Monday, January 16, 2006

Belloc in Expression

Though he is overshadowed (sometimes, perhaps unfairly) by his enormous friend G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc was nonetheless capable of speaking with force, candour and good humour when the situation called for it. We have seen a good example of this in the essay to which I linked yesterday. I offer today two more examples, though smaller in scope.

Belloc, as most of you will hopefully be aware, was one of few politically-minded authors of his time to actually hold office. Contemporaries like H.G. Wells and Jack London ran - and lost.

Belloc ran for the House of Commons in 1906, and, though he eventually won, he had to overcome his share of intolerance, both with regard to his actual politics and to his religion.

On the occasion of his forst campaign speech, Belloc took to the stage with a rosary in his hands and an angry stare, the piercing gimlet eyes we have so often seen in his pictures sweeping across the audience like machine gun fire. Saith he, "gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to mass every day... As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative."

Though this pronouncement is demonstrative of the righteous thunder that Belloc could bring down upon the unwary, he was also archly aware of the foibles of his particular lifestyle. He once famously advised that a young writer should "concentrate on one subject. Let him, when he is twenty, write about the earthworm. Let him continue for forty years to write of nothing but the earthworm. When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world's great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm."

Finally, we can turn to his ingenuity with light verse. Chesterton has remarked in his Autobiography upon Belloc's production of the only real battle song for social movements. It was "real," Chesterton opined, because it actually had some elements of battle and strategy to it. While Belloc's counterparts relied on bland appeals to the sun rising, or the approach of dawn, or other various inevitabilities, Belloc... well, let's let Chesterton tell it:
And then Belloc wrote a poem called "The Rebel," and nobody noticed the interesting point about it. It is a very violent and bitter poem; it would be much too revolutionary for most of the revolutionists; even those with red ties would blush, and those with pale green ties would turn pale and green with sickness, at such threats against the rich as break out here--"and hack their horses at the knees and hew to death their timber trees," and the very fine ending, "and all these things I mean to do; for fear perhaps my little son should break his hands as I have done."

That is not a Song Before Sunrise. That is an attack before sunrise. But the peculiar point I wish to note here, appears in the previous verse about the actual nature of the attack. It is the only revolutionary poem I ever read, that suggested that there was any plan for making any attack. The first two lines of the verse run: "When we shall find them where they stand, a mile of men on either hand?" The Comrades of the Dawn always seemed to be marching in column, and singing. They never seemed to have heard of deploying; into the long line that faces the foe for battle. The next two lines are: "I mean to charge from right away, and force the flanks of their array." Whoever heard of the Comrades of the Dawn having so complicated an idea as that of turning the enemy's flank? Then comes the encirclement:

And press them inward from the plains
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.

The Pursuit; and then the Holding of the Bridgehead.

Now that is the only Song of the Class War I ever read that has the haziest notion of what a war would be like. In this wild lyric, full of vindictive violence and destruction, there is also in quite swift lyrical form a perfectly clear tactical plan and military map; a definite description of how men may storm a fortress, if it has to be stormed. The violence of this democratic, though doubtless dramatic, utterance goes far beyond anything that any Communist will reach in a hundred years. But it involves also the real character of battle; and a battle, like every human work, is at once designed in its beginning and doubtful in its end. Now the Comrades of the Dawn already annoyed me; because their revolution was wildly undesigned in its beginning, but had no doubt about its end. Just like Imperialism; and the South African War.
So turn a thought to Hilaire Belloc in your idle moments, if you've the mind. He is worth a look.

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