Hilaire Belloc, the Man and  His Work - Edward Shanks - ebook

Edward Richard Buxton Shanks (11 June 1892 – 4 May 1953) was an English writer, known as a war poet of World War I, then as an academic and journalist, and literary critic and biographer. He also wrote some science fiction. He was born in London, and educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He passed his B.A. in History in 1913. He was editor of Granta from 1912–13. He served in World War I with the British Army in France, but was invalided out in 1915, and did administrative work until war's end. He was later a literary reviewer, working for the London Mercury (1919–22) and for a short while a lecturer at the University of Liverpool (1926). He was the chief leader-writer for the Evening Standard from 1928 to 1935. The People of the Ruins (1920) was a science-fiction novel in which a man wakes after being put into suspended animation in 1924, to discover a devastated Britain 150 years in the future.[1] The People of the Ruins has an anti-communist subtext (the future 1924 is devastated by Marxist revolutionaries).

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Hilaire Belloc, the Man and His Work

C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks





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[viii] 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[ix] 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[x] 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[xi] 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;[xii] 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?"





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.[xvi]







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 him[2]self 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[3] 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[4] 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[6] 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[7] 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[8] 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[9] 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.



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[10] 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[11] 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.