Selections from Hilaire Belloc’s Verse and Prose
[Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was not only one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, but a historic personality of almost preternatural energy. Descended from two accomplished families, English on his mother’s side and French on his father’s, he bore little resemblance to either parent, or to anyone else. According to one of his biographers, A. N. Wilson, Belloc was one of a kind, a kind which strongly repelled as well as attracted. By his early twenties Belloc seemed to know what he thought about everything, and delivered his convictions ‘with an irresistible vehemence of utterance.’ Many of those convictions grew out of a militant Catholicism—his mother was a Catholic convert—something which was unheard of in the England of his day. Not surprisingly he was snubbed by his cowed coreligionists and he made most of his friends outside the Church. As time went on the majority of those friends also belonged to the upper class, an irony since Belloc was republican in sentiment and routinely attacked the rich both in print and to their faces. Indeed his unconscious individualism and independence of mind led to a host of ironies. Though his mother, Elizabeth Rayner Parkes, was a prominent feminist of the Victorian era, Belloc was extremely conservative in his attitude to women’s suffrage: ‘I am opposed to women voting as men vote. I call it immoral, because I think the bringing of one’s women, one’s mothers and sisters and wives into the political arena, disturbs the relationship between the sexes.’ Moreover, according to Wilson, ‘Belloc’s mother always expressed extreme shock, as did his sister Marie, when Belloc let fall vigourously anti-Jewish sentiments... In common with all his generation, Jews, pro-Jews and anti-Jews, he spoke with a vigour of language on the subject which, after the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, will seem hideously distasteful to the huge majority of readers.’ (It is generally conceded that a charge of racial or ideological anti-semitism cannot be substantiated either from Belloc’s writings or from his personal relationships.)
Devout after his own fashion, he was sceptical and impious by temperament—when talking to his Catholic intimates he made no secret of his regret that the Church was lumbered with so much ‘Yiddish folklore’; he regarded the Old Testament, for the most part, as an unedifying piece of tribal mythology. Incapable of living anywhere but England, he was born near Paris, served in the French army, and was addicted to travel on the continent. He was the sort of man who was as far removed from the American character and outlook as it is possible to imagine, and yet he married an American from California. Despite a brilliant career at Oxford his unpopular opinions and outspokenness denied him the Fellowship he craved, and to support his family of five children he resentfully wrote over 150 books of history, politics, economics, satire, poetry, verse, etc. Written under pressure—James II, for instance, was scribbled in eight days while staying in a small hotel at El Kantara, on the edge of the Sahara desert—many of them are of second-rate quality, but you will look long to find a bad sentence in any of them.
Belloc courted the disapproval of the academy with his indifference to scholarly punctilio—to some extent he took a perverse delight in concealing his scholarship—yet his historical writing exercised a kind of hydraulic pressure on the thought of his age, and his judgments and prophesies have proved far more accurate than those of his contemporaries. Often regarded as a belligerent bore or an opinionated crank by those who merely know about him, J. B. Morton (who under the pen name ‘Beachcomber’ wrote a humour column for the Daily Express six days a week for 51 years) claimed that when Belloc entered a room, he changed that room. Frank Sheed confirmed that impression: ‘The personality was so very marked—anyone seeing him for the first time anywhere would wonder instinctively who he was. I never knew a man less overlookable. And in a general way he looked like trouble!’ ‘It is a commonplace,’ wrote Morton, ‘to say that a literary man is never like his writing; that when you meet a man whose writing you have admired and enjoyed, you always are disappointed. Belloc was like his writing. When you talked to him, or when you read him, you noted his zest for life, his appetite for conflict, his swift changes of mood, his orderly method of thought, his certitudes, his sense of fun, his hatred of injustice. His very manner of speech was often echoed in his writing—with all kinds of parenthesis and afterthought thrown out noisily and impudently.’ Wilson claims that Belloc was even more like his writing than his writing, that the power of his personality and the force of his conversational presence—attested by innumerable friends—are never quite lived up to in his work.
For anyone who feels they could use a break from mass culture with its vulgar enthusiasms, narcissism, and somewhat suspect celebration of individuality, Belloc might come as a refreshing change. At the very least we can promise you something completely different, for in temper and conviction Hilaire Belloc is the antithesis of contemporary secular culture.]
[In 1927 George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton debated socialism and economics before an overflow crowd at the Kingsway Hall. Belloc was in the chair.]
I was told when I accepted this onerous office that I was to sum up. I shall do nothing of the sort. In a very few years from now this debate will be antiquated. I will now recite you a poem:
Is built upon coal.
Let us chant in rotation
That lump of damnation
Without any soul,
Is built upon coal.
In a very few years
It will float upon oil.
Then give three hearty cheers,
In a very few years
We shall mop up our tears
And have done with our toil.
In a very few years
It will float upon oil.
In I do not know how many years—five, ten, twenty—this debate will be as antiquated as crinolines are. I am surprised that neither of the two speakers pointed out that one of three things is going to happen. One of three things: not one of two. It is always one of three things. This industrial civilization which, thank God, oppresses only the small part of the world in which we are most inextricably bound up, will break down and therefore end from its monstrous wickedness, folly, ineptitude, leading to a restoration of sane, ordinary human affairs, complicated but based as a whole upon the freedom of the citizens. Or it will break down and lead to nothing but a desert. Or it will lead the mass of men to become contented slaves, with a few rich men controlling them. Take your choice. You will all be dead before any of the three things comes off. One of the three things is going to happen, or a mixture of two, or possibly a mixture of the three combined.
[Belloc wanted to be remembered for his poetry rather than for his prose, and indeed he was a significant minor poet. However, it is for his verse, ostensibly for children but rich in adult satire, that he is best known today. The first of the following examples is from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, 1896, and the other two are from Cautionary Tales for Children, 1907. The entire texts can be found online.]
Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As “Slimy skin,” or “Polly-wog,”
Or likewise “Ugly James,”
Or “Gap-a-grin,” or “Toad-gone-wrong,”
Or “Bill Bandy-knees”:
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).
Who chewed bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies.
The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
‘There is no Cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.’
His parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried ‘Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch, and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires...’
With that, the Wretched Child expires.
CHARLES AUGUSTUS FORTESCUE,
Who always Did what was Right, and so accumulated an Immense Fortune.
The nicest child I ever knew
Was Charles Augustus Fortescue.
He never lost his cap, or tore
His stockings or his pinafore:
In eating Bread he made no Crumbs,
He was extremely fond of sums,
To which, however, he preferred
The Parsing of a Latin Word—
He sought, when it was within his power,
For information twice an hour,
And as for finding Mutton-Fat
Unappetising, far from that!
He often, at his Father’s Board,
Would beg them, of his own accord,
To give him, if they did not mind,
The Greasiest Morsels they could find—
His Later Years did not belie
The Promise of his Infancy.
In Public Life he always tried
To take a judgement Broad and Wide;
In Private, none was more than he
Renowned for quiet courtesy.
He rose at once in his Career,
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.
[Published in 1898 The Modern Traveller is not a travel book at all, but a brilliant satire (in verse) that attacks colonialism, explorer-journalists intent on fame and fortune, and British pretensions to moral superiority. Along with other travel accounts of the period, Belloc was undoubtedly parodying Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa, 1890, which sold 150,000 copies within a few weeks of publication. (Stanley was the reporter who led a 7000 mile expedition through tropical jungle to find the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingston in 1871.) The entire poem takes the form of an interview that the narrator of the story, an unscrupulous adventurer, gives to a journalist from the Daily Menace (probably a poke at the British newspaper, the Daily Mail). The narrator explains to his wide-eyed visitor how he teamed up with Commander Henry Sin, a foreign mercenary, and Captain William Blood, a commercial buccaneer, and embarked on an enterprising and patriotic expedition to the dark continent. Belloc has the narrator describe the dangers and hardships endured by these scoundrels, along with the narrator’s claims to personal heroism, so as to make it clear that most, if not all, of the account has been fabricated. Conveniently, Commander Sin and Captain Blood, perhaps also fictitious, do not survive the expedition to provide independent testimony. Belloc’s satire ends with the narrator boasting about how much he is being paid for his upcoming book.
With the exception of the first eleven lines, which are from the beginning of the work, the verses below comprise the twelve concluding pages of the 80 page book. The entire text of The Modern Traveller can be found online.]
And so the Public want to hear
About the expedition
From which I recently returned:
Of how the Fetish Tree was burned;
Of how we struggled to the coast,
And lost our ammunition;
How we retreated, side by side;
And how, like Englishmen, we died.
Well, as you know, I hate to boast,
And, what is more, I can’t abide
A popular position.
[At this point our three adventurers have been captured by an African tribal chief who is even more ruthlessly exploitive than they are.]
The King was terribly put out;
To hear him call the guard and shout,
And stamp, and curse, and rave
Was (as the Missionaries say)
A lesson in the Godless way
The heathen will behave.
He sent us to a Prison, made
Of pointed stakes in palisade,
Our Leader was a mark for bricks,
And eggs and cocoanuts and sticks,
And pussy-cats in showers.
Our former porters seemed to bear
A grudge against the millionaire.
And yet the thing I minded most
Was not the ceaseless teasing
(With which the Captain was engrossed),
Nor being fastened to a post
(Though that was far from pleasing);
But hearing them remark that they
“Looked forward to the following day.”
At length, when we were left alone,
Sin twisted with a hollow groan,
And bade the Master save
His comrades by some bold device,
From the impending grave.
Said Blood: “I never take advice,
But every man has got his price;
We must maintain the open door,
Yes, even at the cost of war!”
He shifted his position,
And drafted in a little while
A note in diplomatic style
Containing a condition.
“If them that wishes to be told
As how there is a bag of gold,
And where a party hid it;
Mayhap as other parties knows
A thing or two, and there be those
As seen the man
wot did it.”
The monarch read it
through, and wrote
A little sentence most
“I think the language of
Is strictly speaking not
On seeing our acute distress,
The King—I really must confess—
Behaved uncommon handsome;
He said he would release the three
If only Captain Blood and he
Could settle on a ransom.
And it would clear the situation
To hear his private valuation.
“My value,” William Blood
“Is ludicrously small.
I think I am the vilest man
That treads this earthly ball;
My head is weak, my heart is cold,
I’m ugly, vicious, vulgar, old,
Unhealthy, short and fat.
I cannot speak, I cannot work,
I have the temper of a Turk,
And cowardly at that.
Retaining, with your kind permission,
The usual five per cent commission,
I think that I could do the job
For seventeen or sixteen bob.”
The King was irritated, frowned,
And cut him short with, “Goodness Gracious!
Your economics are fallacious!
I quite believe you are a wretch,
But things are worth what they will fetch.
I’ll put your price at something round,
Say, six-and-thirty thousand pound?”
But just as Blood began with zest,
To bargain, argue, and protest,
Commander Sin and I
Broke in: “Your Majesty was told
About a certain bag of gold;
If you will let us try,
We’ll find the treasure, for we know
The place to half a yard or so.”
Poor William! The suspense and pain
Had touched the fibre of his brain;
So far from showing gratitude,
He cried in his delirium: “Oh!
For Heaven’s sake don’t let them go.”
Only a lunatic would take
So singular an attitude,
When loyal comrades for his sake
Had put their very lives at stake.
The King was perfectly content
To let us find it;—and we went.
But as we left we heard him say,
“If there is half an hour’s delay
The Captain will have passed away.”
Alas! within a single week
The Messengers despatched to seek
Our hiding-place had found us,
We made an excellent defence
(I use the word in legal sense),
But none the less they bound us.
(Not in the legal sense at all
But with a heavy chain and ball).
With barbarism past belief
They flaunted in our faces
The relics of our noble chief;
With insolent grimaces,
Raised the historic shirt before
Our eyes, and pointed on the floor
To dog-eared cards and loaded dice;
It seems they sold him by the slice.
Well, every man has got his price.
The horrors followed thick and fast,
I turned my head to give a last
Farewell to Sin; but, ah! too late,
I only saw his horrid fate—
Some savages around a pot
That seemed uncomfortably hot;
And in the centre of the group
My dear companion making soup.
Then I was pleased to recognize
Two thumbscrews suited to my size,
And I was very glad to see
That they were going to torture me.
I find the torture pays me best,
It simply teems with interest.
They hung me up above the floor
Head downwards by a rope;
They thrashed me half an hour or more,
They filled my mouth with soap;
They jobbed me with a pointed pole
To make me lose my self-control,
But they did not succeed.
Till (if it’s not too coarse to state)
There happened what I simply hate,
My nose began to bleed.
Then, I admit, I said a word
Which luckily they never heard;
But in a very little while
My calm and my contemptuous smile
Compelled them to proceed.
They filed my canine teeth to points
And made me bite my tongue.
They racked me till they burst my joints,
And after that they hung
A stone upon my neck that weighed
At least a hundred pounds, and made
Me run like mad for twenty miles,
And climb a lot of lofty stiles.
They tried a dodge that rarely fails,
The tub of Regulus with nails—
The cask is rather rude and flat,
But native casks are all like that—
The nails stuck in for quite an inch,
But did I flinch? I did not flinch.
In tones determined, loud, and strong
I sang a patriotic song,
Thank Heaven it did not last for long!
My misery was past;
My superhuman courage rose
Superior to my savage foes;
They worshipped me at last.
With many heartfelt compliments,
They sent me back at their expense,
And here I am returned to find
The pleasures I had left behind.
To go the London rounds!
To note the quite peculiar air
Of courtesy, and everywhere
The same unfailing public trust
In manuscript that fetches just
A thousand! not of thin Rupees,
Nor Reis (which are Portuguese),
Nor Rubles; but a thousand clear
Of heavy, round, impressive, dear,
Familiar English pounds!
Oh! England, who would leave thy
Excuse me, but I see it bores
A busy journalist
To hear a rhapsody which he
Could write without detaining me,
So I will not insist.
Only permit me once again
To make it clearly understood
That both those honourable men,
Commander Sin and Captain Blood,
Would swear to all that I have said,
Were they alive;
but they are dead.
[The two excerpts below are from The Path to Rome, 1902, Belloc’s account of his pilgrimage on foot from central France over the Alps to the Eternal City. Described by biographer A. N. Wilson as rambling, elegant, mannered and chatty, he pronounced it ‘one of the most enduringly re-readable books in English.’ It was the book that made Belloc’s literary reputation and it has never been out of print.]
To every honest reader that may purchase, hire, or receive this book, and to the reviewers also (to whom it is of triple profit), greeting—and whatever else can be had for nothing.
If you should ask how this book came to be written, it was in this way. One day as I was wandering over the world I came upon the valley where I was born, and stopping there a moment to speak with them all—when I had argued politics with the grocer, and played the great lord with the notary-public, and had all but made the carpenter a Christian by force of rhetoric—what should I note (after so many years) but the old tumble-down and gaping church, that I love more than mother-church herself, all scraped, white, rebuilt, noble, and new, as though it had been finished yesterday. Knowing very well that such a change had not come from the skinflint populace, but was the work of some just artist who knew how grand an ornament was this shrine (built there before our people stormed Jerusalem), I entered, and there saw that all within was as new, accurate, and excellent as the outer part; and this pleased me as much as though a fortune had been left to us all; for one’s native place is the shell of one’s soul, and one’s church is the kernel of that nut.
Moreover, saying my prayers there, I noticed behind the high altar a statue of Our Lady, so extraordinary and so different from all I had ever seen before, so much the spirit of my valley, that I was quite taken out of myself and vowed a vow there to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved; and I said, “I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St. Peter’s on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.”
Then I went out of the church still having that Statue in my mind, and I walked again farther into the world, away from my native valley, and so ended some months after in a place whence I could fulfil my vow; and I started as you shall hear. All my other vows I broke one by one. For a faggot must be broken every stick singly. But the strict vow I kept, for I entered Rome on foot that year in time, and I heard high Mass on the Feast of the Apostles, as many can testify—to wit: Monsignor this, and Chamberlain the other, and the Bishop of so-and-so—o—polis in partibus infidelium; for we were all there together.
It was at the very end of the road, and when an enormous weariness had begun to add some kind of interest to this stuffless episode of the dull day, that a peasant with a brutal face, driving a cart very rapidly, came up with me. I said to him nothing, but he said to me some words in German which I did not understand. We were at that moment just opposite a little inn upon the right hand of the road, and the peasant began making signs to me to hold his horse for him while he went in and drank.
How willing I was to do this you will not perhaps understand, unless you have that delicate and subtle pleasure in the holding of horses’ heads, which is the boast and glory of some rare minds. And I was the more willing to do it from the fact that I have the habit of this kind of thing, acquired in the French manoeuvres, and had once held a horse for no less a person than a General of Division, who gave me a franc for it, and this franc I spent later with the men of my battery, purchasing wine. So to make a long story short, as the publisher said when he published the popular edition of Pamela, I held the horse for the peasant; always, of course, under the implicit understanding that he should allow me when he came out to have a drink, which I, of course, expected him to bring in his own hands.
Far from it. I can understand the anger which some people feel against the Swiss when they travel in that country, though I will always hold that it is monstrous to come into a man’s country of your own accord, and especially into a country so free and so well governed as is Switzerland, and then to quarrel with the particular type of citizen that you find there.
Let us not discuss politics. The point is that the peasant sat in there drinking with his friends for a good three-quarters of an hour. Now and then a man would come out and look at the sky, and cough and spit and turn round again and say something to the people within in German, and go off; but no one paid the least attention to me as I held this horse.
I was already in a very angry and irritable mood, for the horse was restive and smelt his stable, and wished to break away from me. And all angry and irritable as I was, I turned around to see if this man were coming to relieve me; but I saw him laughing and joking with the people inside; and they were all looking my way out of their window as they laughed. I may have been wrong, but I thought they were laughing at me. A man who knows the Swiss intimately, and who has written a book upon ‘The Drink Traffic: The Example of Switzerland’, tells me they certainly were not laughing at me; at any rate, I thought they were, and moved by a sudden anger I let go the reins, gave the horse a great clout, and set him off careering and galloping like a whirlwind down the road from which he had come, with the bit in his teeth and all the storms of heaven in his four feet. Instantly, as you may imagine, all the scoffers came tumbling out of the inn, hullabooling, gesticulating, and running like madmen after the horse, and one old man even turned to protest to me. But I, setting my teeth, grasping my staff, and remembering the purpose of my great journey, set on up the road again with my face towards Rome.
[More excerpts from The Path to Rome can be found Here.]
[Here is the title essay from Belloc’s book of essays, On Nothing & Kindred Subjects. The “Maurice” to whom the essay is addressed is Belloc’s good friend Maurice Baring, a scion of the famous Baring banking family.]
December the 13th, 1907
My dear Maurice,
It was in Normandy, you will remember, and in the heat of the year, when the birds were silent in the trees and the apples nearly ripe, with the sun above us already of a stronger kind, and a somnolence within and without, that it was determined among us (the jolly company!) that I should write upon Nothing, and upon all that is cognate to Nothing, a task not yet attempted since the Beginning of the World.
Now when the matter was begun and the subject nearly approached, I saw more clearly that this writing upon Nothing might be very grave, and as I looked at it in every way the difficulties of my adventure appalled me, nor am I certain that I have overcome them all. But I had promised you that I would proceed, and so I did, in spite of my doubts and terrors.
For first I perceived that in writing upon this matter I was in peril of offending the privilege of others, and of those especially who are powerful to-day, since I would be discussing things very dear and domestic to my fellow-men, such as The Honour of Politicians, The Tact of Great Ladies, The Wealth of Journalists, The Enthusiasm of Gentlemen, and the Wit of Bankers. All that is most intimate and dearest to the men that make our time, all that they would most defend from the vulgar gaze,—this it was proposed to make the theme of a common book.
In spite of such natural fear and of interests so powerful to detain me, I have completed my task, and I will confess that as it grew it enthralled me. There is in Nothing something so majestic and so high that it is a fascination and spell to regard it. Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Mankind’s desire? Is it not that which is the end of so many generations of analysis, the final word of Philosophy, and the goal of the search for reality? Is it not the very matter of our modern creed in which the great spirits of our time repose, and is it not, as it were, the culmination of their intelligence? It is indeed the sum and meaning of all around!
How well has the world perceived it and how powerfully do its legends illustrate what Nothing is to men!
You know that once in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the Kaliph Haroun-al-Raschid met to make trial of their swords. The sword of Alfred was a simple sword: its name was Hewer. And the sword of Charlemagne was a French sword, and its name was Joyeuse. But the sword of Haroun was of the finest steel, forged in Toledo, tempered at Cordova, blessed in Mecca, damascened (as one might imagine) in Damascus, sharpened upon Jacob’s Stone, and so wrought that when one struck it it sounded like a bell. And as for its name, By Allah! that was very subtle—for it had no name at all.
Well then, upon that day in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the Kaliph were met to take a trial of their blades. Alfred took a pig of lead which he had brought from the Mendip Hills, and swiping the air once or twice in the Western fashion, he cut through that lead and girded the edge of his sword upon the rock beneath, making a little dent.
Then Charlemagne, taking in both hands his sword Joyeuse, and aiming at the dent, with a laugh swung down and cut the stone itself right through, so that it fell into two pieces, one on either side, and there they lie today near by Piacenza in a field.
Now that it had come to the Kaliph’s turn, one would have said there was nothing left for him to do, for Hewer had manfully hewn lead, and Joyeuse had joyfully cleft stone.
But the Kaliph, with an Arabian look, picked out of his pocket a gossamer scarf from Cashmir, so light that when it was tossed into the air it would hardly fall to the ground, but floated downwards slowly like a mist. This, with a light pass, he severed, and immediately received the prize. For it was deemed more difficult by far to divide such a veil in mid-air, than to cleave lead or even stone.
I knew a man once, Maurice, who was at Oxford for three years, and after that went down with no degree. At College, while his friends were seeking for Truth in funny brown German Philosophies, Sham Religions, stinking bottles and identical equations, he was lying on his back in Eynsham meadows thinking of Nothing, and got the Truth by this parallel road of his much more quickly than did they by theirs; for the asses are still seeking, mildly disputing, and, in a cultivated manner, following the gleam, so that they have become in their Donnish middle age a nuisance and a pest; while he—that other—with the Truth very fast and firm at the end of a leather thong is dragging her sliding, whining and crouching on her four feet, dragging her reluctant through the world, even into the broad daylight where Truth most hates to be.
He it was who became my master in this creed. For once as we lay under a hedge at the corner of a road near Bagley Wood we heard far off the notes of military music and the distant marching of a column; these notes and that tramp grew louder, till there swung round the turning with a blaze of sound five hundred men in order. They passed, and we were full of the scene and of the memories of the world, when he said to me: “Do you know what is in your heart? It is the music. And do you know the cause and Mover of that music? It is the Nothingness inside the bugle; it is the hollow Nothingness inside the Drum.”
Then I thought of the poem where it says of the Army of the Republic:
The thunder of the limber and the rumble of a
hundred of the guns.
And there hums as she comes the roll of her innumerable drums.
I knew him to be right.
From this first moment I determined to consider and to meditate upon Nothing.
Many things have I discovered about Nothing, which have proved it—to me at least—to be the warp or ground of all that is holiest. It is of such fine gossamer that loveliness was spun, the mists under the hills on an autumn morning are but gross reflections of it; moonshine on lovers is earthy compared with it; song sung most charmingly and stirring the dearest recollections is but a failure in the human attempt to reach its embrace and be dissolved in it. It is out of Nothing that are woven those fine poems of which we carry but vague rhythms in the head:—and that Woman who is a shade, the Insaisissable, whom several have enshrined in melody—well, her Christian name, her maiden name, and, as I personally believe, her married name as well, is Nothing. I never see a gallery of pictures now but I know how the use of empty spaces makes a scheme, nor do I ever go to a play but I see how silence is half the merit of acting and hope some day for absence and darkness as well upon the stage. What do you think the fairy Melisende said to Fulk-Nerra when he had lost his soul for her and he met her in the Marshes after twenty years? Why, Nothing—what else could she have said? Nothing is the reward of good men who alone can pretend to taste it in long easy sleep, it is the meditation of the wise and the charm of happy dreamers. So excellent and final is it that I would here and now declare to you that Nothing was the gate of eternity, that by passing through Nothing we reached our every object as passionate and happy beings—were it not for the Council of Toledo that restrains my pen. Yet ... indeed, indeed when I think what an Elixir is this Nothing I am for putting up a statue nowhere, on a pedestal that shall not exist, and for inscribing on it in letters that shall never be written:
THE HUMAN RACE IN GRATITUDE.
So I began to write my book, Maurice: and as I wrote it the dignity of what I had to do rose continually before me, as does the dignity of a mountain range which first seemed a vague part of the sky, but at last stands out august and fixed before the traveller; or as the sky at night may seem to a man released from a dungeon who sees it but gradually, first bewildered by the former constraint of his narrow room but now gradually enlarging to drink in its immensity. Indeed this Nothing is too great for any man who has once embraced it to leave it alone thenceforward for ever; and finally, the dignity of Nothing is sufficiently exalted in this: that Nothing is the tenuous stuff from which the world was made.
For when the Elohim set out to make the world, first they debated among themselves the Idea, and one suggested this and another suggested that, till they had threshed out between them a very pretty picture of it all. There were to be hills beyond hills, good grass and trees, and the broadness of rivers, animals of all kinds, both comic and terrible, and savours and colours, and all around the ceaseless streaming of the sea.
Now when they had got that far, and debated the Idea in detail, and with amendment and resolve, it very greatly concerned them of what so admirable a compost should be mixed. Some said of this, and some said of that, but in the long run it was decided by the narrow majority of eight in a full house that Nothing was the only proper material out of which to make this World of theirs, and out of Nothing they made it: as it says in the Ballade:
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made.
And again in the Envoi:
Prince, draw this sovereign draught in your despair,
That when your riot in that rest is laid,
You shall be merged with an Essential Air:—
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made!
Out of Nothing then did they proceed to make the world, this sweet world, always excepting Man the Marplot. Man was made in a muddier fashion, as you shall hear.
For when the world seemed ready finished and, as it were, presentable for use, and was full of ducks, tigers, mastodons, waddling hippopotamuses, lilting deer, strong-smelling herbs, angry lions, frowsy snakes, cracked glaciers, regular waterfalls, coloured sunsets, and the rest, it suddenly came into the head of the youngest of these strong Makers of the World (the youngest, who had been sat upon and snubbed all the while the thing was doing, and hardly been allowed to look on, let alone to touch), it suddenly came into his little head, I say, that he would make a Man.
Then the Elder Elohim said, some of them, “Oh, leave well alone! send him to bed!” And others said sleepily (for they were tired), “No! no! let him play his little trick and have done with it, and then we shall have some rest.” Little did they know!... And others again, who were still broad awake, looked on with amusement and applauded, saying: “Go on, little one! Let us see what you can do.” But when these last stooped to help the child, they found that all the Nothing had been used up (and that is why there is none of it about to-day). So the little fellow began to cry, but they, to comfort him, said: “Tut, lad! tut! do not cry; do your best with this bit of mud. It will always serve to fashion something.”
So the jolly little fellow took the dirty lump of mud and pushed it this way and that, jabbing with his thumb and scraping with his nail, until at last he had made Picanthropos, who lived in Java and was a fool; who begat Eoanthropos, who begat Meioanthropos, who begat Pleioanthropos, who begat Pleistoanthropos, who is often mixed up with his father, and a great warning against keeping the same names in one family; who begat Paleoanthropos, who begat Neoanthropos, who begat the three Anthropoids, great mumblers and murmurers with their mouths; and the eldest of these begat Him whose son was He, from whom we are all descended.
He was indeed halting and patchy, ill-lettered, passionate and rude; bald of one cheek and blind of one eye, and his legs were of different sizes, nevertheless by process of ascent have we, his descendants, manfully continued to develop and to progress, and to swell in everything, until from Homer we came to Euripides, and from Euripides to Seneca, and from Seneca to Boethius and his peers; and from these to Duns Scotus, and so upwards through James I of England and the fifth, sixth or seventh of Scotland (for it is impossible to remember these things) and on, on, to my Lord Macaulay, and in the very last reached YOU, the great summits of the human race and last perfection of the ages READERS OF THIS BOOK, and you also Maurice, to whom it is dedicated, and myself, who have written it for gain.
What Others thought of Belloc
[In this letter to his fiancÚ, dated April 1900, G. K. Chesterton describes Belloc’s speech at a political meeting for the Liberals.]
You hate political speeches: therefore you would not have hated Belloc’s. The moment he began to speak one felt lifted out of the stuffy fumes of forty-times repeated arguments into really thoughtful and noble and original reflections on history and character. When I tell you that he talked about (1) the English aristocracy (2) the effects of agricultural depression on their morality (3) his dog (4) the Battle of Sadowa (5) the Puritan Revolution in England (6) the luxury of the Roman Antonines (7) a particular friend of his who had by an infamous job received a political post he was utterly unfit for (8) the comic papers of Australia (9) the mortal sins in the Roman Catholic Church—you may have some conception of the amount of his space that was left for the motion before the house. It lasted for half-an-hour and I thought it was five minutes.
After hosting the Bellocs George Wyndham wrote, ‘I enjoyed much in the Bellocs’ visit, but he does tire me. He rejoices in disputation for the sake of disputing, whereas I care for discussion only in so far as it extends the area of possible understanding. And he shouts.’
I can’t imagine anyone more odiously bad mannered and charmless.
Debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm.
H. G. Wells
[Here is Belloc through the eyes of his much younger friend, J. B. Morton.]
Early in 1923 Belloc went to America, and came back by way of France. Allison and I met him at Newhaven and brought him back to Rodmell. I had, at first, the unflattering impression that he had no idea who I was. He treated me with distant courtesy; but later on, I corrected my first impression, and realized that he did not much care for me—which was a disappointment to me, who had very much wanted to know him better. I saw him occasionally after this at Rodmell, and the disapproval seemed to be less. The fact that he ever accepted me as a friend needs some explanation. It was in 1923 that the family life at King’s Land [Belloc’s house] was broken up. Peter left for Spain, to go to sea in a Spanish ship, and Hilary, his elder brother, went to America. The dispersion of the family left Belloc very lonely, and he spent most of his time in London, returning home at the week-ends. He had lost in a short space of time several close friends among his contemporaries. George Wyndham in 1913, the year before his wife’s death, and then Raymond Asquith, Lord Lucas, Cecil Chesterton. Philip Kershaw and John Phillimore he was soon to lose. I was company for him, because I was always within call, and extremely idle. I was young, and so was well able to accommodate myself to the demands which his energy made on those who associated with him. I began to meet him more in London, and often went down to Shipley with him. He had what the French call la bougeotte. He could not remain still in one place, and much of the time was spent, at week-ends, in driving all over the county, looking in at one house or another. But the most memorable part of those days for me was that moment after dinner at King’s Land, when he would place a candlestick on each side of him at the dining-table, and play patience. As he played, he would talk, hour after hour, while I drank my port and listened, occasionally leading him on to develop some point. And that was the best, the fullest, the most creative talk (to use a phrase of Robert Lynd applied to his conversation) I ever heard in my life.
The subject was anything that came into his head: the breakdown of our civilization, history, economics, politics, travel, military campaigns, the sea, physical science, poetry, wine, religion, the English character, international affairs. On thing would lead to another, and the whole would be seasoned with songs and jests and other digressions. It was not merely the variety of the talk that was so amazing. It came bubbling and boiling out of his richly stored mind like a dozen of his own essays; ribaldry, wit, irony, tomfoolery all mixed with profound wisdom. I understood why his more uproarious essays read like a man talking at the top of his voice. For here were those unexpected asides, those classical tags. Here were the original twists of phrase, the odd bits of scholarship, the outrageous exaggerations, the flashes of poetry. A kind of boyish exuberance was blended with cynicism and ferocious satire. The greatness of the man was more apparent even than it is in his books.
His versatility was as striking in his talk as in his books. I can imagine a man coming new to his books, and finding it difficult to believe that The Servile State and Marie Antoinette, and the Sonnets and The Green Overcoat and Esto Perpetua and the light verse were by one and the same author. There would be equal surprise in hearing him talk well, and within the hour, on Homer, on the Ice Age, on Music Halls, and on Arianism. There was no artifice in his conversation, no striving for cleverness, no self-satisfaction when he chose an apt metaphor or said a witty thing. His talk was never the set-piece, with ordered periods. What made it so entertaining, apart from his unusual opinions, his individual approach to a question, was its spontaneity. Most of what he said was said colloquially, in his own vigorous everyday language, with a plentiful use of slang. Often I have heard him begin to discuss an historical character in some such words as: “There was a filthy beast in human form called—.” Then would follow the principal incidents in the man’s career, related with comic exaggeration. He said once to a startled man who had make a cautious remark: “Oh, that’s Nominalism. The Nominalists said there was no such thing as a river; only a lot of water.” And into a solemn discussion on “the survival of the fittest” he barged with: “Oh, I know all about that. If you throw a baby into a mill-race it will drown, but a strong swimmer may save himself.” His contribution to a conversation about music was: “A perfectly foul woman often has a lovely voice. That shows how powerful the Devil is”. . . .
It was some time before I realized that Belloc was an unhappy and a disappointed man. His habit of expressing his discontents in such an amusing way made it difficult to disentangle the genuine bitterness from the jests. Yet there was no mystery in this seeming contradiction in his character. He was a man of robust health and strong will who, when trapped into exposing his deeper feelings, regained his balance, as it were, before you had noticed what had happened. He enjoyed the good things of life in the heartiest manner, and was far too sane to allow personal grievances or misfortunes to interfere with good company. I remember a man saying to him: “So your old friend Philip Kershaw is dead.” He said, “Yes,” and was silent for a moment. Then he burst into song, and everyone joined in. That was, I think, the first time that I was not deceived.
[Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson visited Belloc when he was seventy-six and long past his prime—he had had a stroke four years earlier and had long since given up writing. The excerpt below is from the account that Pearson gave of the meeting, and Pearson has just asked him if he was going to write his autobiography.]
BELLOC: No. No gentleman writes about his private life. Anyway, I hate writing. I wouldn’t have written a word if I could have helped it. I only wrote for money. The Path to Rome is the only book I wrote for love.
PEARSON: Didn’t you write The Four Men for love?
BELLOC: No. Money.
PEARSON: The Cruise of the Nona?
KINGSMILL: That’s a wonderful passage in The Path to Rome about youth borne up the valley on the evening air.
KINGSMILL: I love the poetry in your essays, especially the volume On Nothing.
BELLOC: Quite amusing. Written for money.
One must set down, in loyalty to Belloc’s memory, that a high proportion of those who met him, loved him; and that those who loved him, went on loving him.
A. N. Wilson (biographer)
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