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...
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