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Why Belloc Still Matters

Was Hilaire Belloc sometimes careless? Yes. Impolitic? Certainly. Is he irrelevant to 21st-century concerns? Never.

An author too robust and significant to be wholly un-personned can still be marginalized. Consider this elegant pasquinade, which years ago won a parody-contest award in Britain’s New Statesman and which employs the same rhyme scheme and meter as Hilaire Belloc’s own “The chief defect of Henry King”:

    The chief defect of dear Hilaire
    Was not the clothes he used to wear,
    The curious hat and monstrous cloak,
    Paraded as some kind of joke.
    No, Hilaire’s fault, and well he knew it,
    Was, all he did, he’d overdo it . . .
    There’s more—he held the strongest views
    On politicians, and on Jews,
    Such as, today, might give one cause
    To think of Race Relations Laws.
    But that of Belloc is the worst
    That can be said. His comic verse,
    His Cautionary Tales, his Peers,
    His Beasts will last for countless years,
    Delighting readers old or young
    Who share Hilaire’s adopted tongue.

Well, that’s put Dear Hilaire back in his box, hasn’t it? If Belloc’s entire literary merit lies in his having catered to the A.A. Milne and Edward Lear demographic, we need no more bother ourselves with his wider aims than seek deep epistemological insight from re-reading about Pooh Bear or The Dong With The Luminous Nose. But then the New Statesman has never claimed theological expertise. Others, who do possess such claims, and who in many instances share Belloc’s Catholicism, have been at least as hostile. Malcolm Muggeridge complained, “although he has written about religion all his life, there seemed to be very little in him.” Six years before the Latin Mass’s recent anti-Belloc enfilade, St. Louis University’s James Hitchcock (in the May 1996 issue of Crisis) likened Belloc to “a man with a machine gun—by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some targets, but many of his bullets went astray.” This allegation can at any rate be argued over, unlike certain antics of the occasional self-confessed Belloc fan. (Such as John Anderson, who passed as the doyen of Australian philosophy during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and who labored with surrealistic persistence to reinterpret Belloc’s Servile State as a sacred text for antipodean atheist head-kickers. When Belloc’s friends included historical illiterates like Anderson, he hardly needed foes.)

How stands the case for the prosecution? In particular, was G.M. Trevelyan, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge 1927-1940, justified in having flatly called Belloc “a liar”?

Occasionally, alas, yes. Belloc confided as much himself, to a co-religionist at that: the British historian, newspaperman, and editor Douglas Woodruff. While going several debating rounds in print against his merciless ultra-Protestant detractor, the once-celebrated controversialist G.G. Coulton, Belloc came out with one assertion so breathtakingly implausible that it moved Woodruff to inquire, “But is it true?” “Oh, not at all”, Belloc retorted. “But won’t it annoy Coulton?” Such a deliberate, impolitic falsehood clearly sprang from insensate bravado rather than from malice. It is doubtful, moreover, whether the historian who hastily and occasionally deceives others is half as dangerous as the historian who consistently and lucratively deceives himself. (Many a reader obligated to plow through the unrelenting sanctimony of more recent and more fashionable gurus than Belloc—Arthur Schlesinger expounding the immaculate conception of JFK; Eric Hobsbawm assigning a similar redemptive role to the proletariat; Francis Fukuyama hyperventilating about free-market dogma’s limitless appeal to any polity, however Lower Slobbovian—must have felt increasingly inclined to welcome from these sources an honest lie or two.) Still, Belloc’s mendacity at that juncture defies excuses and leaves behind a singularly nasty odor.

An even graver sin, curiously slighted by Belloc’s most recent biographers, A.N. Wilson (Hilaire Belloc, 1984) and Joseph Pearce (the shorter, more reverential Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, 2002), occurs repeatedly in Belloc’s analyses of the French Revolution. Notwithstanding the fervor with which pope after pope—especially, in Belloc’s youth, St. Pius X—had declared support for Jacobins and indeed Girondins to be incompatible with the most basic Christian decency, Belloc remained as eupeptic as any Charles James Fox about the entire pageant of French politics from the Bastille’s fall via Robespierre to Napoleon. Revolutionary genocide against the Vendéens and Chouans scarcely touched Belloc’s consciousness. On his last (1937) tour of the U.S., he accused Americans of wanting to hear “48,376,277 times . . . that war is all wrawng and why cahunt everyone in Yurrup live peaceably same as us; that Religion don’t count same as it useter ’cos there’s more enlight’nment now.” So he could perceive, and denounce, lunatic world-saving Wilsonian optimism when it fell from his hosts’ lips. Why that optimism somehow became acceptable when the increase in “enlight’nment” had been effected by the guillotine, instead of by American presidential overreach, Belloc never explained.

This all amounts to a grim indictment. What case for the defense can outweigh it? There actually exist two such cases: first, Belloc’s daunting percipience; second, his equally daunting versatility as a poet.
Given Belloc’s prophetic skill, it comes as a severe jolt to recollect that he was born back in 1870. (He died in 1953, but a stroke robbed him of his authorial powers in 1942.) Almost every major political trend of the last hundred years—whether the Third Reich, or the bipartisan welfarism familiar from our own experience, or the socialization of agriculture, or incessant Middle East massacres, or the spirit of jihad, or the willful confusion between legitimate private enterprise and piratical paper-shuffling, or the sexual revolution, or mad-scientist genetic technology—Belloc predicted. His output retains an immediacy for our time that is impossible to discern in most of his journalistic confreres. At a time when H.G. Wells, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell counted as forward-looking thinkers—while notching up an almost 100 percent failure rate when it came to even the least contentious prophesying about global trends five weeks, let alone five years, down the track—Belloc plodded on, fortified by nothing more glamorous than preternatural energy and a worldview too European and synoptic to countenance the least parochialism. Plodding of that type seldom facilitates benignity, genial tolerance towards opponents, or leisurely musings on the joys of artistic creation. Nor does life in the House of Commons, where Belloc sat for four dispiriting years (1906-1910) as a maverick Liberal parliamentarian.

Little wonder that Belloc at times bullied when he should have insinuated, at times cut corners on fine detail when he should have checked and rechecked a specific datum. His antagonists went to town when they caught him crediting the early-seventeenth-century Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo with having influenced France’s Joachim du Bellay, who perished two decades before Quevedo was born, or citing a monastic chronicler dead since 1259 as an authority on conflicts occurring in 1265. They would have benefited from devoting equal attention to this passage, the closest approach Belloc ever made to explicating his historiographical outlook:

[Coulton] does not appreciate the weight of a whole stream of tradition, supported by a parallel stream of documentary evidence. If these combined make for a certain conclusion which no rational man can doubt, he would think it sufficient to bring out against it one isolated exception. Many generations hence there will be a broad stream of tradition and document to show that Englishmen in the nineteenth century did not eat human flesh, but I am sure that if Dr. Coulton were on the other side he would triumphantly quote the shipwrecked mariners of the Mignonette and continue to say that the Victorians were cannibals.

Where on occasion Belloc grew careless in small (although still important) matters, his mixture of erudition and depressive realism made him authoritative in large ones. True, he overestimated Russia’s liberal imagination to the disastrous extent of buying Kerensky Government bonds. Yet his comprehension of Bolshevism, when that plague-germ started on its pandemic course, surpassed not only anything Wells or Beatrice Webb or Bernard Shaw revealed—not that outsmarting those sages on the Soviet issue required notable effort—but much official scholarship as well. Naïfs might well have spent the Cold War unable to grasp how every Kremlin boss from Lenin to Gorbachev enjoyed the shameless backing of Armand Hammer and allied plutocrats on Wall Street. At such an outcome Belloc felt no surprise whatever. Spain’s civil war merely confirmed him in his realization that the capitalist and the communist alike have always hated any Catholic society far more than they have ever hated each other. Thanks partly to Cardinal Manning’s pronouncements, and to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical, Belloc had learned this simple truth by 1902. It continues to elude the typical Republican Party apparatchik in 2002.

Because neither on this topic nor on any other did mealy-mouthedness come naturally, or at all, to Belloc, a veritable heavy industry has arisen for the specific purpose of forever associating his name with Nazi racialist hatred. Mere facts like Belloc’s loud and clear condemnations of Hitler from 1933 onwards —and of wider Teutonic militarism from, it often seems, the very day he learned to talk—have achieved little momentum against this industry, which has ensured that millions who have never read a line he wrote consider it as natural to link the words “Belloc” and “anti-Semitism” as to link “Gilbert” with “Sullivan” or “Abbott” with “Costello.” (Sometimes his aversion to Nazism led him into anti-Pius-XII rhetoric little different from John Cornwell’s and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s diatribes nowadays. “The Pope continues to be mum,” he lamented in 1940, “and to confine himself to generalities. He is to be blamed.”) A good answer to myths of Belloc’s Jew-baiting is the 1922 book, which he actually called The Jews, and which Pearce rightly deems “an exercise in carefully considered and controlled restraint.” Here Belloc overtly reprehends Jew-baiters’ driving obsession: “The Anti-Semite will confuse the action of any particular Jew with his general odium for the race . . . [he is] so absorbed in his subject that he at last loses interest in any matter, unless he can give it some association with his delusion, for delusion it is.”

Worse still, The Jews maintains, is the glutinous progressive doublethink that lets Anglophone Gentiles imagine in 1922—and long afterwards—that Central and Eastern Europe would overnight become as easily governable as New England or New Zealand, if only their peoples could be administered an adequately stiff dose of pagan laissez-faire. Belloc’s pan-European credo—“The Faith is Europe,” he observed, “and Europe is the Faith”—sharpened his awareness of the emotional allure that nationalism possessed for other minds more flaccid and less educated than his own. Far from advocating anything like the Final Solution, The Jews, if properly pondered by Europe’s leaders, would probably have done more than any other English-language book to prevent the Final Solution. Its Chapters XI and XV also foresaw (a generation before the world had heard of Irgun) the price that Zionism would extract in Jewish blood.

Just as The Jews and its sequel The Battleground (1936) can illustrate far more about the Middle East’s current anguish than the collected works of Dick Cheney, so a better-known and wider-ranging production of Belloc’s, Survivals and New Arrivals (1929), furnishes—in its scrutiny of militant Islam—-a far better guide to what makes Osama run than any State Department verbiage. Even some of the pamphlets Belloc churned out to propitiate his children’s alleged “howl[ing] for pearls and caviar” contain more useful information than many a lesser scribe’s life work. The Free Press (1918) can teach us much more of the Rupert Murdoch mentality’s fundamentally nihilistic spite than is obtainable from any journalism degree course. And this is to leave out the travel books: particularly The Path to Rome and The Cruise of the “Nona,” whence epigrams stay in the mind long after the more conventional scene-painting fades from memory.

It would nevertheless be a bold reader who actually preferred such books to Belloc’s collected poems. Though Belloc has been dead for half a century, the charm, tang, and inspired mischief of his children’s verse—Cautionary Tales, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, More Peers, and the rest—remain as addictive to many a primary-school child in our own era as they were to us, and to our parents, and to their parents. Yet only the ill-informed would assume that those volumes constitute Belloc’s main, let alone his sole, poetical achievement. His muse’s many-sidedness is hair-raising. The finest tributes he lavished on his (platonically) adored friend Lady Diana Cooper display, even at the lowest possible reckoning, an exceptional aptitude for Elizabethan pastiche:

That I grow sour, who only lack delight;
That I descend to sneer, who only grieve;
That from my depth I should
condemn your height,
That with my blame my mockery you receive—
Huntress and splendor of the woodland night—
Diana of this world, do not believe.

Elsewhere he evokes seventeenth- rather than sixteenth-century idioms, as in “Ballade to Our Lady of Czestochowa”, which could almost be by one of the Metaphysical Poets:

Lady and Queen and Mystery manifold
And very Regent of the untroubled sky,
Whom in a dream St. Hilda did behold
And heard a woodland music passing by:
You shall receive me when the clouds are high
With evening and the sheep attain the fold . . .
Prince of the degradations, bought and sold,
These verses, written in your crumbling sty,
Proclaim the faith that I have held and hold
And publish that in which I mean to die.

Often he matches A.E. Housman’s freakish gift for achieving permanent and dignified memorability while using precious few words of more than one syllable. Who can happily contemplate life in the average nursing home after reading Belloc’s description—which, in its lucid pathos, even Housman might have envied—of decrepitude?

You find that middle life goes rushing past.
You find despair; and at the very last
You find, as you are giving up the ghost,
That those who loved you best despise you most.

Evelyn Waugh noted the Housman resemblance in 1954: “He [Belloc] was a Christian Shropshire Lad and, by that enrichment, immeasurably Housman’s superior.”
Did Belloc fail? In terms of personal wealth, of stemming history’s tide, he failed miserably. But perhaps a stray phrase from Ezra Pound’s Cantos best sums Belloc up: “a failure worth all the successes of his age.”

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia and contributes regularly to Chronicles and the New Criterion. He is the author of The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and Their Victims.