Hilaire Belloc (1870 –1953) was an Anglo-French writer and historian. The son of a French father and an English mother, he was born near Paris in July 1870 but grew up in England, in West Sussex. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was a celebrated orator, satirist and political activist and served as a Liberal MP for Salford between 1906 and 1910.
Belloc graduated with an honours degree in History from Oxford. In between a short period of military service with the French artillery, he walked all over Europe and Britain and then trekked from the mid-West of the USA to California just to see his future wife who lived on the west coast. He wrote and recited poetry along the way and also sketched people that he stayed with as a means of getting by. He was renowned for his Catholic faith, which had a strong impact on most of his works and for his writing collaboration with G. K. Chesterton. He was a noted disputant, with a number of long-running feuds, but also widely regarded as a humane and sympathetic man.
He loved Sussex to the point of idolatry as the place where he was brought up and as his spiritual home. Belloc is remembered in an annual celebration in Sussex, known as Belloc Night, that takes place on the writer’s birthday, 27 July, in the manner of Burns Night in Scotland. The celebration includes reading from Belloc’s work and partaking of a bread and cheese supper with pickles. He also loved sailing. During his later years, he would sail when he could afford to do so and became a well-known yachtsman. He won many races and was on the French sailing team.
Belloc suffered a stroke in 1941 and never fully recovered He died on 16 July 1953 at Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Guildford, Surrey, from burns and shock following a fall he had while placing a log into a fireplace at King’s Land. At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, “No man of his time fought so hard for the good things.”
THE POETRY OF HILAIRE BELLOC
While Belloc’s political and social views have become unpopular, his poetry continues to attract readers. His range was unusual and varied. He could write, with almost equal facility, a heroic poem or an epigram (see below), a sonnet or a ballade, a satire or a piece of nonsense verse. He wrote serious and light verse. His serious poetry, included in Collected Verse (1958), is traditional, melodious, skilfully crafted and dependent, sometimes overly, on auditory effects. Tarantella is one of the best and one of the best-known examples. My own favourite Belloc poem is (month of) January
His light verse has been highly praised , with W. H. Auden going so far as to state of Belloc that “as a writer of Light Verse, he has few equals and no superiors.” His Cautionary Tales for Children (see cover right) humorous poems with an implausible moral, illustrated by Basil Temple Blackwood (signing as “B.T.B.”) and later by Edward Gorey, are the most widely known of his writings. Supposedly written for children, these poems, like those of Lewis Carroll, are more to adult and satirical tastes. In these poems Belloc assumes the perspective of a ridiculously stuffy and pedantic adult lecturing children on the inevitable catastrophes that result from improper behaviour. The titles of some of these poems indicate the sardonic style: among his outstanding verses of this type are Maria Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage, Godolphin Horne, 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. Michael H. Markel has contrasted Belloc’s approach with that of his predecessors: 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. According to Martin Seymour-Smith, the mock-solemn, deliberately bathetic manner arose from Belloc’s affectionate parodying of the often-moralising nursery rhymes of Jane and Ann Taylor (Original Poems for Infant Minds, London, 1804).
Among the many skills evident in the poetry of Hilaire Belloc, that of the epigrammatist is one that deserves further commendation. As is evident in the poems below, those qualities of balance, contrast, wit, rhythm and rhyme, characteristics of the best epigrams, are abundant, in different manners, in the best of these poems. They deserve a wider readership.
Brief Poems by Hilaire Belloc
An Author’s Hope
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’
Time Cures All
It was my shame, and now it is my boast,
That I have loved you rather more than most.
Epitaph on the Favourite Dog of a Politician
Here lies a Dog.- may every Dog that dies
Lie in security – as this Dog lies.
Lines For A Christmas Card
May all my enemies go to hell,
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel.
On a Puritan
He served his God so faithfully and well
That now he sees him face to face, in hell.
On Noman: A Guest
Dear Mr Noman, does it ever strike you,
The more we see of you, the less we like you?
The World is Full of Double Beds
The world is full of double beds
And most delightful maidenheads,
Which being so, there’s no excuse
For sodomy or self-abuse.
The Scorpion is as black as soot,
He dearly loves to bite;
He is a most unpleasant brute
To find in bed at night.
I shoot the Hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum,
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten ‘em.
The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:
I cannot say the same about the Kurd.
When people call this beast to mind,
They marvel more and more
At such a little tail behind,
So large a trunk before.
The species Man and Marmozet
Are intimately linked;
The Marmozet survives as yet,
But Men are all extinct.
I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
The False Heart
I said to Heart, ‘How goes it?’ Heart replied:
‘Right as a Ribstone Pippin!’ But it lied.
Epitaph on the Politician
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 Lady Poltagrue, a Public Peril
The Devil, having nothing else to do,
Went off to tempt My Lady Poltagrue.
My Lady, tempted by a private whim,
To his extreme annoyance, tempted him.
On the Ladies of Pixton
Three Graces; and the mother were a Grace,
But for profounder meaning in her face.
On a Dead Hostess
Of this bad world the loveliest and the best,
Has smiled and said “Good Night”, and gone to rest.
Kings live in Palaces, and Pigs in sties,
And youth in Expectation. Youth is wise.
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
Her Final Role
This man’s desire; that other’s hopeless end;
A third’s capricious tyrant: and my friend.