POETS Day! Hilaire Belloc

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Happy POETS Day! Welcome one and all to the gateway. On the other side? Henry Fords greatest invention: The Weekend. This morning you got up as you always do and despite yourself, fell into wakefulness. After trying to tame your hair and doing whatever else is your habit to make yourself presentable you found yourself at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in your hand and burning desire not to look up at the clock because you knew what it would say. The sprint out the door left you with your hat on backwards as your arms tried to flap themselves into a coat and two blocks later, arms still flapping, you just avoided getting pinched by the bus doors and off you went. At work you wandered in and wandered out – a cigarette could help to clear your mind and make you more productive – and wandered back in and it began. Somebody from accounting started blathering on about a dinner receipt from last month and without preamble you found yourself in the cyclical nightmare and there’s nothing fair about that. No guidance counselor in high school used the word drudgery. Fie on their houses. You didn’t agree to this. Just two days a week to yourself? No. Take it back. Even if it’s just a symbolic few hours on a Friday afternoon. Take it back. End this life’s work aspirational garbage and see it as what it is: one of the thousands of potholes on the road to your happiness. Go see a show, grab a beer, meet some friends for a game, or just wander aimlessly around the park. It’s not the company’s time. It’s yours. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Do it quickly or you might forget you don’t always have to live by the rules.


This week’s featured poet is Hilaire Belloc. I wonder what he would call himself. He certainly was a poet but he was also a British MP, lecturer, debater, and apologist. As to the breadth of his non-poetic writings, allpoetry.com notes,

“His first book was a small volume of verse, published in 1896, and from then on a torrent of books, pamphlets, letters etc. poured from his pen. It astonishes, not only in its bulk but in its diversity; French and British history, military strategy, satire, comic and serious verse, literary criticism, topography and travel, translations, religious, social and political commentary, long-running controversies with such opponents as H.G. wells and Dr. G.G. Coulton, and hundreds of essays, fill over one hundred and fifty volumes. It is little wonder that A.P. Herbert described him as ‘the man who wrote a library’.”

It’s noted in passing that he was a walker, which is a mistake. He was a prodigious walker. A walker of distinction. I’d say the man absolutely loved to take walks and I say this not having read any confirmation by Belloc himself that he did it for pleasure and fully aware of C.S. Lewis’s admonitions against imparting motivations to the actions of others without evidence because if this man didn’t thoroughly and totally love taking walks he ranks with Swinburne and whoever married that annoying guy down the street who won’t shut up about the need for a stop sign on my block among history’s great masochists.

He fell in love at an age his mother considered too young to marry with a girl whose mother had her destined for the convent. When the girl and her family returned to California, Belloc, under the pretense of visiting relatives in Philadelphia, steamed from England to New York, took a train to stay with the relatives for a perfunctory visit, and then took a train as far towards California as his budget would allow. I’m unclear on where he ran out of cash, but it seems to be somewhere in the Midwest. He walked the rest of the way, trading poems, readings, and sketches for lodging in farmhouses or wherever as he went. When he finally got to San Francisco she let him know that her mom was serious about the convent, but thanks anyway. He fought the Lawd and the Lawd won, at least for a time. Her mother eventually died and she only gave the nunnery a month. They married years later.

While admiring the church on a visit to the town where he was born in France, he decided he should walk to Rome, so he did. He wrote on his transalpine travels about the people he met as well as on subjects that happen to amuse him on the journey. The result was his book The Path to Rome.

As far as I know he didn’t time either of those walks. He did time the walk he made as an undergraduate, with fellow student Anthony Henley, from Carfax Tower in Oxford to Marble Arch in London. The average participant completes a marathon in four and an half to five hours. Belloc and Henley made their tower to arch walk in eleven and a half hours, setting a new record for the fifty-five mile, more than double a marathon, trip. Unsurprisingly, they set a record.

Belloc is known for a “musical” style of poetry that suggests traditional song forms. All poems have a songlike quality to them, but he emphasized that quality, even in his sonnets. He kept true to the sonnet form but many of his are punctuated so as to force a stop at the end of lines in a way that encourages a “sing-song” reading. Among his most famous compositions is “Tarantella,” named after a traditional Mediterranean dance. It’s worth a listen as he intended it to be performed. You can hear Belloc himself read, sing actually, it here along with three other poems.

He may be best know as for his light children’s verse which he released in volumes illustrated by Edward Gorey and Basil Temple Blackwood and possibly by himself and G.K. Chesterton (with whom Belloc was so close George Bernard Shaw referred to them as Chesterbelloc) who both contributed drawings to his adult works. The tone was satirical and teasing. The collections, with titles like Cautionary Tales for ChildrenBad Child’s Book of Beasts, and More Beast for Worse Children were filled with humorous poems that carried a moral but poked fun at moralizing and invited the children to be a part of the joke. There was “Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun and Perished Miserably,” “Matilda: Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death,” and “Lord Lundy: Who Was Too Freely Moved to Tears, and Thereby Ruined His Political Career.” He was making kid’s fare amusing to parents long before Disney hired Robin Williams.

Today’s poem was not included in his Children’s books, but it was written for a child. It’s light verse with an admonishing smile and at the end a warning that’s also a wistful recognition. It’s not epic or high art. It’s the type of clever and kind use of talent that should make both the giver and the recipient proud.

Dedication on the Gift of a Book to a Child

Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953)

Child! do not throw this book about!
Refrain from the unholy pleasure
Of cutting all the pictures out!
Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.

Child, have you never heard it said
That you are heir to all the ages?
Why, then, your hands were never made
To tear these beautiful thick pages!

Your little hands were made to take
The better things and leave the worse ones:
They also may be used to shake
The Massive Paws of Elder Persons.

And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.

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