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.