Minor punctuation errors have been changed without notice. Printer errors have been changed and are listed at the end. All other inconsistencies are as in the original.
WORKS BY HILAIRE BELLOC.
PARIS MARIE ANTOINETTE EMMANUEL BURDEN, MERCHANT HILLS AND THE SEA ON NOTHING ON EVERYTHING ON SOMETHING FIRST AND LAST THIS AND THAT AND THE OTHER A PICKED COMPANY
THE MAN AND HIS WORK
C. CREIGHTON MANDELL
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
G. K. CHESTERTON
METHUEN & CO. LTD.
36 ESSEX STREET W.C.
First Published in 1916
TO H. L. HUTTON OF MERCHANT TAYLORS' SCHOOL
G. K. CHESTERTON
When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else's high spirits. He talked into the night; and left behind in it a glowing track of good things. When I have said that I mean things that are good, and certainly not merely bons mots, I have said all that can be said in the most serious aspect about the man who has made the greatest fight for good things of all the men of my time.
We met between a little Soho paper shop and a little Soho restaurant; his arms and pockets were stuffed with French Nationalist and French Atheist newspapers. He wore a straw hat shading his eyes, which are like a sailor's, and emphasizing his Napoleonic chin. He was talking about King John, who, he positively assured me, was not (as was often asserted) the best king that ever reigned in England. Still, there were allowances to be made for him; I mean King John, not Belloc. "He had been Regent," said Belloc with forbearance, "and in all the Middle Ages there is no example of a successful Regent." I, for one, had not come provided with any successful Regents with whom to counter this generalization; and when I came to think of it, it was quite true. I have noticed the same thing about many other sweeping remarks coming from the same source.
The little restaurant to which we went had already become a haunt for three or four of us who held strong but unfashionable views about the South African War, which was then in its earliest prestige. Most of us were writing on the Speaker, edited by Mr. J. L. Hammond with an independence of idealism to which I shall always think that we owe much of the cleaner political criticism of to-day; and Belloc himself was writing in it studies of what proved to be the most baffling irony. To understand how his Latin mastery, especially of historic and foreign things, made him a leader, it is necessary to appreciate something of the peculiar position of that isolated group of "Pro-Boers." We were a minority in a minority. Those who honestly disapproved of the Transvaal adventure were few in England; but even of these few a great number, probably the majority, opposed it for reasons not only different but almost contrary to ours. Many were Pacifists, most were Cobdenites; the wisest were healthy but hazy Liberals who rightly felt the tradition of Gladstone to be a safer thing than the opportunism of the Liberal Imperialist. But we might, in one very real sense, be more strictly described as Pro-Boers. That is, we were much more insistent that the Boers were right in fighting than that the English were wrong in fighting. We disliked cosmopolitan peace almost as much as cosmopolitan war; and it was hard to say whether we more despised those who praised war for the gain of money, or those who blamed war for the loss of it. Not a few men then young were already predisposed to this attitude; Mr. F. Y. Eccles, a French scholar and critic of an authority perhaps too fine for fame, was in possession of the whole classical case against such piratical Prussianism; Mr. Hammond himself, with a careful magnanimity, always attacked Imperialism as a false religion and not merely as a conscious fraud; and I myself had my own hobby of the romance of small things, including small commonwealths. But to all these Belloc entered like a man armed, and as with a clang of iron. He brought with him news from the fronts of history; that French arts could again be rescued by French arms; that cynical Imperialism not only should be fought, but could be fought and was being fought; that the street fighting which was for me a fairytale of the future was for him a fact of the past. There were many other uses of his genius, but I am speaking of this first effect of it upon our instinctive and sometimes groping ideals. What he brought into our dream was this Roman appetite for reality and for reason in action, and when he came into the door there entered with him the smell of danger.
There was in him another element of importance which clarified itself in this crisis. It was no small part of the irony in the man that different things strove against each other in him; and these not merely in the common human sense of good against evil, but one good thing against another. The unique attitude of the little group was summed up in him supremely in this; that he did and does humanly and heartily love England, not as a duty but as a pleasure and almost an indulgence; but that he hated as heartily what England seemed trying to become. Out of this appeared in his poetry a sort of fierce doubt or double-mindedness which cannot exist in vague and homogeneous Englishmen; something that occasionally amounted to a mixture of loving and loathing. It is marked, for instance, in the fine break in the middle of the happy song of cameraderie called "To the Balliol Men Still in South Africa."
"I have said it before, and I say it again, There was treason done and a false word spoken, And England under the dregs of men, And bribes about and a treaty broken."
It is supremely characteristic of the time that a weighty and respectable weekly gravely offered to publish the poem if that central verse was omitted. This conflict of emotions has an even higher embodiment in that grand and mysterious poem called "The Leader," in which the ghost of the nobler militarism passes by to rebuke the baser—
"And where had been the rout obscene Was an army straight with pride, A hundred thousand marching men, Of squadrons twenty score, And after them all the guns, the guns, But She went on before."
Since that small riot of ours he may be said without exaggeration to have worked three revolutions: the first in all that was represented by the Eyewitness, now the New Witness, the repudiation of both Parliamentary parties for common and detailed corrupt practices; second, the alarum against the huge and silent approach of the Servile State, using Socialists and Anti-Socialists alike as its tools; and third, his recent campaign of public education in military affairs. In all these he played the part which he had played for our little party of patriotic Pro-Boers. He was a man of action in abstract things. There was supporting his audacity a great sobriety. It is in this sobriety, and perhaps in this only, that he is essentially French; that he belongs to the most individually prudent and the most collectively reckless of peoples. There is indeed a part of him that is romantic and, in the literal sense, erratic; but that is the English part. But the French people take care of the pence that the pounds may be careless of themselves. And Belloc is almost materialist in his details, that he may be what most Englishmen would call mystical, not to say monstrous, in his aim. In this he is quite in the tradition of the only country of quite successful revolutions. Precisely because France wishes to do wild things, the things must not be too wild. A wild Englishman like Blake or Shelley is content with dreaming them. How Latin is this combination between intellectual economy and energy can be seen by comparing Belloc with his great forerunner Cobbett, who made war on the same Whiggish wealth and secrecy and in defence of the same human dignity and domesticity. But Cobbett, being solely English, was extravagant in his language even about serious public things, and was wildly romantic even when he was merely right. But with Belloc the style is often restrained; it is the substance that is violent. There is many a paragraph of accusation he has written which might almost be called dull but for the dynamite of its meaning.
It is probable that I have dealt too much with this phase of him, for it is the one in which he appears to me as something different, and therefore dramatic. I have not spoken of those glorious and fantastic guide-books which are, as it were, the textbooks of a whole science of Erratics. In these he is borne beyond the world with those poets whom Keats conceived as supping at a celestial "Mermaid." But the "Mermaid" was English—and so was Keats. And though Hilaire Belloc may have a French name, I think that Peter Wanderwide is an Englishman.
I have said nothing of the most real thing about Belloc, the religion, because it is above this purpose, and nothing of the later attacks on him by the chief Newspaper Trust, because they are much below it. There are, of course, many other reasons for passing such matters over here, including the argument of space; but there is also a small reason of my own, which if not exactly a secret is at least a very natural ground of silence. It is that I entertain a very intimate confidence that in a very little time humanity will be saying, "Who was this So-and-So with whom Belloc seems to have debated?"
G. K. CHESTERTON
I MR. BELLOC AND THE PUBLIC 1
II MR. BELLOC THE MAN 9
III PERSONALITY IN STYLE 16
IV THE POET 27
V THE STUDENT OF MILITARY AFFAIRS 35
VI MR. BELLOC AND THE WAR 50
VII MR. BELLOC THE PUBLICIST 59
VIII MR. BELLOC AND EUROPE 71
IX THE HISTORICAL WRITER 89
X MR. BELLOC AND ENGLAND 99
XI THE REFORMER 110
XII THE HUMOURIST 116
XIII THE TRAVELLER 126
XIV MR. BELLOC AND THE FUTURE 138
We have to express our thanks to the following publishers for permission to quote from those books by Mr. Belloc which are issued by them:—Messrs. Constable & Co., Ltd., The Old Road and On Anything; Messrs. J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., The Historic Thames; Messrs. Duckworth & Co., Esto Perpetua, Avril, Verses, and The Bad Child's Book of Beasts; Mr. T. N. Foulis, The Servile State; Mr. Eveleigh Nash, The Eyewitness and Cautionary Tales for Children; Messrs. Thomas Nelson & Sons, Danton, The Path to Rome, The Four Men, and A General Sketch of the European War; Messrs. C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd., The Two Maps of Europe; Messrs. Williams & Norgate, Ltd., The French Revolution. The frontispiece is reproduced from T.P.'s Weekly by courtesy of the editor, Mr. Holbrook Jackson.
THE MAN AND HIS WORK
MR. BELLOC AND THE PUBLIC
A CASE FOR LEGISLATION AD HOC
We stand upon the brink of a superb adventure. To rummage about in the lumber-room of a bygone period: to wipe away the dust from long-neglected annals: to burnish up old facts and fancies: to piece together the life-story of some loved hero long dead: that is a work of reverent thought to be undertaken in peace and seclusion. But to plunge boldly into the study of a living personality: to strive to measure the greatness of a man just entering the fullness of his powers: to attempt to grasp the nature of that greatness: this is to go out along the road of true adventure, the road which is hard to travel, the road which has no end.
Naturally we cannot hope in this little study to escape those innumerable pitfalls into which contemporary criticism always stumbles. It is impossible to-day to view Mr. Belloc and his work in that due perspective so beloved of the don. No doubt we shall crash headlong into the most shocking errors of judgement, exaggerating this feature and belittling that in a way that will horrify the critic of a decade or two hence. Mr. Belloc himself may turn and rend us: deny our premises: scatter our syllogisms: pulverize our theories.
This only makes our freedom the greater. Scientific analysis being beyond attainment, we are tied down by no rules. When we have examined Mr. Belloc's work and Mr. Belloc's personality, we are free to put forward (provided we do not mind them being refuted) what theories we choose. Nothing could be more alluring.
In a book about Mr. Belloc the reader may have expected to make Mr. Belloc's acquaintance on the first page. But Mr. Belloc is a difficult man to meet. Even if you have a definite appointment with him (as you have in this book) you cannot be certain that you will not be obliged to wait. Every day of Mr. Belloc's life is so full of engagements that he is inevitably late for some of them. But his courtesy is invariable: and he will often make himself a little later by stopping to ring you up in order to apologize for his lateness and to assure you that he will be with you in a quarter of an hour.
We may imagine him, then, hastening to meet us in one of those taxicabs of which he is so bountiful a patron, and, in the interval, before we make his personal acquaintance, try to recall what we already know of him.
At the present time Mr. Hilaire Belloc to his largest public is quite simply and solely the war expert. To those people, thousands in number, who have become acquainted with Mr. Belloc through the columns of Land and Water, the Illustrated Sunday Herald, and other journals and periodicals, or have swelled the audiences at his lectures in London and the various provincial centres, his name promises escape from the bewilderment engendered by an irritated Press and an approximation, at least, to a clear conception of the progress of the war. Those who realize, as Mr. Belloc himself points out somewhere, that there has never been a great public occasion in regard to which it is more necessary that men should have a sound judgment than it is in regard to this war, gladly turn to him for guidance. His General Sketch of the European War is read by the educated man who finds himself hampered in forming an opinion of the progress of events by an ignorance of military science, while the mass of public opinion, which is less well-informed and less able to distinguish between the essential and the non-essential, finds in the series of articles, reprinted in book-form under the title The Two Maps, a rock-basis of general principles on which it may rest secure from the hurling waves of sensationalism, ignorance, misrepresentation and foolishness which are striving perpetually to engulf it.
So intense and so widespread, indeed, is the vogue of Mr. Belloc to-day as a writer on the war, that one is almost compelled into forgetfulness of his earlier work and of the reputation he had established for himself in many provinces of literature and thought before, in the eyes of the world, he made this new province his own. The colossal monument of unstinted public approbation, which records his work since the outbreak of the great war, overshadows, as it were, the temples of less magnitude, though of equally solid foundation and often of more precious design, in which his former achievements in art and thought were enshrined.
That there existed, however, before the war, a large and increasing public, which was gradually awakening to a realization of Mr. Belloc's importance, there can be no question.
There can be equally little question, that only a very small percentage of his readers were in a position even to attempt an appreciation of Mr. Belloc's full importance.
This was due, chiefly, to the diversity of Mr. Belloc's writings.
For example, many thinking men, who saw no reason why the common sense, which served them so well in their business affairs, should be banished from their consideration of matters political, felt themselves in sympathy with his analysis and denunciation of the evils of our parliamentary machinery, thoroughly enjoying the vigorous lucidity of The Party System and applauding the clear historical reasoning of The Servile State.
Other men, repelled, perhaps, by such logical grouping of cold facts, but attracted by the satirical delights of Emmanuel Burden or Mr. Clutterbuck, of Pongo and the Bull or A Change in the Cabinet, were led to like conclusions, and came to consider themselves adherents of Mr. Belloc's political views.
Take another instance. Bloodless students of history, absorbing the past for the sake of the past and not for the sake of the present, who knew little of Mr. Belloc's attitude toward the politics of the day and strongly disapproved of what little they did know, yet concerned themselves with his historical method as applied in Danton, Robespierre or Marie Antoinette, and were mildly excited by The French Revolution into a discussion of what (to Mr. Belloc's horror) they considered his Weltanschauung.
There are but one or two examples of cases in which men of different types came to a partial knowledge of Mr. Belloc and his work through their sympathy with the views he expressed. But far beyond and above the appeal which Mr. Belloc has made on occasion to the political and historical sense of his readers is the appeal which he has made consistently to their literary sense in The Path to Rome, in The Four Men, in Avril, in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, in Esto Perpetua—in his novels, his essays, his poems. If many have been attracted by his views, how many more have been influenced by his expression of them?
"A man desiring to influence his fellowmen," says Mr. Belloc, in The French Revolution, "has two co-related instruments at his disposal.... These two instruments are his idea and his style. However powerful, native, sympathetic to his hearers' mood or cogently provable by reference to new things may be a man's idea, he cannot persuade his fellowmen to it if he have not words that express it. And he will persuade them more and more in proportion as his words are well-chosen and in the right order, such order being determined by the genius of the language from which they are drawn."
These words fitly emphasize the importance of style: and when a distinction is drawn, as is done above, between the appeal which Mr. Belloc has made to the political and historical sense of his readers and the appeal he has made to their literary sense, it is, naturally, not intended to suggest that an appeal to his readers' literary sense is in any way lacking in Mr. Belloc's political and historical writings. The appeal to our literary sense is as strong in The Servile State or Danton as in The Four Men or Mr. Clutterbuck. But in the one case, in the case of the two last-named books, the appeal Mr. Belloc makes is chiefly to our literary sense: in the other case, in the case of the two first-named books, there is added to the appeal to our literary sense an appeal to our political and historical sense.
The nature of Mr. Belloc's own style is dealt with in a later chapter: here it is merely asserted that, before the war, at any rate, Mr. Belloc's style was accorded more general recognition than were his ideas. Many who decried his matter extolled his manner. Many men of talent, some men of genius, such as the late Rupert Brooke, regarded him as a very great writer of English prose. Literary dilettanti envied him the refrains of his ballades. His essays, many of which were manner without matter, were thoroughly popular. What he said might be nonsense, but the way he said it was irresistible.
Since the beginning of the war Mr. Belloc has had that to say which everybody desired to hear. He has known how to say that which everybody desired to hear in the way it might best be said. He has been in a position to express ideas with which every one wished to become familiar: he has known how to express those ideas so that they might be readily grasped. And he has become famous.
To those who were acquainted with but a part of his work before the war Mr. Belloc's sudden leap into prominence as the most noteworthy writer on military affairs in England must have come as somewhat of a shock. To those whose knowledge of Mr. Belloc's writings was confined to The Path to Rome or the Cautionary Tales, who thought of him as essayist or poet, this must have seemed a strange metamorphosis indeed. Even those who were conversant with his study of the military aspects of the Revolution and had noticed the careful attention paid by Mr. Belloc to military matters in various books could scarcely have been prepared for such an avalanche of highly-specialized knowledge. For we are all prone to the mistake of confusing a man with his books.
With regard to some writers this error does not necessarily lead to very evil results. There are some writers who express themselves as much in one part of their work as in another. Take Mr. H. G. Wells as an example. His writings, it is true, are varied in character, ranging from phantasy to philosophy, from sociology to science. But through all his writings there runs a thin thread which binds all of them together. That thread is the personality of Mr. Wells finding expression. In such a case as this personal knowledge of the man merely amplifies the idea of him which we have been able to gather from his work.
But with Mr. Belloc the case is different. Can any full idea of Mr. Belloc, the man, be formed by reading his books? It is to be doubted. Were you to consult a reader of Mr. Wells' phantasies and a reader of Mr. Wells' sociological novels with regard to the ideas of the writer they had gleaned, you would find that the mental pictures they had painted had many characteristics in common. Were you to make the same experiment with a reader of Mr. Belloc's political writings and, say, a subscriber to the Morning Post, who knew him by his essays alone, the pictures would be entirely dissimilar.
And if it be admitted that this is so, the question arises: why is it so? If, in the case of Mr. Wells, the writer is dimly visible through the veil of his writings, why does Mr. Belloc remain hidden? This must not be understood as meaning that Mr. Belloc's personality is not expressed in his writings. To offer such an explanation would be merely absurd. But it means that his personality is not expressed, as is that of Mr. Wells, completely though cloudily, in any one book. To offer as a reason that the one is subjective, the other objective is nonsense. Every writer is necessarily both.
There are two answers to the question: the one partially, the other wholly true. To attempt to find the answer which is wholly true is one of the reasons why this book was written.
For the moment, however, let us be content with the answer which is partially true. Let us accept the charge of a contemporary and friend of Mr. Belloc who has long loomed large in the world of literature:—
"Mr. Hilaire Belloc Is a case for legislation ad hoc: He seems to think nobody minds His books being all of different kinds."
That is the charge. A plea of guilty and, at the same time, a defence based on justification might be found in Mr. Belloc's words (which occur at the end of one of his essays): "What a wonderful world it is and how many things there are in it!"
Thus might we bolster up the answer which is but partially true until it seemed wholly true. We might make Mr. Belloc's diversity his disguise. We might hoodwink the public.
But that is a dangerous game. The public has a habit of finding out. Mr. Belloc himself is always on the watch to expose impostors (especially the Parliamentary kind) and he has described most graphically the fate awaiting them:—
"For every time She shouted 'Fire!' The people answered 'Little Liar!'"
So let us view the matter squarely.
The aim of this little study, if so ambitious a phrase may be used of what is purely a piece of self-indulgence, is to present the public with as complete an idea as possible of Mr. Belloc and his work. Up to the present, the relations between Mr. Belloc and the public have been, to say the least, peculiar. If we regard the public as a mass subject to attack and the author as the attacker, we may say that, whereas most contemporary authors have attacked at one spot only and used their gradually increasing strength to drive on straight into the heart of the mass, Mr. Belloc has attacked at various points. It is obvious, however, that these various separate attacks, if they are to achieve their object, which is the subjection of the mass, must be thoroughly co-ordinated and have large reserve forces upon which to draw.
Some slight outline of the nature of the various attacks on the public made by Mr. Belloc has already been given. We stand amazed to-day by the unqualified success which has attended the attack carried into effect by his writings on the war. But if we are to form even an approximation to a complete idea of Mr. Belloc, it is necessary to examine these various attacks, not merely separately and in detail, but in their relation to each other and as a co-ordinated plan. And before we can hope to measure the strength of that plan, we must examine the mind which ordains its co-ordination and the forces which render possible its execution: in other words, the personality of Mr. Belloc.
Any rigid distinction, then, drawn between Mr. Belloc's political, historical and other writings is ultimately arbitrary. In the ensuing pages of this book it will be seen how essentially interwoven and interdependent are the various aspects of Mr. Belloc's work and how they have developed, not the one out of the other, but alongside and in co-relation with each other. For the sake of clearness, however, some basis of classification must be adopted, and that of subject, though rough and inadequate, will be understood, perhaps, most readily.
* * * * *
With a jerk a taxicab stops in the street outside. We hear the sound of quick footsteps along the stone-flagged passage, with a rattle of the handle the door swings wide open and Mr. Belloc is in the middle of the room.
MR. BELLOC THE MAN
Short of stature, he yet dominates those in the room by virtue of the force within him. So abundant is his vitality, that less forceful natures receive from him an access of energy. This vigour appears, in his person, in the massive breadth of his shoulders and the solidity of his neck. With the exception of his marked breadth, he is well-proportioned in build, though somewhat stout. His head is rather Roman in shape, and his face, with its wide, calm brow, piercing eyes, aquiline nose, straight mouth and square jaw, expresses a power of deep reflection combined with a very lively interest in the things of the moment, but, above all, tremendous determination. He holds himself erect, with square shoulders; but the appearance of a stoop is given to his figure by the habit, acquired by continual writing and public speaking, of moving with his head thrust forward.
In his movements, he is as rapid and decided as, in the giving of instructions, he is clear and terse. In debate or argument his speech is often loud and accompanied by vigorous and decided gestures; but in conversation his manner is constrained and his voice quiet and clear with a strong power of appeal which is enhanced by a slight French lisp. At times he is violent in his language and movements, but he is never restless or vague. In everything he says and does he is orderly. This orderliness of speech and action is the outcome of an orderliness of mind which is as complete as it is rare, and endows Mr. Belloc with a power of detaching his attention from one subject and transferring it, not partially but entirely, to another. As a result, whatever he is doing, however small or however great the piece of work in hand, upon that for the time being is his whole vigour concentrated.
This almost unlimited, but, at the same time, thoroughly controlled and well-directed energy, is Mr. Belloc's most prominent characteristic. He is always busy, yet always with more to do than he can possibly accomplish. He has never a moment to waste. As a consequence, he often gives the impression of being brusque and domineering. His manner to those he does not know is uninviting. This is because the meeting of strangers to so busy a man can never be anything but an interruption, signifying a loss of valuable time. He is anxious to bring you to your point at once and to express his own opinion as shortly and plainly as possible. The temperamentally nervous who meet him but casually find him harsh and think him a bully.
He is nothing of the sort. He is a man of acute perceptions and fine feelings; and with those whom he knows well he is scrupulous to make due allowance for temperamental peculiarities. When you have learnt to know him well, when you have seen him in his rare moments of leisure and repose, you realize how abundantly he is possessed of those qualities which go to form what is called depth of character. His humour and good-fellowship attract men to him: his power of understanding and sympathy tie them to him. He is the very antithesis of a self-centred man. His first question, when he meets you, is of yourself and your doings; he never speaks of himself. He is always more interested in the activities of others than in what he himself is doing. He is engrossed in his work; but he is interested in it as in something outside himself, not as in something which is a very vital part of himself. It is this characteristic which leads one to consider the whole of his work up to the present time as the expression of but a part of the man. Great and valuable as is that work—it has been said of him that he has had more influence on his generation than any other one man—Mr. Belloc's personality inspires the belief that he is capable of yet greater achievements.
This belief is supported by the undeniable fact that Mr. Belloc is an idealist. He has ideals both for individual and communal life. But ideals to him are not, as to so many men, a delight of the imagination or a means of consoling themselves for being obliged to live in the world as it is. They are guides to conduct and inspirations to action: a goal which is reached in the striving.
Most of us go about this world imagining ourselves to be not as we are, but as we should like ourselves to be. No man who is not wholly unimaginative can escape this form of self-consciousness. Certainly no man who has in him anything of the artist can escape it: less still a man who is so much of an artist as Mr. Belloc. It has been remarked of Mr. Belloc time and again that he would make an extraordinarily fine revolutionary leader, and it is interesting to find in Mr. Belloc's work a description of one of the greatest revolutionary leaders which might in many respects be a description of Mr. Belloc himself. We refer to Mr. Belloc's description of the appearance and character of Danton. Though it would be absurd to suggest that Mr. Belloc has deliberately modelled his life on that of Danton, yet the resemblance between Mr. Belloc's own personality and the personality (as Mr. Belloc describes it) of Danton is so striking, that we cannot avoid quoting the passage at considerable length. It is interesting, too, to recall that this monograph, which is obviously based on very careful and deep research, was written by Mr. Belloc shortly after he came down from Oxford, and was the first work of importance he published. Mr. Belloc describes Danton thus:—
He was tall and stout, with the forward bearing of the orator, full of gesture and of animation. He carried a round French head upon the thick neck of energy. His face was generous, ugly, and determined. With wide eyes and calm brows, he yet had the quick glance which betrays the habit of appealing to an audience.... In his dress he had something of the negligence which goes with extreme vivacity and with a constant interest in things outside oneself; but it was invariably that of his rank. Indeed, to the minor conventions Danton always bowed, because he was a man, and because he was eminently sane. More than did the run of men at that time, he understood that you cut down no tree by lopping at the leaves, nor break up a society by throwing away a wig. The decent self-respect which goes with conscious power was never absent from his costume, though it often left his language in moments of crisis, or even of irritation. I will not insist too much upon his great character of energy, because it has been so over-emphasized as to give a false impression of him. He was admirably sustained in his action, and his political arguments were as direct as his physical efforts were continuous, but the banal picture of fury which is given you by so many writers is false. For fury is empty, whereas Danton was full, and his energy was at first the force at work upon a great mass of mind, and later its momentum. Save when he had the direct purpose of convincing a crowd, his speech had no violence, and even no metaphor; in the courts he was a close reasoner, and one who put his points with ability and with eloquence rather than with thunder. But in whatever he undertook, vigour appeared as the taste of salt in a dish. He could not quite hide this vigour: his convictions, his determination, his vision all concentrate upon whatsoever thing he has in hand. He possessed a singularly wide view of the Europe in which France stood. In this he was like Mirabeau, and peculiarly unlike the men with whom revolutionary government threw him into contact. He read and spoke English, he was acquainted with Italian. He knew that the kings were dilettanti, that the theory of the aristocracies was liberal. He had no little sympathy with the philosophy which a leisurely oligarchy had framed in England; it is one of the tragedies of the Revolution that he desired to the last an alliance, or at least peace, with this country. Where Robespierre was a maniac in foreign policy, Danton was more than a sane—he was a just, and even a diplomatic man. He was fond of wide reading, and his reading was of the philosophers; it ranged from Rabelais to the physiocrats in his own tongue, from Adam Smith to the Essay on Civil Government in that of strangers; and of the Encyclopaedia he possessed all the numbers steadily accumulated. When we consider the time, his fortune, and the obvious personal interest in so small and individual a collection, few shelves will be found more interesting than those which Danton delighted to fill. In his politics he desired above all actual, practical, and apparent reforms; changes for the better expressed in material results. He differed from many of his countrymen at that time, and from most of his political countrymen now, in thus adopting the tangible. It was a part of something in his character which was nearly allied to the stock of the race, something which made him save and invest in land as does the French peasant, and love, as the French peasant loves, good government, order, security, and well-being. There is to be discovered in all the fragments which remain to us of his conversation before the bursting of the storm, and still more clearly in his demand for a centre when the invasion and the rebellion threatened the Republic, a certain conviction that the revolutionary thing rather than the revolutionary idea should be produced: not an inspiring creed, but a goal to be reached, sustained him. Like all active minds, his mission was rather to realize than to plan, and his energies were determined upon seeing the result of theories which he unconsciously admitted, but which he was too impatient to analyse. His voice was loud even when his expressions were subdued. He talked no man down, but he made many opponents sound weak and piping after his utterance. It was of the kind that fills great halls, and whose deep note suggests hard phrases. There was with all this a carelessness as to what his words might be made to mean when partially repeated by others, and such carelessness has caused historians still more careless to lend a false aspect of Bohemianism to his character. A Bohemian he was not; he was a successful and an orderly man; but energy he had, and if there are writers who cannot conceive of energy without chaos, it is probably because in the studious leisure of vast endowments they have never felt the former in themselves, nor have been compelled to control the latter in their surroundings.... His friends also he loved, and above all, from the bottom of his soul, he loved France. His faults—and they were many—his vices (and a severe critic would have discovered these also) flowed from two sources: first, he was too little of an idealist, too much absorbed in the immediate thing; secondly, he suffered from all the evil effects that abundant energy may produce—the habit of oaths, the rhetoric of sudden diatribes, violent and overstrained action, with its subsequent demand for repose.
This is neither the place nor the time to enter into details of Mr. Belloc's life. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember a few points in his career when tracing the development of his work. The first important point to remember is that Mr. Belloc, for a man who has achieved so much, is still comparatively young. He was born at La Celle, St. Cloud, near Paris, in 1870, the son of Louis Swanton Belloc, a French barrister. His mother was English, the daughter of Joseph Parkes, a man of some considerable importance in his own time, a politician of the Reform Bill period, and the historian of the Chancery Bar. His book on this subject is still considered the best authority.
Mr. Belloc was educated at the Oratory School, Edgbaston. On leaving school he served as a driver in the 8th Regiment of French Artillery. He left the service for Balliol in 1892, and in the following year became a Brackenbury History Scholar of that college and took First Class honours in his final history schools in 1895. In the same year he published Verses and Sonnets, which was followed in 1896 by The Bad Child's Book of Beasts. This was followed the next year by More Beasts for Worse Children. In 1898 The Modern Traveller appeared, and in 1899 he published his first work of outstanding importance—the study of Danton. Robespierre was published in 1901, and The Path to Rome in 1902; Emmanuel Burden was published in 1904, and Esto Perpetua in 1906. By this time Mr. Belloc's literary reputation was so firmly established that he was offered, and accepted, the post of chief reviewer on the staff of the Morning Post. During the time he was connected with this paper he not only attracted attention to it by his own essays, but undoubtedly rendered it solid service by introducing to its somewhat conservative columns a new group of writing men. It was in 1906, too, that Mr. Belloc was elected "Liberal member" for South Salford. His independent mind was at variance with the "tone of the House," and he distinguished himself by demanding an audit of the Secret Party Funds, which he considered to be the chief source of political corruption. At the next election in 1910 the Party Funds were not forthcoming in his support, but he stood as an independent candidate and was returned in the face of the caucus. On the occasion of the second election of 1910, he refused to repeat his candidature, having declared, in his last speech in the House, his opinion that a seat there under the existing machine was valueless. In 1910 he resigned his appointment on the Morning Post, and in 1911 became Head of the English Literature Department at the East London College, a post he lost (for political reasons) in 1913.
PERSONALITY IN STYLE
In the foregoing chapters we have seen something of Mr. Belloc's career and caught a glimpse of the man as he is to-day. But in common with every other writer of note Mr. Belloc expresses his personality in his writings. And the lighter the subject with which he is dealing, the more he is writing, as it were, out of himself, the clearer is the picture we get of him. If we turn, then, to his essays, collected from here and there, on this and that, on everything and on nothing, we may see Mr. Belloc reflected in the clear stream of his own writing: and in proportion as the reflection is vivid or blurred we may rank him as a stylist and writer of English prose.
Style in prose or verse has never existed and cannot exist of itself alone. Style is not the art of writing melodious words or the craft or cunning of finding a way round the split infinitive. It is the ability so to choose forms of expression as completely to convey to a reader all the twists and turns and outlines of a character.
It is not even necessarily confined to the handling of words: there is nothing more characteristic in the style of Mr. H. G. Wells than the use of the three dots ... which journalism has recently invented. There may be style—that is, the expression of a temperament—in the position of a dash or of a semicolon: Heaven knows, a modern German poet enters the confessional when he uses marks of exclamation.
Style, it must be repeated, is the exact and faithful representation of a man's spirit in poetry or prose. The precise value of that spirit does not matter for the moment. James Boswell, Dr. Johnson and Porteous, Bishop of Chester, investigated the matter with some acumen and some fruitfulness in one of their terrifying conversations:
What I wanted to know [Boswell says] was, whether there was really a peculiar style to every man whatever, as there is certainly a peculiar hand-writing, a peculiar countenance, not widely different in many, yet always enough to be distinctive:
"—facies non omnibus una nec diversa tamen"—
The Bishop thought not; and said, he supposed that many pieces in Dodsley's collection of poems, though all very pretty, had nothing appropriated in their style, and in that particular could not be at all distinguished. JOHNSON. "Why, sir, I think every man whatever has a peculiar style, which may be discerned by nice examination and comparison with others: but a man must write a great deal to make his style obviously discernible. As logicians say, this appropriation of style is infinite in potestate, limited in actu."
It would appear at first sight sufficient, to confute Johnson, to refer to the four hundred volumes of verse, which are published (so it is said in the newspapers of this trade) in every year. But he overlooked only one thing: namely the tendency of literary men to be insincere. It is the habit of writing in phrases, very much like building up a picture out of blocks that have on them already portions of a picture, which comes between the spirit of the writer and its true expression in a native style.
Even this is no barrier to a sensitive ear. An experienced reporter once told the present writer that he could distinguish, by internal evidence alone, the authorship of almost every paragraph in the detestable halfpenny newspaper to which he then contributed.
Mr. Belloc, at least, has covered a sufficient quantity of pages to make it easy, if Johnson's notion be correct, for any critic who honestly undertakes the task, to discern the characteristics of his style. To convey his impression thereof in a convincing way to the reader is not so easy for the critic: and the wealth and breadth of his subject may hamper him here.
Before we begin an exposition of Mr. Belloc's style, an exposition which is meant to be in the true sense a criticism and in the full sense an appreciation, let us recapitulate the points we have already established in our inquiry into the nature of style as an abstract quality, and let us essay to add to them such points as may assist us in our difficult task of estimating the worth of a very good style indeed.
Style, we have said, results from the exact and accurate expression of a temperament or a character—as you please, for it is true that the word "temperament" is dangerous. We have also observed that, in viewing style from this angle of sight, it does not matter to the inquiry whether the character in question is desirable or hateful. That man has a style who does sincerely and exactly express his true spirit in any medium, words or music or little dots. Such a style has the worth of genuineness and, to the curious in psychology, it has a certain positive value. A man who achieves so much deserves almost the title of poet: he certainly is of a kind rare in its appearances.
But when we begin seriously to speak of excellence in prose, or verse, we must add yet another test, to pass which a man must not only express his spirit with sincerity, but must also have a strong and original spirit. It will be our business now to search out, delimit and define, not only Mr. Belloc's nicety and felicity of expression, but also the value of the thing which he expresses.
Enough will be said up and down this book and going about in the chapters of it of that lucidity which is our author's peculiar merit and the quality which most effectively permits him to play his part as a spreader of ideas and of information. It is a French virtue, we are told, and Mr. Belloc is of the French blood: it is the essence of the Latin spirit, he tells us, and he has never wearied of praising the glories of the race which carefully and logically made all fast and secure about it with a chain of irrefragable reasoning.
This lucidity, this patient passion for exactness, have added to what might have been expected of Mr. Belloc's sincerity and unlimited capacity for enthusiasm. In that admirable phrase of Buffon, too often quoted and too little applied, the style is the man. This is a fine writer, because he has the craft truly to represent a fine spirit in words.
It is a style which is strongly individual and which is on the whole rather restful than provocative. The reader's mind reposes on the security of these strongly moulded sentences, these solid paragraphs and periods. It is a considered style in which word after word falls admirably into its appointed place. It is not quite of the eighteenth century, for it is stronger than that prose. It certainly has not the undisciplined aspect of Elizabethan writing. It has the exactitude without the occasional finickingness of the best French work, and it has the breadth of English, but never falls into confusion, clumsiness or extravagance. Mr. Belloc does not experience difficulties with his relative pronouns or bog himself in a mess of parentheses. The habit of exposition has taught him to disentangle his sentences and disengage his qualifying clauses.
It is pre-eminently and especially an instrument. It has been evolved by a man whose passion it is to communicate his reflections, to make himself understood. He has learnt the practice of good writing through this desire and not by any sick languishing to construct beautiful mosaics or melodious descriptions.
The English are not a nation of prose-writers. Arnold reminded us often enough that we lacked the balance, the sense of the centre, the facility in the use of right reason; and Mr. Belloc has continued his arguments. But Mr. Belloc has in his blood that touch of the Latin and in his mind that sense of the centre, of a European life which corrects the English waywardness. It is with no hesitation that we call him—subject to the correction of time, wherefrom no critic is exempt—the best writer of English prose since Dryden.
Some one said once that were Shakespeare living now he would be writing articles for the leader-page of the Daily Mail. As Shakespeare is not living now, his place, of course, is filled by Mr. Charles Whibley. But there is some sense in the apparently silly remark. The column of the morning paper has, without doubt, provoked the creation of a new form and has brought forth a renaissance of the essay. If Shakespeare would not have written for the daily papers, Bacon unquestionably would have done so.
In a band of essayists who have been made or influenced by this opportunity, Mr. G. K. Chesterton, Mr. G. S. Street, Mr. E. V. Lucas, and a host of others, Mr. Hilaire Belloc is unchallengeably supreme. It is stupid to suppose, as some still do, that art and literature are not thus conditioned by the almost mechanical needs of the day. To protest that our writers should not be influenced by the special features of the newspaper would be to condemn Shakespeare for his conformity with the needs of the apron-stage or Dickens for publishing his novels in parts.
A mind of a character so actual as Mr. Belloc's is inevitably attracted by such an opportunity. The discerning reader will find the crown and best achievement of all his varied work in the seven volumes of essays which he has published.
These volumes contain no fewer than 256 separate and distinct essays. (The essay On the Traveller which was included in On Anything appears again, for some reason, as The Old Things in First and Last, and is not here counted twice.) One is reduced to jealousy of the mere physical energy which could sit down so often to a new beginning: the variety and power of the essays command our utmost admiration.
Descriptions of travel and of country make up a great part of them: for this is our author's own subject, if it be possible to select one from the rest. But the rest of them range from the study of history and the habits of the don, to the habits of the rich and the strange advertisements that come, through the post, even to the least considered of us. You can only take his own words, the central point of his experience, a very comforting and happy philosophy:
The world is not quite infinite—but it is astonishingly full. All sorts of things happen in it. There are all sorts of men and different ways of action and different goals to which life may be directed. Why, in a little wood near home, not a hundred yards long, there will soon burst, in the spring (I wish I were there!), hundreds of thousands of leaves and no one leaf exactly like another. At least, so the parish priest used to say, and though I have never had the leisure to put the thing to the proof, I am willing to believe that he was right, for he spoke with authority.
That is the impression given by these essays, the impression of the man's character. He seems to have a boundless curiosity, a range of observation, which, if not infinite, is at least astonishingly full. He does not write from the mere desire of covering paper, though sometimes he flourishes in one's face almost insolently the necessity he is in of setting down so many words as will fill a column in tomorrow's paper. But this insolence is rendered harmless by the fertility of his imagination and his inexhaustible invention.
The patch of purple is not rare in his writings. He says in The Path to Rome:
... But for my part, I think the best way of ending a book is to rummage about among one's manuscripts till one has found a bit of Fine Writing (no matter upon what subject), to lead up the last paragraphs by no matter what violent shocks to the thing it deals with, to introduce a row of asterisks, and then to paste on to the paper below these the piece of Fine Writing one has found.
This reads like a frank confession of the way in which the last page of Danton came to have its place. But who dare say that Mr. Belloc is not justified of his Fine Writing?
It does not come like the purple patches (or lumps) in Pater and the "poetry" in the prose and verse of Mr. Masefield: as though the author said to himself, "God bless my soul, this is getting dull. I must positively do something and that at once." Mr. Belloc's fine writing seems to spring from an almost physical zest in the use of words and images, to be the result of a bodily exaltation, the symbol of an enthusiastic mind and an energetic pen. No matter by what violent shocks the author proceeds from Danton to Napoleon, that concluding passage, ending with the shining and magniloquent phrase, "the most splendid of human swords," is a glorious piece of writing.
From time to time (and more frequently than the inexperienced would dare to suppose) this zest in the world and its contents, in the normal and insoluble problems of life, breaks into passages of sheer beauty. One may be quoted from an essay called The Absence of the Past:
There was a woman of charming vivacity, whose eyes were ever ready for laughter, and whose tone of address of itself provoked the noblest of replies. Many loved her: all admired. She passed (I will suppose) by this street or by that; she sat at table in such and such a house, Gainsborough painted her; and all that time ago there were men who had the luck to meet her and to answer her laughter with their own. And the house where she moved is there and the street in which she walked, and the very furniture she used and touched with her hands you may touch with your hands. You shall come into the rooms that she inhabited, and there you shall see her portrait, all light and movement and grace and beatitude.
She is gone altogether, the voice will never return, the gestures will never be seen again. She was under a law, she changed, she suffered, she grew old, she died; and there was her place left empty. The not living things remain; but what counted, what gave rise to them, what made them all that they are, has pitifully disappeared, and the greater, the infinitely greater, thing was subject to a doom perpetually of change and at last of vanishing. The dead surroundings are not subject to such a doom. Why?
That passage is like a piece of music, like a movement in a sonata by Beethoven. The chords, the volume of sound are gravely added to, till that solemn close on a single note. It is emotion, perfectly rendered, so grave, so sincere, so restrained as to be almost inimitable. And alike in the music of the words and sentences and in the mood which they convey it is unique in English. Not one of our authors has just that frame of mind, just that method of expressing it.
We do not know whether Mr. Belloc wrote down those two paragraphs in hot haste or considered their periods with delicate cunning. In the end it is all the same: it is a reasonable prose, it is the expression of a thought which is common in the human mind. Consider in relation to it that notorious piece of Pater, that reflection of the essential don upon a picture which is possibly a copy and certainly not very pleasant to look upon, the Mona Lisa. Pater builds up his words with as grave a care, with as solemn an emotion, but how different is the result. Pater sought for an effect of strangeness and cracked his prose in reaching at it: his rhythm is false, his images are blurred. But Mr. Belloc, translating into words a deep and tender mood, has had no care save faithfully to render a thought so common and so hard to imprison in language. His writing here rings true as a bell, it is as sweet and normal as bread or wine.
An even better example is the essay called Mowing a Field which is printed in Hills and the Sea. The centre of this essay (which has also decorations in the way of anecdotes and reflections) is a true and faithful account of the procedure to be observed in the mowing of a field of grass. Here you can see a most extraordinary power of conveying information in a pleasing manner. It would not be a bad thing to read this essay first if one had the intention of engaging in such exercise, for the instruction seems to be sound. Mr. Belloc touches hands very easily with the old Teachers who wrote their precepts in rhyme: such teachers, that is, as had good doctrine to teach, not such as the sophisticated Vergil, whose very naif Georgics are said to lead to agricultural depression wherever men follow the advice they contain.
Take this passage from that delicate and noble essay:
There is an art also in the sharpening of a scythe and it is worth describing carefully. Your blade must be dry, and that is why you will see men rubbing the scythe-blade with grass before they whet it. Then also your rubber must be quite dry, and on this account it is a good thing to lay it on your coat and keep it there during all your day's mowing. The scythe you stand upright, with the blade pointing away from you, and you put your left hand firmly on the back of the blade, grasping it: then you pass the rubber first down one side of the blade edge and then down the other, beginning near the handle and going on to the point and working quickly and hard. When you first do this you will, perhaps, cut your hand; but it is only at first that such an accident will happen to you.
To tell when the scythe is sharp enough this is the rule. First the stone clangs and grinds against the iron harshly; then it rings musically to one note; then, at last, it purrs as though the iron and the stone were exactly suited. When you hear this, your scythe is sharp enough; and I, when I heard it that June dawn, with everything quite silent except the birds, let down the scythe and bent myself to mow.
That is a piece of prose which is at once practical and beautiful. It is sound advice to a man who would mow a meadow, and the soundness of it is in no way hurt by the last sentence, which delights the ear and which need not be read by the truly earnest.
It is a style which conveys emotion and it is also a style which can be used perfectly to describe. We may refer, at least, as an example, to the careful and exact account of the appearance and utility of the Mediterranean lateen-sail which occurs at the beginning of Esto Perpetua, a piece of writing which enchants the reader with its beauty and its practical sense.
Consider, too, that light and graceful composition of a different character, equally perfect in beauty, the dialogue On the Departure of a Guest, in the book called On Nothing and Kindred Subjects. Youth leaves the house of his Host and apologizes for removing certain property of his, which the Host may have thought, from its long continuance in the house, to have been his very own: included in this property are carelessness and the love of women. But, says Youth, he is permitted to make a gift to his Host of some things, among them the clout Ambition, the perfume Pride, Health, and a trinket which is the Sense of Form and Colour (most delicate and lovely of gifts!) And, he continues, "there is something else ... no less a thing than a promise ... signed and sealed, to give you back all I take and more in Immortality!" Then occurs this passage which closes the piece:
HOST. Oh! Youth.
YOUTH (still feeling). Do not thank me! It is my Master you should thank. (Frowns.) Dear me! I hope I have not lost it! (Feels in his trouser pockets.)
HOST (loudly). Lost it?
YOUTH (pettishly). I did not say I had lost it! I said I hoped I had not.... (Feels in his great coat pocket, and pulls out an envelope.) Ah! Here it is! (His face clouds over.) No, that is the message to Mrs. George, telling her the time has come to get a wig ... (Hopelessly.) Do you know I am afraid I have lost it! I am really very sorry—I cannot wait. (He goes off.)
That passage would appear to confute a quite common notion to the effect that Mr. Belloc, who can and does write nearly everything else, does not write a play because he cannot. It is not for the purpose of arguing such a highly abstract point that we must call attention to the exact way in which it conforms to the necessities of this kind of expression without losing its character, its vividness, or its rhythm.
It is admirably moulded in its expression of a feeling or a sensation, and, in this way, Mr. Belloc's style comes very nearly as close to perfection as can be expected of a human instrument. He renders his moods, the fine shades of a transitory emotion, the solid convictions that make up a man's life with spirit, with humour, with beauty, but, above all, with accuracy.
He builds up his sentences and paragraphs with the beauty and permanency of the old barns that one may see in his own country. He does this through his sincerity. He does not exaggerate an emotion to catch a public for the space of half an hour: he does not, in the more subtle way, affect a cynical or conventional disregard of the noble feelings and fine motives which do exist in man. It has been his business with patience and fidelity to seize, with skill to make enduring and comprehensible in words, the things which do exist.
His style is a weapon or an instrument like one of those primitive but exquisitely adapted instruments which are the foundations of man's work in the world. With his use of words, he knows how to expose the technicalities of a battle or the transformations of the human heart.
So much for Mr. Belloc's most copious revelation of his personality. But this is true—that the most personal expression of all for any man is in verse: even though it be small in quantity and uneven in quality. It is as though, here, in a more rarefied and more complex form of composition—we will not say "more difficult"—some kind of effort or struggle called out all of a man's characteristics in their intensest shape. Such emotions as a man has to express will be, perhaps not more perfectly, but at any rate more keenly, set out in verse. It gives you his characteristics in a smaller space. This is true of nearly all writers who have used both forms of expression. It applies—to quote only a few—to Arnold, to Meredith, and to Mr. Hardy.
Now we must admit at the outset that Mr. Belloc's verse does not satisfy the reader, in the same sense that his prose satisfies. It is fragmentary, unequal, very small in bulk, apparently the outcome of a scanty leisure. But it is an ingredient in the mass of his writing that cannot be dismissed without discussion.
Mr. Belloc realizes to the full the position of poetry in life. He gives it the importance of an element which builds up and broadens the understanding and the spirit. He has written some, but not very much, literary criticism; and, of a piece with the rest of thinking, he thinks of poetry as a factor in, and a symptom of, the growth and maintenance of the European mind. He would not understand the facile critics who only yesterday dismissed this necessary element of literature as something which the modern world has outgrown.
But, curiously, he is a disappointing critic of Literature. His essays in this regard are, like his essays on anything else, obviously in touch with some substratum of connected thinking, a growth which springs from a settled and confident attitude towards man and the world. But they are, as it were, less in touch with it; they are more on the surface, more accidental, less continuous.
His little—very little—essays on the verse of the French Renaissance are extremely unsatisfactory. His criticism of Ronsard's Mignonne, allons voir si la rose is a little masterpiece of delicate discrimination:
If it be asked why this should have become the most famous of Ronsard's poems, no answer can be given save the "flavour of language." It is the perfection of his tongue. Its rhythm reaches the exact limit of change which a simple metre will tolerate: where it saddens, a lengthy hesitation at the opening of the seventh line introduces a new cadence, a lengthy lingering upon the last syllables of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth closes a grave complaint. So, also by an effect of quantities, the last six lines rise out of melancholy into their proper character of appeal and vivacity: an exhortation.
This passage, which, as a demonstration of method, is not altogether meaningless, even without the text beside it, shows the accuracy and nicety of his criticism. And Avril contains a number of similar observations which are valuable in the extreme as aids to judgement and pleasure. But the book has written all over it a confession, that this is a department of writing which the author is content, comparatively, to neglect. The essays are short and, again comparatively, they are detached: they examine each poem by itself, not in its general aspect. And it is, too, a singular example of book-making: there are more blank pages, in proportion to its total bulk, than one could have believed possible.
The rare studies dealing with poetry which one finds among his general essays also bear witness to his discrimination and determined judgement. The essay on Jose-Maria de Heredia in First and Last is a remarkable example of these, a remarkable analysis of a poet who is, if not obscure, at least reticent and difficult to like, and in whom Mr. Belloc sees the recapturer of "the secure tradition of an older time." And this essay relates the spirit of a poet to the general conception of Europe and its destiny.
Such a relation is rare. Poetry seems to lie, to an extent, apart from Mr. Belloc's definite and consistent view of life. He takes other pleasures, beer, walking, singing and what not, with the utmost seriousness: this he treats, at bottom, casually and disconnectedly. We can just perceive how he links it up with his general conception of life, but we can only just see it. The link is there, but he has never strengthened it.
And when we turn from his opinions on other men's poetry to his own compositions, we find the same broad effect of casualness varied with passages of singular achievement. His verse is very small in bulk: between two and three thousand lines would cover as much of it as he has yet published. Within this restricted space there are numerous variations of type, but these, in verse, are so subtle and so fluid that we are forbidden to attempt a rigid classification.
What, then, is our impression on surveying this collection of poetry? It includes a number of small amusing books for children, a volume called Verses and a few more verses scattered in the prose, most notably (as being not yet collected) in The Four Men. The general impression is, as we have said, one of confusion and lack of order: verse, the revealing instrument, seems to be to Mr. Belloc a pastime for moments of dispersion, and most of these poems seem to point to intervals of refreshment, periods of a light use of the powers, rather than to the seconds of intense feeling whereof verse, either at the time or later, is the proper expression.
It goes without saying that little enough of this verse is dull: it nearly all has character, a distinct personal flavour in phrasing and motive. Yet this flavour is best known to the public in its development by the first of brilliant young men to be influenced by Mr. Belloc's style, as apart from his ideas. We may pause a moment to examine this point, for its own special interest and for the guide it will give us to Mr. Belloc's poetry.
Rupert Brooke has been called too often the disciple of Dr. Donne: no critic, so far as we are aware, has called attention to his debt to Mr. Belloc. This debt was neither complete nor immediately obvious, but it existed. Brooke knew it, spoke of Mr. Belloc with admiration, and quoted his poems with surprising memory. Some of these were—necessarily—unpublished and may be apocryphal: they cannot be repeated here. The resemblance between the styles of the two men was most noticeable in Brooke's prose: his letters from America show a touch in working and a point of view singularly close to those of Mr. Belloc. But it is also to be discovered in his poetry. Put a few lines from Grantchester beside a few lines from one of Mr. Belloc's poems of Oxford and you will realize how curiously the younger man was fascinated by the older. We will quote the passages we have in mind. The first is by Brooke:
"In Grantchester, their skins are white, They bathe by day, they bathe by night; The women there do all they ought; The men observe the Rules of Thought. They love the Good; they worship Truth; They laugh uproariously in youth."
And the second is from Mr. Belloc's Dedicatory Ode:
"Where on their banks of light they lie, The happy hills of Heaven between, The Gods that rule the morning sky Are not more young, nor more serene....
... We kept the Rabelaisian plan: We dignified the dainty cloisters With Natural Law, the Rights of Man, Song, Stoicism, Wine and Oysters."
There is a difference, for two men of different character are speaking: but there is more than the accidental resemblance that comes from two men making the same sort of joke.
But Brooke was, in his own desire and in the estimation of others, first a poet: and Mr. Belloc has written his verses, as it would seem, at intervals. The common level of them is that of excellent workmanship, the very best are simply glorious accidents.
Now the common level, if we put away the books for children which will be more conveniently dealt with in another chapter, is represented by such poems as The Birds, The Night, A Bivouac, and a Song of which we may quote one verse, as follows:
"You wear the morning like your dress And are with mastery crowned; When as you walk your loveliness Goes shining all around. Upon your secret, smiling way Such new contents were found, The Dancing Loves made holiday On that delightful ground."
That is to say, these poems are of a certain grace and charm, neither false nor exalted, pleasant indeed to say over, but without that intensity of feeling which even in a small and light verse transfigures the written words. The carols and Catholic poems are of this delightful character, curiously one in feeling with such old folk-carols as are still preserved. One of these compositions rises to a much higher plane by a truly extraordinary felicity of phrase, one of those inspired quaintnesses which move the reader so powerfully as the nakedest pathos or the most ornate grandeur. We mean the poem Courtesy, where the poet finds this grace in three pictures:
"The third it was our Little Lord, Whom all the Kings in arms adored; He was so small you could not see His large intent of Courtesy."
These verses are certainly, as we have said, charming. They are really mediaeval, for Mr. Belloc admires the spirit of that age from within, which makes truth, not from without, which makes affectation.
There is another class of poem which is jolly—it is the best term—to read and better to sing. The West Sussex Drinking Song, a rather obvious reminiscence of Still's famous song, is perhaps the best known but by no means the best. (It is, however, an excellent guide to the beers of West Sussex.) We would give this distinction to a song in The Four Men, which begins:
"On Sussex hills where I was bred, When lanes in autumn rains are red, When Arun tumbles in his bed And busy great gusts go by; When branch is bare in Burton Glen And Bury Hill is a whitening, then I drink strong ale with gentlemen; Which nobody can deny, deny, Deny, deny, deny, deny, Which nobody can deny."
We must speak here, however, since our space is limited, not of these sporadic and inessential excellences, but of the isolated and admirable accidents—for so they seem—which make Mr. Belloc truly a poet.
One of these is the well-known, anthologized The South Country; another is a passage in the mainly humorous poem called Dedicatory Ode which we have quoted in another connexion; two occur in The Four Men. All of them deal with places and country, they are all by way of being melancholy and express the quite human sadness that goes normally with the joy in friends and in one's own home.
Such a verse as this in praise of Sussex is inspired, sad and gracious:
"But the men that live in the South Country Are the kindest and most wise. They get their laughter from the loud surf, And the faith in their happy eyes Comes surely from our Sister the Spring When over the sea she flies; The violets suddenly bloom at her feet, She blesses us with surprise."
The rhythm, apparently wavering, but in reality very exact, alone reflects in this stanza the sadness which elsewhere in the poem is put more directly. It is a delicate, ingenuous rhythm, suited most admirably to (or rather, perhaps, dictating) the unstrained and easy words.
The same mood, the same rhythm, are repeated in a poem in The Four Men:
"The trees that grow in my own country Are the beech-tree and the yew; Many stand together, And some stand few. In the month of May in my own country All the woods are new."
But the summit of these poems is reached in another composition in the same book. He has set it cunningly in a description of the way in which it was written, so as to be able to strew the approaches to it with single lines and fragments which he could not use, but which were too good to be lost. The poem itself runs like this:
"He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains.
The spring's superb adventure calls His dust athwart the woods to flame; His boundary river's secret falls Perpetuate and repeat his name. He rides his loud October sky: He does not die. He does not die.
The beeches know the accustomed head Which loved them, and a peopled air Beneath their benediction spread Comforts the silence everywhere; For native ghosts return and these Perfect the mystery in the trees.
So, therefore, though myself be crosst The shuddering of that dreadful day When friend and fire and home are lost And even children drawn away— The passer-by shall hear me still, A boy that sings on Duncton Hill."
It is of a robuster sort than the other poems and in a way their climax for it expresses the same emotion. It is indeed the final movement of the book which treats in particular of the love of Sussex, but also of the general emotion of the love of one's own country. There is melancholy mixed with this feeling, as with all strong affections: with it are associated the love of friends and the dread of parting from them and regret for the accomplishment of such a thing.
In these few poems, his best, Mr. Belloc seems to have expressed this mood completely and so to have shown—we have said as it were by accident—an abiding and fundamental mood. We have been constrained to criticize his poetry much as he has criticized the poetry of others, that is to say, sporadically and without continuity. But we have touched here perhaps on a thing, the obscure existence of which also we indicated, the secret root that shows his poetry to be a true and native growth of the soil from which his other writings have sprung.
THE STUDENT OF MILITARY AFFAIRS
Mr Belloc's most important writings on the war are to be found in Land and Water, the Illustrated Sunday Herald, and Pearson's Magazine. To these must be added his series of books of which only one has so far appeared—A General Sketch of the European War. His series of articles in Pearson's Magazine has also been reprinted in book-form under the title The Two Maps.
Of these his writings in Land and Water are, at the present time, the most important. Since the earliest stages of the war Mr. Belloc has contributed to Land and Water a weekly article. What is the nature of this article? In the first place, it is a commentary on the current events of the campaign. Mr. Belloc himself, when challenged recently to defend his work, said very modestly (as we think)—"My work ... is no more than an attempt to give week by week, at what I am proud to say is a very great expense of time and of energy, an explanation of what is taking place. There are many men who could do the same thing. I happen to have specialized upon military history and problems, and profess now, with a complete set of maps, to be doing for others what their own occupations forbid them the time and opportunity to do."
With part of this description we may heartily agree; with the rest we must disagree. We agree with Mr. Belloc when he refers to his work as being accomplished "at a very great expense of time and of energy." There may be some who doubt the truth of this statement. There is undoubtedly a large section of the public which, led astray by that cynicism and that distrust of newspapers and journalists which a certain section of our Press has engendered in the public, has come to regard all newspaper reports on the war as unreliable and the writings of so-called "experts" as mere vapourings, undertaken in the hope of assisting the circulation of the paper in which they appear rather than the circulation of the truth. If, then, any reader be inclined to include Mr. Belloc in such a denunciation and to doubt that his weekly commentary in Land and Water is written as he says, "at a very great expense of time and of energy," let him turn to one of Mr. Belloc's articles, reprinted in The Two Maps, on "What to Believe in War News."
In this article Mr. Belloc asks the question—"How is the plain man to distinguish in the news of the war what is true from what is false, and so arrive at a sound opinion?" His answer to this question is that "in the first place, the basis of all sound opinion are the official communiques read with the aid of a map." And to this he adds the following explanation:
When I say "the official communiques" I do not mean those of the British Government alone, nor even of the Allies alone, but of all the belligerents. You just read impartially the communiques of the Austro-Hungarian and of the German Governments together with those of the British Government and its Allies, or you will certainly miss the truth. By which statement I do not mean that each Government is equally accurate, still less equally full in its relation; but that, unless you compare all the statements of this sort, you will have most imperfect evidence; just as you would have very imperfect evidence in a court of law if you only listened to the prosecution and refused to listen to the defence.
Mr. Belloc then proceeds to show what characteristics all official communiques have in common, and then to outline the peculiar characteristics of the communiques of each belligerent. Although not one unnecessary sentence is included, this short summary of his own discoveries covers seven pages. The final sentence of the article is as follows: "Nevertheless, unless you do follow fairly regularly the Press of all the belligerent nations, you will obtain but an imperfect view of the war as a whole."
This comparison of the communiques of the belligerents, which is seen in these pages to be no light task, naturally forms but a small part of Mr. Belloc's work; so that further proof of his own statement, that his work necessitates the expenditure of much time and energy, need hardly be adduced.
This slight insight into the nature of Mr. Belloc's work will also serve to emphasize the point in which we disagree with Mr. Belloc's own description of his work. If, let us say, a bank manager, who may be regarded as a type of citizen of considerable intelligence and leisure, were to adopt and faithfully to pursue the methods described in this article, the methods which Mr. Belloc himself has found it necessary to adopt, he would certainly find his leisure time swallowed up. In so far as this alone were the case, we might agree with Mr. Belloc when he says of himself—"I ... profess now ... to be doing for others what their own occupations forbid them the time and opportunity to do." But our bank manager, when he had accomplished the long process of sifting out the only war news that is reliable (and he would be only able to accomplish this much, be it noted, with the aid of Mr. Belloc) would still be unable, in all probability, to grasp the full meaning and importance of that news. To do that he would need what, in common with the majority of Englishmen, he does not possess, and what it would take him years to acquire, namely, a knowledge of military history and military science.
We see then that Mr. Belloc, in his weekly commentary in Land and Water, is doing for others not merely "what their own occupations forbid them the time and opportunity to do," but what they could not do for themselves, even had they the time and opportunity.
To undertake this task he is peculiarly qualified. In his writings on the war, indeed, Mr. Belloc appears as an expert, in the true sense of that much abused word. He says of himself, in the paragraph already quoted—"I happen to have specialized on military history and problems." That is again too modest an estimation of the facts. He has done far more than merely to specialize on military history; he has given military history its true place in relation to other branches of history. The study of history at the present time is specialized. We subdivide its various aspects, classify facts and speak of constitutional history, economic history, ecclesiastical history, military history, and so forth. Now Mr. Belloc, in addition to his study of all the branches of history, has not merely made a special study of military history, but has realized and proved, more fully than any other historian, of what tremendous importance is the study of military history in its relation to those other branches of the study of history, such as the constitutional and economic. "In writing of the military aspect of any movement," he says, "it is impossible to deal with that aspect save as a living part of the whole; so knit into national life is the business of war."
In those words, "so knit into national life is the business of war," Mr. Belloc has finely expressed his conception of war as one of the weightiest factors in human events. In accordance with this attitude Mr. Belloc has shown us, what no other historian has ever made clear, that the French Revolution, "more than any other modern period, turns upon, and is explained by, its military history." In the preface to his short thesis The French Revolution there occurs this passage:
The reader interested in that capital event should further seize (and but too rarely has an opportunity for seizing) its military aspect; and this difficulty of his proceeds from two causes: the first, that historians, even when they recognize the importance of the military side of some past movement, are careless of the military aspect, and think it sufficient to relate particular victories and general actions. The military aspect of any period does not consist in these, but in the campaigns of which actions, however decisive, are but incidental parts. In other words, the reader must seize the movement and design of armies if he is to seize a military period, and these are not commonly given him. In the second place, the historian, however much alive to the importance of military affairs, too rarely presents them as part of a general position. He will make his story a story of war, or again, a story of civilian development, and the reader will fail to see how the two combine.
In this short excerpt we catch a glimpse, not only of Mr. Belloc's attitude towards military history, but also of his method in dealing with it; and since this aspect of Mr. Belloc's work is of such capital importance we may perhaps quote that passage which begins on page 142 of The French Revolution and is so illuminating in regard both to Mr. Belloc's attitude and to his method:
The Revolution would never have achieved its object; on the contrary, it would have led to no less than a violent reaction against those principles which were maturing before it broke out, and which it carried to triumph, had not the armies of revolutionary France proved successful in the field; but the grasping of this mere historic fact, I mean the success of the revolutionary armies, is unfortunately no simple matter.
We all know that as a matter of fact the Revolution was, upon the whole, successful in imposing its view upon Europe. We all know that from that success as from a germ has proceeded, and is still proceeding, modern society. But the nature, the cause and the extent of the military success which alone made this possible, is widely ignored and still more widely misunderstood. No other signal military effort which achieved its object has in history ended in military disaster—yet this was the case with the revolutionary wars. After twenty years of advance, during which the ideas of the Revolution were sown throughout Western civilization, and had time to take root, the armies of the Revolution stumbled into the vast trap or blunder of the Russian campaign; this was succeeded by the decisive defeat of the democratic armies at Leipsic, and the superb strategy of the campaign of 1814, the brilliant rally of what is called the Hundred Days, only served to emphasize the completeness of the apparent failure. For that masterly campaign was followed by Napoleon's first abdication, that brilliant rally ended in Waterloo and the ruin of the French army. When we consider the spread of Grecian culture over the East by the parallel military triumph of Alexander, or the conquest of Gaul by the Roman armies under Caesar, we are met by political phenomena and a political success no more striking than the success of the Revolution. The Revolution did as much by the sword as ever did Alexander or Caesar, and as surely compelled one of the great transformations of Europe. But the fact that the great story can be read to a conclusion of defeat disturbs the mind of the student.
Again, that element fatal to all accurate study of military history, the imputation of civilian virtues and motives, enters the mind of the reader with fatal facility when he studies the revolutionary wars.
He is tempted to ascribe to the enthusiasm of the troops, nay, to the political movement itself, a sort of miraculous power. He is apt to use with regard to the revolutionary victories the word "inevitable," which, if ever it applies to the reasoned, willing and conscious action of men, certainly applies least of all to men when they act as soldiers.
There are three points which we must carefully bear in mind when we consider the military history of the Revolution.
First, that it succeeded: the Revolution, regarded as the political motive of its armies, won.
Secondly, that it succeeded through those military aptitudes and conditions which happened to accompany, but by no means necessarily accompanied, the strong convictions and the civic enthusiasm of the time.
Thirdly, that the element of chance, which every wise and prudent reasoner will very largely admit into all military affairs, worked in favour of the Revolution in the critical moments of the early wars.
The reader who could make closer acquaintance with this aspect of Mr. Belloc's work, and it is an aspect, as has been said, of capital importance, need only turn to the too few pages of The French Revolution, where he will find ample evidence not only of Mr. Belloc's understanding of the importance of military history, but of his vast knowledge of military science; and the same may be said of those little books Mr. Belloc has published from time to time on some of the outstanding battles of the past, such as Blenheim, Malplaquet, Waterloo, Cressy and Tourcoing.
It is apparent, then, that Mr. Belloc brings to a task which the mass of the English public is quite incapable of undertaking for itself peculiar advantages, in that he has combined with a long and careful study of military history a thorough technical knowledge of military science.
In addition to this major and essential qualification he possesses, as the outcome of his pursuits and experience, other minor and subsidiary though still very necessary qualifications. In this war, as in all wars of the past, the lie of country and the fatigue of men are two of the weightiest factors; and Mr. Belloc is enormously assisted in attempting a nice appreciation of these factors by the knowledge acquired in the long pursuit of his topographical tastes and by his practical experience in the ranks of the French army.
On this latter point too much insistence should not be laid, though to ignore it entirely would be as foolish as to exaggerate its importance. We may best assess its value, perhaps, by saying that Mr. Belloc has been in possession for more than twenty years of certain definite knowledge which the vast majority of Englishmen have only acquired in the past year. More than twenty years ago he learnt the elementary rules of military organization and the ordinary facts of army life which are common knowledge in conscript countries. In England we have remained ignorant of these facts. Many of us have learnt them for the first time since August, 1914; many of us, though we have come to a consciousness of them, will never learn them. In a passage in A General Sketch of the European War, in which Mr. Belloc exposes "the fundamental contrast between the modern German military temper and the age-long traditions of the French service," though he brings into play much information that he has doubtless acquired in more recent years, we can see shining through, the memory of early experiences.
This contrast [he says] appears in everything, from tactical details to the largest strategical conception, and from things so vague and general as the tone of military writings, to things so particular as the instruction of the conscript in his barrack-room. The German soldier is taught—or was—that victory was inevitable, and would be as swift as it would be triumphant; the French soldier was taught that he had before him a terrible and doubtful ordeal, one that would be long, one in which he ran a fearful risk of defeat, and one in which he might, even if victorious, have to wear down his enemy by the exercise of a most burdensome tenacity.
No useful purpose would be served by entering here into details of the nature of Mr. Belloc's service in the French army. There occurs, however, in The Path to Rome, a short passage which is too interesting and too amusing not to quote. Arriving at Toul, Mr. Belloc is reminded of the manoeuvres of 1891:
For there were two divisions employed in that glorious and fatiguing great game, and more than a gross of guns—to be accurate 156—and of these one (the sixth piece of the tenth battery of the eighth—I wonder where you all are now; I suppose I shall not see you again, but you were the best companions in the world, my friends) was driven by three drivers, of whom I was the middle one and the worst, having on my livret the note "Conducteur mediocre."
In Hills and the Sea Mr. Belloc says:
In the French Artillery it is a maxim ... that you should weight your limber (and, therefore, your horses) with useful things alone; and as gunners are useful only to fire guns, they are not carried, save into action or when some great rapidity of movement is desired.... But on the march we (meaning the French) send the gunners forward, and not only the gunners, but a reserve of drivers also. We send them forward an hour or two before the guns start; we catch them up with the guns on the road; they file up to let us pass, and commonly salute us by way of formality and ceremony. Then they come into the town of the halt an hour or two after we have reached it.
But of far more vital interest is that vast fund of special knowledge which Mr. Belloc has amassed in the indulgence of his tastes in travel and topography. Of this knowledge the evidence to be found in Mr. Belloc's writings is so voluminous and overwhelming that it is as unnecessary as it is impossible to quote freely here. A detailed examination of Mr. Belloc's books on travel will be found in another chapter; if one point more than another needs emphasis here, it is that Mr. Belloc primarily views all country over which he passes from a military standpoint. To accompany Mr. Belloc on a motor run through some part of his own county of Sussex suffices to convince one of this. Whether tramping along causeways and sidepaths, or speeding over railway lines, he cannot pass through any considerable stretch of country without exercising his mind as to the possible advantages that might be afforded opposing armies by this or that natural formation. It is fair to say that this question, if we may call it such, has been uppermost in Mr. Belloc's mind throughout every journey of an extent that he has undertaken, whether in Southern, Western or Eastern Europe. It would be false to imagine that the prime motive of all Mr. Belloc's journeys was to view country purely from the military standpoint, but it is fair to say that almost the first question Mr. Belloc asks himself when he strikes a stretch of country with which he is unfamiliar, and the question he repeatedly and continually asks himself as he traverses that country, is—"How would the natural formation of this country aid or hinder a modern army advancing or retreating through it?" That great stretches of country, notably in France and Belgium, have been visited by Mr. Belloc, moreover, with the definite object of viewing them from a purely military standpoint, it is almost unnecessary to state; no reader who will turn to the pages of The French Revolution or of Blenheim or Waterloo, can fail to realize as much for himself. Common sense, indeed, plays a great part in Mr. Belloc's study of history. He regards it as virtually essential that a historian who would describe the action of a great battle of the past should be in a position faithfully to reconstruct the conditions under which that battle was fought. Mr. Belloc himself has settled the vexed question of why the Prussians did not charge at Valmy by visiting the battlefield under the conditions of the battle and discovering that they could not have charged.