Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Monday, 16 September 2013

Hilaire Belloc's Verse on Our Lady and the Challenge of the Faith - Dr. Robert Hickson.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation - West Grinstead

Dr Robert Hickson specifically wrote this essay for the HB Blog and dedicated it on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (the 60th anniversary of Belloc's death). I regret that I was not able to publish it on that date...
Two years before Hilaire Belloc's death on 16 July 1953, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel—and it was so fitting that he died on a feast day of Our Lady, whom he so deeply cherished— the Duckworth Publishing House brought out a little book which is itself so revelatory of the challenge of the Faith, Belloc's own most inward yearnings, and his fears. That representative anthology is entitled Songs of the South Country: Selected from the Poems of H. Belloc.[1]

This selection contains, among other coruscating gems, Belloc's modest verse entitled “Courtesy,”[2] which he first gave as a little gift to the Prior of the Sussex Norbertine Monastery he was visiting afoot, on 17 May 1908. It was even called the Priory of Our Lady of England, which was then being maintained and sustained by the French Canons Regular of Prémontré. In his verse he gratefully responded to their own gracious hospitality, itself so aptly summed up in the long-traditional Benedictine aphorism, “Hospes venit, Christus venit.” That is to say, when a guest comes, it is as if (should be as if) Christ Himself comes.

As we ourselves gratefully remember Hilaire Belloc this year, especially on the 60th Anniversary of his death, let us first consider this brief and evocatively allusive poem of seven short, rhymed stanzas (six four-line ones, and a final three-line stanza). For, it shows a special aspect of Belloc's own humble answering heart: indeed the intimate bond he perceived between attentive courtesy and charity. We shall then also better be able to consider how he later met and expressed the challenge of the Faith: given the Faith's inherent tests, or trials, and its unmistakable adventures, hence risks.

In the first stanza of “Courtesy,” it beginning (perhaps unexpectedly) with a small preposition “Of,” he sets forth his theme:

                   Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.[3]

He then presents the religious setting for his comparative comment and refreshing insight, to include the prompt hospitable reception by his hosts, which thus further enhances his attentive perceptions: especially the sequence of sudden glimpses of Our Lady in artful images of beauty:

                   On Monks I did in Storrington fall,
They took me straight into their Hall;
I saw Three Pictures on the wall,
And Courtesy was in them all.

We are then introduced to three of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, with a gracious variation in the third one, and hence a new nuance of meaning:

                   The first the Annunciation;
The second the Visitation;
The third the Consolation,
Of God that was Our Lady's Son.[4]

Then our Belloc presents different figures and gestures of politeness, as seen in the paintings:
                   The first was of Saint Gabriel;
On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;
And as he went upon one knee
He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

And as to the Second Mystery, he noted:

                   Our Lady out of Nazareth rode—
It was her month of heavy load;
Yet was Her face both great and kind,
For Courtesy was in Her mind.

Then we glimpse the Third Mystery, what he earlier called the Consolation of God; and in Belloc's affectionate diminutives he also conveys the Humility of God:

                   The third it was our Little Lord,
Whom all the kings in arms adored;
He was so small you could not see
His large intent of Courtesy.

With somewhat compressed syntax, he concludes his courteous verse on Courtesy with a specifically individuated benediction, and in a rhyming triplet:

                   Our Lord, that was Our Lady's Son,
God bless you, People, one by one;
My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

Then we may imagine his repose in the hospitable monastery, after perhaps imbibing some red wine in the refectory with the welcoming monks, who also may not that evening have been averse to song! Or, can we not hear Hilaire Belloc reciting among them his own “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine”[5]—and especially its concluding, partly elegiac, but also humbly hopeful, lines:

                           When from the waste of such long labour done *
                               I too must leave the grape ennnobling sun
And like the vineyard worker take my way
Down the long shadows of declining day,
Bend on the sombre plain my clouded sight
And leave the mountain to the advancing night,
Come to the term of all that was mine own,
With nothingness before me, and alone;
Then to what hope of answer shall I turn?
Comrade-Commander whom I dared not earn,
What said You then to trembling friends and few?
“A moment, and I drink with you new:
But in my Father's Kingdom.” So, my Friend,
Let not Your cup desert me in the end.
But when the hour of mine adventure's near
Just and benignant, let my youth appear
Bearing a Chalice, open, golden, wide,
With benediction graven on its side.
So touch my dying lip: so bridge that deep,
So pledge my waking from the gift of sleep,
And, sacramental, raise me the Divine:
                   Strong brother in God and last companion, Wine.[6]
   [“Tantus Labor not sit Cassus”—from the Dies Irae]

Only the precious accidents will remain, however—to include the taste and fragrance—after that Chalice's final Consecration and the benediction of its Viaticum.

The last four lines of Belloc's initial Dedication of his Sonnets and Verse to his friend, the Classicist, John Swinnerton Phillimore, will now mean even more to us, especially in this context of his concluding allusions and evocations in the “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine.” For, the second part of that Dedication characteristically alludes to the soul of childhood:

                    Do you [Phillimore] that have the child's diviner part—
The dear content a love familiar brings—
Take these imperfect toys [verses], till in your heart
                   They too attain the form of perfect things.[7]

Hence, too, the changed Substantial Form of the contents of the newly consecrated Chalice, with only the perceptible accidents of the Wine remaining. 

With reference to Our Lady and her Son, Belloc's “Ballade of Illegal Ornaments” also ends with a comparably unforgettable Envoi, which will take us unexpectedly back anew to the words of the traditional prayer, the Salve, Regina. But, that trenchant Envoi will be much better understood, if we first see what Belloc himself says, by way of introduction and Epigraph, where he mentions the recurrent allure and effective enactment of an Iconoclastic Fury, inasmuch as “...the controversy was ended by His Lordship, who wrote to the Incumbent ordering him to remove from the Church all Illegal Ornaments at once, and especially a Female Figure with a Child.”[8]

After this Imperious and Iconoclastic Command by “His Lordship,” we may better grasp Belloc's own heartfelt petition in his Envoi, and also thereby suddenly see some specific words of the “Salve! Regina” afresh:

Prince Jesus, in mine Agony,
Permit me, broken and defiled,
Through blurred and glazing eyes to see
                   A Female Figure with a Child.[9]

(And the traditional prayer to Our Lady we may also now, in part, recall: “Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exilium ostende”!)

As it is to be especially seen in his varied verse, Hilaire Belloc often humbly expressed a fear that he would not make it to Vita Aeterna (or Beatitude) after all, in the end. But it was a fear fittingly corresponding to the Donum Timoris—the Holy Ghost's infused Gift of Fear—which is itself a guardian, a protection, against sinful Presumption, one of the two sins against Hope, as well as a form of sinful Pride. For example, amidst his gracious verse, “The South Country,” he suddenly says:

                    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 be there to comfort me
                   Or who will be my friend?[10]

But, as Belloc also resiliently says at the end of his poem “The Winged Horse”:

               For you [Oxford?] that took the all-in-all the things you left were three.
A loud voice for singing and keen eyes to see.
And a spouting well of joy within that never yet was dried!
   And I ride.[11]

Belloc also had the gift of joy and radiated it often, as well; and this we must likewise not forget. Yet, in his poem, “Prophet Lost in the Hills at Evening,” some of the same fears return, although he always hopes in Our Lady, as if she were indeed a Mediatrix of the most precious and  finally blessed Gifts. For, when she seems not to be immediately present, Belloc is usually more afraid. In the “Prophet Lost in the Hills at Evening,” for example, he even fearsomely says:

                   Strong God which made the topmost stars...
Remember me; whom all the bars
Of sense and dreadful fate enforce....
I hunger and I have no bread.
My gourd is empty of the wine.
Surely the footsteps of the dead
Are shuffling softly close to mine!
It darkens. I have lost the ford.

There is a change in all things made.
The rocks have evil faces, Lord,
And I am awfully afraid.
Remember me: The Voids of Hell
Expand enormous all around.
Strong friend of souls, Emmanuel,
Redeem me from accursed ground.
The long descent of wasted days,
To these at last have led me down;
Remember that I filled with praise
The meaningless and doubtful ways
That lead to an eternal town.
I challenged and I kept the Faith,
The bleeding path alone I trod;
It darkens. Stand about my wraith,
                   And harbour me—almighty God.[12]

In his short verse, entitled “Twelfth Night,” he concludes with these provisional and comparably elegiac lines:

Across the rime their marching rang,
And in a little while they sang;
They sang a song I used to know,
Gloria in Excelsis Domino.
The frozen way those people trod [that “company of Travellers who would talk with me”]
It led towards the Mother of God;
Perhaps if I had travelled with them
                   I might have come to Bethlehem.[13]

In his little verse “In a Boat,” Belloc once more reaches out with yearning and courtesy and reverence to Our Lady:

Lady! Lady!
Upon heaven-height,
Above the harsh morning
In the mere light....
The twisting tides,
And the perilous sands
Upon all sides
Are in your holy hands.

The wind harries
And the cold kills;
But I see your chapel
Over far hills.

My body is frozen,
My soul is afraid:
Stretch out your hands to me,
Mother and maid.

Mother of Christ,
And Mother of me,
Save me alive
From the howl of the sea.

If you will Mother me
Till I grow old,
I will hang in your chapel
                   A ship of pure gold.[14]

The plangent tone memorably returns in one of Hilaire Belloc's private verses, written after the sudden death of his gracious goddaughter (the youngest child of Lady Laura Lovat) in her early teenage years; and Belloc poignantly addresses his simple words directly to her. His verse is entitled “Rose,” and the eight lines, in two stanzas, are as follows:

Rose, little Rose, the youngest of the Roses,
My little Rose whom I may never see,
When you shall come to where the heart reposes
Cut me a Rose and send it down to me.

When you shall come into the High Rose-Gardens,
Where Roses bend upon Our Lady's Tree,
The place of Plenitudes, the place of Pardons,
                   Cut me a Rose and send it down to me.[15]  

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, pray for us; and for the repose, pardon, and plenitude of Hilaire Belloc, who cherished thee so, with his unmistakably loyal love. May his pierced heart now be healed.  


After the brief presentation of the other verses, we may also now know better how to cherish his wholehearted macaronic poem, “Heretics All” and, finally, one of his own evocative Epigrams. The former runs in the following irrepressible way, and we can hear him singing it, too:

Heretics all, whoever you be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.
         Caritas non conturbat me.
But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water [of Baptism!], frank and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so.
          Benedicamus Domino.
On childing women that are forlorn,
And men that sweat in nothing but scorn:
That is on all that ever were born [in our Fallen State!],
          Miserere Domine.
To my poor self on my deathbed,
And all my dear companions dead,
Because of the love that I bore them,
                            Dona Eis Requiem.[16]

H. Belloc's Elegiac Noble Epigram LX: “From the Latin (but not so pagan)”:[17]   
    Blessed is he that has come to the heart of the world and is humble
                       He shall stand alone; and beneath
His feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble
                           Of the hungry river of death.[18]
Blessed, too, is he that has come to the Heart of the Faith and is humble.  As was so, I believe, with Hilaire Belloc, in and from his forthright and very deep heart. And not only in Belloc's special loves, both of Our Lady and also “of God that was Our Lady's Son”—thus “Our Little Lord” (and all the Little Children) and likewise “Prince Jesus, in  mine Agony.” Requiescat in Pace et in Vita Aeterna.     

This essay is dedicated to my beloved wife, Maike Maria, who inspired it.

© 2013 Robert D. Hickson

[1]    H. Belloc, Songs of the South Country (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. LTD, 1951). It is a substantive, but short anthology of only 32 pages.
[2]    Ibid., p. 26.  The entire poem, all  seven stanzas, is on this one page in the anthology. In the manuscript version given to the Premonstratensian Prior at Storrington in Belloc's own  handwriting, however, this verse was entitled, not “Courtesy,” but, rather,“On Courtesy.” (The Norbertines in England are also known as the White Canons.)
[3]    Ibid. —my emphasis added. Belloc's inviting reflectiveness and courteous modesty may already be seen in his phrase, “it seems to me.”
[4]    The three paintings were, respectively, by Fra Filippo Lippi (The Annunciation); Mariotti Albertinelli (The Visitation); and Sandro Boticelli (The Mystical Nativity, and called by Belloc “The Consolation of God”).
[5]    H. Belloc, Sonnets and Verse (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1944), pp. 195-203.
[6]    Ibid., pp. 202-203.
[7]    Ibid., p. v. See “To John Swinnerton Phillimore—A Dedication with this Book of Verse.” The first stanza of the two-stanza Dedication reads, as follows: “When you and I were little tiny boys/ We took a most impertinent delight/ In foolish, painted, misshapen toys/ Which hidden mothers brought to us at night.” The second stanza is already quoted above in the main text, thereby adding deep nuances of meaning to this initial evocation of their childhood together.
[8]    Ibid., p. 160—my emphasis added.
[9]    Ibid., p. 161.
[10]  H. Belloc, Songs of the South Country (1951), p. 23.
[11]  Ibid., p. 9—my emphasis added.
[12]  Ibid., p. 27—my emphasis added.
[13]  Ibid., p. 30—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added.
[14]  Ibid., pp. 6-7.
[15]  H. Belloc, Complete Verse (London: Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited, 1970, and reprinted in 1981), p. 105—my emphasis added. Laura Lovat herself tended to Belloc's beloved friend, Maurice Baring, in his own protracted and paralyzing illness of many years. She gave him hospitality at her home in Scotland where, on 14 December1945, Maurice Baring died. See, especially, Laura Lovat, Maurice Baring: A Postscript (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948).
[16]  H. Belloc, Sonnets and Verse, p. 128—my bold emphasis added; italics are in the original.
[17]  Ibid., p. 180.
[18]  Ibid.—my emphasis added.

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