Belloc round-up

April 13, 2012

Hilaire Belloc is a writer who has long interested me, not only on account of his being the hind end of Shaw’s famous ChesterBelloc, but also on his own account. What little I have known of him, garnered from reading a few of his books and from the occasional reference here or there, has intrigued me: he was a writer of prodigious output, a sometime politician, a world-class grump, an historian, a bellicose Catholic, a sailor, a tramp, a real man. His many books span an unusually broad range of genres: history, biography, memoir, travel, economics, politics, religion, and fiction too. Though it is true that many of them have passed out of print, and that he is relatively little read today, he was a very fine writer; much of what he wrote deserves to be remembered, and some of what he wrote is essential. Into this last category, especially, I would put his magnificent travelogue The Path to Rome, which is bursting with vitality and imagination, and which I believe ought to be read by everyone.

Some months ago my slow-burning curiosity flared up and I purchased three of his other travel-related books. All three were good and worthwhile, though not equally so. What follows are some brief thoughts on each.

The Four Men
A Farrago
(Oxford University Press, 1984) [1911]
177 p.

The finest of them was The Four Men, a genre-busting book that does its best to defy description. The premise is that four strangers — we are given to understand that they embody four sides of Belloc’s own gargantuan personality — all natives of Belloc’s beloved Sussex county, are travelling home together, on foot. As they walk they talk — and do they ever. In these pages one finds songs and stories, poetry, history, drama, recollection, and instructions on how to cure a pig. The tone is by turns comical, ironic, boisterous, ribald, lyrical, or melancholy. The book is a kind of minor miracle, for although it starts modestly enough one eventually wonders what worthwhile subject will escape its notice: love, religion, friendship, family, home, art, beauty, truth — nearly everything is here, in one way or another. It’s a wonderful book, a delightful book from start to finish, and one that I intend to read again.

[Worth memorizing for future use]
When in any company one man is found more courageous and more merry, more manly, more just, and more considerate, stronger, wiser, and much more holy than his peers, very generous also, yet firm and fixed in purpose, of good counsel, kind, and with a wide, wide heart, then if (to mention smaller things) he is also of the most acute intelligence and the most powerful in body of them all, it is he that is made the drudge and the butt of the others.

[Troubled by love]
In her absence — during the long nights especially — there returned to me the drooping of her eyes: their slow and generous glances. Waking and far off from her, when I saw in some stranger that same rare lowering of the lids I was troubled.

Her voice, because it was her very self, so moved me, that whenever I heard it upon my way to her doors, whenever I heard it speaking even in the distance no matter what things to another, I trembled.

Her name, which was not Mary nor Catherine, but was as common and simple a name, was set above the world and was given power over my spirit. So that to hear it attached even to another or to see it written or printed on a page everything within me stirred, and it was as though a lamp had been lit suddenly in my soul. Then, indeed, I understood how truly there are special words of witchcraft and how they bind and loose material things.

[A dream]
I woke and shuddered. For in my dream I had come to a good place, the place inside the mind, which is all made up of remembrance and of peace. Here I had seemed to be in a high glade of beeches, standing on soft, sweet grass on a slope very high above the sea; the air was warm and the sea was answering the sunlight, very far below me. It was such a place as my own Downs have made for me in my mind, but the Downs transfigured, and the place was full of glory and of content, height and great measurement fit for the beatitude of the soul. Nor had I in that dream any memory of loss, but rather a complete end of it, and I was surrounded, though I could not see them, with the return of all those things that had ever been my own. But this was in the dream only; and when I woke it was to the raw world and the sad uncertain beginnings of a little winter day.

The Cruise of the Nona
(Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
343 p.

I am now off to sail the English seas again, and to pursue from thought to thought and from memory to memory such things as have occupied one human soul, and of these some will be of profit to one man and some to another, and most, I suppose, to none at all.

So writes Belloc in the prologue to this account of several journeys which he made along the English coast in his boat, the Nona. The book is part travelogue, dwelling on the coastal features, the character of various ports, the sea currents, but also part memoir, fantasy, diatribe, and love letter. I do not know for certain the manner in which Belloc wrote it, but he implies, more than once, that he wrote each evening, his anchor weighed, both about the events of the day and the thoughts they suggested to him. It is a book about life, therefore, from a man on a solitary journey and in contact with “the salt of reality” (as he puts it). The narrative is structured around his travels, but these serve as only the flimsiest of frames; truth be told, it is about as unstructured as a book can be without falling to pieces. Belloc knows it: he writes, “It is in the very character of this book, of its essence, nature, and personality, that it has only an accidental beginning, no real end, and nothing in particular between the two.”

Nothing in particular, but that is not the same as nothing. Interwoven with the travel narrative and observations about the sea and the coastline — much the least interesting aspect of the book, in my opinion — are Belloc’s reflections on pretty much everything under the sun: Parliamentarians, Mussolini, the weather, truth, the outbreak of World War I, atheism, literary fame, tides, religious education, learning songs, Catholicism, democracy, socialism, the press, philosophical rationalism, political corruption, prose composition, the importance of anchors, abuses of academic authority, and on and on. Whether one enjoys all this will hinge on whether one enjoys Belloc’s company, for the book is full of Belloc himself. I suppose that I do like him, and the evidence is that I did enjoy the book.

Many of his reflections — if that is not too placid a word to use in connection with a man as robust and combative as Belloc — turn on the sailor’s relationship with the sea, and with what the sailor learns from it. “I say that the sea is in all things the teacher of men,” he says, and this is so not least (but also not only) because “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” This sort of sentiment is a commonplace of the contemplative tradition — remove yourself from distractions and the cares of this world and a space will open up for consideration of deeper things — but I have not often seen it arising in connection with manual labour and practical work. It makes a great deal of sense, however, and is perhaps implicit in the very structure of the Benedictine life: ora et labora. (It is worth noting, too, that mystical sailors are not unknown to Catholic tradition.)

The sailor, especially on a small vessel, is grounded (as it were) in the blunt physicality of things, the unavoidable reality of the world, without the mediation of theory or ideology. On the sea, things are continually splashing into one’s face. Belloc contends that long exposure to this kind of life teaches respect for truth:

Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half a foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality.

Or, putting it in a slightly more negative way, the sea is the foe of abstraction:

The sea, which teaches all wisdom, certainly does not teach any man to despise human reason. I suppose there was never yet any Kantian fool or worser pragmatist who would not have been cured of his folly by half a week of moderate weather off the Onion.

That’s a jolly way of putting it. There is perhaps some tendency to romanticize “the simple life” going on here, but it must be admitted that Belloc was not just a literary sailor, some kind of seafaring English Tolstoy, who praised the peasant from the comfort of his study. He was a real sailor who spent many hours at the tiller, which surely earns him some credibility. More to the point, the claims he makes are plausible: those of us prone to abstraction can feel, as though by an instinct of self-preservation, that manual labour is somehow at odds with us. The sheer stubbornness of things is befuddling, but instructive. I know whereof I speak, and yet I can certainly sense the appeal of the kind of hard-nosed experience that Belloc describes: the feet braced on the deck, something heavy in the hand, wind in the face, salt on the tongue. By such means one has the sense of being in touch with something real, something that cannot be conjured away by an act of will:

It is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.

At the end of all his ruminations and digressions (a few of which are appended below), Belloc returns to the theme of the sea as a teacher, summing up in a final, heartfelt peroration:

The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and the wastes of the land; for of all creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me.

I don’t know about you, but that wins me over. I want to go sailing.

[The truth hurts]
. . .a modern poet, spared to middle age in spite of the wrath of God, famous for that he could neither scan nor rhyme — let alone think or feel — once made a speech in which he carefully set out those things which had been said against Swinburne when first that meteor flamed across the heaven of English verse. The modern poet next read to this assembly the things that had been written against himself when he first blurred into the murk of our evening. He triumphantly concluded: ‘What was said against Swinburne they have said against me!’ Then there arose an aged writer of reviews, a man whose hair, whose voice, and whose aura were all three of delicate silver. He said: ‘Yes! But in what they said of him they were wrong; in what they said of you, they were right.’

[On ignorance of Catholicism]
Here is the corporate tradition which made Europe: the Thing which is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still retain. For any European not to know the elements of that affair is to be in a blind ignorance of all his making, and, therefore, of his self.

[On Parliamentarians]
[They] are ridiculous, not only by the absurd disproportion between their nominal powers and their capacities, but more by their ambition — which swells out to bursting the little vessel containing it. They have not talent, save for intrigue against fellow politicians: they cannot speak or write, let alone do, anything worth hearing. None the less would you find, if you could take the tin lid off their hollow minds and look in, a froth of insane vanity, bred of years of speech-making; a more than kingly assurance bred of knowing no control and of immunity; and (what is astonishing in men of such calibre) ambition itself. A paltry ambition, to be sure: an ambition to fill the newspapers: but still, ambition.

[History of Protestantism]
The upsetting of the Bible authority, then, did not produce in the nations of Protestant culture a revolt against the Protestant rule of life. That is not what happened. But what did happen was a bewilderment, a chaos, a disintegration of all the solid things which had stood firm in the North from the first generation of the seventeenth century down to the first generation of the nineteenth. The Protestant culture did not separate into a clerical and an anti-clerical, a traditional and practicing as against a mocking temper: it moved in the main as one. But it moved, eddying and changing continually, like a great cloud of dust following on the crash of a building. It continued, after the catastrophe, to whirl and change: so much so, that no one can tell at this moment, or could tell under the very different spirit of, say twenty years ago, what form the ultimate settlement may take.

[How to win an argument]
Rattle them. Believe me, in battle you must be fierce. The louder the victim’s cries the nearer you are to victory.

Hills and the Sea
(Marlboro Press, 1990) [1906]
233 p.

Bringing up the rear in this particular group of Belloc’s books is Hills and the Sea, a collection of short essays, each related, in one way or another, to travelling. This travelling is not tourism, something which Belloc abhorred with all his soul. For the most part he is not visiting great monuments or famous sites, but small inns, small villages, empty fields, lonely waterways, and he is trying to put himself in contact with the spirit of the place, its history and the lives of those who have made it what it is. The book brings up the rear not because it is not worthwhile — there is quite a lot of excellent material in it — but because, being what it is, it lacks the cohesion of a sustained narrative, and it didn’t hold my interest as the others did. The writing is splendid, though, as I hope the examples below illustrate, and some of the essays are finely wrought little jewels, something I particularly enjoyed after the sprawling, haphazard books discussed above.

[Uses of history]
Every man bears within him not only his own direct experience, but all the past of his blood: the things his own race has done are part of himself, and in him also is what his race will do when he is dead. This is why men will always read records, and why, even when letters are at their lowest, records still remain. Thus, if a diary be known to be true, then it seems vivid and becomes famous where if it were fiction no one would find any merit in it. History, therefore, once a man has begun to know it, becomes a necessary food for the mind, without which it cannot sustain its new dimension. It is an aggregate of universal experience, nor, other things being equal, is any man’s judgment so thin and weak as the judgment of a man who knows nothing of the past. But history, if it is to be kept just and true and not to become a set of airy scenes, fantastically coloured by our later time, must be continually corrected and moderated by the seeing and handling of things.
– “Arles”

[Rest and refreshment]
In such a place, and with such hosts to serve him, be wears of the world retire for a little time, from an evening to a morning; and a man can enjoy a great refreshment. In such a place he will eat strongly and drink largely, and sleep well and deeply, and, when he saddles again for his journey, he will take the whole world new; nor are those intervals without their future value, for the memory of a complete repose is a sort of sacrament, and a viaticum for the weary lengths of the way.
– “At the Sign of the Lion”

[Anxiety at evening]
It is not true that the close of a life which ends in a natural fashion — life which is permitted to put on the pomp of death and to go out in glory — inclines the mind to repose. It is not true of a day ending nor the passing of the year, nor of the fall of leaves. Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.
– “The Autumn and the Fall of Leaves”

[Touching real things]
Do you know that glamour in the mind which arises and transforms our thought when we see the things that the men who made us saw — the things of a long time ago, the origins? I think everybody knows that glamour, but very few people know where to find it.

Every man knows that he has in him the power for such revelations, and every man wonders in what strange place he may come upon them. There are men also (very rich) who have considered all the world and wandered over it, seeking those first experiences and trying to feel as felt the earlier men in a happier time — yet these few rich men have not felt and have not so found the things which they desire. I have known men who have thought to find them in the mountains, but would not climb them simply enough and refused to leave their luxuries behind, and so lost everything, and might as well have been walking in a dirty town at home for all the little good that the mountains did to them. And I know men who have thought to find this memory and desire in foreign countries, in Africa, hunting great beasts such as our fathers hunted; yet even these have not relit those old embers, which if they lie dead and dark in a man make his whole soul dusty and useless, but which if they be once rekindled can make him part of all the centuries.

Yet there is a simple and an easy way to find what the men who made us found, and to see the world as they saw it, and to take a bath, as it were, in the freshness of beginnings; and that is to go to work as cheaply and as hardly as you can, and only as much away from men as they were away from men, and not to read or to write or to think, but to eat and drink and use the body in many immediate ways, which are at the feet of every man. Every man who will walk for some days carelessly, sleeping, rough when he must, or in poor inns, and making for some one place direct because he desires to see it, will know the thing I mean. And there is a better way still of which I shall now speak: I mean, to try the seas in a little boat not more than twenty-five feet long, preferably decked, of shallow draught, such as can enter into all creeks and havens, and so simply rigged that by oneself, or with a friend at most, one can wander all over the world.

Certainly every man that goes to sea in a little boat of this kind learns terror and salvation, happy living, air, danger, exultation, glory, and repose at the end; and they are not words to him, but, on the contrary, realities which will afterwards throughout his life give the mere words a full meaning.
– “The Channel”

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16 Responses to “Belloc round-up”


  1. We must admire a man, who as a respected historian and novelist and poet can also write “Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death.”

    A well rounded man, to be sure.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Indeed! Belloc’s comic verse, and especially the poetry for children, is a delight.

  3. Janet Says:

    Darn it! I would love to have time to read all this, but I don’t! Hopefully soon.

    AMDG

  4. cburrell Says:

    By “this” I hope you mean Belloc, and not just this post. I thought I wouldn’t have time to read the books either, but somehow I managed it.

  5. Janet Says:

    I meant in the short term. You take two weeks off work; you pay the price.

    AMDG

  6. cburrell Says:

    You do indeed. I am in the middle of four months off, and I expect to get walloped when I return (if I still have a job to go back to, which is not certain!).

  7. Janet Says:

    If I was off for four months, I think the idea of going back to work would cause me to head for the bridge, but then you do have a growing family to support, so I will pray that you can go back when you want.

    I read about halfway through your post and, of course, I want to read the books now. I have Path to Rome and, I think, Hills and the Sea.

    The Cruise of the Nona sounds exactly like the sort of thing that one might write on a blog. If he were alive today, maybe he would have one.

    AMDG

  8. cburrell Says:

    Belloc might have been tempted by blogging, but his contempt for most new-fangled technologies would, I expect, have kept him away. Chesterton, on the other hand, would have been a monster blogger.

    Have you read The Path to Rome? It is one of those books that really knocked my socks off.

    I hope I can go back to work too — well, I will go back, but for how long is another question.

  9. Allen Roth Says:

    A few months ago I came across a Catholic UK site that had a brief discussion of Belloc. One of the writers was a priest who concluded that Belloc was no longer relevant and therefore should not be read. He did admit that he had not studied Belloc’s works.

    This post brought to mind, “Being ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant.”

    For anyone interested in a good introduction to Belloc I recommend The Essential Belloc edited by McCloskey, Bloch and Robertson and published by Saint Benedict Press.

    Belloc’s friend J.B.Morton published a warm and insightful memoir titled Belloc.

    For a riveting and informative look into the heart of the French Revolution you can read Belloc’s biography of Robespierre.

  10. cburrell Says:

    Thank you very much for those recommendations. I have, somewhere in my house, a biography of Belloc by A.N. Wilson. I do not know how well regarded it is. In any case, I have added J.B. Morton’s memoir to my reading list.

    The book on Robespierre appears to be out-of-print, but I am making a note of it as well. One can always track these things down somehow.

  11. Janet Says:

    I wonder how good that Wilson bio is. He wrote one on CSL in 2005 when he (Wilson) was losing his faith and from some of the things I heard that he said, it said more about Wilson than CSL. This one was written in 1997, so I don’t know.

    I have only read a few pages of The Path to Rome and then life intervened and I forgot I was reading it.

    AMDG

  12. Mac Says:

    I’ve had mixed feelings about what I’ve read of Belloc, but certainly thought it all worthwhile. I haven’t read The Path to Rome. I probably should, since there seems to be wide agreement that it’s among his very best work. I read The Four Men a good many years and didn’t have a very strong reaction, although I enjoyed it. I certainly don’t remember it being as good as what you quote here, so maybe I should try it again. The Servile State is interesting, but I never could make up my mind how applicable it was to current conditions. I think The Great Heresies is very good overall. The section on Islam is strikingly perceptive, I think.

    “Wander all over the world” in a 25-foot boat? I wonder if he meant literally “all over”, including crossing the Atlantic and Pacific. My wife’s sister and her husband crossed the Atlantic (twice–over and back) in a 34-foot boat and I’m still a little awestruck by that knowledge whenever I see the boat.

  13. cburrell Says:

    Janet, the biography by A.N. Wilson which I have dates from the mid-1980s, which was apparently a fair number of years before he left the faith. Looking over the introduction, it appears to take a fairly positive view of its subject.

    Mac, I have the impression that some of his political and historical writings are rather polemical, which is a reason why I have avoided them a little. Mind, even his travel writings are polemical.

    Sailing the open sea is not for me, I think. My mind reels at the depths as much as the distances.

  14. Francesca Says:

    I have had Wilson’s biography for nearly 30 years. I enjoy it. It is rereadable. I’ve even reread it a few times, though not recently. He was a strong Christian in the early to mid 1980s when he wrote it. He lost his faith around 10 years later, while writing the CSL biography. I read at that time (early 1980s), The Path to Rome, the Cruise of the Nona and Four Men. I remember only a couple of stray lines from these books. A few years later (later 1980s) I became somewhat anti-Belloc, and so I remained. It strikes me now that, without intending to give offence,that there is no point in being anti-Belloc given how forgettable his opinions are. It would have been impossible to have read four books by Chesterton and totally forgotten the contents.

  15. cburrell Says:

    I agree with you, up to a point (“…Lord Copper”). Belloc’s opinions are given so haphazardly and copiously that one hardly has time to absorb them, and, as you say, they are not as interesting as Chesterton’s, nor delivered with as much panache. But what I enjoy about Belloc is not so much his opinions, as just the strength and savour of his personality. Your mileage may vary, obviously.


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