Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3134
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 that delightful, but somewhat exasperating "Dedicatory Ode." Hilaire Belloc is talking—charmingly, as is his custom—to some of his friends, who had belonged, in their university days, to a youthful revolutionary organisation called the Republican Club. He happens to be talking in verse, for no particular reason except that it amuses him to talk in verse. He makes a number of excellent jokes, and enjoys them very much; his Pegasus is cantering down the road at a jolly gait, when suddenly, to the amazement of the spectators, it spreads out great golden wings and flashes like a meteor across the vault of heaven! We have been laughing at the droll tragedy of the opium-smoking Uncle Paul; we have been enjoying the humorous spectacle of the contemplative freshman—and suddenly we come upon a bit of astonishingly fine poetry. Who would expect, in all this whimsical and jovial writing, to find this really great stanza?
Who having read these four lines, can forget them? And who but a poet could write them? But Hilaire Belloc has not forced himself into this high mood, nor does he bother to maintain it. He gaily passes on to another verse of drollery, and then, not because he wishes to bring the poem to an effective climax, but merely because it happens to be his mood, he ends the escapade he calls an Ode with eight or ten stanzas of nobly beautiful poetry.
There is something almost uncanny about the flashes of inspiration which dart out at the astonished reader of Hilaire Belloc's most frivolous verses. Let me alter a famous epigram and call his light verse a circus illuminated by lightning. There is that monumental burlesque, the Newdigate Poem—"A Prize Poem Submitted by Mr. Lambkin of Burford to the Examiners of the University of Oxford on the Prescribed Poetic Theme Set by Them in 1893, 'The Benefits of the Electric Light.'" It is a tremendous joke; with every line the reader echoes the author's laughter. But without the slightest warning Hilaire Belloc passes from rollicking burlesque to shrewd satire; he has been merrily jesting with a bladder on a stick, he suddenly draws a gleaming rapier and thrusts it into the heart of error. He makes Mr. Lambkin say:
Life is a veil, its paths are dark and rough
Only because we do not know enough:
When Science has discovered something more
We shall be happier than we were before.
Here we find the directness and restraint which belong to really great satire. This is the materialistic theory, the religion of Science, not burlesqued, not parodied, but merely stated nakedly, without the verbal frills and furbelows with which our forward-looking leaders of popular thought are accustomed to cover its obscene absurdity. Almost these very words have been uttered in a dozen "rationalistic" pulpits I could mention, pulpits occupied by robustuous practical gentlemen with very large eyes, great favourites with the women's clubs. Their pet doctrine, their only and most offensive dogma, is not attacked, is not ridiculed; it is merely stated for them, in all kindness and simplicity. They cannot answer it, they cannot deny that it is a mercilessly fair statement of the "philosophy" that is their stock in trade. I hope that many of them will read it.
Hilaire Belloc was born July 27, 1870. He was educated at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, and at Balliol College, Oxford. After leaving school he served as a driver in the Eighth Regiment of French Artillery at Toul Meurthe-et-Moselle, being at that time a French citizen. Later he was naturalised as a British subject, and entered the House of Commons in 1906 as Liberal Member for South Salford. British politicians will not soon forget the motion which Hilaire Belloc introduced one day in the early Spring of 1908, the motion that the Party funds, hitherto secretly administered, be publicly audited. His vigorous and persistent campaign against the party system has placed him, with Cecil Chesterton, in the very front ranks of those to whom the democrats of Great Britain must look for leadership and inspiration. He was always a keen student of military affairs; he prophesied, long before the event, the present international conflict, describing with astonishing accuracy the details of the German invasion of Belgium and the resistance of Liège. Now he occupies a unique position among the journalists who comment upon the War, having tremendously increased the circulation of Land and Water, the periodical for which he writes regularly, and lecturing to a huge audience once a week on the events of the War in one of the largest of London's concert halls—Queen's Hall, where the same vast crowds that listen to the War lectures used to gather to hear the works of the foremost German composers.
Hilaire Belloc, as I have said, is a Frenchman, an Englishman, an Oxford man, a country gentleman, a soldier, a democrat, and a practical journalist. In all these characters he utters his poetry. As a Frenchman, he is vivacious and gallant and quick. He has the noble English frankness, and that broad irresistible English mirthfulness which is so much more inclusive than that narrow possession, a sense of humour. Democrat though he is, there is about him something of the atmosphere of the country squire of some generations ago; it is in his heartiness, his jovial dignity, his deep love of the land. The author of The South Country and Courtesy has made Sussex his inalienable possession; he owns Sussex, as Dickens owns London, and Blackmore owns Devonshire. And he is thoroughly a soldier, a happy warrior, as brave and dexterous, no one can doubt, with a sword of steel as with a sword of words.
He has taken the most severe risk which a poet can take: he has written poems about childhood. What happened when the late Algernon Charles Swinburne bent his energies to the task of celebrating this theme? As the result of his solemn meditation on the mystery of childhood, he arrived at two conclusions, which he melodiously announced to the world. They were, first, that the face of a baby wearing a plush cap looks like a moss-rose bud in its soft sheath, and, second, that "astrolabe" rhymes with "babe." Very charming, of course, but certainly unworthy of a great poet. And upon this the obvious comment is that Swinburne was not a great poet. He took a theme terribly great and terribly simple, and about it he wrote … something rather pretty.
Now, when a really great poet—Francis Thompson, for example—has before him such a theme as childhood, he does not spend his time making far-fetched comparisons with moss-rose buds, or hunting for words that rhyme with "babe." Childhood suggests Him Who made childhood sacred, so the poet writes Ex Ore Infantium, or such a poem as that which ends with the line:
Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.
A poet may write pleasingly about mountains, and cyclones and battles, and the love of woman, but if he is at all timid about the verdict of posterity he should avoid the theme of childhood as he would avoid the plague. For only great poets can write about childhood poems worthy to be printed.
Hilaire Belloc has written poems about children, and they are worthy to be printed. He is never ironic when he thinks about childhood; he is gay, whimsical, with a slight suggestion of elfin cynicism, but he is direct, as a child is direct. He has written two dedicatory poems for books to be given to children; they are slight things, but they are a revelation of their author's power to do what only a very few poets can do, that is, to enter into the heart and mind of the child, following that advice which has its literary as well as moral significance, to "become as a little child."
And in many of Hilaire Belloc's poems by no means intended for childish audiences there is an appealing simplicity that is genuinely and beautifully childish, something quite different from the adult and highly artificial simplicity of Professor A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Take that quatrain "The Early Morning." It is as clear and cool as the time it celebrates; it is absolutely destitute of rhetorical indulgence, poetical inversions or "literary" phrasing. It is, in fact, conversation—inspired conversation, which is poetry. It might have been written by a Wordsworth not painfully self-conscious, or by a Blake whose brain was not as yet muddled with impressionistic metaphysics.
And his Christmas carols—they are fit to be sung by a chorus of children. Can any songs of the sort receive higher praise than that? Children, too, appreciate "The Birds" and "Our Lord and Our Lady." Nor is that wonderful prayer rather flatly called "In a Boat" beyond the reach of their intelligence.
Naturally enough, Hilaire Belloc is strongly drawn to the almost violent simplicity of the ballad. Bishop Percy would not have enjoyed the theological and political atmosphere of "The Little Serving Maid," but he would have acknowledged its irresistible charm. There is that wholly delightful poem "The Death and Last Confession of Wandering Peter"—a most Bellocian vagabond. "He wandered everywhere he would: and all that he approved was sung, and most of what he saw was good." Says Peter:
Hilaire Belloc has seen much and loved much. He has sung lustily the things he approved—with what hearty hatred has he sung the things he disapproved!
Hilaire Belloc is not the man to spend much time in analysing his own emotions; he is not, thank God, a poetical psychologist. Love songs, drinking songs, battle songs—it is with these primitive and democratic things that he is chiefly concerned.
But there is something more democratic than wine or love or war. That thing is Faith. And Hilaire Belloc's part in increasing the sum of the world's beauty would not be the considerable thing that it is were it not for his Faith. It is not that (like Dante Gabriel Rossetti) he is attracted by the Church's pageantry and wealth of legend. To Hilaire Belloc the pageantry is only incidental, the essential thing is his Catholic Faith. He writes convincingly about Our Lady and Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus because he himself is convinced. He does not delve into mediæval tradition in quest of picturesque incidents, he merely writes what he knows to be true. His Faith furnishes him with the theme for those of his poems which are most likely to endure; his Faith gives him the "rapture of an inspiration." His Faith enables him, as it has enabled many another poet, to see "in the lamp that is beauty, the light that is God."
And therein is Hilaire Belloc most thoroughly and consistently a democrat. For in this twentieth century it happens that there is on earth only one genuine democratic institution. And that institution is the Catholic Church.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1821
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 name of a masterpiece. The material in which he has worked is hard; the price he has paid is an exceeding effort; the reward he has earned is permanence.
and, of the same poet:—
He worked upon verse as men work upon the harder metals; all that he did was chiselled very finely, then sawn to an exact configuration, and at last inlaid, for when he published his completed volume it is true to say that every piece fitted in with the sound of one before and of one after. He was careful in the heroic degree.
From these pronouncements something may be deduced about Mr. Belloc's attitude towards his own verse, and this is confirmed by the evidence. It will be noted that he chooses the word which lays most emphasis on workmanship and least on inspiration. He talks of verse, a thing which can be grasped, handled, and materially examined inch by inch, not of poetry, which must be discussed in other terms. It is not for him primarily a medium by means of which he can propagate this or that philosophy, nor yet primarily an outlet for his own feelings. It is a material with which he can create beautiful, worthy, and enduring things. His poems will be, if he succeeds with them, objects like statues or pictures or pieces of jewel-work. They will be detached from the life in which he found them, just as are the sonnets of Heredia. And because this is (today at any rate) an unusual attitude, as well as an unusually definite one, these poems, the results of a lifetime's work in a respected medium, command our attention whether we decide that he is successful in them or not.
Because he has an altogether unmodern contempt for mere self-expression, it follows that he is without the modern anxiety to create a style entirely for himself. He would rather have a good old style, proved by experience suitable for certain uses, than a gimerack one, indubitably his own but uncertain in its application. And he does not stray far from the periods in which, as it seems to him, the execution of verse was most sedulously attended to, the periods of the Pléiade and of Dryden and his successors. Sometimes he comes near to giving the effect of pastiche, as in "Strephon's Song"… :
This morning you kissed me,
By noon you dismissed me
As though such great things were the jest of one hour,
And you left me still wondering
If I were not too blundering
To deal with that delicate, delicate flower:
'Tis such a delicate, delicate, delicate flower!
The line between a pastiche and a belated masterpiece is not an easy one to draw. Knowledge of the facts confuses the judgment; but Sir Francis Palgrave, without that knowledge, went rather astray over what now seems an obvious pastiche by George Darley. In the present instance each reader may be left to decide without suggestion where the line ought to be drawn.
But there are other poems by Mr. Belloc, not markedly individual in style, not certainly of this or of any other period in particular, which cannot be described as pastiches. Many of his sonnets might almost have been written by an extra member of the Pléiade—if that extra member had ehanced to think in English:—
That is at any rate nearer to Ronsard and Du Bellay than were the elaborate and scholarly compositions of Jean Moréas and Maurice du Plessis, during the short existence of the Ecole Romane. It conveys, too, a suggestion, somewhat peculiar in these days, though it would hardly have been thought odd by the writers or in the times which Mr. Belloc most admires, that a good style instead of revealing the individual may achieve a sort of impersonality. The man who wrote that sonnet may be speaking out of his own personal feelings, but he clearly believes that such feelings are common in humanity. The feelings of humanity are his theme; considered and careful versification is his material. Thus provided, he makes a beautiful thing; he is not concerned to express himself as a unique being.
The carefulness of structure is to be noted. The epithets are not magic, but they are exactly chosen, and leave the mind satisfied. The balance of the parts of the sonnet and its sweep upward to the conclusion are perfect, but not with a wild, instinctive perfection—rather with that which is arrived at by long and hard thought. This is, one may say, a solid and satisfactory piece of work. So it is, too, when Mr. Belloc seems at first sight to move less deliberately:—
Again, not, for all its light grace of movement, an instinctive, unconsidered piece. It has obviously been worked on until each word is proper in its place and everything uncontributory has been stripped away.
Good verse has always, and rightly, been considered indispensable for satirical or comic poetry, and in these branches of the art Mr. Belloc notoriously excels. The manner of his invective is well known:—
It serves no purpose, indeed, unless your halloo is delivered from resonant lungs and your protest neat, pointed and well constructed. It is because Mr. Belloc, having strong and truculent opinions, brings to their expression a craft of verse which has discarded everything weak or slipshod, that, whatever we think of his opinions, he must rank as one of the best satirical poets of our time. These are, indeed, among the most successful of his work; and their strength and solidity will probably carry them on after the perishing of whatever in them may be transitory. But there is nothing transitory in the address of the poor man to the rich man, or in the story of the man who kept his word; nor, indeed, in the robust joke of such an epigram as—
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."
But these pieces are for certain moods and do not compel their own. So too are many of the mere rollicking pieces in the collection. "The Chaunty of the Nona" is a pastiche, though, being a chaunty imaginable as being sung at sea, almost unique among pastiches. There are also drinking songs (one of them very famous) and lusty, high-spirited eulogies of the author's religion. There are pseudomedieval pieces, many of them also in praise of this religion, the archaic simplicity of which seems often a little forced. All of these are readable, enjoyable, and even memorable, and not one is carelessly done. But they are not first-rate; they make only a background.
The first-rate pieces are few in number, but when one reads them they compel their own moods and assure Mr. Belloc's survival as a poet. Two of them have already been quoted. To these certain of the sonnets must be added: not all—for in many of them Mr. Belloc affects a sort of Shakespearian pregnancy and packedness, which colours unfortunately the impersonality of his style. The "Dedicatory Ode" passes from ingenious rhymed fooling without a jar into a passage as beautiful as any in the book, and thence to half-serious but very effective bluster. But perhaps the type of these pieces is "Tarantella," which begins:—
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
and which ends:—
Only the high peaks boar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
In the walls of the Halls where falls
Of the feet of the dead to the ground
But the boom
Of the far Waterfall like Doom.
The intricacy and Tightness of the versification are extraordinary; the effect they produce is undeniable. There are, as we have said, not many of these pieces of the first rank in the volume. It is therefore a pity that Mr. Belloc should have omitted not only the songs for shouting which stud the pages of The Four Men, but also the lovely poem "He does not die that can bequeath," which comes towards the end of that book.
There are not many; and, in so far as copiousness is a virtue, Mr. Belloc fails. He himself would certainly not regard it as a vice, for he once praised Ronsard for having "that power which our anæmic age can hardly comprehend, of writing, writing, writing, without fear of exhaustion, without irritability or self-criticism, without danger of comparing the better with the worse." Beside Ronsard's great mass of work Mr. Belloc's little volume makes a puny figure. But what can be said of it without hesitation is that the best things in it are as good of their sort as can be. It must also be said that his peculiar and independent attitude towards the art of poetry has a considerable interest for our time. It may be suspected that we have now several writers of talent who do no more than excite and then disappoint our attention, because, obsessed with selfexpression and the supposed necessity of creating a new style, they will not sedulously devote themselves to what they could well do—namely, the writing of a few (or many) pieces of beautiful and solid verse.
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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
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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 to dubious conclusions at times. But these things are more or less of the present day and ephemeral. What is more certain of enduring fame and likely to carry Mr. Belloc's name to posterity is the poetry; yet it is probably true that this has received the least recognition of all his work.
Why this should be so it is difficult to say. His poetry is not obscure or esoteric or "new" in any unpopular way. It has on the contrary the happy characteristics of closeness to tradition and a firm basis upon logical thought. It has also a certainty of utterance and a clarity of form that are admirable, and with these, a lovely rhythm all its own, and that power of intense suggestion that great poetry alone possesses. Some, remembering his partly French descent, have found foreign influences in his work. It may be that the frequent perfection of form—too often not an English trait—suggests the French clarity of mind. But his poetry, the best of it, is essentially English.
Of the immortality of some of the poems there is no doubt. Again and again, scanning one's shelves of modern poets, one takes down the tall blue volume of Poems and Sonnets to find the beauty of some of these pieces assuring, in this age when so much in poetry is unsatisfying. The epigrams for example have the perfection of Landor's finest work; some of the sonnets have a lovely vehemence that Brooke momentarily captured and Wordsworth at his best achieved; while there are lyrics as pure in melody and exquisite in execution as those of the Elizabethan and the Caroline poets. And there is too a satiric humour that plays over some of the pages and gives us a kind of verse too rare in England, yet poetry in spite of the fierce intent.
Several of the poems have become too well known in anthologies to need quotation, such as "The South Country," "The Birds," "Ha'nacker Mill." But the fine sonnets are generally not anthologised and go the more widely unknown therefore; for as Mr. Graves complained in his sparkling petard with which he sought to destroy the popular anthology ("A Pamphlet against Anthologies"), when a little of a man's work is put into an anthology the reading public generally content themselves with that and do not search out his other writings. Here however is one sonnet that has not to my knowledge been bagged by the compilers:
But oh! not lovely Helen, nor the pride
Of that most ancient Ilium matched with doom.
Men murdered Priam in his royal room
And Troy was burned with fire and Hector died.
For even Hector's dreadful day was more
Than all his breathing courage dared defend.
The armoured light and bulwark of the war
Trailed his great glory to the accustomed end.
He was the city's buttress, Priam's son,
The soldier born in bivouac praises great
And horns in double front of battle won.
Yet down he went: when unremembering fate
Felled him at last with all his armour on.
Hector: the horseman: in the Scæan Gate.
There are other lovely ones: the sonnet on frozen winter; on Rome; that one-on Sleep, with its lulling sestet:
Above the surf-line, into the night breeze;
Eastward above the ever-whispering seas;
Through the warm airs with no more watch to keep.
My day's run out and all its dooms are graven.
O dear forerunner of Death and promise of Haven.
O my companion, O my sister Sleep.
Simple; perhaps not pleasing to those strict fanatics of the sonnet to whom anything not Miltonic is not worthy of the name; but how lovely, how accomplished! Of this graceful and finished verse Mr. Belloc is a master. There are those stanzas in the "Dedicatory Ode" that begin, in an abrupt change from the humour of
And One (myself I mean—no less),
Ah!—will Posterity believe it—
Not only don't deserve success,
But hasn't managed to achieve it,
with the lines:
I will not try the reach again,
I will not set my sail alone,
To moor a boat bereft of men
At Yarnton's tiny docks of stone. …
Finally there are the epigrams, that may prove the most enduring of all his work. Landor wrote much, but "Gebir" is forgotten and few read the "Imaginary Conversations": but his epigrams have lasted and are remembered by men the world over. So it may be Posterity will forget the political novels, the history and much of the essays—though some of these are worthy of preservation—and cherish a few lyrics and such epigrams as these:
"On a Sleeping Friend"
Lady, when your lovely head
Droops to sink among the Dead,
And the quiet places keep
You that so divinely sleep;
Then the dead shall blessed be
With a new solemnity,
For such Beauty, so descending,
Pledges them that Death is ending.
Sleep your fill—but when you wake
Dawn shall over Lethe break.
When we are dead, some Hunting-boy will pass
And find a stone half-hidden in tall grass
And grey with age; but having seen that stone
(Which was your image), ride more slowly on.
We may end with another:
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."
He need have no fear for his poems: they always will be.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 113
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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4633
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 of the whole man, some will be found to have left little or no significant trace in his writings. Others seemingly are more fitted for representation in prose than in verse. For example, the impact upon him of America, seen for the first time so vividly through the eyes of a young man of nineteen, has been strikingly recorded in prose—notably in "The Contrast"—but there is almost no reference to it in his verse, despite the fact that he was married there and considered the possibility of making it his home for life.
Nor is there any mention in his verse of that formative period, the first eight years of his life, passed at La Celle St. Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris. For the few lyrics he wrote which touch upon childhood are clearly addressed to children he knew in later life. They tell us nothing of himself. It was here at La Celle that he was born, of a French father and an English mother, in that momentous year 1870, and here that he lived, with periodical visits to his mother's house in Wimpole Street (his French father died when he was still a baby), until he was eight years old. He was christened Hilaire after his grandfather, a celebrated French painter, and under this name most of his works were published, but once he had definitely settled in England he adopted the English form Hilary, and it was by this name that he was known to his friends. There are only scanty records of this part of his life, but so far as they go they give the impression of a small boy in many respects the father of the man. Despite the frailness of his body (for his strong shoulders and stocky frame developed later) he appears to have possessed much of the vigour and self-will of later years. In this connection it is perhaps significant that one of his earliest and most sharply defined memories was the delight he experienced in watching the dust rise from a drawing-room cushion when he beat it with a stick. This delight was probably not shared by his mother and devoted nurse (a Bible Christian of Wesleyan upbringing), who may have found their hands over-full in looking after him. But there were other sides of him developing at the same time. Very early he began to take a keen interest in politics, and at the age of seven he produced a poem which showed at least some signs of that structural excellence of which later he was to become a master.
In 1878 Madame Belloc, his mother, who the year before had lost the greater part of her modest fortune through the recklessness or actual knavery of her trusted lawyer, took a house, the Grange, in Slindon, at the foot of the Sussex Downs; and though she retained possession of the French house, this was let and she passed most of her time in England. Here, at this impressionable age, the little Hilary began to drink in the beauties of Sussex, which remained ever after a major influence in his life. In the years between 1878 and 1882 those pictures were taking shape in his mind and those affections were being nourished which later inspired such poems as "The South Country," "Gumber" and "Duncton Hill," besides many prose works.
At the beginning of 1882 his life changed again. He was sent as a boarder to the Oratory School at Edgbaston. This step on the part of his mother was no doubt due to the advice of Cardinal Newman, who had founded the school, and whose friendship she enjoyed. He remained there until the summer of 1887, but this is another period of his life of which he has nothing to say in his writings. That may be because he was never very happy at school. The restraints of enforced discipline irked him, and his swiftly developing mind and character found school routine unsatisfying. In later life he always declared himself in favour of day schools as against those where boys were away from their homes for whole terms on end. Yet he made at least one life-long friend, Charles Somers-Cocks, while he was at the Oratory, and he always spoke with deep respect of his headmaster, Father John Norris. As might be expected, he excelled in the subjects taught in the school, winning the Norfolk Prize in his last year and acquiring a sound foundation in the classics, which stood him in good stead throughout his life. What is more surprising, seeing that he never acted after he left school, is that he won considerable distinction for the parts he took in Latin plays performed at the end of each year.
As soon as he left the Oratory in 1887 the interests which were to be so marked in his life and were reflected in his writings developed rapidly. The next four years were crowded with activity. His mother, whose financial position was causing her considerable anxiety, was eager that he should settle down in some permanent employment and earn his living. With this in view she apprenticed him to a farmer whose land was near her home at Slindon. But the young Belloc did not find this life congenial and the experiment soon came to an end. Yet even during this short interlude his mind was maturing fast and his over-mastering love of Sussex becoming still more engrained in him. It was at this time, lying on the turf of the Downs above the Amberley chalk pits, that he discovered the beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets, whose rhythms were later to influence his own; and it may well have been at this time, too, that he first experienced the joy of sailing the boat,
But life on the land—or rather life as an apprentice at the beck and call of a farmer whom he disliked—was far from satisfying him. He was soon immersed in journalism, where there was some scope for expression of the ideas and opinions brimming over in his mind and some opportunity for developing his talent for drawing little pictures of the things he loved best—boats and hills and woods and fragments of architecture. W. T. Stead, evidently recognizing the promise of brilliance, gave him his first work, and later on we find him editing a weekly paper called The Lamp, in which appear a few of his early poems, such as the sonnet beginning "As one who hath sent forth on bold emprise" and a short piece entitled (surprisingly, seeing that he was but twenty-one when he wrote it) "Ehcu Fugaces …"
But though these activities helped to relieve a mind bursting to express itself, they were by no means its principal occupation during these four years. In 1889 an event happened which was not merely to influence, but largely to shape the whole of his future life. He fell in love. Elodie Hogan and her sister Elizabeth, whose grandparents had emigrated to California from Ireland at the time of the famine, were on a visit to Europe and had had an introduction to Madame Belloc from their mutual friend, Stead. It was in the drawing-room of Madame Belloc's London house that Hilary first met Elodie. He proposed to her the same year in his "darling valley" in the Downs, but it was seven years before they were married. This long delay had a number of causes, but from that moment in 1889 the die was cast. Belloc was not a man to waver in any decision, least of all in his determination to marry Elodie.
The Hogan sisters finished their visit and returned to California at the end of the year. In 1890 Belloc made up his mind to follow in their wake. With little money in his pocket he crossed the Atlantic steerage, and made his way largely on foot across the United States, selling sketches he had made to earn him lodging and food on the journey. He eventually arrived at Napa, the home town of the Hogans, but was received with some disfavour by Mrs Hogan as a suitor for her daughter's hand. There was an additional difficulty: Elodie had half made up her mind to become a nun. However, the engagement was not broken off, and Elodie persuaded him to return to Europe and go through the military training that was incumbent upon all French citizens, pointing out that though his home was now in England he would never be well received in his native country if he had evaded its laws.
So the following year, in November 1891, we find him presenting himself as a recruit to the 3rd Battery of the 8th Regiment of Artillery, stationed at Toul. In the little service book that all conscripts possessed there is recorded an official description of his appearance at that time. His hair and eyebrows are noted as "châtain claire," his forehead as "haut," his nose "fort," his mouth "petite," his chin "rond," his eyes "bleus," and his face "ovale." His height was exactly measured—1.74 metres. There are some other interesting entries in this book and in the good-conduct certificate that he received at the end of his training. We learn, for example, that he obtained a second class for revolver shooting and for fencing, but only a third for gymnastics. However, it was recorded of him that he "sait lire, écrire, et compter" and that he was "très bon nageur," while against punishments received was written the single word "néant."
Though his service with the French Gunners was short (it was over by August 1892), its effect upon his life and writings was most marked. It was during this year that he acquired that semi-military attitude that was characteristic of him all through his life; here developed his intense love and admiration of the French Army and his detestation of Prussia; here, too, the strong republicanism of his early life gathered force. From 1892 onwards he had French Gunners' boots made for him and wore them, reaching half-way up his shins, under his trousers; and his repertoire of French marching songs, which he constantly sang in his fine tenor voice, seemed unending. Apart from his numerous works of military history, of which his service in the Army must have sown the seeds, there are scattered through his prose and verse many traces of the influence that year with the colours had upon him. There is, for example, that fine prose poem "The Reveillon"; and in this volume such poems as "I from my window where the Meuse is wide," "The Ballad of Val-ès-Dunes," "The Leader," etc., owe much of their realism and vigour to the fierce comradeship and disciplined idealism that characterized the French Army of that time.
After his year of service he returned to England, and a completely new phase of his life began which was, like his military service, to leave a lasting impression on him. In October of 1892 he went up to Balliol with a history scholarship. During his three years as an undergraduate he won many distinctions, carrying off the Brackenbury Prize for history, becoming President of the Union, walking from Oxford to London in record time, and getting a brilliant first in his schools. He was also the centre of a circle of friends almost all of whom became famous in after years. Jowett, who was Master of Balliol until Belloc's last year as an undergraduate, had a high opinion of him and foretold his future in glowing terms. He was to start by becoming a fellow of his college, and thereafter the Bar was foreshadowed and a successful political career. But the first item in the prophecy never happened. After considerable delay he realized that he was not, after all, to be admitted to a fellowship, and the disappointment left him with a feeling of injustice which continued all through his life. The bitterness he felt at this refusal was greatly increased, because the year before he had married Elodie in full expectation of a settled income.
During the seven years since they had become engaged they had corresponded regularly. Elodie had tried her vocation at a convent in Baltimore, but after a year in the novitiate had decided that she was not meant to be a nun. From that time onwards their marriage was decided upon and was to take place as soon as he had taken his degree and entered upon a profession. In 1896, thinking that his future was secure, he travelled again to California and was married at Napa. He returned after his wedding and took a house in Oxford. It was in this year that a small collection of his poems was first published in book form; but Elodie, feeling that some of them were not up to the standard of which he was capable, persuaded him to buy back all copies of the book which were unsold. Later on, however, he included in Sonnets and Verse a selection of those contained in this early publication.
It is not difficult to trace the origin of a number of his poems to his experiences while at Oxford. His fierce derision of the dons, who, he felt, had cheated him of his rights; his enduring love of his Balliol friends; his exuberant republicanism—all these characteristics of the young Belloc overflow in his verse, and—which is more impor tant—the individuality and vigour with which they are expressed are clues to the personality of the man himself. His unsparing, frontal attack upon all that he hated and despised could hardly be more ferociously marshalled than in his "Lines to a Don"; and in "The Winged Horse" we see the same attack transformed into the exhilaration of triumph as he passes in review the great heroes of chivalry and feels within himself an echo of their grandeur:
I saw the Host of Heaven in rank and Michael with his spear,
And Turpin out of Gascony and Charlemagne the Lord,
And Roland of the marches with his hand upon his sword.
For you that took the all-in-all the things you left were three,
A loud voice for singing and keen eyes to see,
And a spouting well of joy within that never yet was dried!
And I ride.
Or again, in his poem "To the Balliol Men still in Africa," the consuming love which he felt all through his life for his college and his undergraduate friends is brought into sharp contrast with his unbending sense of justice. He was torn between his strong opposition to the Boer War and his desire to be sharing with his friends the risks of battle:
But angry, lonely, hating it still,
I wished to be there in spite of the wrong.
My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill
And the hammer of galloping all day long.
Then there is his "Dedicatory Ode," which breathes the atmosphere of Oxford and his own enthusiasm for republicanism in that select club of four members—Phillimore, Eccles, Thornton, and himself—who
The hard fights of his life were yet to come. Oxford provided him with a training gymnasium and lusty sparring partners. But he was now married and he had failed to obtain the livelihood he had relied on. He set to work to earn money by coaching, by University Extension Lectures, and by the writing of books. Lambkin 's Remains (another echo of Oxford) and The Bad Child's Book of Beasts were among the first. These were soon followed by Danton and Robespierre, the first of his studies of the French Revolution. But politics—his urge to see justice done—were soon occupying much of his time. Not only was he writing political articles for such papers as The Speaker and the Daily News, but he was travelling about the country making speeches in support of Liberal candidates for Parliament. In 1906 he became a candidate himself and entered Parliament as Liberal Member for South Salford, full of hope that he would be able to further the cause for which he had fought so vigorously. Once again he was to be disappointed. The House of Commons, which he had hoped would be the channel through which his strongly held ideas could issue in practical form, presented itself to him as a place full of hypocrisy and corruption; and so most of his time and energy, while there, was spent in exposing and attacking these evils. Disgusted with the party system as he found it—a sham fight conducted by place-hunters—at the next election he stood as an Independent. He was again elected, but at the end of that session he left Parliament for good and made up his mind to found a weekly review which would be a platform both for his own political views and for an attack upon those whom he regarded as enemies of truth and of the country of his adoption.
One has not far to look to find echoes of this period of his life. As well as innumerable articles in his paper The Eye Witness and its successors, there were his books. Some, such as The Servile State and The Restoration of Property, expressed his positive views, and others, The Party System, for example (written in conjunction with Cecil Chesterton), and his scathing political novels, drove home his attack upon the politicians. Among his poems, too, there are fierce thrusts at those whom he held to be betraying their country. They are scattered through his epigrams and concentrated in that terrible outburst "The Rebel."
But it was from the turn of the century, when he left his house in Oxford for one in Cheyne Walk, that a regular stream of books began to issue from his pen. On moving again, in 1906, to King's Land, a house in Sussex, near Horsham, where he finally made his home, the stream became a flood. With his roots in the county of his choice and in a home that he loved (though constantly away from both for weeks on end, travelling all over Europe to study in situ the historical events of which he was writing), he lived a full life after his own heart, entertaining his friends—Phillimore, Somers-Cocks, Baring, the brothers Chesterton, MacCarthy, Kershaw, and a host of others—interesting himself in the 50 acres of farmland that he had bought, attending debates in the House of Commons, and at the same time writing, writing, writing, in every conceivable vein—gay, satiric, profound, controversial.
Of the friends just mentioned, Gilbert Chesterton is the one most closely associated with Belloc by the general public. Because they held many views in common they are often represented as twin souls. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their friendship was deep, but their talents and characters were utterly different. Chesterton was a philosopher and a student with a wide knowledge of literature, whereas Belloc was primarily a man of action and, for one of his literary eminence, had read little. At their first meeting, as may be seen from his autobiography, Chesterton was attracted by Belloc's exuberance and mental vigour. Belloc, in his turn, soon found in Chesterton a man receptive to his own strong views on English politics and to the remedies he proposed, and because of this, always felt himself to be the teacher and Chesterton the pupil, for Belloc was a man who learnt little from other men. In addition, Belloc's outlook was essentially European and authoritative, Chesterton's English and persuasive; and it is perhaps significant that Belloc considered "Lepanto" (the most European poem Chesterton wrote) to be far and away his finest. Although they were always close friends, their temperaments and manner of approaching a subject had little in common.
The years between 1906 and 1914 may perhaps be said to be the peak period of his life. His powers as a writer and an orator had come to full fruition, and through the increasing sale of his books his financial circumstances, which had caused him so much anxiety in the Oxford and Chelsea days, were improving. His fame was beginning to spread. In 1907 he employed his first full-time secretary and did much of his dictating at King's Land. At the end of the day, when the secretary was wilting under the thousands of words he had poured out upon her, he would come in to dinner full of vigour, prepared to invent impromptu verses, sing French marching songs or a selection of his own, discuss historical problems or current events, while at the same time playing a complicated game of patience by the light of candles at the end of his dining table, and drinking his beloved wines of France. He appeared to be tireless both in mind and body.
Of the many books published during these years, The Four Men has proved to be one of the most popular. It is in the same class as that earlier masterpiece The Path to Rome, but whereas the latter is an account of an actual journey made on foot by the author from his old garrison town of Toul to Rome, in the former the walk across Sussex was never undertaken in the way described, and the four men who converse as they walk together are no more than mouthpieces of Belloc's own thoughts and moods. But both books give an insight into certain sides of him. A third, The Cruise of the Nona, published thirteen years later, is written in a similar, though more serious vein; but here the background against which his thoughts chase one another is the sea and the hazards of sailing.
In all this whirl of activity Elodie was his constant support and helper. Highly cultured and with an extensive knowledge of literature (Hilary considered her literary judgment to be superior to that of any of his contemporaries), she shared with him the reviewing of books sent him by the Morning Post, and often gave him valuable advice about his own writings. She devoted herself to her family of five children, managed the household with skill and loving care, was friend in need to all who lived round about, and was universally loved.
With Elodie's premature death in 1914 (she was only forty-three) and the outbreak of the First World War, Belloc's life underwent great changes. Broken-hearted and thereafter always dressed in black, he tried to obtain an active service appointment. Disappointed in this, he began writing weekly explanatory articles on the progress of the war in Land and Water, and toured the country giving lectures on it. In his spare moments he took up sailing again, which he had largely discontinued during the previous eight years. His friends rallied round him in his sorrow and his fame continued to grow, but it was not till the end of the war that he seriously resumed the writing of books. From that time, right up to the moment of his illness in 1941, he plunged once again into every variety of literary output. It was in those years between the wars that his most sustained, and in the view of many critics his greatest, poem was completed, "An Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine." But these later years of his life, despite the activity he continued to display, are noteworthy more for the maturity of the work done in them than for new experiences leading to new fields of exploration. The formative days are over; the mind has reached its full stature.
In April 1941, following upon the death of his youngest son Peter on active service, he was taken ill, and at the beginning of the next year he had a stroke which brought him very near to death. His recovery was slow, and for some years his memory remained confused. However, thanks to his iron constitution, he got better, but his massive power of concentration had gone, and he never wrote again. His last years were passed peacefully at King's Land, his house in Sussex, and he enjoyed constant visits from his friends. Though no longer the brilliant talker he had been, he never failed to delight all who came to see him with his unquenchable humour, and was always ready to sing or to discuss the past. He died on 16th July 1953.
If this brief sketch of a few of the events and influences that surrounded Belloc as he grew to maturity helps to put into their setting some of the poems contained in this book it makes no pretension to be a full diary of his life—still less an assessment of the greatness of the man. All his immense output of writing, so diverse that it would be difficult to find any domain of life and thought that he had not explored, all the compelling oratory with which he held audiences of every shade of opinion, the personality that endeared him to high and low alike, even to thousands who had never seen or spoken to him; above all, that high sense of honour that never deserted him—all this is outside the scope of this short introduction. He could write with the biting scorn of a prophet confronted by treachery and deceit, or with the humility of one who knows the fallibility of all human strivings; with the tenderness of a child, or with the ferocity of a soldier in battle. He could create beauty seen through the eyes of a lover. He could communicate the exhilaration of those who dare upon the high seas. The flamboyant braggadocio of a Cyrano was his to flaunt, as was the loveliness of the South Country his to enshrine. He could do all these things because each was a part of him.
But to give a picture, even in the merest outline, of the man himself (and one must repeat the man is greater than his work), two things must be emphasized beyond all others: his Catholic Faith and his marriage. There are poems in this book that directly avow his unswerving allegiance to the one and the ecstatic happiness that the other brought him. But direct avowal is no more than the overflow of those two guiding influences. It is they more than anything else, each strengthening the other, that give unity to all his work and to his crowded life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4827
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 that they are strangers to the world of Essences' we seem to be precisely in the universe depicted by Belloc's poems, and in the same atmosphere of cosmic pessimism.
In contrast, those of Belloc's characters whose misdemeanors are serious escape virtually unscathed. While Henry King dies in agony for having eaten a few harmless little bits of string, Algernon the doctor's son is only reprimanded for attempting to assassinate his sister. George, whose failure to exercise proper care over a balloon is the direct cause of the death of seven adults and one other child, suffers merely 'a nasty bump behind the ear', while Hildebrand, whose cowardice is a blot on the record of a noble family, seems likely to receive several motor cars as a gift which he has done nothing to deserve. We are indeed, in a book which the English themselves affect to regard as amusing, in the tragic and meaningless universe so well described by the Preacher, Ecclesiastes, when he wrote that he 'returned under the sun' and saw 'that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.' It is the purpose of the [essay] to examine, by a rigorous analysis of the patterns of structure of Belloc's Cautionary Verses, and with reference to his other opinions where appropriate, just what conclusions can be drawn from his work; to discover what kind of metaphysic it implies, what sort of social vision it involves; and finally to suggest, by way of conclusion, what comparable approaches can and should be made to other great works in English literature such as the Jeeves Saga in the work of P. G. Wodehouse of the sadly neglected William books by Richmal Crompton.
It should of course be noted, as part of any Prolegomena to the study of Belloc's verse, that it would be totally wrong to regard him as being in any real way preoccupied with children. No more telling proof of this can be found than the fact that the absurdity and unpredictability of the social and metaphysical universe described in his work impinges just as much, and perhaps even more, upon adults. It is, as he himself remarks, by 'a curious fluke' that Lord Lucky becomes 'a most important duke', though it should naturally be remembered that this elevation is brought about by the death of five innocent people. Lord Finchley is struck dead merely because he tries to mend the electric light 'himself, while Lord Lundy falls from high office because of a virtue: an intense sensitivity to the sufferings of all mankind which moves him to tears at the merest hint of difficulties to be overcome. Neither is the world view presented in these poems any more reassuring when we move from the social to the natural world, for man's relationship with the animal kingdom, like his presence in Society, is one of consistent failure brought about by unpredictable and insuperable odds. Both the Gentleman who stays to fight the Bear and the Person who turns to run are equally devoured. Judges are bitten by cobras, men infallibly die when bitten a second time by a viper, and Boers cannot even pronounce the name of the animal whom they might need to kill for their very survival. This pontentially fatal aphasia clearly symbolizes the unreliability of language in a world that perpetually escapes human control, just as the sudden emergence of a crocodile from a missionary's breakfast egg offers a striking parallel to Kafka's Metamorphosis or to the passage in Sartre's La Nausée where a child's tongue turns into a centipede.
Similarly, man's dilemma when faced with a bear has a marked resemblance to the realization which comes over Camus's Meursault, in The Outsider, of the insoluble problems with which man is confronted in an absurd universe. 'What she said was: "If one goes too slowly, there's the risk of a heat-stroke. But, if one goes too fast, one perspires, and the cold air in the church gives one a chill." I saw her point. Either way one was for it,' is only an alternative way of expressing Belloc's conclusion that
Decisive action in the hour of need
Denotes the Hero, but does not succeed,
and both texts offer the same cosmic implications. Man is caught in a situation where the most harmless activity can have the most catastrophic consequences, where the throwing of a stone may lose a fortune—
John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
—in which one child's extravagance can reduce its parents to penury—
They had to sell the house and grounds
For less than twenty thousand pounds
—where parents behave in a totally unpredictable manner towards their off-spring—
Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature—
Or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which)
—where power lies, as it does for William Shand, 'on the side of their oppressors' (Ecclesiastes, IV, I), where scorpions lurk in bed, seeking whom they may devour—
He dearly loves to bite;
He is a most unpleasant brute
To find in bed at night
—and where 'an aunt in Yutacan' dies of snake-bite while the serpent itself, 'more subtle than any beast of the field' (Genesis, III, I) survives.
A conviction of the essential injustice of the universe lies, of course, at the heart of any tragic vision, whether it be that of Pascal, Sartre, Camus or Hemingway ('That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you'. A Farewell to Arms), but Belloc adds to this conviction an acute awareness of the futility of human endeavour which carries particularly interesting associations. Occasionally, the adults in his work are prevented by purely private characteristics from rendering one another that mutual help and assistance so frequently presented by humanist thinkers as man's sole but valid reply to the problems of living in an absurd universe. The honest keeper, for example, trying to save Jim from the lion,
… almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
Alas, however, he was too fat, and arrived too late. Maria's parents do everything possible to save her from the ills she has brought upon herself by pulling faces, but such is the unconquerable selfishness of the human species that none of the potential suitors they have selected for her—
… Grand Dukes, Commanders of the Fleece,
Mysterious Millionaires from Greece,
And exiled Kings in large amounts,
Ambassadors and Papal Counts …
—can master the horror which they feel at her self-inflicted ugliness, and she is condemned to as unhappy a marriage as any to be found in Mauriac. Yet the deeper structure of the work—for Belloc's Cautionary Verses, like Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, must be read as an organic whole, not an accidental collection of poems—reveals a more significant reason for human impotence and disarray. Medicine, perhaps the greatest science known to man, and certainly the one most esteemed by humanists, is consistently and deliberately depicted as inefficacious. Physicians of the utmost fame,' when summoned to the bedside of the dying Henry King, can do no more than acknowledge that there is
… no cure for this disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.
and their remarks echo the verdict of perhaps the noblest figure described in nineteenth-century French literature, Doctor Larivière in Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Summoned to Emma's bedside when she has poisoned herself with arsenic, he looks at her only for a moment before telling her husband: 'Il n'y a plus rien à faire,' and he differs from Belloc's specialists only in showing some slight traces of human emotion to mitigate his professional impotence. The specialist consulted by Lord Roehampton is so incompetent that he diagnoses as laryngitis what turns out to be a fatal heart condition—
Your Larynx is a thought relaxed
And you are greatly over-taxed—
and Belloc's hostility towards all scientific endeavour reaches its climax in the poem "The Microbe", a conscious satire of the whole basis on which the medical developments of his day were made.
It is, moreover, in this hostility to science that the key to Belloc's cosmic pessimism can be found, for it must be noted that the catastrophes which overtake his characters are not, as the first part of this article might have erroneously suggested, totally random. They almost always arise from the different versions of the hubris, or overweening pride, which so characterizes the scientific outlook. Whether it be Jim imagining that he can do without his nurse, Lord Finchley attempting to practice a trade for which he has not been trained, the Dinotherium leaving its natural habitat in order to 'Roost in branches like a bird'—
If you were born to walk the ground,
Remain there; do not fool around.
—or Godfrey Home, perhaps the most significant example, who is justly punished for being 'Deathly Proud' by becoming
… the Boy,
Who blacks the Boots at the Savoy,
all Belloc's most memorable characters attempt to fly beyond the natural limits of the human condition—attempting, as Pascal would say, to become angels, and yet acting like animals. It would, moreover, be a mistake to imagine that Belloc is merely concerned with those who try to rise above their natural lot or pre-destined social station. As I shall later show, he would have thoroughly endorsed the sentiments expressed in that stanza from All Things Bright and Beautiful which is now so unfortunately omitted from modern hymn-books and was last given a public performance in the opening few minutes of the Boulting Brothers' film, Heavens Above:
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate,
and the whole social vision of the Cautionary Verses is profoundly consistent with the ideas he expressed elsewhere on the notion of the corporate state. But what is more important, when one considers the over-all metaphysical implications of his poems—taken, for a moment, in isolation from his other work and examined like Mallarmé's 'Calme bloc ici-bas chu d'un désastre obscur'—is that all those who act in an unusual way are punished, not solely those who do so through pride. Henry King realizes this—alas too late, for he is already on his death bed—when he offers the advice:
O my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea,
Are all the Human Frame requires …,
for he has come to appreciate the folly of deviating from the dietary norm. It is significant to compare his fate with that of Franklin Hyde, who after being chastised for playing with
… Disgusting Mud
As though it were a Toy!
is reassured by his Uncle that
Children in ordinary Dress (my italics)
May always play with Sand,
and these two poems offer a microcosm of the ethic of social conformity that is so integral a part of Belloc's world vision.
Indeed, as one reads through these verses, one comes again and again across the same message, sometimes implicit in the events, sometimes made explicit by the author's own conclusions. The very first story in the book ends with the famous piece of advice, neglected by modern parents for financial excuses rather than on financial grounds,
Always keep a hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse,
while the volume itself is concluded with the comprehensive message:
The moral is (it is indeed!)
You mustn't monkey with the Creed.
Like Pascal's, Belloc's cosmic pessimism has a message, for the aim of the Pensées was undoubtedly to lead men to conform, not to 'monkey with the Creed', and Pascal makes this totally clear in the concluding passage of the wager argument. 'Or, quel mal vous arrivera-t-il en prenant ce parti?', he asks the unbeliever. 'Vous serez fidèle, honnête, humble, reconnaissant, bienfaisant, ami sincère, véritable', and his implied assurance of the social benefits to be gained from belief recalls the portrait which Belloc gives of the happy fate awaiting those who do conform. Sometimes, of course, the rewards are small, as when Franklin Hyde is merely allowed to play with sand because he is wearing ordinary dress, but at other times they are more substantial.
The nicest child I ever knew
Was Charles Augustus Fortescue,
begins one of Belloc's most celebrated poems, and it will be remembered that Charles Augustus, because he 'Always Did what was Right', accumulated an 'Immense Fortune', one so great that he was able to build a
… Splendid Mansion which
Is called The Cedars, Muswell Hill,
Where he resides in Affluence still,
To show what Everbody might
Become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT.
While Pascal's unbeliever is not promised quite so definite recompense in the goods of this world, the suggestion in Lafuma 343 is that the delights stemming from the daily exercise of virtue cannot fail to lead to what Lady Bracknell [from Oscar wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest] calls 'a recognized position in good society', and the parallel between the two thinkers becomes even closer if the rest of the Wager argument is compared to the success story of The Statesman, in Ladies and Gentlemen. When the unbeliever suggests to Pascal that he might have difficulty in totally abandoning his enquiring intellect when he makes the leap into faith, Pascal's reply is clear: conform to established practice, take holy water, have masses said '… cela vous fera croire et vous abêtira ' ('make you stupid' [my translation and my italics]). The Statesman, it will be remembered, was the man who
… use to say
Not once but twenty times a day,
That in the turmoil and the strife
(His very words) of Public Life
The thing of ultimate effect
Was Character—not Intellect,
and the course of action which decides to follow in pursuit of this principle has markedly Pascalian overtones:
He therefore was at strenuous pains
To atrophy his puny brains (my italics)
And registered success in this
Beyond the dreams of avarice.
Like Franklin Hyde and Charles Augustus Fortescue, and like Pascal's convert, The Statesman is rewarded for his conformity, and in this respect, at least, there is a profound relationship between Belloc's cosmic pessimism and his social vision. Salvation is possible for those who conform, whether they do so blindly as the child is recommended to do in the lines on the Pig in A Moral Alphabet—
Learn from the Pig to take whatever Fate
Or Elder Persons heap upon your plate
—or whether they adopt a more conscious conformity after the manner of The Statesman. But at all events, they will avoid anxious and indiscreet inquiries. 'Oh, que c'est un doux et mol oreiller que l'ignorance et l'incuriosité, à reposer une tête bien faite,' wrote the Montaigne who so influenced Pascal, and it is this attitude which is finally recommended both in Sarah Byng and in The Example. Sarah Byng, it will be remembered, did not know how to read, and was tossed into a thorny hedge by a Bull. After this experience, she resolves, not to remedy her ignorance, but simply to go
A long way round to keep away
From signs, whatever they may say
—a decision which is linked to what Belloc also describes as her
That literature breeds distress—
and which the portrait accompanying the poem seems thoroughly to endorse. Her youth enables her to avoid the dangers which later overtake 'John Henderson, an unbeliever' who
…lately lost his Joie de Vivre
By reading far too many books
Went about with gloomy looks,
for she has had an instinctive knowledge of a truth from Ecclesiastes—which the unfortunate Henderson discovers only when it is too late—that 'of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness to the flesh' (XII, 12). She is a creature from before the Fall, antedating the descent of man into the hell of knowldege and inquiry, of differences and problems, and from which it is the aim of Belloc's Cautionary Verses, as it was that of Pascal's Pensées, to save him.
A comprehensive analysis of the human condition such as we find in Belloc's Cautionary Verses is not something which arises by accident. Only the dialectical method, with the encouragement that it gives to the reader to go perpetually, as Lucien Goldmann says so often in Le Dieu Caché, from the Whole to the Parts and then from the Parts to the Whole again, enables the work to be understood in all its complexity, and only the refinements brought to dialectical materialism by thinkers such as Georg Lukàcs and Monsieur Goldmann himself can reveal the full relationship of the work to the complex of social conflicts which gave it birth. That the overall metaphysical world vision of Belloc's verses is totally coherent, in spite of the social contradictions which a Marxist cannot avoid seeing in it, is sufficiently indicated by the way in which even apparent irrelevances fit together, providing the same kind of satisfying sense of unity that we find in poems such as Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, with their 'secret architecture'.
Take, for example, the question of food. In two separate poems, "A Reproof of Gluttony" and "On Food," Belloc returns to the bewildering variety of nourishment pursued by human beings, remarking in the first on how ungrateful Man is not to be
Contented with his Prandial lot
commenting in the second on the 'various tastes in food' which 'Divide the human brotherhood' and lamenting how
… all the world is torn and rent
By various views on nourishment.
The parallel with Pascal's and Montaigne's concern over the immense variety and unpredictability of human behaviour in the moral sphere is too obvious to be missed. 'Plaisante justice qu'une rivière borne! Vérité au deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au delà' writes the former, in a remark clearly inspired by the passage in the latter's Apologie de Raymond Sebond, pointing out that 'Le meurtre des enfants, meurtre des pères, trafic des voleries, il n'est rien en somme si extrême qui ne se trouve reçu par l'usage de quelque nation', but what is more important than this similarity is the solution which Belloc presents to this problem.
F for a Family taking a walk
In Arcadia Terrace, no doubt.
begins one of the poems in the Moral Alphabet, and it is obvious from their complete conformity with established custom—
The parents indulge in intelligent talk,
While the children they gambol about
—that this family is being presented, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, as something of an ideal. Yet this ideal is something realized through synthesis, in the true dialectical method, something attained through effort, not merely given through Grace as is the ignorance of Sarah Byng.
Consciousness, as Sartre has so convincingly argued, always separates the admirer from the object admired. Belloc can only gaze in admiration at this family, which has achieved a synthesis that is quite beyond his powers, great though they are—'Though my appetite passes belief—and his situation once again parallels that of Pascal. For many critics, the unthinking acceptance of faith, like the double-think required by the wager argument, in which the unbeliever both forgets his intellect and remembers to forget it, remained forever—and understandingly so—beyond Pascal's own capabilities. So Belloc looks on longingly at this salvation attained through choice and conscious effort, in which the bewildering variety of the world is subsumed under the
large pigeon pie very skilfully made
To consist almost wholly of beef,
and tries to forget his own condition of metaphysical and social exile.
It is indeed a social exile which forms the basis of Belloc's cosmic pessimism, just as it did that of Pascal. As Monsieur Goldmann has so exhaustively argued, Pascal and Racine both represented, whether they were conscious of it or not, the contradictory position of the legal nobility in the second third of the seventeenth century in France, torn between its desire to oppose the King who was trying to deprive it of its power and its realization that it had noone else on whom to depend. A comparable analysis can be made of Belloc's situation, and one that is especially relevant both to the themes of his Cautionary Verses and to his declared political views. It is this analysis which will solve many of the critical problems presented by his verse, for this can take on its true significance—as distinct from its subjective meaning—only in the light of what Belloc thought about modern society and its trends.
Like his friend, G. K. Chesterton, Belloc was well-known as an enthusiastic defender of the corporate state. Equally opposed, at least in principle, both to laissez-faire capitalism and to socialism, both men argued in favour of a return to a modified version of the mediaeval concept of a society divided according to the part which men played in it, in which individualism was kept in check by a strong central authority, but in which the existence of a recognized and respected Church also prevented the temporal authorities from becoming tyrannical. Objectively, and from any Marxist standpoint, this was a reactionary philosophy aimed at recreating a static society already condemned by History, and it is not surprising that it should have given rise to the kind of pessimism described in the first part of this article. The ideal society conceived by the noblesse de robe in seventeenth-century France had similarly reactionary features, and the only real difference lies in the presence in Belloc of an anti-semitism found nowhere in the Jansenist movement. In the Cautionary Verses, this is noticeable in at least two places—
A wealthy Banker's Little Daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater,
This gentleman (A Mr Meyer
Of Rabley Abbey, Rutlandshire)
—and shows how easily the concept of a static society from which all possibility of social change has been excluded can merge into Fascism. Belloc's ideal world is one where butlers
… know their place and do not play
The Old Retainer night and day
in which a strict separation of social duties is enforced, as it would be in any corporate state which reproduced anything of the mediaeval guild system—
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light Himself.
It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan
—in which those who have the privilege to serve a Lady (A Moral Alphabet)
… take it in turn to observe:
'What a Lady indeed! … what a presence to feel! …
What a woman to worship and serve!' …,
and where the Law provides constant protection to those injured by the progress of modern, individualistic, technological civilization (see the fate of Ned, Maria's younger brother, 'Who walking one way, chose to gaze the other').
Occasionally, it is true, Belloc seems to be critical of established society, and we ourselves have heard Englishmen actually laugh as they read the closing stanzas of "Peter Goole," who
even now, at twenty-five, still has to WORK To keep alive!
little realizing the true meaning of the poem. For what Belloc is obviously describing here is the failure of the landed aristocracy to survive in an age of ruthless commercial competition, and what might seem at first sight like irony is a genuine lament. Those critics who choose to ignore the advantages of the structural and dialectical method of analysing literary works, and prefer to concentrate on such imponderables as tone, style, or atmosphere, are bound to misunderstand the books they attempt to study with such imperfect tools. They are like those French scholars, rightly stigmatized by Monsieur Goldmann, who persist in maintaining that Iphigénie and not Eriphile is the true tragic heroine in Racine's Iphigénie, that Agrippine and Néron are the centres of attraction in Britannicus, or that Andromaque is one of Racine's tragedies, instead of merely being a 'drama'. Such people will never learn, and it is critics of their kind who attribute a satirical intention to the last lines in The Garden Party:
They married and gave in marriage,
They danced at the County Ball,
And some of them kept a carriage,
AND THE FLOOD DESTROYED THEM ALL.
In fact, this poem is a concrete dramatization—or a dramatic concretization—of the contradictory situation in which both Belloc and the audience for which he was consciously or unconsciously writing (and which consciously or unconsciously inspired him; it does not matter which, once the dialectical method is being used), found themselves in the first third of the twentieth century. The Rich, for whom Belloc is clearly not writing, are sure of their position and it is for this reason that they
talk of their affairs
In loud and strident voices.
The Poor, whom Belloc was too honest an observer, for all his ideas, not to recognize as the new Rising Class, are cheerful: they are arriving in Fords, symbols of the triumph of the new mass production technology. They
laugh to see so many Lords
And Ladies all assembled
because they know that they will soon be replacing them, if not as the new ruling class, then at least as the class which will benefit from the next phase into which industrial civilization is bound, through the irresistible pressures of History, to move. It is the 'People in Between' who look
underdone and harassed,
And out of place and mean,
And horribly embarrassed
—the petty bourgeoisie slowly being crushed between the upper millstone of the triumphant entrepreneurs and the nether millstone of the Rising Working Class. It is they who are his true public, the breeding ground for the Fascism of which Belloc's theory of the Corporate State was but a disguise.
That there are contradictions in Belloc's vision of society is inevitable. He was a bourgeois writer, and all bourgeois writers inevitably express contradictions. They are, indeed, for a Marxist, nothing but contradictions, and it would be pointless to expect Belloc to explain why conformity is valuable as a means of rising in society when this society itself is so obviously doomed. One finds the same contradiction in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, where Julien Sorel is presented as the hero but where the society within whose framework he wishes to triumph is depicted as worthless and inauthentic. It is sufficient, for a critic espousing a synthesis between the structural method and the methods of dialectical materialism, to note at one and the same time the consistency of an author's cosmic pessimism and the inconsistency of his social remedies. Indeed, the main advantage of a study of this kind is that it highlights the immense advantages available, for the creative and imaginative critic, in a method which enables him to move so smoothly from one field of enquiry to another, unhampered by outdated concepts such as a positivist respect for the sum total of an author's work or by a purely aesthetic concern for style or verbal rhythm. Moreover, the great advantage of this method lies in its flexibility and adaptability.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3523
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, literary history, and bibliography, but there is no mention of poetry. Well, one can see why. The verse of neither Chesterton nor Belloc is much read today. Though Chesterton was once a popular poet, he has long ceased to be. Belloc, save for his inimitable children's verse, never was. Neither enlarged the boundaries of a tradition; neither influenced any considerable poet of the past fifty years: and in consequence neither has attracted much critical attention. Like so many other Georgians, they have been rolled over and very nearly obliterated by the hosts of War, Modernism, and Social Significance. But the Georgians are now enjoying a modest revival, and perhaps it is time for a backward look.
Today, the causes which so largely engrossed the energies of the Chesterbelloc have either perished or assumed new and awful shapes, to be dealt with in contemporary terms. What is the Boer War to us, who live in a century of wars? The Marconi scandal pales before Watergate. Distributism is a word unknown except in small enclaves. All around us the plutocracy Belloc loathed and the servile state he predicted create the climate in which we live. But when we turn from the Chesterbelloc's valiant rearguard action against historical falsehood, political corruption, and social injustice, and look at each man's verse, the fabulous twin-headed monster vanishes. Verse—even verse not of the first rank—has a charm against time, change, and all mortality. Chesterton and Belloc live in their verse as vividly as they did in their day. And whatever their common opinions, they were indeed very different men and lived in very different worlds. These differences—to me—are more interesting than their similarities.
The world of Chesterton's verse is as strange and surrealistic as that of Bosch or Dali. His landscape is like a huge amusement park, crowded with fantastic shapes, shot through with vivid lights, brilliant with improbable colours. Forests are purple, grass a crawling carpet of green hair, the sea a fallen sky in which fish like diabolic cherubs swim, a daisy the one eye of a Cyclops, the four winds the sails of a gigantic windmill, turning for a child whose dolls are crowned and winged saints and seraphim. In this world, unlike that of the Lotus Eaters, it is never afternoon but always dawn, sunset, or midnight. Earth and heaven alike are the scene of a cosmic drama, of merry wars of flowers and trees, of holy wars of stars and angels. It is a fairyland, a magic world, in which anything may happen: fishes may fly, forest walk, the sun turn black or the moon to blood. Flowers smell of passion, of pardon, of mirth; the smallest seed is filled with "God Almighty, and with Him / Cherubim and Seraphim," and "with the wan waste grasses on his spear," a wild knight rides forever, seeking after God.
Chesterton's verse, in short, combines the vivid visual imagination of an artist with the intuitions and convictions of an excited theologian. He sees the world as intensely real but strange, the whimsical and playful creation of a cosmic artist, and he defined the main problem of philosophers as "how we can contrive at once to be astonished at the world and yet at home in it." His early nightmare was solipsism: the dreadful possibility that he alone might be real, all Creation only a projection of himself. "The Mirror of Madmen" is perhaps the most explicit expression of this hideous vision, but his early poems are nearly all, in one way or another, dominated by it and by the overwhelming relief and gratitude with which he refuted and rejected it.
Chesterton, it has been said often enough, was a Christian before he knew what Christianity was. Its doctrines, when he discovered them, confirmed his earliest intuitions and enabled him to reconcile them with his reason. Henceforward, he illustrated dogma by imagination: he really did look at Christianity as he looked at the world, with the eyes of a man who is seeing it for the first time. This innocence, this capacity for wonder, is Chesterton's greatest gift, a large part of that genius for parallelism which Belloc identified as one of his leading characteristics and which made him perhaps the outstanding religious apologist of his day. His concern, in prose or verse, is always for the problem of existence; the objects of his scorn throughout his life were the Pessimists, the Puritans, and the Manichees.
Not for me be the vaunt of woe;
Was not I from a boy
Vowed with the helmet and spear and spur
To the blood-red banner of joy?
All Chesterton's windows open outward on the world, the world he recognised—with what enormous relief and joy his verse proclaims—not he but God had made, the world he declared not merely good but a marvel. And whatever his particular concerns, religion was always at the core of his thought.
But the world of Chesterton's verse, Christian as it is, is not specifically a Catholic world. I say this nervously but with conviction. The persons and events of the Christian story, the great symbols, the Christian view of man's life in God's world, indeed engage his imagination, but he was what might be described as a temperamental rather than an institutional Catholic. He joined the Catholic Church relatively late in life, from a firm conviction of its historical truth and divine authority, but he had in a very real sense been bora a Catholic. Eventually he recognised the fact because, as he himself put it, "I perceive life to be logical and workable with these beliefs, and illogical and unworkable without them." But that was written in 1903, when he was not yet thirty, and nearly twenty years before he became a Catholic. The impact of his conversion is not perceptible by any change of thought or feeling recorded in his verse. It is the tone, perhaps, that changes a little. The hectic and feverish atmosphere of The Wild Knight—an atmosphere not wholly unlike that of the aesthetes and decadents against whom he rebelled—blew away in the fresh air of health and sanity, and though his poetic world is still vivid with colour and ringing with rhetoric, the nightmares have faded as wonder, joy, and laughter possessed him ever more securely.
If Chesterton was a born Catholic who found his way slowly to the Church, Belloc, born a Catholic, clung to the Church as a bulwark against despair. For Chesterton the Church embodied in historical and visible form his own personal vision of truth. For Belloc, it was the sword and shield with which he could fight his way through the wilderness of this world. We know from his many and varied prose works what his view of the Church was: founder and defender of civilisation and social order, creator of Europe, guardian of truth, the Church Militant warring against the heathen of every kind, the citadel outside of which, as he wrote, "are only the puerilities and the despairs." Belloc was dogmatic because to him, a sceptic by nature, the Church was a great rock in a weary land. But with few exceptions his most moving and convincing poems are not poems of Christian faith, still less of Christian joy. Where Chesterton seldom wrote about anything but religion, Belloc is only rarely a religious poet at all.
Now this is a paradox, for we know that Belloc took his verse very seriously indeed, almost as seriously as he took his religion. He wrote prose for money, verse for love. More than once he said he wished to be remembered primarily by his verse and would be proud if he had added something, however small, to the tradition of English lyric verse. He took scant pains with much of his prose; his verse he worked at rigorously and long. The "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine" took him twenty years to write. "To excel in poetry," he said, "is, after holiness, the highest of human achievements."
Chesterton never felt nor said anything of the kind. His verse, it is not too much to say, is a triumph of the imagination, of emotion, of vision, over a diction and technique only just adequate. Owing largely to the "White Horse" and "Lepanto," he was and still is far more widely known than Belloc, but the latter is a far more serious poet. Belloc's remarks on the nature and practice of verse are widely scattered through his books and essays and he never set forth a systematic theory of poetics. Nevertheless, he has said enough to make his views clear. He regarded the poet, in the old, grand manner, as a man inspired, used by some divine power for its own purposes. But he laid even more emphasis on craftsmanship, the labour through which the poem becomes, in his own phrase, "something made." In his essay on Chesterton written after the latter's death, Belloc avoids judging his friend's verse because, he says, it is too soon and also—illuminating phrase!—"because I know myself to be fastidious in the matter." Despite this disclaimer, he goes on to say that Chesterton's verse suffers from being too voluminous and therefore loose, but that he "struck perpetually the inward note."
As a man judges, he may fairly be judged. Belloc's verse is anything but voluminous or loose. His metrics are always careful, strictly controlled, highly traditional: epigram and sonnet, quatrain and ballade, even the heroic couplet so seldom used since Dryden's time to carry any sustained emotion but anger or humour. A far more "literary" poet than the better-read Chesterton, he clearly owes much to his studies of the classics, to French poetry, to the Elizabethans and seventeenth-century lyrists. That his sonnets are indebted—too indebted, perhaps—to those of Shakespeare is obvious. Belloc tells us that though he had learned most of what he knew of English literature from Chesterton, "with English verse I can claim a better acquaintance." These influences, and his careful craftsmanship, have been often enough noted. The same terms recur in notices and reviews of his verse: form, classic, clarity, pellucid, music, beauty. But what of that "inward note" that he himself held to be at the heart of the matter?
When Chesterton's verse strikes the inward note, it is that of joy, of thanksgiving, of celebration. Never, apparently, was he moved to express grief or sadness in verse. But Belloc's inward note is most deeply sad; not Christian resignation, but the true pagan sadness which he shares with the author of A Shropshire Lad. Strange but true: of all Belloc's contemporaries, the lyric poet he most closely resembles is A.E. Housman. Like Housman, Belloc is a stranger and afraid in a world he never made. Like Housman, he defends himself with wit, irony, and satire. And in his serious verse, like Housman, he gives vent to an incurable nostalgia, to a wistfulness and a self-pity welling up from deeper levels than those expressed in the biting wit of his epigrams, the rollicking jollity of his drinking songs, or the playfulness of his Cautionary Tales.
It is this sadness that lends the best of Belloc's verse a piercing poignancy Chesterton seldom or never attains. Chesterton's is the verse of a happy man, centered and secure, possessed by a faith at once passionate and serene. Belloc's is that of a melancholy man, deeply sceptical at bottom, who tells us that:
…they that held through Winter to the Spring
Despair as I do, and, as I do, sing.
Where Chesterton's best serious verse is narrative and rhetorical, Belloc's is lyrical. Chesterton is a philosopher and, in the best sense, a propagandist; Belloc is a suffering human being and an artist for whom verse is partly the creation of beauty in words and rhythms and partly the balm of a hurt mind. If we had no other testimony, Chesterton's verse alone would both express and explain his faith. Belloc's verse, though occasionally it states his faith, reveals a man who, if the everlasting arms of the Church were to relax for a moment, would be swallowed up in an abyss.
Chesterton's gaudily coloured and oddly shaped world is one all men can share for it is addressed to all, and the voice that speaks in his verse is that of a man declaiming to others. But Belloc's is an intensely personal and private world; his mental doors swing inward to express a state of mind, and his voice is that of a man singing to himself or to a few much loved friends. It is yet another paradox that Belloc's verse is a record of love and friendship to a far greater extent than Chesterton's, and that beside Belloc the more genial Chesterton seems oddly detached from personal affection, save always for his wife.
It is strange, too, that Belloc, so self-absorbed in private experience and private emotion, loves the real world in a way Chesterton does not. Chesterton, entranced as he is by the beauty and the strangeness of the world, at bottom loves it because God made it and because in and through it he senses its Creator. The fantastic scenery and apparent violence and melodrama of his world barely conceal the visible presence of God:
Now Belloc loves the world too, and he was much more of the world than Chesterton ever was. But he loves the world as it is and for itself: the seasons, which he celebrated in a sonnet sequence, its opportunities for physical action and sensuous pleasure: eating, drinking, singing, sailing, riding, walking, lovely women, luxury. The difference is that which Arcite draws between his love for Emily and that of Palamon:
Thyn is affeccioun of hoolynesse,
And myn, is love as to a creature.
Belloc loves the world as a creature, loves a woman as a woman. Chesterton loves both world and beloved woman because they reveal God's grace and power. Belloc thus writes of real places and real experiences in a way Chesterton never does. We know where we are: on the Downs, in France, in the Pyrenees, on a particularly stormy passage between two real ports, on Cummor Hill, or at Balliol, in Arundel or Kings Land, his home in Sussex. Belloc's verse is located in space and time as Chesterton's seldom or never is.
But the real world, lovely and solid as Belloc finds it, leaves him forever longing, forever homeless and homesick. It was Chesterton who said that "men are homesick in their homes / And strangers under the sun," but it was Belloc who, in reality, felt himself a stranger whether on land or sea, in Sussex or in Spain. Fear, sadness, nostalgia; a sense of violent, threatening, anarchic forces; these are the climate of Belloc's serious verse, the climate not of the outer but of the inner world. His true voice sounds most clearly not in the over-praised sonnets but in a few lyrics and epigrams. And it is a voice of lament, the voice of an exile mourning with inconsolable sadness the loss of youth, of beauty, of love, of life, the coming of old age and death. These are, of course, prominent themes and moods of the lyric in all ages and Belloc thus stands in a direct line of descent that reaches back to the Greek anthology.
The inward note speaks most poignantly in brief passages, the tone often changing suddenly in the midst of description or action. Haunting lines unexpectedly take us by the throat and remain in the memory. In the midst of a celebration of the South Country, all at once we hear:
The sailor pauses in the midst of a southwesterly gale to address his boat:
The prophet lost in the hills at evening cries out on God:
The poet remembering the friends of his youth prays:
Absolve me, God, that in the land
which I can nor regard nor know
Nor think about nor understand
The flower of my desire shall blow.
The fine verbal dance "Tarantella" ends with a change of scene and mood:
In the walls of the Halls where falls
Of the feet of the dead to the ground
But the boom
Of the far Waterfall like Doom.
The most eloquent of Belloc's several sundials speaks:
Here in a lonely glade, forgotten, I
Mark the tremendous process of the sky.
So does your inmost soul, forgotten, mark
The Dawn, the Noon, the coming of the Dark.
The lovely "Ha'nacker Mill" is a lament for past and future both, for England and for all things:
"Never" and "nevermore" hang on the lips of Belloc's Muse as they do on the beak of Poe's raven, and with the same effect.
It will be objected, with some truth, that I am picking and choosing; that Belloc had many moods; that there is as much humour, robust love of life, not to mention satire, swagger, bluster, and bounce as of lament in the small volume of his collected verse. And, of course, this is true. The man who could celebrate Christmas in this mood was not always broken-hearted:
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
A Catholic tale have I to tell!
And a Christian song have I to sing
While all the bells in Arundel ring.
May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me,
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
But though not as obtrusive as his high spirits, the sadness seems to me Belloc's deepest and most essential mood. This "most various" of authors was no less varied a man. There is ample testimony to the contradictions and complications of his nature. Where Chesterton was centripetal, Belloc was centrifugal. "There was in him," remarked one of his friends, "something strange and frightening and unknowable." Another, who saw Chesterton as Porthos and D'Artagnan, compares Belloc to a mixture of Athos and Aramis. Soldier, sailor, horseman, far wanderer, devoted husband and father, bitter enemy and better friend: the varied surface of Belloc's life barely veils but does not conceal the truth that this robust and rowdy man had a central, ineluctable core of brooding gloom. And the loveliest flowers in the "rightful garden" of his verse bear witness to this rather than to the faith he proclaimed so loudly and for which he fought throughout his life so unselfishly and so bravely. In testimony to that faith, as well as to his fundamental melancholy, let me finish with what is perhaps his noblest expression of both, the end of his "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine":
When from the waste of such long labour done
I too must leave the grape-ennobling sun
And like the vineyard worker take my way
Down the long shadows of declining day,
Bend on the sombre plain my clouded sight
And leave the mountain to the advancing night,
Come to the term of all that was mine own
With nothingness before me, and alone;
Then to what hope of answer shall I turn?
Comrade-Commander whom I dared not earn,
What said You then to trembling friends and few?
'A moment, and I drink it with you new:
But in my Father's Kingdom.' So, my Friend,
Let not Your cup desert me in the end.
But when the hour of mine adventure's near,
Just and benignant let my youth appear
Bearing a Chalice, open, golden, wide,
With benediction graven on its side.
So touch my dying lip: so bridge that deep:
So pledge my waking from the gift of sleep,
And, sacramental, raise me the Divine:
Strong brother in God and last companion, Wine.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8591
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 title Cautionary Verses. His first book of light verse, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, appeared the same year as his first collection of serious poems and, much to his delight, sold briskly. Then twenty-six years old, and with a family, a prestigious First Honours in History from Oxford, and no prospects for a job, Belloc decided the serious poems would have to wait, at least for a while.
The Light Verse
The nineteenth century in England was the great period of light verse, or what is sometimes called nonsense verse. Perhaps as a reaction to the seriousness and solemnity of Victorian advice-books for children, the writers of light verse portrayed a world in which children, unencumbered by the restrictions of "civilized" behavior, romped freely through a world bounded only by their own imaginations. The two most famous writers of light verse were Edward Lear (1812-1888) and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who is known today as Lewis Carroll.
Lear, a landscape painter by profession, popularized the short verse form known as the limerick:
Lewis Carroll, a minor church official and mathematics professor at Oxford, wrote mathematics books under his real name and children's books under his pseudonym. Best remembered today as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Carroll is known for his creation of nonsense words in the poems contained within the two famous books. "Jabberwocky," in Through The Looking-Glass, is the prime example:
Although Belloc is often linked with Lear and Carroll as the third master of nonsense verse, he seems to have been largely indifferent to both of them. The limerick form appears in several of Belloc's letters to friends—he could apparently toss them off effortlessly—but it doesn't appear in any of his published verse. And Belloc seems to have been even less impressed by Carroll's nonsense verse. In fact, he was almost alone among his countrymen in not thinking Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a masterpiece. He described it as full of "the humour which is founded upon folly" and thus worthwhile but inferior to "the wit that is founded upon wisdom." He went on to predict—wildly incorrectly, as it has turned out—that the fame of Alice would not outlive the insular and protected garden of the Victorian period.
Belloc remained unmoved by Lear and Carroll because he was not principally interested in writing for children. Even though the titles of his light verse collections—such as The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and More Beasts (for Worse Children)—appear at first glance to be intended for children, the adjectives "bad" and "worse" clearly suggest an adult perspective. Unlike Lear and Carroll, Belloc never tried to assume the viewpoint of the child, and there is very little childlike delight in any of the cautionary tales. Instead, Belloc wrote from the perspective of the stern parent lecturing children on the ghastly consequences of their improper behavior. Belloc achieved his humor by overstating the perils. Most of the bad children in his books die a horrible death: several are eaten by wild animals, one dies in an explosion caused in part by his own carelessness, and another succumbs because he ate too much string. Those lucky children who do not die suffer other unkind fates. Maria, for instance, constantly made funny faces. One day, "Her features took their final mould / In shapes that made your blood run cold …" Her sad story is suggested by the title of the poem: "Maria Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage." Unlike Lear and Carroll, whose strategy was to bridge the gulf between adults and children, Belloc startled his readers by exaggerating that gulf. Belloc's view of children did not look backward to the Victorian nonsense poets, but forward to the films of W. C. Fields.
The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) was the first appearance of Belloc's irascible narrator, who innocently announces his intentions in an introduction:
But the real personality of the narrator soon emerges. In "The Lion" he warns little children to beware:
The Lion, the Lion, he dwells in the waste,
He has a big head and a very small waist;
But his shoulders are stark, and his jaws they are grim,
And a good little child will not play with him.
The next poem is "The Tiger":
The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,
He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;
And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)
Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.
Enhancing Belloc's humor are the drawings by his friend Basil T. Blackwood that accompany the text. "The Lion" is printed around a sketch of a terrified child gazing at the ferocious animal rearing on its hind legs before him. "The Tiger" has two sketches: in the first, a hungry-looking tiger is approaching a smiling toddler. In the second, the tiger is walking away, licking its lips. This was one of Belloc's strategies in the book: the words express the seemingly innocent advice; the drawings portray the narrator's—and the reader's—real thoughts.
This kind of macabre humor obviously is not intended for the average child. The parents are the real audience, as several other verses in the collection make clear. "The Marmozet" and "The Big Baboon" gave Belloc a chance to have a little fun with the evolutionists, with whom he was constantly quarreling, while satirizing the poverty of the modern spirit. The drawing accompanying "The Marmozet" shows three figures: a statue of a burly caveman wearing an animal pelt and carrying a club, an anemic-looking young man perspiring as he pedals his bicycle, and a marmozet casting a scornful eye on the young man.
The four-line poem makes the point:
"The Big Baboon" focuses Belloc's satire a little more:
The drawings that go with this poem show a happy baboon in the wild, a baboon gazing at a pretentiously dressed African, a baboon gazing into a mirror while his valet helps him on with his coat, and finally several baboons walking happily down a city street, outfitted with luxurious overcoats, fashionable hats, and canes.
Some of the verses in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts are funny without being violent or satirical, and many of the drawings are innocently clever, but for the most part Belloc was writing in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, not Lear and Carroll. Belloc chose animals for his subject not because every child likes to read about them, but because they are strong, self-sufficient, and unaffected. Belloc accepted them as creatures that know what they are, never aspire to be anything else, and never are needlessly cruel. In this way they serve as a perfect contrast to the foolish and vain species called Man. Belloc's book of nonsense verse, reminiscent of Swift's parable of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms in Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, turns the hierarchy of nature upside down. Published in Oxford, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts sold out in four days. A second printing began immediately, and the author arranged for publication in the United States. The critics were very enthusiastic, but, as biographer Speaight remarks, they usually failed to see that the comic verse was not really nonsense.
The critics also applauded More Beasts (for Worse Children) (1897), which Belloc published quickly to capitalize on the success of the earlier book. Its plan is the same, but on the whole the humor is forced. Several of the verses are clever. "The Microbe," for example, pokes fun at scientists who describe fantastic microscopic organisms they have never seen. "Oh! let us never, never doubt / What nobody is sure about!" intones the narrator solemnly. But the violence and cruelty of many of the verses is gratuitous: the woman who is devoured by a python in this book "died, because she never knew / Those simple little rules and few" about how to care for it. Her fate is neither humorous nor revealing.
Belloc found his mark again the next year with The Modern Traveller (1898), a satirical parable about imperialism. His criticism of the British role in the struggle with the Boers in South Africa was already taking shape; despite its clever verse and Blackwood's drawings, The Modern Traveller was obviously intended for adults, not children.
The poem describes how the narrator and two friends—Commander Sin and Captain Blood—travel to Africa to establish the Libyan Association "whose purpose is to combine 'Profit and Piety.'" Recently returned from Africa and looking over the page proofs of his memoirs, the narrator invites a reporter from the Daily Menace over for an exclusive article on his expedition. The explorer has plenty of pencils ready for the reporter, because the story is going to be a long one,
Of how we struggled to the coast,
And lost our ammunition;
How we retreated, side by side;
And how, like Englishmen, we died.
He begins by introducing Henry Sin:
In short, he was "A man Bohemian as could be— / But really vicious? Oh, no!" The other hero of the expedition, William Blood, while equally unsavory, was more at home in the modern world. He was:
A sort of modern Buccaneer,
Commercial and refined.
Like all great men, his chief affairs
Were buying stocks and selling shares.
He occupied his mind
In buying them by day from men
Who needed ready cash, and then
At evening selling them again
To those with whom he dined.
When the narrator and his two partners arrive in Africa, they enlist an accomplice, the Lord Chief Justice of Liberia, who gives them "good advice / Concerning Labour and its Price":
"In dealing wid de Native Scum,
Yo' cannot pick an' choose;
Yo' hab to promise um a sum
Ob wages, paid in Cloth and Rum.
But, Lordy! that's a ruse!
Yo' get yo' well on de Adventure,
And change de wages to Indenture."
A brief mutiny results—"We shot and hanged a few, and then / The rest became devoted men"—but soon the three adventurers find the land they wish to develop. The narrator describes Blood's triumphant pose:
Beneath his feet there stank
A swamp immeasurably wide,
Wherein a kind of fœtid tide
Rose rhythmical and sank,
Brackish and pestilent with weeds
And absolutely useless reeds …
With arms that welcome and rejoice,
We heard him gasping, in a voice
By strong emotion rendered harsh:
"That Marsh—that Admirable Marsh!"
The Tears of Avarice that rise
In purely visionary eyes
Were rolling down his nose.
The development of Eldorado, as Blood christens it, is thwarted. After a confrontation with an international commission against imperialism, which concludes that they are too mad to cause any harm, the three are finally captured by a native tribe. Captain Blood is chopped up and sold by the slice ("Well, every man has got his price") and Commander Sin finds himself floating in a large kettle ("My dear companion making soup"). The narrator endures so well under incredible torture that the tribesmen finally decide he must be a god and release him. His final words to the reporter are that Sin and Blood "Would swear to all that I have said, / Were they alive; / but they are dead!"
The Modern Traveller, like Belloc's two previous books of light verse, was very popular with the public, but it received some unenthusiastic reviews in newspapers, probably because of the satirical portrait of The Daily Menace. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch explained the critical reaction by noting the link between the newspapers and imperialism: since the newspapers had been championing the cause of imperialism, they could not be expected to review fairly a book that criticizes it. The outbreak of the Boer War was in fact the most revealing comment on the book. Belloc in The Modern Traveller had shown that light verse could be the vehicle for serious satire without losing its popular appeal.
Belloc appreciated Quiller-Couch's praise, but his financial situation left him no leisure to savor it. Most of his time was being devoted to his first serious prose work, a full-length biography of the French Revolutionary figure Danton that could not hope to bring in much. So Belloc wrote A Moral Alphabet (1899). The alphabet format, in which each letter introduces a short verse, gave him a ready-made structure for verses on various subjects; unlike the Beast collections or The Modern Traveller, an alphabet book needs no unifying theme.
Signs of hasty composition are apparent in A Moral Alphabet, but the book is interesting in that it reveals Belloc's awareness of his audience and his growing self-confidence. Four of the twenty-six rhymes refer directly to this or one of his other books. "A," for instance, "stands for Archibald who told no lies, / And got this lovely volume for a prize." When he comes to the nemesis of all alphabet rhymsters, X, Belloc effortlessly turns the situation to his advantage:
No reasonable little Child expects
A Grown-up Man to make a rhyme on X.
These verses teach a clever child to find
Excuse for doing all that he's inclined.
A Moral Alphabet marks the end of the first phase of Belloc's professional literary career. With the coming of the new century he turned to more substantial formats; he had already proven himself a reigning master of comic verse in English. Between 1900 and 1905 he produced, among other works, a second biography, two prose satires, a book of literary criticism, a translation, a novel, and several travel books.
In 1907 Hilaire Belloc, member of Parliament, must have sensed that the public was ready for another book of light verse. Cautionary Tales for Children follows in the tradition of his first Beast book, but it shows a new direction in Belloc's thinking. Almost all of the children in this collection who pay so dearly for their misdeeds belong to the upper class. The title of one verse, "Godolphin Horne, Who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-Black," is representative of Belloc's new interest in satirizing the rigid class system of England. His characteristic mask in this book is that of the defender of the class system, but occasionally the real author peeks out and winks at his readers. One example is "Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father." The most subtle verse is the final one, "Charles Augustus Fortescue, Who always Did what was Right, and so accumulated an Immense Fortune." Here Belloc takes particular advantage of Blackwood's drawings by making one statement with words and another with pictures. The verse describes how this perfect child sailed through life successfully,
And long before his Fortieth Year
Had wedded Fifi, Only Child
Of Bunyan, First Lord Aberfylde.
He thus became immensely Rich,
And built the Splendid Mansion which
Is called "The Cedars, Muswell Hill,"
Where he resides in Affluence still,
To show what Everybody might
Become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT.
The drawing accompanying this idyllic tale, however, shows the groom with a slightly pained expression on his face as he gazes at his decidedly unattractive bride, Fifi. Thus, Belloc's final suggestion for the best way to punish the indolent rich of England is simply to let them go about their own business unmolested. Cautionary Tales for Children was successful in part because a popular singer, Clara Butt, performed the verses in concert throughout England.
Belloc's unorthodox parliamentary career kept him in the public eye. Frequently squabbling with his own party, he became known as something of a national eccentric, with a reputation apart from his literary renown. Just as nobody was surprised when he decided not to stand for reelection in 1910, nobody was surprised when in 1911 he published More Peers, a collection of cautionary verses for adults. One verse describes the unfortunate plight of a physician whose patient, a Lord Roehampton, dies without leaving enough to pay the medical fee. The furious doctor storms away when he learns this tragic news, "And ever since, as I am told, / Gets it beforehand; and in gold." Another lord, Henry Chase, wins a libel suit against The Daily Howl, "But, as the damages were small, / He gave them to a Hospital."
A Lord Finchley learns that excessive thrift has its penalties:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
The highlight of More Peers is a story that never gets told:
Lord Heygate had a troubled face,
His furniture was commonplace—
The sort of Peer who well might pass
For someone of the middle class.
I do not think you want to hear
About this unimportant Peer,
So let us leave him to discourse
About Lord Epsom and his horse.
Nineteen years were to pass before Belloc got around to New Cautionary Tales (1930), published near the end of his long career. This collection is tired, partly because Belloc was then sixty years old, but mostly because he feared that the good fight against the forces of privilege had been lost. He could not escape the realization that fifty years of struggle and one hundred and fifty books had not changed the world. One verse tells the story of how young John loses his inheritance when he tosses a stone that hits his wealthy uncle William. The old man calls to his nurse, Miss Charming,
"Go, get my Ink-pot and my Quill,
My Blotter and my Famous Will."
Miss Charming flew as though on wings
To fetch these necessary things,
And Uncle William ran his pen
Through "well-beloved John," and then
Proceeded, in the place of same,
To substitute Miss Charming's name:
Who now resides in Portman Square
And is accepted everywhere.
Belloc's last book of comic verse, Ladies and Gentlemen, was published two years later, in 1932. It was quite obviously the work of a weary man who no longer felt that the foibles of society were a thoroughly suitable subject for humorous verse. "The Garden Party," the opening verse, describes an affair attended by "the Rich," "the Poor," and "the People in Between":
For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier,
And it stinks a trifle worse
Than in the days of Queen Victoria…
The verse concludes with a reference to the fate of an earlier corrupt civilization: "And the flood destroyed them all." The final verse in the collection, "The Example," is a parable of two modern types. The man is a miserable agnostic whose only joy is to read the books written by the prophets of doom. The woman leads a life of mindless intemperance:
The Christians, a declining band,
Would point with monitory hand
To Henderson his desperation,
To Mary Lunn her dissipation,
And often mutter, "Mark my words!
Something will happen to those birds!"
Mary Lunn dies, "not before / Becoming an appalling bore," and Henderson is "suffering from paralysis." "The moral is (it is indeed) / You mustn't monkey with the Creed." Appropriately enough, Belloc's last book of comic verse concludes with a deadly serious joke.
The comic verse, except for The Modern Traveller, was collected under the title Cautionary Verses in 1940. The critical reception was highly enthusiastic. The New Yorker, for example, called Cautionary Verses "a grand omnibus." The collection remains Belloc's most popular single volume. An ironic reminder of the extent to which the satirical element in Belloc's comic verse has remained unrecognized is the fact that Cautionary Verses is generally catalogued among the children's books in the library. Taken together, the comic verse is a remarkable achievement. Belloc wrote too much of it, as he did of everything, but the best represents the extraordinary diversity of his imagination, which could combine pure nonsense of the highest quality and serious political and social satire. Perhaps the best insight into the origins of the comic verse is provided by Belloc himself in a poem he originally published in 1910 but which serves as an epigraph to Cautionary Verses. The poem, which begins "Child! do not throw this book about," ends with this stanza:
The comic verse is of course very funny, but behind the laughter is the sadness of an idealistic man in a real world.
The Serious Verse
In one of his comic verses Belloc wrote a couplet, "Upon the mansion's ample door, / To which he wades through heaps of Straw…" and added a footnote: "This is the first and only time / That I have used this sort of Rhyme." In his comic verse he was scrupulous about following the technical conventions, including such matters as the crispness of the end rhymes. He once wrote that comic verse "has nothing to sustain it save its own excellence of construction,… those who have attempted it [find] that no kind of verse needs more the careful and repeated attention of the artificer." This is surely overstatement, for the rate at which he produced his comic verse would have made such refinement and polishing impossible. However, the remark suggests the importance Belloc placed on "the excellence of construction" in all of his verse.
In his relatively few serious poems, in particular, he allowed himself the luxury of slow and careful construction, for in no other kind of writing would he speak so candidly. Almost everything else he wrote was intended to pay the bills. But in his serious poems he expressed his essence, the melancholy and even the despair that tested his Catholic faith. While the rest of Belloc's massive output contains the record of his many opinions, the serious poetry is his purest literary expression.
Belloc's poetic principles were classical. He deplored the contemporary trends in poetry whose origins he saw in the tenets of the Romantics of a century earlier. He insisted that "the greatest verse does not proceed immediately from the strongest feeling. The greatest verse calls up the strongest emotion in the reader, but in the writer it is a distillation, not a cry."
Thus, Belloc dispensed with Wordsworth's theory that poetry is born of "emotion recollected in tranquility" and with the rest of what he saw as "the romantic extravagance, the search for violent sensation,… the loss of measure…" The rest of the nineteenth century was for Belloc further decay. In a grouchy mood once he wrote to a friend expressing a desire to write a series called "Twelve Great Eunuchs of the Victorian Period." He reserved his most caustic comments, however, for the modern poets. One poet, "spared to middle age in spite of the wrath of God," Belloc called "famous for that he could neither scan nor rhyme—let alone think or feel." And modern English lyric poetry was mere "chopped up prose."
Fairly early in his life Belloc gave up trying to endure modern poetry. Except for the books written by his friends, he read little but the Latin and Greek classics in their original languages. His poetic principles are defined clearly in his book on Milton, whom he considered the last major classical poet in English:
He felt to his marrow the creative force of restraint, proportion, unity—and that is the classic… Rule and its authority invigorated the powers of man as pruning will a tree, as levees a pouring river. Diversity without extravagance, movement which could be rhythmic because it knew boundaries and measure, permanence through order, these were, and may again be, the inestimable fruits of the classical spirit.
To the opinion that the classical style was tired, Belloc responded that "those whose energy is too abundant seek for themselves by an instinct the necessary confines without which such energy is wasted," and that "energy alone can dare to be classical."
Despite his many comments on the necessity of classical restraint, Belloc did not believe that great poetry was merely the result of regular rhythms and rhymes. Like the Romantics he scorned, he felt that a poet is more than a craftsman. Just as the Romantics spoke of the divine inspiration for which they served as a vehicle, Belloc wrote that "something divine is revealed in the poetic speech, not through the poet's will but through some superior will using the poet for its purpose. It is the afflatus of the God.… [t]he seed of Poetry floats in from elsewhere. It is not of this world." His definition of poetic inspiration is thus explicitly theistic—god-oriented—whereas the Romantics were more likely to think of poetry as a revelation of the god in Man. Basically, the difference is a matter of terminology and external beliefs, not of essentials. But Belloc was adamant in his views on poetic form, and so he went his own unpopular way during the years of poetic upheaval and innovation.
Belloc's respect for the classical conception of poetry is immediately apparent in his first volume of poetry, Verses and Sonnets (1896). Establishing a pattern that he was to follow in all of his books of poetry, Belloc arranged his work according to genre: sonnets, songs, epigrams, and satires. Like the ancients, he believed that poetry is a deliberate and self-conscious utterance and that an idea or emotion has to be expressed in an appropriate genre to achieve its meaning.
Belloc's concern for the plight of the poor, for example, is expressed in two poems, one a satire and one a sonnet. "The Justice of the Peace," the satire, is a scathing dramatic monologue that begins with this stanza:
In his sonnet on the same subject, "The Poor of London," Belloc ignores the conflict among the social classes and focuses instead on the plight of the poor:
Almighty God, whose justice like a sun
Shall coruscate along the floors of Heaven,
Raising what's low, perfecting what's undone,
Breaking the proud and making odd things even,
The poor of Jesus Christ along the street
In your rain sodden, in your snows unshod,
They have nor hearth, nor sword, nor human meat,
Nor even the bread of men: Almighty God.
The different perspectives on this situation are achieved through Belloc's careful use of the two genres. The satire is grimly cheerful, as befitting the confrontation between the rich man and the beggar. The sonnet, on the other hand, is almost a prayer to Christ to alleviate the suffering of the poor. The sonnet, the most popular genre of love poets, is perfectly appropriate for this different kind of love poem.
Social justice was one of Belloc's two major concerns at this time in his life. The other was Elodie, whom he married in 1896, soon after the publication of Verses and Sonnets. "The Harbour" dramatizes his frustration in waiting five years for her consent. Belloc uses a metaphor that was popular during the Renaissance in Europe:
In "Love and Honour" he uses another favorite strategy of the Renaissance: the personification of abstract concepts. The impatient male is always Love, the reluctant female is Honour. In the traditional conflict Love tries unsuccessfully to conquer Honour, who retreats and thus conquers him by her virtue. After Belloc waits "a full five years' unrest," Honour appears to him one night:
Belloc loved Elodie, but he was also in love with English poetry.
Time, the enemy of all lovers, is the subject of many of the poems in Belloc's first collection. In "Her Music" he expresses the fear that the enchantment of his love will "stir strange hopes" of immortality, "And make me dreamer more than dreams are wise." The theme of mutability is explored in the highlight of the volume, Sonnets of the Twelve Months, which contain some of Belloc's best descriptive poetry. "January," for instance, contains this chilling portrait:
Death, with his evil finger to his lip,
Leers in at human windows, turning spy
To learn the country where his rule shall lie
When he assumes perpetual generalship.
The brisk March wind is described in a line that combines perfectly the sense and the sound: "Roaring he came above the white waves' tips!" The sonnets of the early summer months provide a gentle interlude before the declining half of the year. In several of the sonnets about the later months Belloc builds the poem around a famous European battle scene. In "July," for instance, he describes the Christian kings returning from the Crusades and states, "I wish to God that I had been with them…". In "August" Belloc's historical imagination transports him to Charlemagne's great victory at Roncesvalles. In "September" he becomes a participant in the French Revolution: "But watching from that eastern casement, I / Saw the Republic splendid in the sky, / And round her terrible head the morning stars." The best of the twelve sonnets is "December," which ends with this sestet:
For now December, full of agéd care,
Comes in upon the year and weakly grieves;
Mumbling his lost desires and his despair;
And with mad trembling hand still interweaves
The dank sear flower-stalks tangled in his hair,
While round about him whirl the rotten leaves.
This passage, reminiscent of King Lear, is an appropriate conclusion to the sonnet sequence, for it unifies and transcends the individual battle scenes in a final portrait of human suffering. Belloc's love of European history, which was to become apparent in his numerous prose studies, is here given its shape by the poet's sensibility.
Mankind's suffering and despair are not meaningless, however. Belloc focuses on the proud and defiant warriors, such as Charlemagne with his "bramble beard flaked red with foam / Of bivouac wine-cups…," because they represent man's attempt to confront and conquer the forces of disorder and anarchy. Similarly, Belloc the poet enters into their world in his attempt to give meaning to their stories through his sonnets. "The sonnet," he wrote, "demands high verse more essentially than does any other looser form.… [T]he sonnet is the prime test of a poet." In his first book he proudly announced his allegiance to the powers of poetry in its fight against the transience of man.
With his prose and then his parliamentary career occupying his time, Belloc did not publish his next volume of poetry until 1910. Verses includes many of the poems from Verses and Sonnets. Distinguishing the new verses from the old is not difficult, however, for the fourteen intervening years had changed Belloc dramatically. Whereas the first volume is marked by a youthful vitality and exuberance, Verses is permeated by a sense of spiritual fatigue and loss that characterized all of Belloc's work in the second half of his life. The death of his wife and then of his son Louis a few years later was to make this outlook permanent, but in 1910 Belloc was already beginning to characterize his life as a painful battle and to look backward to his youth as a carefree period of harmony with mankind and nature.
Yet the comic spirit is still alive in several poems. "Lines to a Don," for instance, is a comic diatribe against a "Remote and ineffectual Don / That dared attack my Chesterton." It is full of cascading insults such as these:
Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;
Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,
Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic…
A comic self-portrait, "The Happy Journalist," describes Belloc's pleasures:
The comic verses, however, represent only a small part of the newer poetry. Belloc's alienation from society is portrayed most characteristically as violent combat. In "The Rebel," for example, he pictures himself as a soldier fighting against the forces of "lies and bribes." After describing how he would, like Paul Revere, "summon a countryside," and kill the evil men, he vows to:
…batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees…
In "The Prophet Lost in the Hills at Evening" this violent struggle is transferred to the battlefield of Belloc's soul as he envisions himself as God's warrior:
Belloc at this point in his life was a curious mixture of public ferocity and private anxiety. In public he was a courageous and selfless fighter, unafraid to elicit the wrath of the English people because of his unpopular pro-Boer stand, unafraid to speak out against the political corruption in his own party, and unafraid to attack the socialists, the atheists, and the Darwinians. Considering that he was always short of funds and that he could easily have earned far more money writing comic verse and less provocative histories, his decision to engage in these constant battles shows a remarkable strength of character. Poems such as "The Prophet," however, demonstrate the price he paid to maintain this public posture. Not only did he turn inward, he began to see himself as a divine messenger, a martyr who was being destroyed by the evil forces of the world.
The more successful poems in the 1910 collection are less self-consciously dramatic. "The South Country" pays homage to his native Sussex in simple and natural language:
Sussex became for Belloc not so much a county as a fortress. He was fully aware that this final scene is a fantasy, as are his self-portraits as a warrior or a religious martyr. The power of "The South Country" is his point that even though his dream is apparently humble, it is as unattainable as any attempt to turn back the clock.
The best poem in the collection, "Stanzas Written on Battersea Bridge During a South-Westerly Gale," dramatizes this thought rather than just stating it. Although Belloc never tired of criticizing Wordsworth, this poem shows that he learned the techniques of the meditative lyric from him. As his title suggests, the strategy of the poem is similar to Wordsworth's in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." Wordsworth begins his meditation by describing his impressions on revisiting the countryside that had meant so much to him when he was a boy. Belloc, on the other hand, pictures himself in London:
After describing his desperate wish to return to Sussex and his youth, he realizes that:
Unlike Wordsworth, whose realization of loss is tempered by a growth of understanding, Belloc sees no redemption in the passage of time. Like A. E. Housman, Belloc characterizes the journey from innocence to experience as a cruel joke. The last stanza is touched by an unreasonable self-pity, the indignation of a man who feels that his country has treated him unfairly—from the time of Oxford's refusal of the fellowship to his more recent struggles in the literary and political arenas. This treatment, Belloc is saying, is particularly unfair, considering the great energy he expended trying to do the right thing. Rather than remain in his "rightful garden"—the sheltered world of poetry—he confronted his enemies tirelessly.
But this self-pity is offset by the simple beauty of the last line. As W. H. Auden says in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats,"
Belloc never did understand the ways in which he made his life more difficult than it might have been. "Stanzas Written on Battersea Bridge" is a complete failure as a logical argument, but it is a beautiful and moving evocation of his confusion.
The 1910 volume received little critical notice. The Times Literary Supplement [22 December 1910], however, called Belloc "specially successful with the music of a simple primitive rhythm."
Belloc's analyses of the war occupied his mind during this period of personal loss; he wrote little poetry. His third book of verse, Sonnets and Verse, was not published until 1923, thirteen years after his second book, twenty-seven years after his first. By this time he had had a chance to contemplate his disappointments and his grief. Despite his increasing activity as a Catholic apologist, he never was able to integrate his personal experience and his faith. Almost all of the new poems included in the 1923 volume record Belloc's struggle to understand his tragedies; in none of them does he offer a Christian explanation. Like the classical poets whose work he studied and emulated, he remained essentially a pagan. And like the pagans who stoically accepted death, he finally came to an uneasy peace with his fate.
Not all of the poems, of course, concern death. "Tarantella" is a song about a subject Belloc knew well—"the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees"—and "The Chanty of the 'Nona'" is a sea song commemorating a sail he took in 1914 along the western and southern coasts of England. For these songs, and for many others he wrote, he composed melodies that he loved to sing aloud. Sonnets and Verse also contains a number of stinging epigrams, such as "Epitaph on the Politician Himself":
Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.
"On his Books" is a clever statement of a professional writer's aspirations:
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."
The mood of the volume, however, is most closely expressed by "The False Heart":
I said to Heart, "How goes it?" Heart replied:
"Right as a Ribstone Pippin!" But it lied.
The bulk Of Sonnets and Verse is love sonnets to Elodie. Several of them may in fact have been written before her death. The reader cannot tell because Belloc has stripped the poems down to an essential emotion—his love for her—which never changed in the sixty years following their first meeting. Any one of these sonnets demonstrates the timeless quality of his love:
Belloc's definition of the sonnet form was very strict in one sense: he felt that the poet has to establish a clear break between the octave—the first eight lines—and the sestet—the other six. About the various rhyme schemes Belloc was silent, but he felt that the essence of the sonnet is the contrast between the unity of the octave and the response or elaboration of the sestet.
In this sonnet to Elodie the octave-sestet contrast embodies the meaning. The octave is the definition of how people attempt to deal with the passage of time. The first quatrain is Belloc's description of the ravages of time; the second quatrain is the description of how people react. Without identifying who these people are, he subtly distinguishes them from himself by using the distancing pronoun "they" in the first quatrain and the parallel grammatical structure in the second. Phrases such as "now to this thing, now to t'other" suggest the helplessness of these anonymous victims as they are buffeted uncontrollably by the seas of "swift-eddying time."
To the chaotic movement Belloc opposes his image of the stillness of Elodie. The contrast is introduced immediately by the transitional "But" and the first-person pronoun. His realization—the "cry" in the final couplet—is an exclamation of joy that contrasts with the "noisy fame" to which other people devote themselves. By creating this perfectly refined image of beauty, Belloc manages to cheat time. The point made by this poem is that his image may have occurred in 1900 or 1923. Man can freeze time in a memory, and an artist can convey that memory in a timeless work of art.
If several of Belloc's sonnets demonstrate the poet's ability to capture an image and thereby stop time, others confront the issue of Elodie's death directly. One attitude characteristic of some of these sonnets is the consolation that Elodie enjoyed and contributed to all of the valuable aspects of mortal life. This attitude is expressed, for instance, in the sestet of "When you to Acheron's ugly water come," in which Belloc describes the majesty and nobility with which Elodie died:
Unlike the "formless mourners" who stretch their hands longingly toward death, Elodie demonstrated in her death the grace she embodied in her life. Significantly, Belloc uses the pagan metaphor of crossing the river of death, despite his reference to the Catholic faith. His focus remains on the values of the living, not on the joys of the Christian afterlife. This poem was probably written some years after her death, when he was finally able to write about it with a more peaceful stoicism.
If Belloc could ultimately accept Elodie's death in some of his poetry, he was less successful in dealing with it in his real life. He wrote, as late as 1922, one year before the publication of Sonnets and Verse, that "my cancer of loss gets worse and worse with every year and I grow fixed in the void of my wife and my son…" Belloc never tried to forget his wife and son; on the contrary, he seems to have derived some solace from the rituals of grief. He wore only black from the day of Elodie's death, used funereal stationery, and traced the sign of the Cross upon her door before he went to bed every night at King's Land.
Belloc's inability to let go of Elodie is dramatized in several of the poems in Sonnets and Verse. One sonnet in particular shows this response:
We will not whisper, we have found the place
Of silence and the endless halls of sleep:
And that which breathes alone throughout the deep,
The end and the beginning: and the face
Between the level brows of whose blind eyes
Lie plenary contentment, full surcease
Of violence, and the passionless long peace
Wherein we lose our human lullabies.
Look up and tell the immeasurable height
Between the vault of the world and your dear head;
That's death, my little sister, and the night
Which was our Mother beckons us to bed,
Where large oblivion in her house is laid
For us tired children, now our games are played.
Here Belloc pictures the death of his wife and himself as a peaceful sleep, a respite from the shocks of the world. Death will be safe, for he and Elodie are only children who are obeying their mother's request that they go to bed. In an epigram, "The Statue," he explores the same idea of his accompanying Elodie:
When we are dead, some Hunting-boy will pass
And find a stone half-hidden in tall grass
And grey with age: but having seen that stone
(Which was your image), ride more slowly on.
This beautiful and simple poem epitomizes Sonnets and Verse. The poet and his beloved are now gone, but life continues as always on earth, except that a passerby will be struck by her beauty as it is reflected by her gravestone. These love poems that Belloc wrought out of his grief were his memorial to Elodie. Sonnets and Verse thus represented for him a catharsis. By defining himself as Elodie's companion, he was able finally to stop the aching movement of time without his wife, just as in the earlier love poems he was able to create a fixed image of her.
The 1923 volume of poetry brought considerable critical reaction, largely because Belloc had become by that time one of the best-known English men of letters. An article in the Saturday Review [November 10, 1923], for example, was titled "Mr. Belloc—Poet" and speculated that one of the reasons he was not taken as seriously as a poet as he might have wished was that he wrote so much prose. The anonymous reviewer suggested that "he might, if he had confined himself to poetry, have been hailed as a master…" Along with several other commentators, the reviewer argued that "it is in rare gleams of an essential and peculiar loveliness, where the poet's strength and tenderness meet, that his bid for immortality is made." [In December 2, 1923] Filson Young, writing in the New York Times, also commented on the relative slimness of Belloc's poetic output: "He seldom will condescend to be merely an artist, but in this book of later poetry he returns, not without a shade of irony, to his old trade of using language as an instrument to evoke beauty." Belloc had become a respected and admired poet of the classical style.
The final volume of poetry, also called Sonnets and Verse (1938), is distinct from the 1923 volume in that it offers only a few brief lyrics to the memory of Elodie. In all other respects, however, Belloc remained unchanged. The generic classification system that the poet maintained emphasized this continuity. The "Epigrams" section of the 1923 volume, for instance, concludes with "Partly from the Greek." The 1938 collection, without skipping a beat, simply continues with the next epigram, "From the Same."
"The Fire," a melancholy description of how time has destroyed his hopes, is the best example of Belloc's later poetry. The self-assured pleasures of youth are described in the opening stanza, which gallops along carelessly in tetrameter lines.
We rode together all in pride,
They laughing in their riding gowns
We young men laughing at their side,
We charged at will across the downs.
The assault by time, however, cannot be resisted: "The golden faces charged with sense / Have broken to accept the years." The speaker, now alone and perplexed, demonstrates Belloc's ability to change the tone radically while maintaining the tetrameter lines:
Were they not here, the girls and boys?
I hear them. They are at my call.
The stairs are full of ghostly noise,
But there is no one in the hall.
Also characteristic of Belloc are the biting epigrams. One victim is a pacifist: "Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, / But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right." Another victim, a Puritan, Belloc would classify a religious eccentric: "He served his God so faithfully and well / That now he sees him face to face, in hell And, as always, Belloc loved to define the political animal, as in "On Two Ministers of State":
Lump says that Caliban's of gutter breed,
And Caliban says Lump's a fool indeed,
And Caliban and Lump and I are all agreed.
Belloc's poetic masterpiece, "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine," is also included in the 1938 Sonnets and Verse. Both poetically and philosophically, it is his most mature composition. The term "heroic poem" in the title refers to the poetic form: rhymed iambic pentameter couplets, sometimes called heroic couplets or heroic verse. By choosing this demanding poetic form for a work of over two hundred lines, he was distinguishing himself from the world of modern poetry and allying himself with the classical Greek and Roman writers and, in England, with Dryden and Pope.
Belloc chose the heroic couplet because it complemented the world and the spirit he wanted to celebrate:
To exalt, enthrone, establish and defend,
To welcome home mankind's mysterious friend:
Wine, true begetter of all arts that be;
Wine, privilege of the completely free;
Wine the recorder; wine the sagely strong;
Wine, bright avenger of sly-dealing wrong,
Awake, Ausonian Muse, and sing the vineyard song!
This classical invocation leads into a description of Bacchus, driving his chariot pulled by a team of panthers, swooping down over Europe and creating, everywhere, "The Vines, the conquering Vines!" (1. 35)
After this definition of the creation of the vineyards, Belloc begins his greatest passage of high comic verse:
But what are these that from the outer murk
Of dense mephitic vapours creeping lurk
To breathe foul airs from that corrupted well
Which oozes slime along the floor of Hell?
These are the stricken palsied brood of sin
In whose vile veins, poor, poisonous and thin,
Decoctions of embittered hatreds crawl:
These are the Water-Drinkers, cursed all!
On what gin-sodden Hags, what flaccid sires
Bred these White Slugs from what exhaust desires?
The conflict between the misguided water-drinkers and the godly wine-drinkers is not resolved; despite his comic treatment, Belloc is portraying nothing less than the struggle of Catholics "in these last unhappy days / When beauty sickens and a muddied robe / Of baseness fouls the universal globe."
The final movement of the poem begins on an elegiac note:
When from the waste of such long labour done
I too must leave the grape-ennobling sun
And like the vineyard worker take my way
Down the long shadows of declining day,
Bend on the sombre plain my clouded sight
And leave the mountain to the advancing night,
Come to the term of all that was mine own
With nothingness before me, and alone;
Then to what hope of answer shall I turn?
Raising his chalice of sacramental wine to the God he cannot see, he prepares to reenter "my Father's Kingdom." "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine" combines a sustained technical virtuosity with Belloc's most sophisticated vision: a subtle mingling of the pagan earth and the Christian sky. He worked on the poem for some twenty years. More important, however, he lived most of his life before he could understand and articulate—just this once—the essential unity of comedy and tragedy on earth.
The critical essay that most insightfully defines how the 1938 volume illuminated Belloc appeared in The Catholic World [August, 1939]: "… the volume contains more than one indication that his faith, robust and virile as it is, has been wrested from the teeth of doubt." The other journals concentrated on Belloc's pursuit of the classical poetic virtues of craftsmanship, control, precision, and clarity of expression. The Times Literary Supplement [May 28, 1938] contrasted Belloc with the "new severe young men" who sacrificed form for intellectual content. Critic George Sampson wrote, in 1941, that:
Belloc's serious poems, slight in quantity, are exquisite in quality. His sonnets are the finest modern examples of that much tried form. His songs can laugh and laud and deride with the ribald vigour of the past and the effective point of the present. No one in recent times has touched sacred themes with such appealing delicacy. The poems of Belloc show triumphantly how a modern writer can follow an old tradition and remain master of himself.
Belloc was characteristically—and extravagantly—humble about his poetry. He once wrote that "I am one who by nature writes commonplace verse, which I then slowly tinker at and turn into less commonplace." He did not believe this for an instant, of course, but just as he refused to call his verse "poetry"—a term he considered too exalted for his efforts—he would not allow himself a public display of pride. But when the critics praised the poems he sculpted and polished, Belloc must have smiled inwardly.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
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,
She lay along the uncertain west,
A dream to see.
And very low she spake to me:
'I go where none may understand,
I fade into the nameless land,
And there must lie perpetually.'
And therefore, loudly, loudly I
And very piteously make cry:
'The Moon is dead. I saw her die'.
This could be any reasonably competent Nineties poet, steeped in the rhythms of Swinburne and the lethargic postures of la Décadence. Its 'spake' and 'drest' make it embarrassing now. Yet, in the same volume, there are poems which display three very distinctive qualities of Belloc's best verse: three qualities which were all part of his personality and which create the most authentically Bellocian sound when read aloud: bombast, lyricism and satire.
The first is bombast. It is a quality little esteemed in poets nowa-days, but which is not wholly to be despised. One sees it in some of his sonnets on the twelve months of the year, mingled with an elegiac tone which is completely Belloc's; as in his 'November' poem in which he likens the month to Napoleon.
The effect of the poignant last couplet, after all the swirling and bombastic storm of the previous lines, shows that Belloc had a wholly distinctive poetic voice, and that had he only 'polished up' his verse as Elodie urged him to do, he might have achieved great things.
Simple lyricism is the second quality which was apparent in Belloc's poetry from the beginning, lyrics as simple as the best medieval songs, lyrics which reflect his essential simplicity of form but which are so technically accomplished that in poems like 'Auvergnat' or 'On a winter's night long time ago' one Could only take the perfect rhythms for artlessness. 'The Early Morning' is another such poem, which has some of the smiling simplicity which was always a part of Belloc's nature:
The moon on the one hand, the dawn on the other:
The moon is my sister, the dawn is my brother.
The moon on my left and the dawn on my right.
My brother, good morning: my sister, good night.
But there is a third, and quite different category of poem in his Verses and Sonnets of 1896. Technically as accomplished as the other kinds of poem in the volume, it has the satirical edge which one thinks, perhaps wrongly, to be Belloc at his most distinctive.
On Torture, a Public Singer
Torture will give a dozen pence or more
To keep a drab from bawling at his door.
The public taste is quite a different thing—
Torture is positively paid to sing.
And, appropriately, it was his savage gifts as a comic poet which made his verses for children so abidingly successful. In much of his later prose, as in his conversation, Belloc's delight in strong speech won him many enemies. Some of the same qualities which made him such an impassioned controversialist, when channelled into magical nonsense, produced pages in which generations of children have revelled.
In the forty-five years after the publication of The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, he wrote over a hundred and fifty prose works of history, of political and economic theory, and of religious apologetics. Almost none of these works is in print, and the general opinion even (or especially) among Catholics is that he spent his life talking and writing nonsense; violent, vitriolic, and, the general opinion would be, frequently dangerous nonsense. This huge output of books never sold very well, and it is now almost completely neglected. But his early doodlings, when he was deliberately writing violent nonsense, remain in print and are the possession of every literate, English-speaking child. The paradox is positively Chestertonian. Belloc had a keen desire to make his readers see Sense, about Economics, Politics, History and Religion. But, when he encapsulated all this Common Sense in lucid prose, it was dismissed for two or three generations as Nonsense. But Nonsense, so very undesirable in prose, was apoarently an excellent thing in verse. Even today, when many of Belloc's political and social prophecies have been proved to be luminously common-sensical, the paradox remains. Parents who would shudder to read The Servile State or The Jews urge their children to recite the unhappy end of Rebecca Offendort, flattened by a marble bust of Abraham in her banker-father's Bayswater residence.
The Bad Child's Book of Beasts sold 4,000 copies within three months of publication, and has been in print ever since. More Beasts for Worse Children followed it in 1897 and was equally successful. In 1898, he published The Modern Traveller, illustrated, as were the previous two volumes, with ludicrously apposite drawings by Basil Blackwood. It tells the story of two explorers called Commander Sin and William Blood. As Arthur Quiller Couch noted in his review of the book, it specifically satirises the British Press and the Imperialist ideal: 'The exploration business, the "Anglo-Saxon" entente—can a journalist who has been watering these plants with emotion for months past be expected to welcome a book which hints that some recent and practical applications of his creed have been absurd and others more than a little base?' William Blood is
A sort of modern Buccaneer,
Commercial and refined.
Like all great men, his chief affairs
Were buying stocks and selling shares.
He occupied his mind
In buying them by day from men
Who needed ready cash, and then
At evening selling them again
To those with whom he dined.
But, although the 'satirical' elements in the tale reflects Belloc's perennial political preoccupations, the glory of it is in the inventiveness of its rhymes, the absurdity of its plot, and the wonderful arbitrariness of its general observations:
The extraordinary magic of Belloc's light verse, as anyone who enjoyed it in childhood can testify—is that one can revel in this, and know it by heart before one has even seen a bottle of champagne. The parts of the poem which relate to 'grown-up' life are not distinguished, in the minds of the children who read it, from the combustiously absurd pace of those parts of the narrative which are not remotely 'satirical'.
A man who was capable of writing those lines need not have striven to capture the attention of posterity.
But, of course, Belloc, at that date, if he had an eye on posterity at all, was pursuing fame of an altogether different kind; and his children's verses were only the most minimal interlude, as far as he was concerned, in a life dominated by his two over-riding concerns, of history and politics.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2756
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 poetry in the Boston College collection offers an unique glimpse inside the poet's garden. The collection shows that many of the classic poems that he published in his fifties were begun when he was barely out of his teens. A number of the poems in the collection exist in several versions, giving us that rare pleasure of watching a great craftsman struggle to create an "effortless" poem. Another bonanza is the new poetry: works that for one reason or another Belloc decided not to publish—or merely never got around to publishing. Some of this material is equal in quality to his best published poetry.
The poetry in the Boston College collection covers the entire range of what he called his verse: several sonnets, a number of lyrics, a series of political epigrams, and some light verse. In addition, the collection contains several brief comic verse dramas, a lyric in French, and a large number of published but uncollected poems.
What condition are the manuscripts in? Ironically, the earlier material is the best preserved, for as a young man Belloc used notebooks. One small, leather notebook, which contains early versions of several of the great poems, is inscribed "Hilaire Belloc / San Francisco / March 31, 1891." Another is inscribed "Notes / on / Matters which I ignore, which I have ignored / or / Which I well may / Ignore / In the Future. / Together with / Those things which are too important / to remain with a mere / Shadow / Of Doubtfulness / Hilaire Belloc / The 25th day of Veudemaire / In the year of liberty / 101" [25 September 1894]. Belloc appears to have abandoned the notebooks soon, however, as the bulk of the poetry is written on stationery, scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, and letters he had received. Much of this paper has begun to disintegrate, in some cases destroying portions of the verse. The problems of legibility are compounded by several other factors, including Belloc's habit of scribbling notes on the same pages on which he was writing poetry. The phrase "Holy Saturday 1916 / Late at night / Wine tomorrow: Gallons of it!" for example, crowds out the poetry on one manuscript page.
Most troublesome, however, is Belloc's handwriting. His working method was to copy a poem over many times, revising each version. In the early drafts the handwriting is terrible, probably because he was writing quickly; in many cases the handwriting suggests that he was traveling by train or car. After a number of drafts of a poem, the handwriting becomes much neater. Several of the manuscripts, in fact, could be called fair copies. And the collection contains several typescripts, some of which are completed.
Belloc apparently did not keep careful records of the poetry that he published in newspapers and magazines. Although W.N. Roughead begins his preface to the Complete Verse with the comment that the volume contains "what I believe to be the whole of Belloc's poetry," the Boston College collection shows Roughead to be mistaken. Amassing the total body of Belloc's poetry will be an enormous task made more difficult by the fact that he at least occasionally used pseudonyms. In addition, the collection indicates that Belloc contributed to journals that the average scholar would never think to check, such as the Gramophone, a technical magazine.
Belloc wrote a series of "Epigramophones," four-line epigrams complemented by Nicolas Bentley's illustrations. The following example, employing the curmudgeon mask which Belloc used successfully in his later light verse, indicates one of the kinds of poetry that remains uncollected:
Oppressed of years, the Human Organ grows Less pleasing—as the Prima Donna shows. The gramophone escapes our common curse. Bad to begin with, it becomes no worse.
(Gramophone, December 1929)
Belloc's tone was considerably sharper in the manuscript versions of some of his familiar political epigrams. For instance, "On Another Politican" was published in this form in Sonnets and Verse (1938):
The Politician, dead and turned to clay, Will make a clout to keep the wind away. I am not fond of draughts, and yet I doubt If I could get myself to touch that clout.
In the Boston College manuscripts, the first line reads, "Marconi Isaacs, dead and turned to clay, …" The reference is to the famous Marconi scandal, publicised by Belloc and Cecil Chesterton. The most infuriating aspect of this conflict-of-interest scandal for Belloc was that Parliament covered it up, even going as far as to defeat a motion censuring Lloyd George and other implicated members.
What difference does the substitution of "The Politician" for "Marconi Isaacs" make? The published version, like a Jonsonian epigram, requires only that the reader accept political corruption as highly possible, if not inevitable. Within that context, the poet directs the reader's attention to the poem's intellectual cleverness and prosodie perfection. The generic "politician" lets Belloc keep his hands clean while at the same time allowing his readers to make any plausible associations or even insert any name that fits in two-and-a-half iambic feet.
Did Belloc make the substitution because he feared legal repercussions or because he realized that it would improve the poem? The manuscript version is certainly more interesting as political journalism, for it reminds the modern Belloc student not only of the particulars of the Marconi scandal, but also of the writer's unsuccessful lifelong struggle against the forces of privilege in contemporary England. For those of us who see Belloc as fundamentally a poet who was diverted from his real work by the awful combination of his personal temperament and the climate of the times, the manuscript version is a chilling document: it is extraordinarily bitter because Belloc held Lloyd George accountable for a crime no less serious than attempting to destroy England. In the manuscript Belloc was not being clever; he was merely telling what he saw as the truth.
The Marconi version of the poem also exists in a holograph manuscript along with eight other political epigrams written on the same stationery, probably around the same time. A holograph title page, "A Collection of Political Poems I The Author H. B. / (May 9th 1924)," suggests that these nine epigrams were intended as the core of a volume that Belloc was contemplating.
The best of the nine is "On Prime Ministers," which Belloc originally designated number five in the sequence but later changed to number one:
Of all Prime Ministers I ever saw
The least remarkable was Bonar Law:
Unless it were Macdonald, by the way,
—Or Baldwin, it's impossible to say.
This poem names names, but its tone is completely different from that of the Marconi version of "On Another Politician." For one thing, the accusation—that the three prime ministers are unremarkable—is less vitriolic than merely weary. Perhaps of more importance, however, is Belloc's skillful use of colloquial rhythms and diction in the second couplet. Without violating the heroic meter, the poet achieves a natural spontaneity and simplicity that reinforces the universality of the statement.
In addition to these epigrams, the Boston College collection contains some light verse characteristic of Belloc's earlier, gentler period. One of the most interesting is a five-stanza fragment, "The European Gentleman," which Belloc introduces with a quotation from a (probably fictitious) book called Modern Manners:
The principal mark of good breeding is restraint, and the more perfect the manners of an individual, the less will he show by any outward sign the emotions of surprise, anger etc. Still less will he give way to expressions or gestures of annoyance on the occurrence of some untoward event. The European Gentleman is always at his ease.
The first extant stanza, which is labeled "III," is typical of the fragment's easy grace:
According to the author you will probably displease
If you shine about the elbows or are baggy at the knees;
But the words you should especially insist upon are these:
"A European Gentleman is always at his ease. "
The last stanza of the fragment shows the careful deliberation of the craftsman at work:
Belloc apparently was content to delay the moment of decision. What is surprising about this quatrain is the large number of variants the poet was willing to consider.
For more substantial poetry we would, of course, expect such care. A look at the evolution of the sonnet "That which is one they shear and make it twain" reveals something of Belloc's working methods. In the 1891 notebook, the sonnet appears in the following form:
The glaring weakness in this version, written some three decades before Belloc published the completed sonnet in the 1923 Sonnets and Verse, is the second quatrain of the octave. The first quatrain introduces the classical theme of love's complexity; the second quatrain merely repeats the theme without developing it. In addition, the quatrain is bad poetry, almost a parody of Belloc's favourite technique of repeating key words and phrases. Whereas in his best poems he uses the catalogue (see "The Rebel" or "Lines to a Don") or selective redundancy ("beyond" in "O my companions, Ο my sister Sleep") to establish a tone of poignancy or comic excess, here the three repetitions of the vapid adjective "sweet" suggests only that Belloc did not know where he was going. The quatrain rings false. For some readers, the damage might be more severe: it sounds like the utterance of a Restoration fop.
The 1894 notebook includes the poem in virtually the same form. The only real difference is that line 7 now reads, "She being all my life is laugh and sighs." The major change appears on a holograph manuscript in a green leather notebook inscribed "To Maurice from Hilary, Dec 30th 1924." This notebook, which has the title, Verses and Sonnets, embossed on its spine, begins with page proofs of six of the poems that first appeared in the 1923 collection and then includes holograph versions of "That which is one …" and several other poems. In this version, the second quatrain appears virtually in the published form:
With him alarmed attempt is full achieving
And being mastered, to be armed a Lord
And doubting every chance is still believing;
And losing all one's own is all reward.
In the published version, the first line of the quatrain has been changed to "With him the foiled attempt is half achieving." With this final revision, Belloc reduces the overstatement, meshing the quatrain seamlessly and transforming what had been an uneven exercise into a moving and evocative sonnet.
What does the manuscript's inclusion in the green notebook suggest about Belloc's working methods? Perhaps nothing conclusive. The poet might have been working on the poem steadily for more than thirty years. My guess, however, is that Belloc made the crucial revisions under the pressure of the 1923 volume's deadline, after having ignored the poem since his youth. In the intervening three decades, Belloc achieved the wisdom necessary to do full justice to his theme.
In 1933 an Italian journalist requested that Hilaire Belloc provide a brief description of his own poetry. Although he felt uncomfortable about the request ("I think it very difficult indeed for a man to write about himself!"), Belloc sent three paragraphs that include this sentence:
His best work … in serious verse, is to be found in the few lyrics he has published, which have a special note of poignancy, though as sober as his more classical verse, and careful to avoid extravagance of metaphor or neologism.
The Boston College collection includes several complete, unpublished lyrics that show the qualities which the poet ascribed to his published lyrics. One of the best of these manuscript poems is "Her Garden":
You have a garden up amongst the hills,
Fenced in with rocks and close against the sky:
This is the place a voice of far-sea fills,
Here grass bends and great sea clouds go by.
Love that no lover yet refused to pardon,
Love that can take a young man by the hand,
Love making wiser, Love that understands,
Love loving lovers brought me to your garden.
Where you your habitation have and where
More blest than I might hope to dwell forever,
I mortal and with memory quick will dare
To pluck such blossoms as the immortals bear
In misty gardens lapped of Lethe river.
"Her Garden" is remarkable in its avoidance of extravagant metaphors and neologisms; in fact, the poet is almost unnaturally restrained in metaphor and diction. Yet the poem conveys extraordinary poignancy, primarily because of Belloc's consummate metrical skill.
Almost every line is a lesson in how to vary the standard iambic pentameter to achieve a special effect. Line 4 is a typical example:
Here / grass bends // and great / sea clouds / go by. Certainly a great part of the effect here is achieved through the alliteration of the "g" and "s" sounds and the long vowel sounds. But, in addition, Belloc uses an unusual sequence of nine monosyllables, impeding the pace and thereby reinforcing the majestic scale suggested by the image. Of the nine monosyllables, only the conjunction and following the caesura is unaccented. To further strengthen the line, Belloc begins with the suspended iambic foot, "Here." The result is an iambic pentameter with only one true iambic foot.
Line 7 is even more impressive:
Love mak/ing wis/er, // Love / that un/derstands,
The spondaic initial foot immediately establishes the emotional urgency. After the rest provided by the iambic second foot, Belloc creates a striking effect by inserting the caesura in the middle of the third foot. Thus the unaccented second syllable of wiser functions as a feminine ending, sustaining the note that is pulled up short by the accented Love that follows. The last two feet I read as a pyrrhic and an iamb: with this rhythm Belloc accelerated the pace as he approaches the final accented syllable. Line 7, then, shows how a master technician can mix a pedestrian thought, uninspired diction, and unparallel modifiers (a participial phrase in one case, a noun clause in the other) into a line that communicates great emotion.
The final stanza begins with the poem's only regular iambic line, a rest after the emotional crescendo of the second stanza. But even this line functions actively in creating the intended effect: the caesura before the final foot enjambs the line, accelerating the pace of line 10 until it concludes with the mournful extra syllable in forever. The main clause that begins in line 11 starts with the emphatic spondee, followed by the pyrrhic. The spondee in the fourth foot reinforces the idea of quickness by reducing memory to two syllables. Line 11 is enjambed into line 12, which features an extra syllable in the fourth foot, an anapest. This line, too, is enjambed, which further sustains the pacing. The final line, which skillfully exploits the vowel sounds as does line 4, is a regular iambic line except for the extra syllable in the feminine river. The modulating effect of the iambic pattern effectively concludes the poem by sustaining the overall tone of yearning.
Scholars are always pleased to get a chance to study manuscripts, and the Boston College collection will provide many such opportunities. But the real treasures are the new poems, which, like "Her Garden," bear comparison with the best of Hilaire Belloc's published lyrics. When the poetry is edited and published, it will be a substantial addition to the canon of a fine poet.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4547
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 characteristic meditation on mortality:
Belloc also wrote four "epigramophones" for the journal Gramophone, the following being one example:
The owners of the Gramophone rejoice
To hear it likened to the human voice.
The owners of the Human Voice disown
Its least resemblance to the Gramophone.
Then there is "A Modernist Ballade," a clever parody of free verse, in which Belloc turns his own beliefs inside out: in justifying why he isn't using "ordinary rhythm [which] might have been neater," he explains that "thought loses freedom under the stress / Of rules, dogmas, and everything of that sort or race."
"A Modernist Ballade" provides a key to understanding Belloc's decision not to collect his political verse. He believed firmly in the rules and dogmas. He was as fastidious about the quality of his verse as he was casual about the quality of his prose. In a letter to Evan Charteris written on 24 October 1939, near the end of his long career, Belloc stated:
I am writing verse again merely in order to cheat the Camard, which is French for the Snub Nose and is one of the names for Death. I am afraid I will leave a great deal unfinished and that is a pity because I publish so little, but I have before me the example of many poets good and bad who did a lot in their last year or two. Unfortunately I am always over-ashamed of my own work and it is only after years that I can decide whether it is worth publishing….
Belloc never wavered from his thoroughly classical poetic principles. His models were the ancients (whom he read in the original languages) and the English and French Renaissance as well as neoclassical poets. His masterpiece, "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine," is high comedy in the style of Pope:
… But what are these that from the outer murk
Of dense mephitic vapours creeping lurk
To breathe foul airs from that corrupted well
Which oozes slime along the floor of Hell?
These are the stricken palsied brood of sin
In whose vile veins, poor, poisonous and thin
Decoctions of embittered hatreds crawl:
These are the Water-Drinkers, cursed all! …
In Avril (1904), his study of the French Renaissance po-ets, Belloc wrote that "those whose energy is too abundant seek for themselves by an instinct the necessary confines without which such energy is wasted," and that "energy alone can dare to be classical." Energy and classical restraint are indeed the main characteristics of Belloc's best verse. He used his vast prosodie talents to render his particular—and sometimes idiosyncratic—subjects impersonal and compelling.
In Milton (1935) he wrote that "the greatest verse does not proceed immediately from the strongest feeling. The greatest verse calls up the strongest emotion in the reader, but in the writer it is a distillation, not a cry." He considered Milton the last great classical poet in English:
He felt to his marrow the creative force of restraint, proportion, unity—and that is the classic…. Rule and its authority invigorated the powers of man as pruning will a tree, as levees a pouring river. Diversity without extravagance, movement which could be rhythmic because it knew boundaries and measure, permanence through order, these were, and may again be, the inestimable fruits of the classical spirit.
Although Belloc's political verse is often technically accomplished, too often it does not meet this standard; it fails to achieve "permanence through order" because it fails to transcend its parochial subject matter and evoke in the reader the emotion that Belloc himself felt, or at least enable the reader to understand and feel the source of that emotion.
Many of the verses concern the Marconi scandal. The fact that today the Marconi scandal is of interest primarily to historians does not in itself explain the limitations of the verse. Yeats's "Easter 1916" is a triumph not because its subject matter is "important," but because it creates a context that renders the speaker's assertions credible. Belloc's political verse is limited because he chose to hit hard rather than to hit squarely. Instead of poetically evoking the situation that justifies his outrage, Belloc too often resorted to sarcasm and raillery. With a swagger Belloc asserted that leading political figures such as Lloyd-George, Herbert Samuel, and Rufus Isaacs (Lord Reading), were corrupt. Although modern scholarship has supported many of Belloc's assertions regarding the Marconi scandal, he of course knew that no mainstream publisher would have entertained the thought of publishing a sardonic parody of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," full of unsubstantiated accusations, in which the Indian tribe consists of Herbert Samuel and his family, caught up in the embarrassing Indian silver scandal of 1913. Belloc and the Chestertons enjoyed publishing this sort of barb in their own journals, which had limited circulations. They relied on the idea that prosecuting them would be more trouble—and bad publicity—than it was worth. Except for one successful action against Cecil Chesterton, they were right.
Yet among the uncollected poems are a number of masterpieces in which the idea and the expression merge to create a witty indictment of the poverty of contemporary political life. At its best, the political verses are as intimate as his essays and as elegant as his light verse.
Belloc's first muckraking venture was The North Street Gazette, a collaboration with Maurice Baring that lasted only one issue, in 1908. The bulk of his uncollected political verse was published in the Eye-Witness and its later incarnation, the New Witness. The Eye-Witness, which first appeared in June 1911, was a weekly muckraking journal financed by Charles Granville and edited by Belloc. Its purpose was to follow the lead of Belloc and Cecil Chesterton's The Party System in exposing the corruption of the English political establishment. With contributors including Shaw, Wells, and Quiller-Couch, the Eye-Witness became for a time the second most popular weekly in England.
Weary of his editorial duties, Belloc resigned the position in June 1912. Cecil Chesterton edited the paper until its official demise in November of that year, at which time he revived it under the name of New Witness, largely due to the financial generosity of his father. During its year and a half of life, the Eye-Witness took up several causes, most notably the opposition to Lloyd-George's Insurance Bill on the grounds that because participation was mandatory for almost all workers it would strengthen the state's bureaucratic control of labor.
Writing in the New Witness, Belloc and Chesterton campaigned against political abuses such as the sale of honors (a practice Belloc had attacked as a member of Parliament), the enforced sterility clause of the Mental Deficiency Bill, and, most spectacularly, what came to be known as the Marconi scandal. Under the editorship of Cecil Chesterton, the paper became stridently anti-Semitic (especially in the columns of F. Hugh O'Donnell), a trend that worried Belloc.
The New Witness survived for eleven years, almost always on the edge of bankruptcy. Bernard Shaw, a frequent contributor, called the New Witness "a very remarkable paper" and expressed the hope that it would not fold. "I do not mind seeing Mr Samuel and Sir Rufus Isaacs and the rest treated as malignant dragons, giants, serpents."
A politician who frustrated all parties, but most especially his own, Belloc wrote and collected many poems on political subjects. These poems are as effective as any of his verse in demonstrating his skill in evoking a single, unadorned emotion. Usually that emotion was some combination of contempt and disgust. "Epitaph on the Politician Himself," which was collected first in the 1923 Sonnets and Verse, is a typical example:
Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintances sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.
The wit here is considerable. "I wept" at the start of the last line sets up the reversal with its spondee. Following the colon we expect to see a eulogy. His acquaintances might sneer and slang; what else could be expected of those who were not close to the late politician, those who knew him only as a tough-minded public servant who occasionally had to make enemies in his quest for the greater good? But I, the speaker intones with the luxurious "longed," I wished for a more fitting farewell. When the reader reaches the punch line, the feminine rhyme "slanged/hanged" creates an extra resonance for Belloc's disgust. But this poem is, for all its vitriol, humorous, because the politician is generic; readers think of their own favorite targets and envy the poet's skill in telling a truth.
Contempt is also the emotion in "On Two Ministers of State," but in this case the tone is icy rather than hot:
Lump says that Caliban's of gutter breed,
And Caliban says Lump's a fool indeed,
And Caliban and Lump and I are all agreed.
Here too the generic names distance the readers from any real situation, so that they concentrate on the witty exposition of the speaker's amused disgust with both ministers.
An example of the difference in tone between Belloc's collected and uncollected verse is the curious case of "The grocer Hudson Kearley, he," which appears in Roughead's collection with the tantalizingly uninformative note, "hitherto unprinted." Following is the version that appeared in the Eye-Witness in 1912:
II. The Noble Lord
The Grocer Hudson Kearley, he
When purchasing his barony,
Was offered as we understand
The title of Lord Sugar-Sand,
Or might alternatively have been
Lord Overweight of Margarine,
But being of the grander sort
Preferred the style of DEVONPORT,
Which brazenry now stands and flames
High to the front of English names,
And where the Dockers starve and die
Is worshipped to Idolatry.
So may the noble House still,
Their ancient Leadership fulfil,
And knit with pity, sense and skill
That commonwealth whose strengthening tie
Is still her old nobility.
And here is the version Roughead published:
The grocer Hudson Kearley, he
When purchasing his barony,
Considered, as we understand,
The title of Lord Sugarsand,
Or then again he could have been
Lord Underweight of Margarine,
But, being of the nobler sort,
He took the name of Devonport.
Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, first Viscount Devonport (1856-1934), founded International Stores in 1880 and served as Liberal M.P. (1892-1910) and as the first food controller (1916-1917). (He also served as the model for the unscrupulous but inept Boss Mangan in Shaw's Heartbreak House.) In the eight lines that the two versions share, the only substantive difference is that Lord Overweight becomes Lord Underweight. This emendation surely does little damage to Belloc's reputation as a wit, although it probably makes a bad joke inexplicable.
In ending the poem at this point, however, Belloc effectively declaws it. In the editorial pages of the Eye-Witness, Belloc enthusiastically supported the dock strike of 1911. The uncollected poem derives its force from the contrast between the well-fed grocer, whom all his readers would know, and the anonymous, starving dockers. The reference to the docker's strike is skillfully introduced in a modifying clause. With the line "So may the noble houses still," Belloc borrows Keats's play on words from the Grecian urn ode: the English nobility remains inactive in the face of terrible social injustice. The poet repeats "still" in the last line—"Is still her old nobility"—to emphasize the upper class's lack of true nobility. The original version of the poem is strikingly effective: sarcastic, self-righteous, and whole. The collected version looks over its shoulder for the lawyers.
In his collected poems, especially the light verse, Belloc was extremely conscientious about his prosody. He believed that light verse "has nothing to sustain it save its own excellence of construction…. those who have attempted it [find] that no kind of verse needs more the careful and repeated attention of the artificer." In his 1911 collection More Peers, Belloc footnotes the couplet "Upon the mansion's ample door, / To which he wades through heaps of Straw." The note reads, "This is the first and only time / That I have used this sort of Rhyme."
The bulk of the topical political poems, however, were probably written at a single sitting. Desmond MacCarthy, reminiscing about the early days of the Eye-Witness, [in G. K. 's: A Miscellany of the First 500 Issues of G. K. 's weekly, 1934], wrote,
If, late on the day of going to press, the paper was two or three articles short, Belloc or Cecil Chesterton supplied them. The men of the round table were great improvisors. If, when the sheets came in, there were blank spaces of different sizes, there was never a thought of altering the make up; something was written to length. Often it turned out as spirited as anything else in the paper, though it was necessary sometimes not to disguise that it was only a last-moment fill up.
The uncollected verse contains prosodie compromises that, common enough in most verse, are seen nowhere else in Belloc's poetry. An example is "An Ode (Dedicated to the Under-Secretary for India in expectation of his immediate promotion to Cabinet rank through the Postmaster-General)," one of Belloc's many attacks on the Samuel family, led by Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster-General implicated in the Marconi scandal. This poem is marred by instant iambs ("And oh!" "But oh!") and padded lines ("He's waiting on from day to day," "But who so happy, tell me, who").
Other poems are flatfooted in a more serious way; Belloc fails to evoke the emotion he wishes to communicate. He merely asserts it, without creating a character or a circumstance to justify it. The final stanza of "The Voice of the People," concerning a three-way by-election in Crewe, begins with these lines:
When all was over somebody had won.
To be precise it was his father's son,
His own son's father and his sister's brother;
And, for the rest, some any-one-or-other,
Fated by all the Gods before and after
To fill his pockets and provide our laughter.
These lines leave the reader unmoved. When Belloc writes, later in the stanza, "The weary pressman notes / What idiots in what numbers cast what votes," the readers wonder why he is wasting his time writing about an election if he cannot even justify his disgust. He was apparently quite agitated about the election; unfortunately, he was not similarly intent on communicating his idea. The account of the election in the Times provides no clues about his thinking; Ernest Craig, a Unionist mining engineer, won the election because a Labour candidate and a Liberal split the remaining votes. "Interesting as this election has been to the observer from outside the constituency, it has aroused very little passion on the spot, and there is none of the delirious excitement which marked the closing stage of the Hanley contest," another recent three-way by-election.
Other poems begin promisingly, then falter. Following are the first stanza of "A Ballade of Interesting News," then its final stanza and envoi:
"Hullo!" said Mr. Creasy of Crouch End
At breakfast as he read his Daily Mail.
"I see the Marylebone Club intend
To alter the position of the bail
Upon the stumps; a thing that cannot fail
To change the commonly accepted views
With all that innovation must entail.
It is extremely interesting news.
Belloc captures perfectly the orotund syntax of the vapid reader who finds a slight alteration in the cricket rules "extremely interesting." After another stanza describing some other items in the paper, Belloc concludes with this awkward, moralizing stanza:
It is indeed! The Daily Papers lend
A Something to our jaded lives and stale,
Which energises them, and seems to send
A thrill of life from Bow and Maida Vale:
It also helps them to increase their sale
(A motive it is easy to abuse),
And now and then the writers go to gaol—
It is extremely interesting news.
Belloc's prosodie gift often abandons him when his wit goes stale. In this case, the whole stanza is unnecessary, and the poem would be stronger without it. Line two's "jaded lives and stale" is the sort of convoluted, anachronistic syntax he would parody in another poet. And line three's "and seems to send" shows that he is one foot short in the line. To compound his problems, Belloc adds this envoi:
Prince, I suppose in sex you are a male,
In politics a servant of the——(Help!)
In your religion curiously pale——
It is extremely interesting news.
The coy anti-Semitism is both objectionable in itself and in that it has nothing to do with the point the poem is making.
Perhaps even more frustrating than the obviously flawed poems are the verses that are technically skillful yet too obscure for the modern reader. I am not referring to every poem about the Marconi scandal; many of them are effective poetic statements that pose no problems for the reader who is supplied with the necessary background. A few footnotes on the subject make this sordid episode of political collusion and insider trading startlingly contemporary.
However, during 1912 and 1913 Belloc was so deeply involved with the scandal that he composed satirical verses for virtually every issue of the paper. As he and Cecil Chesterton described some minute aspect of the scandal in the news and commentary pages of the journal, Belloc would write another little poem on the subject. Some of these verses could be understandable only to the most serious students of the scandal. An example is "The Samuel Pie," one of a series of parodies of nursery rhymes:
Modern readers can admire the naturalness and directness, as well as the subtle exploitation of the "s" sound throughout. And a little research reveals that Sir Alexander King (1851-1942), Second Secretary of the Post Office, was called by the Select Committee to testify on the actions of Herbert Samuel, Postmaster-General, during the Marconi scandal. Yet that information doesn't make the poem work. Readers still cannot visualize the Second Secretary; the phrase "sad surprise" depends for its effectiveness on a certain familiarity with the person, the kind of familiarity one has with the manner of a reasonably prominent public figure. Belloc and perhaps a few dozen others in England shared that familiarity. By way of comparison, King was probably as well known to the contemporary reading public as is the current Assistant Secretary of State. The poem fails to justify itself from within.
Yet among Belloc's uncollected political verses are some excellent poems. Two strengths characterize these works. First, they are self-sufficient in that they provide the evidence to justify their tones. And second, they are technically polished.
One early example of a fine topical poem is "Done Into Verse," which appeared in the Bookman. This piece is fourteen stanzas of sharp but cheerful satire. Subtitled "A Suggestion for a Rhymed 'Who's Who,'" the poem operates on two levels. On the surface it is a portrait of a literary nonentity, similar to Belloc's indictments of worthless and inept aristocrats in More Peers. On a slightly deeper level it is a mock cry of frustration by Belloc; the fictional subject of the poem enjoys many of the advantages that Belloc envied. The poem begins with the fictional entry from a who's who:
KEANES, HERBERT. B. 1846. The son of Lady Jane O'Hone and Henry Keanes, Esq., of 328, St. James's Square, and "The Nook," Albury. Clubs: Beagles, Blues, Pitt, Palmerston, the Walnut Box, the Two-and-Two's, etc. Education: Private tuition, Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. Has sat for Putticombe, in Kent, 1885-1892. Nephew and heir of the Right Hon. the Earl of Ballycairn. Occupation: Literature, political work, management of estate, etc. Has written: "Problems of the Poor," "What, indeed, is Man?" "Flowers and Fruit" (a book of verse), "Is there a Clifford?" "The Future of Japan," "Musings by Killarney's Shore," "The Ethics of Jean-Paul," and "Nero." Is a strong Protectionist and a broad Churchman. Recreations: Social.
The satire, as well as the poet's envy of his subject, are announced as early as the first stanza:
This is the sort of literary man who is best described by reference to his financial portfolio. Belloc often lamented his inability to be precisely the sort of wealthy man of letters he describes here. For three more stanzas Belloc describes Keanes's current wealth and lists the five considerable properties he will inherit when his uncle ("a lord") dies.
After a private education Keanes buys his way into Trinity College, Cambridge. About his collegiate career Belloc, significantly, has nothing to say; however, Keanes has an active social life:
Like Belloc, Keanes enjoys a brief Parliamentary career.
Keanes shows the enthusiasm that only the ignorant can muster. Belloc, on the other hand, was barely reelected in 1910 because of his stubborn refusal to compromise on the Education Bill and because of his stirring tax-the-rich speeches. As a private man of means, Keanes fills his days profitably:
The enjambed second line sets up Belloc's characteristic comic deflation in lines three and four. A partial list of Keanes's writings shows that he was even more versatile than Belloc:
The portrait of Keanes ends with these telling comments:
Of course Keanes believes in Dr. Arnold's Heaven; why shouldn't he? Belloc's comment self-consciously betrays his own envy of the liberal Protestant who served as professor of history at Oxford, a position for which he himself unsuccessfully applied on several occasions.
More indicative of what Belloc might have accomplished in political verse is "Sonnet for the Seventh of August":
As some grey fool, half blind with age and tears
Lighting by chance upon a rusty toy,
Murmurs: "My pop-gun, when I was a boy!
Before the coming of the Brazen years!"
Or as some wastrel from long exile come
Sees his fifth love in a magenta hat
And turns about most hastily thereat
Α-muttering in his last few teeth, "By Gum!"
So I—with guns of Flanders on the gale—
Read strangely how Lord Selborne and Lord Crewe,
Lord Curzon—and I think Lord Charnwood too—
Debated mine antiquities: the sale
Of Peerages, the Party Funds, and all
The Bag of Tricks…. Oh! God! Oh! Montreal!
Lords Selborne and Charnwood in 1914 had moved that honors not be awarded to persons solely because they had contributed to party funds. In 1917 they and the other two Lords succeeded in a resolution that the prime minister publicly justify his choices for honors and that he satisfy himself that the honor is not connected with any payment or expectation of payment to any party fund. Lloyd-George disregarded this resolution and created more and more peers as he increased his war chest, the Lloyd-George Fund.
The wit in this poem derives from Belloc's leavening his disgust with humor, including self-depreciating humor. The octet is vintage Belloc: the dismissive phrase, "some grey fool," and the precise adjectives that seem almost farfetched, "fifth love" and "magenta hat." The sestet appears to be mere prose, but the phrases "mine antiquities" and "Oh! God! Oh! Montreal!" create a meaningful context.
The references are to Samuel Butler's "A Psalm of Montreal," first published in the 18 May 1878 Spectator. Butler's comic poem is a dialogue between the author and a custodian in the Montreal Museum of Natural History. Visiting the museum, Butler notices that two statues—of the Greeks Antinous and Discobolus—are obscured in a room with "all manner of skins, plants, snakes, insects, etc., and, in the middle of these, an old man stuffing an owl." The custodian responds to Butler's inquiry about why the statues are not displayed prominently:
"The Discobolus is put here because he is vulgar—
He has neither vest nor pants with which to cover his limbs;
I, Sir, am a person of most respectable connections—
My brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr. Spurgeon."
O God! O Montreal!
Belloc, who began campaigning against the sale of honors and the misuse of party funds while he was a member of Parliament and continued as editor of the Eye-Witness, portrays himself comically, not as a martyr but rather as a treasure that is considered a vulgar embarrassment. Belloc wisely resists the impulse to argue that the abuses of party funds and honors have created the war, although the case could be made that the weakening of the British government from within was to have serious consequences that cost many lives.
Taken as a group, Belloc's uncollected political poems fall somewhere between his collected light verse and his political prose. Although they are distinguished by a generally high-quality prosody and sharp wit, many of them are marred by the shortcomings of the political prose: hasty composition, lack of perspective, and a parochial assumption that the reader shares the author's particular knowledge and political assumptions. Had Belloc wished, he could have improved their overall quality by writing them from within, rather than from without, by animating his ideas within the scope of the poems themselves. Instead, he was too often content to preach to the converted, the readers of the Eye-Witness and the New Witness. In short, he did not envision these political poems as art.
Belloc's least successful political poems are solemn; Belloc has something to say—some wrong to right—and he won't trivialize his subject by being merely witty or humorous. After all, politics is serious business, and the politicians' shameful behavior causes real human misery. In his best political poems, however, such as "Done Into Verse" and "Sonnet for the Seventh of August," he exploits himself as a character rather than relying on his considerable gifts as a ideologue. In so doing he achieves perspective, a distancing that allows him the space in which to arrange the props for his brief drama.
Ironically, when he focuses on his subject to the exclusion of the context, the poems too often remain solipsistic exercises in invective when he involves himself, the poems transcend him and become effective political satires. Had he seen in the political world the material for art and not just propaganda, he might have allowed himself the luxury of lingering in what he called his "rightful garden." Belloc might have transformed the turbulent political events of his time into a more substantial body of first-rate satirical verse.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4107
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.
In this historical reverie, pre-war England is a place of long, sunlit summer afternoons and bandstands, of little boys in sailor suits and weekends at spacious country houses with lawn parties and baccarat and billiards and riding to hounds, of lazy punting trips down the Thames from Oxford and picnics at the Rose and Crown. It is the world of Saki and Beerbohm and Rupert Brooke (a world which James, because of his greater depth, loved even more than they did), and of Compton Mackenzie's Oxford, with its dreaming spires, still the aristocratic Oxford of Arnold and Newman and Benjamin Jowett.
It is as a part of that England that Belloc first comes clearly into view, Belloc of Balliol and the Oxford Union. It was there, in that particular milieu, that he could flourish. For all his quarrels with it, the England of that time was his proper home. His central views were all formed before 1918. The very terms of his quarrels belonged to pre-war England. This is very far from saying that Belloc is a figure of "merely historical interest," as the saying goes. Indeed, it is because he was so firmly rooted in that pre-war world, and therefore connected in so many ways with a continuous European past, that he remains so important.
Hilaire Belloc was born in France, but he was raised in England; he attended Newman's Oratory School, then presided over by Newman himself—a sensitive, remote, fragile, august man in the full glory of his last phase. There is a symbolic quality to Belloc's presence at Newman's school. Both devoted their lives to bringing the truths of the past to bear on the present; both were gifted with deep historical consciousness; both were soldiers in a sense—Newman with the rapier of dialectic, Belloc with the "sound of the guns," a phrase that occurs often in his work, at Valmy, at Waterloo, at the Marne. Yet, though they were very different, one cannot quite say that they were opposite kinds of men, for both knew, as Manning remarked to Belloc, that "all human conflict is ultimately theological." Once, in Belloc's Latin class, Cardinal Newman burst into tears over some haunting passage in Virgil and had to leave the room. It is staggering to learn that the boys called him "Jack."
And after the Oratory came Oxford itself—Balliol and the Union. At the Oratory, Belloc had imbibed Catholicism and the classics. At Balliol, he read history, and the three things came together in his powerful mind. The classics, Catholicism, and history; Europe, the Church, and the West—kind of analogue of the Trinity itself; the three things were one.
When Belloc went up to Oxford in 1893, the Oxford Union was still in its great period. Today, a feeble-minded uplift and a low sincerity ruin all prospect of thought. But then the art of debate was assiduously cultivated and practiced for sheer intellectual pleasure. Such debate was only possible under conditions of disinterestedness: there was a whole range of ideas that could be entertained, and no one's life—more precisely, status—was at stake. The snarling, violent, moralistic mobs of the democratic campus had not yet made their appearance in history. The Union of 1893 was the Union of F. E. Smith and John Simon—and then, suddenly, of Hilaire Belloc. As Basil Matthews recalls:
It was one of those rare nights in the Oxford Union when new ideas are discovered. Simon had denounced the Turk in Thessaly and Smith had held up the Oriental to admiration. Men whispered to each other of the future Gladstone and Dizzy whom Oxford was to give to the nation. No one would be fool enough to speak after such brilliant rhetoric…. Suddenly a young man walked to the table. He was broad of shoulder and trod the floor confidently. A chin that was almost grim in its young strength was surmounted by a large squarelybuilt face. Over his forehead and absurdly experienced eyes, dark hair fell stiffly. As he rose, men started up and began to leave the house; at his first sentence they paused and looked at him—and sat down again. By the end of his first sentence, with a few waves of his powerful hands, and a touch of unconscious magnetism and conscious strength, the speeches of J. A. Simon and F. E. Smith were as though they had never been. For twenty minutes the new orator, Mr. Hilaire Belloc, who was soon to sit in the seat of Gladstone, Salisbury, Milner, Curzon, and Asquith as President of the Union, held his audience breathless.
Some of this was theater, of course, but for the most part it represented a genuine curiosity about what intelligence could do with a particular subject. The egalitarian and cloddish impulse to "commitment" about everything under the sun was absent.
Of course, politics in its way was a serious thing, and it attracted men of surpassing abilities. Simon and F. E. Smith went on to notable parliamentary careers. The Liberal ministry that came to power in 1906 was the most brilliant ever to assemble at Westminster: Asquith, Grey, Campbell-Bannerman, Haldane, Bryce, Winston Churchill. Yet it was the last time that most men agreed on most things.
Governments of both parties agreed, for example, that money should be allowed to "fructify in the pockets of the people." Because government had not extended itself into the very texture of existence, government was not awfully controversial. It was not yet in every hamlet, kitchen, and schoolroom. As the marvelous symbolic story has it, Simon and F. E. Smith, before going down from Oxford to London, tossed a coin to determine which would be Liberal, which Tory. There was no sense in entering the same party. One might block the other's path. If a crank called Marx had written some tracts in the British Museum, what of it?
Of course, men could be serious about serious things, and politics before the First World War has a flavor—no, not a flavor, a distinctive character—that separates it from later politics. This point is worth pausing over. It was very much a part of the pre-war atmosphere that candidates were not universally expected to caress the voters, much less lick their feet. Holding office was not that important. When Belloc ran for Parliament in 1906, he was told that the voters of South Salford might not vote for a Catholic. This is how he handled the problem, making his first campaign address to a packed house:
Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.
After a shocked pause. Belloc was cheered to the rafters and, later, elected. (A comparison with John F. Kennedy before the Houston ministers is instructive here.) This incident is usually held up as evidence of Belloc's unique courage and integrity. Yet, though the incident is extreme and special, it is also in many ways representative. When John Stuart Mill was standing for Parliament, he once spoke before a tough crowd of Victorian workmen. In the midst of his remarks, a billboard was brought forward bearing the deadly words from his Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform: "The Lower Classes, though mostly habitual liars, are ashamed of lying." The audience demanded to know whether Mill had written that. Said Mill clearly, "I did." The workmen cheered and stamped their feet, and their leader arose to say fervently that "the working classes had no desire not to be told of their faults; they wanted friends, not flatterers." Both episodes are very much in the vein of Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol. Non serviam!
Such an attitude is unthinkable today. Belloc and Mill and Burke would have disagreed on practically everything. Belloc had no time for Burke, and both would have looked on Mill as almost impossible. The essential point is that each believed that certain things were in fact true and that, beside the truth, any office was a bauble. The modern politician, in contrast, is other-directed. He finds out what is true by responding to his antennae. Mussolini's name now is mud, but largely because he was an ignominious failure; until 1940 his prestige in the West was very high indeed. His failure should not blind us to the fact that his technique of total reliance upon mass manipulation and mass appeal was not so different from modern politicians generally. In Ivonne Kirkpatrick's excellent biography of Mussolini, Duce (1964), we learn that he believed in almost nothing at all, at least not until his awful last month, and that at the height of his power he often made up his policy on the spot, even made momentous decisions, as he read the emotions of the crowd from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia. Was Bobby Kennedy much different?
England before 1914 is usually called Liberal England by historians, after the name of the dominant party, but of course the word "liberal" had not yet reversed its meaning. Despite the overwhelming triumph of the Liberal Party in 1906, Liberal England was almost finished. Lloyd George was in the 1906 cabinet. In 1909 he would present his People's Budget with its sharp increase in taxes. Soon he would preside over the People's War of 1914-1918—the first war in history in which the use of mass civilian armies dictated a politics of mass manipulation at home. The future of mass taxation and mass government and mass emotion was suddenly radiant. At the center of the great empire, the end came almost unnoticed. In the spring of 1914 Belloc overheard the following conversation on a train going down to Horsham:
"Terrible news from the Balkans."
"Yes, but they're only barbarians."
During the weekend of June 29, he attended Mass at Salisbury. The congregation was asked to pray for the soul of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who had just been murdered at Sarajevo. Belloc had some sense but no immediately clear idea of the likely repercussions of the assassination on European peace. Then came the chilling moment. On July 20, cruising off Plymouth in the Nona, Belloc saw the British Grand Fleet, "like ghosts, like things made themselves out of mist", hastening eastward. He knew then there would be war—and the end of a world.
The crippling event in Belloc's own career was his failure to get a post at Oxford. He expected one, and with good reason, for his record had been excellent. He had really been one of the great undergraduates of all time, and he loved Oxford to the point of idolatry. His powers were recognized to be formidable, yet he was passed over for candidates no one ever heard of again. Belloc was a natural don, a don par excellence, with his thorniness and his total inability to work as a team member—he was a disaster as a party politician and a total failure in corporate journalism. But he had the potential of being a great historian. On the evidence of the history he did write, it is safe to say that, given the leisure of an academic environment, he would have produced work of classic quality. His moment as a historian had arrived. He wished to demolish the then-dominant Whig interpretation of history, according to which history was the happy-ending story of the advance of liberty under Whig and Protestant auspices, with heroes and villains suitably arrayed back through the ages. Such a view, Belloc believed, was no longer tenable, and it operated as a block to the understanding. But Belloc was condemned to a lifetime of journalism, one-night lectures, and hurried writing. He could not concentrate his resources upon writing a few great works, and we have had to wait until 1959 for Herbert Butterfield to accomplish Belloc's appointed task regarding Whig history.
Belloc was so much the natural don that he even had some of the weaknesses of the academic mind. As a historian and as a moral and religious thinker, he was admirably concrete, but when he wrote on current political and social matters, a don-like abstraction took over. He tirelessly attacked the English party system, arguing that because the governing class was linked by a web of family relations and because the parties always seemed to agree, they were therefore in conscious collusion and even agreed to alternate in office. The truth was more mundane. As a class and as members of a common culture, they did largely agree, but it is unlikely that any member agreed to lose an election out of collusion with his rival.
Similarly, in his book The Jews, he has many incisive things to say about the relations between Jews and non-Jews, but defining the Jews as a "dispersed nation"—which is, to a point, fair enough—he "reasons" to the absurd conclusion that English Jews ought actually to approximate a nation, have their own laws, courts, judges, be free from military service, taxes, and so on. This is a rationalist farrago. Belloc's plan might well accommodate the Jewishness of an individual, but it forgot all about his Englishness. In the real world, the Jews maintained their distinctive social and cultural institutions within the ordinary structure of law.
Again, he had shrewd things to say in The Servile State. The capitalist system does tend to lead to collectivism. It does concentrate property in the hands of a few. It engenders wide insecurity. Yet, from this, he again "deduced" a servile system in which the capitalists would rule over forced labor. It is only by stretching the definitions all out of shape that Belloc's predicition can be seen as having any relevance to the real world of power relations today.
Belloc always believed that his rejection at Oxford was due to his Catholicism, and he was bitter about it to the end of his days. The subject crops up again and again in his conversation, and he even cultivated a deliberate attitude of anti-academicism. Actually, he probably was not rejected because of his religion. The fact is, he tended to be a monologist, and dominating brilliance, after awhile, can become a bore. In addition, he was obsessive on some points. The Fellows of an Oxford college might well hesitate a long time before submitting themselves to a lifetime of disquisitions on distributism and the Jewish problem. Whatever the truth here, Belloc ended up at Fleet Street and missed his calling. But Oxford was his home, and he should have had that fellowship at All Souls.
In consequence, his achievement was fragmentary, though not on that account ephemeral. His grasp of essential things was a firm one, as is manifest wherever we look in his work. F. D. Wilhelmsen's subtitle for his study of Belloc, an absolutely first-rate piece of modern criticism, is an accurate one: Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man (1953). For though Belloc was, increasingly, at odds with the twentieth century, he was not alienated from the Western tradition or from the sources of anything positive that remains in Western culture. He held in balance the necessary coordinates of the fully human existence. He symbolized these in a little book called Four Men, which he published early in his career. The book is an allegory, recounting the journey of four men across Sussex in an autumnal setting: Myself, Grizzlebeard, the Poet, and the Sailor. As the journey and the conversations unfold, we see that Belloc means for each of the three men accompanying Myself to represent an essential quality of the fully human. The Poet represents spiritual aspiration, vision, and the sense of belonging to a world not present to the senses. He embodies a religious impulse that goes back to Plato and beyond. The Sailor belongs to this world, to its sudden landfalls and its hills against autumnal skies. His health saves man from mystical excess, solipsism, and decadence. Grizzlebeard is tradition incarnate: full of songs, lore, legends, and the wisdom of the past. Without Grizzlebeard's living connection with the past, man is isolated in time, a "stranger lost in a wilderness of pavements," as Wilhelmsen eloquently says. So thoroughly a part of the West was Belloc, so finely did he bring together these three essential elements that he found himself alienated from much around him. But the modern sensibility is alienated from itself; for it, as Wilhelmsen observes, nation, Church, and West, the past, roots, and origins are always wrong.
Looking at Belloc's work, we see that the three essential elements are always present, making each work an expression of the integral Western man behind it. He possessed the historical imagination as Eliot defines it: he wrote history with the past of Europe in his bones. History pervades his life at every point. Michelet was a friend of his father. A friend of his grandmother, a Mlle de Montgolfier, told him how as a girl she had been present at the storming of the Bastille. Belloc went over the roads and the battlefields of Europe foot by foot, and he attempted not only to record the past but to think his way back into it, to imagine it as it really was, when it was not past but present, and then to bring it forth re-created. He did not always succeed, and sometimes his imagination led him astray, but his method led to real discoveries. He knew, for example, that the eighteenth-century Whig oligarchy was not on the side of freedom. He knew that Cromwell had nothing further from his mind than religious liberty and that he would have been horrified by the thought of political liberty. He knew that James II had not been overthrown by any great wave of popular revulsion. Belloc's critical gaze liberated the past from the liberal dogmas of his present, and it did so at a moment when those dogmas, for sensitive minds, were in a state of dissolution. The main tendency of Belloc's historical polemic is now generally accepted by historians.
Belloc was a poet of Europe's past, and his prose, gaining resonance from his meditative involvement, moves us, often, as Burke's does. When Belloc wrote the following passage, he was entirely on the side of the Revolution, yet listen to his epitaph for the French monarchy:
So perished the French monarchy. Its dim origins stretched out and lost themselves in Rome; it had already learnt to speak and recognized its own nature when the vaults of the Thermae echoed heavily to the slow footsteps of the Merovingian kings. Look up that vast valley of dead men crowned, and you may see the gigantic figure of Charlemagne, his brows level and his long white beard tangled like an undergrowth, having in his left hand the globe and in his right the hilt of an unconquerable sword. There also are the short, strong horsemen of the Robertian house, half hidden by their leather shields, and their sons before them growing in vestment and majesty, and taking on the pomp of the middle ages; Louis VII, all covered with iron; Philip the Conqueror; Louis IX, who alone is surrounded with light; they stand in a widening interminable procession this great crowd of kings; they lose their armour, they take their ermine on, they are accompanied by their captains and their marshalls; at last, in their attitude and their magnificence they sum up in themselves the pride and the achievement of the French nation. But time has dissipated what it could not tarnish, and the process of a thousand years has turned these mighty figures into unsubstantial things. You may see them in the grey end of darkness, like a pageant standing still. You look again, but with the growing light and with the wind that rises before morning they have disappeared.
Burke, Gibbon, Macaulay—and Belloc: in meditative evocation, he was their equal.
Yet although the past lived and was present to him, he possessed also his allegorical Sailor's intense communion with the world that is present to the senses. He knew the English landscapes, and he loved the English inns; he had walked through Normandy and Burgandy, and from Paris to Rome, and from Paris over the Pyrenees to Madrid. The physical world became a part of him, producing, as all intense experience of the senses does, both pleasure and melancholy. He did not see through things to something else—he saw the things themselves—and his attachment to them made him poignantly aware of transience. The elegiac note is not peculiar to the West, but it is integral to it, to its historicity and its sense of mortal limitation, to its knowledge that the world is immensely important, but that it is always dying.
His Catholic faith was, in its quality, also an extension of an older Europe. If he had been told that anyone could discuss the Resurrection as a "significant" thing without first inquiring whether it had actually occurred, he would have thought that he was hearing about a half-wit. Belloc had been born a Catholic and had attended the Oratory School. At Balliol his faith had been attenuated, but not lost. In his mature years it became crystalline. It was hard, irrefragable, based upon truth rather than on transitory relevance, on reason rather than on emotion. It had almost a military character. St. Dominic was his favorite saint. Belloc reasoned thus: Christ claimed to be divine. He was crucified, and three days later He rose from the dead. Such is the evidence, both written and traditional, and it goes back to eyewitnesses. Other views of the matter substitute theories, for which there is no evidence, for events for which there is much evidence. Faith does not rest on speculation or emotion—these may help or hinder it and are thoroughly marginal—but on evidence, available to everyone. Belloc's position is hard and sane and admirable.
As for the Catholic Church, here too he was a historian with the past of Europe in his bones. He knew that the Church, both in its liturgy and its creed, was traceable back to the origins, to those who had seen and talked with Christ, and that it was not a new thing but was continuous with those origins. He embraced the scandal of the concreteness of the Church in his famous formula, "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe." Of course the proposition is phrased polemically: contra idealism. Belloc always insisted upon the historical reality, and the Church was, historically, European and followed European expansion. Theoretically, the Church is universal and might have emerged in the Egyptian empire or in China. Theoretically, God might have been born in Brazil. In fact, Christ was a Jew, and the Church is European. The history of Europe cannot be understood without reference to the central role of the Church, and the Church cannot be understood apart from its actual history in Europe. Belloc's scandalous formulation is really a way of saying that grace perfects nature and that Providence would not have rooted the Church in Assyria rather than in Rome. This is a scandal to idealists and universalists everywhere, and Belloc meant it to be one.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1767
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 English religion. They were made uneasy by his combination of political radicalism (he was the only non-socialist journalist in London who supported the General Strike of 1926) and Catholicism, which was of a very French kind—at once off-hand and belligerent. They disliked his lapidary literary style and his elegance. And all these things are more characteristically French than they are English (as was the anti-Semitism).
When the television discussion of Belloc got under way it became clear that two of the three critics had never read a word that he had written. 'Why should we take Belloc seriously?' one of them complained. And a third replied, 'Because he was very nearly a poet.'
This was actually the most damning of all the damning remarks that had been made about Belloc during that fortnight. The sad thing is, one sees what this particular critic meant. Many of Belloc's best verses are spoilt by hamfistedness, and some of his most famous lyrics have about them a sort of boozy innocence which is not to the austere taste of the post-modernist generation. 'God be with you, Balliol men', or 'the grace of God is in courtesy', or
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.
And yet Belloc the poet had a distinctive voice, without which literature would be poorer. No one else did what he did or wrote what he wrote. He is not merely a production-line Georgian.
Though he was a very funny writer, the core of Belloc's mood as a poet is despondent. He is a man on his own in the world, as is seen in his uneven series of sonnets beginning with the words, 'The world's a stage':
The scenery is very much the best
Of what the wretched drama has to show,
Also the prompter happens to be dumb,
We drink behind the scenes and pass a jest
On all our folly; then, before we go,
Loud cries for 'Author'… but he doesn't come.
The only part about it I enjoy
Is what was called in English the Foyay.
There will I stand apart awhile and toy
With thought, and set my cigarette alight;
And then—without returning to the play—
On with my coat and out into the night.
These are possibly the best lines he ever wrote. In all his best poems he is alone, reminding me of his friend G.K. Chesteron's words, 'if we wish to depict what a man really is we must depict a man alone in a desert or on a dark sea sand. So long as he is a single figure he means all that humanity means; so long as he is solitary, he means human society… Add another figure and the picture is less human, not more so.'
Sometimes, in his poems, Belloc is lonely in love, and missing his wife Elodie:
(That is a poem which, for me, passes A.E. Housman's gooseflesh test in 'The Name and Nature of Poetry'.) Sometimes the solitary voice in Belloc's poetry is homesick for childhood and for the Sussex of boyhood. Sometimes he is exuberant in his solitude, as in his mysterious song of the Winged Horse (of which there exists an excellent gramophone record with Belloc singing his own words). Sometimes, as in his epigram on 'The Telephone', he is simply lonely in town:
Tonight in million-voicèd London I
Was lonely as the million-pointed sky
Until your single voice. Ah! So the sun
Peoples all heaven, although he be but one.
It is not his most skilful epigram, but it is one of his most poignant, the more so when we remember how compulsively sociable he was. I imagine he wrote it one evening in London during his widowerhood, when he returned from a dinner to one of the rooms he rented from time to time from friends such as Charles Somers Cocks and 'Bear' Warre; and I imagine that the voice was that of Juliet Duff, with whom he was platonically in love.
He is at his best when this essentially melancholy view of life is expressed through comic means, as in his matchless 'Ballade of Hell and Mrs Roebeck' (a poem, like Larkin's 'Vers de Société', which comes into my mind every time I attend a party) or as in his epigrams such as 'Fatigue':
I'm tired of Love: I'm, still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
The Belloc who has perhaps travelled less well is the Georgian sentimentalist who wrote 'The Moon's Funeral', or 'Twelfth Night' or 'Duncton Hill', one of his most famous anthology pieces, marred for the modern reader by such lines as
He does not die, but still remains
Substantiate with his darling plains.
Still, while seeing these limitations, I would rather have such poems on my shelves than not.
Belloc's earliest published work was poetry and it was a poet, primarily, that he wanted to be in his early years of literary struggle when, having married young, he was trying to make a living as a professional journalist and historian. To this early phase, too, belong those verses for which he will always be remembered, the Cautionary Tales and The Modern Traveller, followed by Peers and More Peers with their marvellous BTB [Basil T. Blackwood] illustrations. The 'serious' verse is of uneven quality but the comic stuff he polished continually and it has the hard-edged surprisingness which always accompanies true poetry. The world of Henry King, who perished through his 'chief defect' of chewing little bits of string, or of dishonest Matilda whose dreadful lies led to her death by burning, or of Goldolphin Horne, who 'held the human race in scorn' and ended as the boy 'who blacks the boots at the Savoy' has a surreal quality all Belloc's own. His sentimental lyrics invite comparison with Alfred Noyes or A.E. Housman. His cautionary verses are incomparable. Children of all generations have responded to them, quite regardless of whether they themselves are ever going to move in circles where they meet the likes of Lord Lundy who spoils his chances of being 'the next Prime Minister but three' by being 'far too freely moved to tears'.
In these poems Belloc revealed what he thought of England—its crazy institutions from the House of Lords to the Fire Brigade, its social divisions, its bogus moralism. It is a farcical place where grown-ups and children alike will get into scrapes. But it is guided by no true principles, either religious or political. This total pessimism about the land of his mother's birth informed much of Belloc's historical writing and his journalism, as well as his works of political and economic analysis, such as The Servile State, a prophetic book, whose wisdom is clearer now than ever before. He saw Capital and Capitalism as ruining everything, and he realised that most political systems calling themselves socialist would eventually succumb to the power of Capital, because both State Socialism and Capitalism pursue collectivist solutions to human problems, and place money before soul.
In his prose works, Belloc found only one acceptable collective, and that is the Catholic Church, which he believed to provide hearth and home for the human spirit. In his poems—though there are some pious lyrics—he writes less as a Catholic than as a solitary, whose world has been wrecked.
Before I began work on my biography of the man, I had assumed that this mood of solitude and desolation came upon Belloc as a result of some personal crisis in his life, such as the death of his wife in middle age, or the collapse of his faith in the Liberal Party—in whose interest he sat in the 1906 to 1910 Parliament as MP for Salford. But I soon became aware that Belloc had been an elegist before he could talk and that his sense that 'Ha'nacker Hill is in Desolation' was inborn. The outward events of his life—the early death of his father, the defeat of France by the Prussians in 1870, Belloc's failure to secure a much-coveted Oxford Fellowship, the loss of his wife, the death of two grown-up sons, the Fall of France in 1940—all fitted into a pattern for which his imagination had been preparing him from the beginning—as did his pathetic final decade of existence.
Life is a long discovery, isn't it?
You only get your wisdom bit by bit.
If you have luck you find in early youth
How dangerous it is to tell the Truth;
And next you learn how dignity and peace
Are the ripe fruits of patient avarice.
You find that middle life goes racing past.
You find despair: and, at the very last,
You find as you are giving up the ghost
That those who loved you best despised you most.
The man who wrote those lines cannot have been all bad. But, as I discovered when I tried to paint a sympathetic portrait of him, it is not surprising that the English did not find his presence very comforting during his lifetime; nor, thirty years after he was dead, did they much wish to be reminded of what he thought of them.
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