by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
What is one to make of Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)?
A man of so many contradictions he seems like a human whirligig. Anti-German and Anti-Semitic. Combative and intolerant in his philosophical and political writings, but whimsical and amusing in his verses for children. An avowed monarchist and ardent admirer of the French Revolution, even its excesses. Admired Mussolini, detested Hitler. Advocate for returning Europe to an ‘ideal’ Roman Catholic theocracy such as he believed existed in the Middle Ages, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, while with equal fervor opposing British colonialism and imperialism, and elsewhere calling Christ a “milksop.” It is entirely possible when reading Hilaire Belloc to revile him on one page and admire him on the next.
Hilaire Belloc was born near Paris just a few days before the Franco-Prussian War began. He was the son of a well-to-do French lawyer and an English mother, Elizabeth Rayner Parkes, who was a writer. His older sister, Marie Adelaide, also grew up to be a writer.
The Belloc family fled to England in 1870 when news came of the French army’s collapse, returning after the war’s end to discover that their home had been looted and vandalized by Prussian soldiers. Belloc grew up disdaining everything German as ‘Prussian.’
In 1872, his father died, after most of the family fortune was wiped out in a stock-market crash. The young English widow brought her children back to England. Hilaire was sent to Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Hove. In the summer of 1890, he met Elodie Hogan, an American daughter of Irish parents visiting from California, and they fell in love. At 20, his mother considered Hilaire too young for marriage, while Elodie’s mother opposed the match, having high hopes that her daughter would become a nun, and not thinking much of Belloc’s financial prospects either. They carried on a long-distance correspondence during an on-again-off-again relationship for the next several years. Belloc sold most of his belongings to pay for a trip to see her in 1891.
In 1892, he joined the French Artillery Service in France for a year. Returning to England, Belloc became a student at Baillol College, Oxford. Boisterous and opinionated, he fueled long discussions with his peers but worked diligently on his studies.
Through his sister Marie’s influence, he began writing for London newspapers and magazines. Hilaire Belloc and Elodie Hogan were married at last in 1896. His first book, Verses and Sonnets, appeared the same year, followed by The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, which satirized moralistic verse for children and was immensely popular, greatly improving their financial situation.
from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts:
I call you bad, my little child,
Upon the title page
Because a manner rude and wild
Is common at your age.
The Moral of this priceless work
(If rightly understood)
Will make you – from a little Turk –
Do not as evil children do,
Who on the slightest grounds
Will imitate the Kangaroo
With wild unmeaning bounds.
Do not as children badly bred,
Who eat like little Hogs,
And when they have to go to bed
Will whine like Puppy Dogs:
Who take their manners from the Ape,
Their habits from the Bear,
Indulge the loud unseemly jape,
And never brush their hair.
But so control your actions that
Your friends may all repeat.
‘This child is dainty as the Cat,
And as the Owl discreet.’
The Polar Bear
The Polar Bear is unaware
Of cold that cuts me through:
For why? He has a coat of hair.
I wish I had one too!
While Belloc wrote in almost every form except drama, his most enduring successes were in children’s poetry and personal essays. He spent the next several years dividing his time between serving as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, as editor of the Morning Post, and with his growing family. He and Elodie would have five children.
Later, he became editor of The Eye-Witness, a political weekly which attacked corruption and the political status quo, featuring contributions by George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Belloc’s friend, G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton and Belloc, both devout Catholics, shared the view of Europe as a near-utopia under Church authority during the Middle Ages. Shaw caricatured them in print as “the Chesterbelloc” a beast of elephant-like appearance and outmoded beliefs.
from A Moral Alphabet
D: The Dreadful Dinotherium he
Will have to do his best for D.
The early world observed with awe
His back, indented like a saw.
His look was gay, his voice was strong;
His tail was neither short nor long;
His trunk, or elongated nose,
Was not so large as some suppose;
His teeth, as all the world allows,
Were graminivorous, like a cow’s.
He therefore should have wished to pass
Long peaceful nights upon the Grass,
But being mad the brute preferred
To roost in branches, like a bird. *
A creature heavier than a whale,
You see at once, could hardly fail
To suffer badly when he slid
And tumbled (as he always did).
His fossil, therefore, comes to light
All broken up: and serve him right.
If you were born to walk the ground,
Remain there; do not fool around.
We have good reason to suppose
He did so, from his claw-like toes
E stands for Egg.
The Moral of this verse
Is applicable to the Young. Be terse.
K for the Klondyke, a Country of Gold,
Where the winters are often excessively cold;
Where the lawn every morning is covered with rime,
And skating continues for years at a time.
Do you think that a Climate can conquer the grit
Of the Sons of the West? Not a bit! Not a bit!
When the weather looks nippy, the bold Pioneers
Put on two pairs of Stockings and cover their ears,
And roam through the drear Hyperborean dales
With a vast apparatus of Buckets and Pails;
Or wander through wild Hyperborean glades
With Hoes, Hammers, Pickaxes, Mattocks and Spades.
There are some who give rise to exuberant mirth
By turning up nothing but bushels of earth,
While those who have little cause excellent fun
By attempting to pilfer from those who have none.
At times the reward they will get for their pains
Is to strike very tempting auriferous veins;
Or, a shaft being sunk for some miles in the ground,
Not infrequently nuggets of value are found.
They bring us the gold when their labours are ended,
And we—after thanking them prettily—spend it.
Just you work for Humanity, never you mind
If Humanity seems to have left you behind.
from Cautionary Tales for Children and More Cautionary Tales
George Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions
When George’s Grandmamma was told
That George had been as good as gold,
She promised in the afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON.
And so she did; but when it came,
It got into the candle flame,
And being of a dangerous sort
Exploded with a loud report!
The lights went out! The windows broke!
The room was filled with reeking smoke.
And in the darkness shrieks and yells
Were mingled with electric bells,
And falling masonry and groans,
And crunching, as of broken bones,
And dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The house itself began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below-
Which happened to be Savile Row.
When help arrived, among the dead
Were Cousin Mary, Little Fred,
The Footmen (both of them), the Groom,
The man that cleaned the Billiard-Room,
The Chaplain, and the Still-Room Maid.
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Monsieur Champignon, the Chef,
Will now be permanently deaf-
And both his aides are much the same;
While George, who was in part to blame,
Received, you will regret to hear,
A nasty lump behind the ear.
The moral is that little boys
Should not be given dangerous toys.
Charles Augustus Fortescue, Who always Did what was Right, and so accumulated an Immense Fortune
The nicest child I ever knew
Was Charles Augustus Fortescue.
He never lost his cap, or tore
His stockings or his pinafore:
In eating Bread he made no Crumbs,
He was extremely fond of sums,
To which, however, he preferred
The Parsing of a Latin Word—
He sought, when it was within his power,
For information twice an hour,
And as for finding Mutton-Fat
Unappetising, far from that!
He often, at his Father’s Board,
Would beg them, of his own accord,
To give him, if they did not mind,
The Greasiest Morsels they could find—
His Later Years did not belie
The Promise of his Infancy.
In Public Life he always tried
To take a judgement Broad and Wide;
In Private, none was more than he
Renowned for quiet courtesy.
He rose at once in his Career,
And long before his Fortieth Year
Had wedded Fifi, Only Child
Of Bunyan, First Lord Aberfylde.
He thus became immensely Rich,
And built the Splendid Mansion which
Is called The Cedars, Muswell Hill,
Where he resides in affluence still,
To show what everybody might
Become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT.
Hildebrand, Who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to Reason
“Oh murder! What was that, Papa!”
“My child, It was a Motor-Car,
A most Ingenious Toy!
Designed to Captivate and Charm
Much rather than to rouse Alarm
In any English Boy.
“What would your Great Grandfather who
Was Aide-de-Camp to General Brue,
And lost a leg at Waterloo,
And Quatre-Bras and Ligny too!
And died at Trafalgar!-
What would he have remarked to hear
His Young Descendant shriek with fear,
Because he happened to be near
A Harmless Motor-Car!
But do not fret about it! Come!
We’ll off to Town
And purchase some!”
Rebecca Who Slammed Doors
For Fun And Perished Miserably
A trick that everyone abhors
In little girls is slamming doors.
A wealthy banker’s little daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this furious sport.
She would deliberately go
And slam the door like billy-o!
To make her uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild;
She was an aggravating child…
It happened that a marble bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the door this little lamb
Had carefully prepared to slam,
And down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.
Her funeral sermon (which was long
And followed by a sacred song)
Mentioned her virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her vices too,
And showed the deadful end of one
Who goes and slams the door for fun.
The children who were brought to hear
The awful tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the door,
— As often they had done before.
Sarah Byng, Who Could Not Read and
Was Tossed into a Thorny Hedge by a Bull
Some years ago you heard me sing
My doubts on Alexander Byng.
His sister Sarah now inspires
My jaded Muse, my failing fires.
Of Sarah Byng the tale is told
How when the child was twelve years old
She could not read or write a line.
Her sister Jane, though barely nine,
Could spout the Catechism through
And parts of Matthew Arnold too,
While little Bill who came between
Was quite unnaturally keen
On ‘Athalie’, by Jean Racine.
But not so Sarah! Not so Sal!
She was a most uncultured girl
Who didn’t care a pinch of snuff
For any literary stuff
And gave the classics all a miss.
Observe the consequence of this!
As she was walking home one day,
Upon the fields across her way
A gate, securely padlocked, stood,
And by its side a piece of wood
On which was painted plain and full,
BEWARE THE VERY FURIOUS BULL
Alas! The young illiterate
Went blindly forward to her fate,
And ignorantly climbed the gate!
Now happily the Bull that day
Was rather in the mood for play
Than goring people through and through
As Bulls so very often do;
He tossed her lightly with his horns
Into a prickly hedge of thorns,
And stood by laughing while she strode
And pushed and struggled to the road.
The lesson was not lost upon
The child, who since has always gone
A long way round to keep away
From signs, whatever they may say,
And leaves a padlocked gate alone.
Moreover she has wisely grown
Confirmed in her instinctive guess
That literature breeds distress.
He was also writing novels and histories: Mr. Clutterbuck’s Election (1908), A Change in the Cabinet (1909), Pongo and the Bull (1910), The French Revolution (1911), and History of England (1915).
Elodie became seriously ill near the end of 1913 and passed away at age 45 in February of 1914. Belloc never remarried.
During World War I, he worked for the War Propaganda Bureau and was a correspondent on the Western front. Just a staunchly as he had opposed the Boer War, he now staunchly supported Britain’s involvement in this war, even though he lost many friends, and his son, who was killed in combat.
. Is there any reward?
Is there any reward?
I’m beginning to doubt it.
I am broken and bored,
Is there any reward
Reassure me, Good Lord,
And inform me about it.
Is there any reward?
I’m beginning to doubt it.
In the years that followed the war, he wrote a series of historical biographies and religious texts. In 1942 he suffered a stroke, which left him debilitated for the next eleven years, until his death on July 16, 1953, nine days before his 83rd birthday.
What is one to make of Hilaire Belloc?
He’s so many people. I’ll stick with the children’s poet, for all the Hilaire-ious fun.
- Verses and Sonnets (1896)
- A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896)
- More Beasts for Worse Children (1897)
- A Moral Alphabet (1899)
- Cautionary Tales for Children (1907)
- Verses (1910)
- More Peers (1911)
- More Cautionary Tales (1930)
- An Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine (1932)
- Songs of the South Country: Selected Poems (1951)
- Mr. Clutterbuck’s Election (1908)
- A Change in the Cabinet (1909)
- Pongo and the Bull (1910)
- The Postmaster General (1932)
- The French Revolution (1911)
- The Party System (1911)
- History of England (1915)
- The Two Maps of Europe (1915)
- Europe and Faith (1920)
- The Cruise of the Nona (1925)
- Oliver Cromwell (1927)
- James II (1928)
- Wolsey (1930)
- Crammer (1931)
- Napoleon (1932)
- Charles II (1940)
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/hilaire-belloc
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/hilaire-belloc
- Reely’s Blog: http://reelyredd.com/the-true-love-story-of-hilaire-belloc-and-elodie-hogan.htm
- Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hilaire-Belloc
- All Poetry: https://allpoetry.com/Hilaire-Belloc
- Introduction, Polar Bear and Sarah Byng are illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood from the original printing of the books
- Charles Augustus Fortescue – mansion is the Harper-Fowlkes House in Savannah GA
- Hildebrand – horseless carriage from a Punch cartoon
- Is There Any Reward? – photo of Hilaire Beloc
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud