THE ESSENTIAL BELLOC: A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES
Edited by Rev. C. John McCloskey, Scott J. Bloch and Brian Robertson
Saint Benedict Press, $17.95, 289 pages
Reviewed by Brett M. Decker
”There never was a time … when the mass of men had less to do with the way in which they were governed.” This protest didn’t come from some Tea Partyer in the Midwest frustrated at our out-of-control government. It was penned nearly a century ago by Hilaire Belloc, an Edwardian poet, historian, war chronicler, artilleryman, wayfarer, political essayist and sometimes member of the British Parliament. Belloc was a prototype for today’s know-it-all celebrity pundits, with the exception that he really did know quite a lot regarding just about everything.
Over the course of his 83 years, which began at the height of Queen Victoria’s empire and ended in 1953 amid England’s postwar ruination, this writer cranked out more than 150 books, countless articles and essays, a treasure trove of poems and loads of personal correspondence. In “The Essential Belloc,” the editors boil down all the pithy quotes, pointed barbs and serious observations of this lifetime of letters and provide us with a nutshell of ideas. Belloc was known as a controversialist, mostly because of his reactionary bent in a progressive era, but he was above all a reflective person. The preponderance of his writing is strung together by an instinctive skepticism of the modern world and foreboding for the spiritual pitfalls of a secular society barreling toward outright atheism.
Belloc was ahead of his time in predicting a Muslim resurgence and the problems that would cause the West. As far back as the 1930s, he warned, “We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will rise.” His alarm that an amoral Western civilization which no longer believed in itself risked collapse or conquest continues to ring true. He saw the weakening of old-world religion at the center of this crisis. “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine, but for unbelievers, here is proof of its divinity, that no merely human institution run with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight,” he wrote. As a believer, he struggled to maintain hope despite the odds and always counseled that in the end, faith - backed up by militant defense for what is right - perseveres.
“The Essential Belloc” focuses on the philosophical aspects of this man’s worldview. Even the more playful highlights - such as his “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine” - delve into the serious side of being able to appreciate and enjoy life. As Jesuit Father James V. Schall explains in the preface, “To delight in existence itself, this is the highest mark of sanctity and reality.” This delight is part of an obligation to show gratitude for our existence by worshiping God. As creatures, we are expected to thank our Creator for creating us. This Belloc does in spades, particularly in songs and epigrams he composed celebrating everything from ale, fictitious monsters and combat to church services, sailing and romance. Many of his lines are familiar today even to those who wouldn’t recognize Belloc’s name, such as, “Love’s self is sad. Love’s lack is sadder still. / But Love unloved, O, that’s the greatest ill!”
It’s too bad more of this last subject isn’t revealed in this book because “Hilary” the suffering poet can be as gripping as “Old Thunder” the propagandist and proselytizer. As a lovesick young buck, he sailed from Old Blighty to America and then walked from New York to California to propose to his future wife. She died young, and his heart - not his head - motivated him to wear black mourning clothes for decades afterwards and only use stationary with black borders. How this passionate emotional streak was restrained by his strong value system is central to understanding his life and inspired some of his most lasting verse. For years, this man of the world nursed an all-consuming crush on socialite divorcee Lady Juliet Duff, about whom he touchingly scribbled, “How did the party go in Portman’s Square? / I cannot tell you; Juliet was not there. / And how did Lady Gaster’s party go? / Juliet was next to me so I do not know.” Despite mutual adoration, Hilaire could not act upon these feelings because the Catholic Church (back then anyway) was serious about its prohibition against divorce.
Belloc attracted fiercely loyal friendships, especially among women. He cherished the companionship found drinking and talking around a roaring fire; his remedy for bouts of loneliness and melancholy were road trips to meet old pals and make new ones. Even this had its limits, as he lost some important people in his life over political or ideological differences. “The worst thing in the world is the passing of human affection,” he lamented. “No man who has lost a friend need fear death.” The theme of loss is a constant thread throughout Belloc’s work. We have the editors of this gem to thank for helping make sure the wisdom of a great thinker isn’t lost.
The epitaph Belloc suggested for himself was, “When I am dead / I hope it may be said: / ‘His sins were scarlet, / but his books were read.’ ” This collection stirs the reader to dig up many of those old yet timeless books.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, November 2011).