The Hilarity Of Hilaire by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

I remember some friends of mine telling me how they went down to Horsham, in Sussex, to see Hilaire Belloc. They found him in the cellar, seated astraddle of a gigantic wine-cask just arrived from France, about to proceed upon the delicate (and congenial) task of bottling the wine. He greeted them like jovial Silenus, and with competitive shouts of laughter the fun went forward. The wine was strained, bottled, sealed, labelled, and binned, the master of the vintage initiating his young visitors into the rite with bubbling and infectious gaiety–improvising verses, shouting with merriment, full of an energy and vivacity almost inconceivable to Saxon phlegm. My friends have always remembered it as one of the most diverting afternoons of their lives; and after the bottling was done and all hands thoroughly tired, he took them a swinging tramp across the Sussex Downs, talking hard all the way.

I

That is the Belloc we all know and love: vigorous, Gallic, bursting with energy, hospitality, and wit: the enfant terrible of English letters for the past fifteen years. Mr. Joyce Kilmer’s edition of Belloc’s verses is very welcome.[C] His introduction is charming: the tribute of an understanding lover. Perhaps he labours a little in proving that Belloc is essentially a poet rather than a master of prose; perhaps too some of his judgments of Pater, Hardy, Scott, and others of whom one has heard, are precipitate and smack a little of the lecture circuit: but there is much to be grateful for in his affectionate and thoughtful tribute. Perhaps we do not enough realize how outstanding and how engaging a figure Mr. Belloc is.

[Footnote C: Verses by Hilaire Belloc; with an introduction by Joyce Kilmer. New York: Laurence J. Gomme, 1916.]

Hilaire Belloc is of soldierly, artistic, and lettered blood. Four of his great-uncles were generals under Napoleon. The father of his grandmother fought under Soult at Corunna. A brother of his grandmother was wounded at Waterloo.

His grandmother, Louise Marie Swanton, who died in 1890, lived both in France and England, and was famous as the translator into French of Moore’s “Life of Byron,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and works by Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell. She married Hilaire Belloc, an artist, whose pictures are in the Louvre and many French museums; his tomb may be seen in Pere la Chaise. Their son was Louis Swanton Belloc, a lawyer, who married an English wife.

The only son of this couple was the present Hilaire Belloc, born at Lacelle St. Cloud, July 27, 1870–the “Terrible Year” it was called–until 1914.

Louis Belloc died in 1872, and as a very small child Hilaire went to live in Sussex, the gracious shire which both he and Rudyard Kipling have so often and so thrillingly commemorated. Slindon, near Arundel, became his home, the rolling hills, clean little rivers, and picturesque villages of the South Downs moulded his boyish thoughts.

In 1883 he went to the famous Catholic school at Edgbaston. Mr. Thomas Seccombe, in a recent article on Belloc (from which I dip a number of biographical facts), quotes a description of him at this period:

“I remember very well Belloc coming to the Oratory School–some time in ’83, I suppose. He was a small, squat person, of the shaggy kind, with a clever face and sharp, bright eyes. Being amongst English boys, his instinctive combativeness made him assume a decidedly French pose, and this no doubt brought on him many a gibe, which, we may be equally sure, he was well able to return. I was amongst the older boys, saw little of him. But I recollect finding him cine day studying a high wall (of the old Oratory Church, since pulled down). It turned out that he was calculating its exact height by some cryptic mathematical process which he proceeded to explain. I concealed my awe, and did not tell him that I understood nothing of his terms, his explanations, or deductions; it would have been unsuitable for a big fellow to be taught by a ‘brat.’ In those days the boys used to act Latin plays of Terence, which enjoyed a certain celebrity, and from his first year Belloc was remarkable. His rendering of the impudent servant maid was the inauguration of a series of triumphs during his whole school career.”

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In ’89 Hilaire left school, and served for a year in the French field artillery, in a regiment stationed at Toul. Here he revived the Gallic heritage which was naturally his, learned to talk continually in French, and to drink wine. You will remember that in “The Path to Rome” he starts from Toul; but I cannot quote the passage; someone (who the devil is it?) has borrowed my copy. It is the perpetual fate of that book–everyone should have six copies.

After the rough and saline company of French gunners it is a comical contrast to find him winning a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford–admittedly the most rarefied and azure-pedalled precinct in England. He matriculated at Balliol in January, 1895, and was soon known as one of the “characters” of the college. There was little of the lean and pallid clerk of Oxenford in his bearing: he was the Roman candle of the Junior Common Room, where the vivacious and robust humour of the barracks at Toul at first horrified and then captivated the men from the public schools. Alternately blasphemous and idolatrous he may have seemed to Winchester and Eton: a devil for work and a genius at play. He swam, wrestled, shouted, rode, drank, and debated, says Mr. Seccombe. He read strange books, swore strange oaths, and amazed his tutors by the fire and fury of his historical study. His rooms were a continual focus of noise: troops of friends, song, loud laughter, and night-long readings from Rabelais. And probably his battels, if they are still recorded in the Balliol buttery, would show a larger quantity of ale and wine consumed than by any other man who ever made drinking a fine art at Balliol. Some day perhaps some scholar will look the matter up.

Balliol is not beautiful: more than any other of the older colleges in Oxford, she has suffered from the “restorations” of the 70’s and 80’s. It is a favourite jest to pretend to confuse her with the Great Western Railway Station, which never fails to bring a flush to a Balliol cheek. But whatever the merciless hand of the architect has done to turn her into a jumble of sham Gothic spikes and corners, no one can doubt her wholesome democracy of intellect, her passion for sound scholarship, and the unsurpassable gift of her undergraduates for the delicately obscene. This may be the wake of a tradition inaugurated by Belloc; but I think it goes farther back than that. At any rate, in Oxford the young energumen found himself happy and merry beyond words: he worked brilliantly, was a notable figure in the Union debates, argued passionately against every conventional English tradition, and attacked authority, complacence, and fetichism of every kind. Never were dons of the donnish sort more brilliantly twitted than by young Belloc. And, partly because of his failure to capture an All Souls fellowship (the most coveted prize of intellectual Oxford) the word “don” has retained a tinge of acid in Belloc’s mind ever since. (Who can read without assentive chuckles his delicious “Lines to a Don!” It was the favourite of all worthy dons at Oxford when I was there.) He has never had any reverence for a man merely because he held a post of authority.

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Of the Balliol years Mr. Seccombe says:

“He was a few years older and more experienced than most of his college friends, but had lost little of the intoxication, the contagion and the ringing laughter of earliest manhood. He dazzled and infected everyone with his mockery and his laughter. There never was such an undergraduate, so merry, so learned in medieval trifling and terminology, so perfectly spontaneous in rhapsody and extravaganza, so positive and final in his judgments–who spoke French, too, like a Frenchman, in a manner unintelligible to our public-school-French-attuned ears.”

No one can leave those Balliol years behind without some hope to quote the ringing song in which Belloc recalled them at the time of the Boer War. It is the perfect expression of joyful masculine life and overflowing fellowship. It echoes unforgettably in the mind.

TO THE BALLIOL MEN STILL IN AFRICA

Years ago when I was at Balliol,
Balliol men–and I was one–
Swam together in winter rivers,
Wrestled together under the sun.
And still in the heart of us, Balliol, Balliol,
Loved already, but hardly known,
Welded us each of us into the others:
Called a levy and chose her own.

Here is a House that armours a man
With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger,
And a laughing way in the teeth of the world
And a holy hunger and thirst for danger:
Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again:
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.

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:
But angry, lonely, hating it still,
I wished to be there in spite of the wrong.
My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill
And the hammer of galloping all day long.

Galloping outward into the weather,
Hands a-ready and battle in all:
Words together and wine together
And song together in Balliol Hall.
Rare and single! Noble and few!…
Oh! they have wasted you over the sea!
The only brothers ever I knew,
The men that laughed and quarrelled with me.

* * * * *

Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again;
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.

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Belloc took a First in the Modern History School in 1895. No one ever experienced more keenly the tingling thrill of the eager student who finds himself cast into the heart of Oxford’s abundant life: the thousands of books so generously alive; the hundreds of acute and worthy rivals crossing steel on steel in play, work, and debate; the endless throb of passionate speculation into all the crowding problems of human history. The zest and fervour of those younger days he has never outgrown, and there are few writers of our time who have appealed so imperiously to the young. In the Oxford before the war all the undergraduates were reading Belloc: you would hardly find a college room that did not shelve one or two of his volumes.

II

There is no space to chronicle the life in detail. The romantic voyage to California, and marriage at twenty-six (Mrs. Belloc died in 1914); his life in Chelsea and then in Sussex; the books on Revolutionary France, on military history, biography and topography; the flashing essays, political satires, and whimsical burlesques that ran so swiftly from his pen–it did not take England long to learn that this man was very much alive. In 1903 he was naturalized as a British subject, and humorously contemplated changing his name to “Hilary Bullock.” In 1906 he joined the Liberal benches in the House of Commons, but the insurgent spirit that had cried out in college debates against the lumbering shams of British political life was soon stabbing at the party system. Here was a ringing voice indeed: one can hear that clear, scornful tenor startling the House with its acid arraignment of parliamentary stratagems and spoils. As Mr. Kilmer says, “British politicians will not soon forget the motion which Hilaire Belloc introduced one day in the early Spring of 1908, that the Party funds, hitherto secretly administered, be publicly audited. His vigorous and persistent campaign against the party system has placed him, with Cecil Chesterton, in the very front ranks of those to whom the democrats of Great Britain must look for leadership and inspiration.”

Perhaps we can take issue with Mr. Kilmer in his estimate of Belloc’s importance as a poet. He is a born singer, of course; his heart rises to a lyric just as his tongue to wine and argument and his legs to walking or saddle leather. But he writes poetry as every honest man should: in an imperative necessity to express a passing squall of laughter, anger, or reverence; and in earnest hope of being condemned by Mr. W.S. Braithwaite, which happens to so few. His “The South Country” will make splendid many an anthology. But who shall say that his handful of verses, witty, debonair, bacchanalian, and tender, is his most important contribution?

What needs to be said is that Belloc is an authentic child gotten of Rabelais. I can never forget a lecture I heard him give in the famous Examination Schools at Oxford–that noble building consecrated to human suffering, formerly housing the pangs of students and now by sad necessity a military hospital. Ruddy of cheek, a burly figure in his academic gown, without a scrap of notes and armed only with an old volume of Rabelais in the medieval French, he held us spellbound for an hour and a half–or was it three hours?–with flashing extempore talk about this greatest figure of the Renaissance.

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Rabelais, he told us, was the symbolic figure of the incoming tide of Europe’s rebirth in the sixteenth century. Rabelais, the priest, physician, and compounder of a new fish sauce, held that life is its own justification, and need not be lived in doleful self-abasement. Do what you wish, enjoy life, be interested in a thousand things, feel a perpetual inquisitive delight in all the details of human affairs! The gospel of exuberance–that is Rabelais. Is it not Belloc, too?

Rabelais came from Touraine–the heart of Gaul, the island of light in which the tradition of civilization remained unbroken. One understands Rabelais better if one knows the Chinon wine, Belloc added. His writing is married to the soil and landscape from which he sprang. His extraordinary volatility proceeds from a mind packed full of curiosity and speculation. For an instance of his exuberance see his famous list of fools, in which all fools whatsoever that ever walked on earth are included.

Now no one who loves Belloc can paddle in Rabelais without seeing that he, too, was sired from Chinon. Dip into Gargantua: there you will find the oinolatrous and gastrolatrous catalogues that Belloc daily delights in; the infectious droll patter of speech, piling quip on quip. Then look again into “The Path to Rome.” How well does Mr. John Macy tell us “literature is not born spontaneously out of life. Every book has its literary parentage, and criticism reads like an Old Testament chapter of ‘begats.’ Every novel was suckled at the breasts of older novels.”

III

In Belloc we find the perfect union of the French and English minds. Rabelaisian in fecundity, wit, and irrepressible sparkle, he is also of English blood and sinew, wedded to the sweet Sussex weald. History, politics, economics, military topography, poetry, novels, satires, nonsense rhymes–all these we may set aside as the hundred curiosities of an eager mind. (The dons, by the way, say that in his historical work he generalizes too hastily; but was ever history more crisply written?) It is in the essays, the thousand little inquirendoes into the nature of anything, everything or nothing, that one comes closest to the real man. His prose leaps and sparks from the pen. It is whimsical, tender, biting, garrulous. It is familiar and unfettered as open-air talk. His passion for places–roads, rivers, hills, and inns; his dancing persiflage and buoyancy; his Borrovian love of vagabondage–these are the glories of a style that is quick, close-knit, virile, and vibrant. Here Belloc ranks with Bunyan, Swift, and Defoe.

Whoso dotes upon fine prose, prose interlaced with humour, pathos, and whim, orchestrated to a steady rhythm, coruscated with an exquisite tenderness for all that is lovable and high spirited on this dancing earth, go you now to some bookseller and procure for yourself a little volume called “A Picked Company” where Mr. E.V. Lucas has gathered some of the best of Mr. Belloc’s pieces. Therein will you find love of food, companionship, cider and light wines; love of children, artillery, and inns in the outlands; love of salt water, great winds, and brown hills at twilight–in short, passionate devotion to all the dear devices that make life so sweet. Hear him on “A Great Wind”:

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A great wind is every man’s friend, and its strength is the strength of good fellowship; and even doing battle with it is something worthy and well chosen. It is health in us, I say, to be full of heartiness and of the joy of the world, and of whether we have such health our comfort in a great wind is a good test indeed. No man spends his day upon the mountains when the wind is out, riding against it or pushing forward on foot through the gale, but at the end of his day feels that he has had a great host about him. It is as though he had experienced armies. The days of high winds are days of innumerable sounds, innumerable in variation of tone and of intensity, playing upon and awakening innumerable powers in man. And the days of high wind are days in which a physical compulsion has been about us and we have met pressure and blows, resisted and turned them; it enlivens us with the simulacrum of war by which nations live, and in the just pursuit of which men in companionship are at their noblest.

IV

And lest all this disjointed talk about Belloc’s prose seem but ungracious recognition of Mr. Kilmer’s service in reminding us of the poems, let us thank him warmly for his essay. Let us thank him for impressing upon us that there are living to-day men who write as nobly and simply as Belloc on Sussex, with his sweet broken music:

I never get between the pines
But I smell the Sussex air;
Nor I never come on a belt of sand
But my home is there.
And along the sky the line of the Downs
So noble and so bare.

A lost thing could I never find,
Nor a broken thing mend:
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get towards the end.
Who will there be to comfort me
Or who will be my friend?

I will gather and carefully make my friends
Of the men of the Sussex Weald,
They watch the stars from silent folds,
They stiffly plough the field.
By them and the God of the South Country
My poor soul shall be healed.

If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.

I will hold my house in the high wood
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.

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