloc, or Charon. The answer is uncertain because “They order things so damnably in hell.” Here Belloc has placed a contemporary rich man in the classical underworld and contrasted him with a poet; yet he represents himself as going there as well.

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Belloc, Hilaire