It is often the case, well known to the close readers of Hilaire Belloc's varied essays, that he surprises us with some of his profoundest reflections and most memorable formulations in those lighter essays of his so full of banter and irony; or even in his brief, magnanimous considerations of other prose writers and poets, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson or Lord Byron, neither of whom was a Catholic.
Therefore, before more closely considering his gravely earnest, but also unexpectedly purifying and cumulatively edifying essay, “The Opportunity,” I wish to illustrate my above contention by mentioning a few of Hilaire Belloc's fresh and enlivening words about Poetry and then about the Faith, as they are found in one of the other essays in his book, Short Talks with the Dead and Others. It is of Belloc's brief essay, “Talking of Byron,” that I speak.
Speaking of how George Gordon Byron (1798-1824) was received by his English contemporaries and how and why he should thus also be received and understood a hundred years later by Englishmen of the first part of the twentieth century, Belloc says:
His verse resounded in the English mind by an accord; just as a piece of music will call up an intimate enthusiasm, wherein is no hesitation but complete communion. The appreciation of such verse, all will admit, has been lost to modern England. The modern mania for self-praise would rather choose to say, not that the faculty has been lost, but that greater powers had been acquired; and that the lesser emotions of our fathers had been thrown aside. “The foreigners” (that mania would suggest) “may pick up our leavings. We have outgrown these puerilities.” (32—my emphasis added)
Belloc is not content to let this topic rest with this sort of self-satisfied conclusion. He will resume his inquiry and challenge:
But wait a moment. What was it in Byron which so moved the men of his time—who were English-speaking and knew nothing but English? That something in his verse did move them is abundantly proved. What was it?
In the first place, it was the marriage of intelligence with the magic of words.
That there is no poetry without magic [in the general, loose sense of an alluring incantation with a mysteriously haunting effect] all will (I repeat) agree. Magic is the essence of poetry as it is, still more truly, the essence of religion [but not in the sense of a finite creature's trying to manipulate the divine!]. Magic is that essential we release when we come to the core of things; and if there be no magic in a religious ritual or a piece of verse, that ritual, that verse, are dead; they have not touched the nerve of reality.
But whereas the magic of religion is actual, the magic of words is symbolic. There is no magic in words which are not understood. The words are symbols, referring the mind to things experienced. (32—my bold emphasis added; the italics are in the original)
Thus if you read the words “...and it was dawn upon the sea,” the words have no message to one who has not seen, or has not at least some hereditary memory of, that miracle [or divine “magic”?]. Even the music of words and the mystical effect of cadence refer to an emotion experienced, apart from the music and the cadence. (32-33—my emphasis added)
Now Byron perpetually strikes that note of experience: the experience of men living as the English of his time mostly lived, and as France, Italy and Spain still mostly live [as of 1926]. He struck or recalled or evoked the emotions of men to whom a mechanical industrial life was either unknown or imperfect or irksome. Thus it is the fashion [now] to decry that superb passage upon the sea which begins, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll,” but I will bargain that any man not sophisticated, using the sea, and hearing those lines for the first time, will immediately respond. The magic in Byron is, then, a consonance with things experienced by men who sailed the sea in ships, not defiling it with engines; by men who saw the landscape of England also then undefiled; by men who slept well, ate well and could drink. It is verse written for men very much alive and normally alive. It is verse written for men who are full of emotion; not jaded, nor needing a spur. Here was a man who expressed what men felt, could not themselves express, but desired to hear expressed. He therefore fulfilled the true function of the poet. For the poet, though divine, is a servant [like Christ Himself]. He is the god [like Apollo himself in the Myth, who served a mere mortal] in the [very hospitable and winsomely just] house of Admetus; and not all his fellowship with heaven would make him [Apollo] what he is did he not bring to birth the struggling song, as yet undelivered in his fellow-men. (33—my emphasis added)
May we remember this image “to bring to birth the struggling song...in his fellow-men.”
Belloc says that “Byron united the power to achieve this [experienced and eloquently expressed emotion] with the use of the human intellect.” and “That, perhaps, is what our decadence cannot forgive.” (34—my emphasis added)
In what at first appears to be a digression or yet a further note of contrast and disapprobation, Belloc draws us into his deeper and important excursus:
We have come commonly to say, in modern England at any rate, that there is between the Intelligence and Vision an incompatible quarrel. This mortal folly (for it is no less) colours all our thought.
You see it in the most important field of all, the fundamental region, that of religion. Men go about talking as though there were between the Vision of transcendental truth and Intelligence, not only a quarrel but an actual contradiction. They are too ignorant to know that the two have been set up together by our ancient masters [e.g., “fides quaerens intellectum”] as the twin and consonant pillars of human life. They are too weak to achieve any such harmony themselves [between Faith and Reason].
You see that modern folly appearing, again, in the preference of humour to wit: for wit is founded upon intelligence but humour upon the neglect of it.
You see it in the muddled worship of what are still called “philosophies”; system succeeding system, and each new system [as in Hegel's?] held to be profound in proportion to its incomprehensibility.
You see it in the very mathematic of our day; where mysteries true, but beyond our faculties, are emphasized not because they should make a humble man admit the limitation of human reason, but because they make small, proud men imagine that the reason is not supreme in its own sphere. (34—my emphasis)
After this preparation, Hilaire Belloc gives a further Catholic Witness:
All our time is tainted with the contempt of the only faculty whereby man can see and be certain. Yes, even those who think themselves to be rationalists among us are conspicuous by their inability to erect a system of the world, and by their mere piecemeal reaction against the one system which still holds the field—and will forever: The Faith.” (35)
With this underlying affirmation as his stable presupposition, he then returns to summarize the special strengths of Byron:
Byron was intelligent and continuously intelligent, and all his verse was rational; nor did he ever subordinate sense to sound, nor common sense to emotion....At any rate, he never lapses into those two vile weaknesses with which our moderns are paralytically possessed: the itch for mere emotion and the impotence of obscurity....Make you, also, no error on this: the time in which we live [circa 1926] is a time of confusion, not untouched by despair, very weary and awaiting change. Byron will survive our time and will stand among the very great poets of England. Our misapprehension of him is due to our change, not Poetry's; and our change has been for the worse. But we shall recover, and his star will reappear with the dissipation of these nasty mists. (35-37—my bold emphasis added; the italics are in the original)
What Hilaire Belloc has said about “The Faith” (35) in this magnanimous essay on Lord Byron and his poetry will be a worthy introduction to his subsequent essay called “The Opportunity,” one of whose sudden messages will prompt a professed Catholic to consider the nature of the Catholic Witness he has borne, and also more stringently and guilelessly to examine his own well-formed Conscience. Belloc's own conviction and sustained public witness to that conviction is that there is only “one system [of the world] which still holds the field—and will for ever: The Faith.”(35) But, who of us lesser men adequately bears witness to that Faith? That is to say, especially given “the penalties of Truth,” (62) as Belloc has also so poignantly said and himself has experienced: namely, the penalties we often receive for living and speaking the truth, to include the truth we see and speak about ourselves, thus imparting wounds to our faithful memory and to our sincere conscience when we realize, for example, the extent and the consequences of our cowardice and or our spiritual sloth.
The setting of “The Opportunity” is Oxford University almost thirty years after 1897, when three men who were once students together are again in conversation and having a sort of private reunion, before “all [three] were to go up to London together the next morning” (58)—by train:
They were nearly contemporaries; round about fifty....The eldest was a squire of the country between the Wye and the Severn, wealthy, hating publicity; keen on two things Arabic and fishing. The second was a lawyer who had made for himself a very great newspaper name indeed and was shallow and ill-bred, but also bitter; a little mollified that night by the return to places of his youth, and those who had been his companions. The third it would be difficult to describe. He might be called a traveller—though that is no profession [although we are all “Wayfarers” in this World or, in the Latin, “Viatores,” and in contradistinction to “Comprehensores” in Vita Aeterna, or in Lumine Gloriae, as the Christians say]. (58)
We also learn that the Traveller was “an only son” who was left a good portion of wealth by his father, in trust; moreover, he was “a bachelor” who used his inherited income “in wandering about,” and sometimes writing keen articles and “an occasional book, very well written.” (58-59) Even after the purchasing power of his income went down after World War I, he kept up his rather leisurely life and travels, and “he travelled as far afield as before, only much less comfortably, preferring novelty to ease” and, “luckily for him, he had no expensive taste.” (59) Not even in wine!
Some more details of the three companions are worthy for us to hear, as well. The Squire was “a large lumpish man, rather bald,” and he “spoke slowly with the hesitation of a scholar.” (59) The Lawyer will likely now invite our closer attention, for he was “voluble and had upon his face, which was otherwise strong, though shifty, the marks of many years of excess.” (59) The Traveller, as we might now expect, receives a longer description and characterization—and he looks not, or thinks not, at all like Belloc himself, it would seem:
The traveller was tall and lean with one of those hatchet faces which promise more energy than they really possess. He had very piercing eyes, a firm, thin mouth, and believed, so far as England was concerned, everything he read in print; for he had not been born quite into the gentry and he had not got his foothold firm; nor did he want to get it so. On the countries he had visited, other than England, he trusted his own experience. (59—my emphasis added)
Belloc then stuns us with a one-sentence paragraph: “Each of these men, being a man, had a worm at his heart, eating it out.” (59—my emphasis added)
Where could Belloc be leading us now, and what were these burdens within? And how might they be healed and regenerated? Or perhaps even first expiated?
That we might especially consider the Traveller, we should first only briefly convey the load—the suffering and the sacrifice—the other two most inwardly bore, though in different ways:
The squire had this worm in his heart. He was well married with fine, healthy children; the son married in his turn and well married; of the three daughters one also well married, the other two, young, happy and advancing in womanhood. He was in no way encumbered, in no way harassed by any external thing. But he had once desired with passionate desire, and through his own lack of courage he had failed to seize opportunity.
The woman still lived; he still met her often enough. His soul was, as it were, doubled. [And hence in Duplicity or Deceit?] One deadened, despairing part of it, lived on year after year in realities; the other lived by itself in visions. For though he had missed his opportunity, and though he certainly desired after a fashion in which he was not himself at all desired, yet that hidden influence which alone can build a bridge between two souls, had built such a bridge; therefore his failure [of courage] to seize his opportunity all those years ago now rightly tortured him, and therefore he had some substance to go upon in his false world of imaginings [and “visions”], compared with which his world of realities was a despair. (59-60—my bold emphasis added; the italics were in the original)
What a plight our Belloc has presented in his vivid depiction. What an alluring temptation “to live the lie” the Squire must have had —even when he considers his own loyal wife and his four children. This is within the matter of High Tragedy, as it appears. And there is no mention of The Faith or its resources of Grace. For “nature”—especially “an emotionally tormented, wounded human nature” is not enough here—even for the discipline of abstinence, in the strict sense of word: “giving up a lesser good for a greater good.”
What should we now expect in the case of the Lawyer, who has already been somewhat darkly and equivocally characterized? Belloc gives us his answer and a disillusioning depiction of ambition:
The worm at the lawyer's heart was of a meaner kind, but very sharp in the tooth. He had always had as his goal, from the first day when he had begun to make noise in the University as a boy [freshman], a sort of vulgar triumph: an easy priority [sought for in the spirit of pride?]. He had imagined that his life would continue to be a life of that kind; but life (and the Commons [The House of Commons]) undeceived him. He had to eat dirt steadily from his twenty-fifth year. He did not know, when he began, how heavy was the price of publicity. He had desired it and he had purchased it piecemeal; but at every step with humiliation, with a swallowing of insult; with the restraint of vengeance; under the sneer of those who were at one moment or another always his masters, and under such a sense of dependence (now that he was at the very summit) as bent him down, like twenty pounds of lead swung around his neck. (60—my emphasis added)
After this depiction of the Lawyer's cumulative disillusionment and embittering plight, Belloc shows us also how the Lawyer tried to break out of this humiliation and asphyxiation:
There is only one way out of that prison (voluntarily entered but, once entered, not to be evaded) and that way is debauch. He [the Lawyer and Member of Parliament] had very freely used such a key. Therefore to the despair of the soul were added increasing fits of physical depression, which are the wages of debauch. (61—my emphasis added)
We come then to learn how the Lawyer also had had his decisive opportunity which also resulted in a missed opportunity, his “lost opportunity” (61)—and “how it haunted him” still! (61) It had to do with a chance to make a large amount of money easily and quickly, and just before his thirtieth year in age. As he then already had delusively thought of the potential rewards, he imagined that:
He would never have had to climb, he would never have had to lick other men's boots or to swallow insult, or to suffer any of his wounds along the way; he might even have kicked the House of Commons from under his feet and become a free and honourable man. For mark you, adventurers of this sort have in them always a lingering appetite for freedom and for the honour they have lost. But he [the Lawyer] to whom calculation, intrigue and the nasty analysis of men's weaknesses had been a special combined talent, lost the opportunity through miscalculation, through a misunderstanding of men. He had made a sideslip in financial intrigue. He still earned a very large income; but to this day he was still hopelessly in debt. (61—my emphasis added)
After the former two men grappled with temporal and secular affairs, or with material and financial matters, the Traveller will add a different set of insights; and his own poignant, lost opportunity will be presented in a more compact vignette, while also making us think of the heart of Belloc himself and his sacramental glimpses of goodness and beauty while at sea under sail:
The case of the third man, the traveller, was simpler. The worm at his heart was the loss of a religious vision. To put it plainly, he had once seen, not paradise, but the light that shines from paradise, and had been called to a certain effort, to witness to the Faith: the reward of which would have been—at last—secure beatitude. To him, a man inspired by great hill ranges, and with his mind full of landfalls caught suddenly from out at sea, beatitude was natural and a need. He had had his opportunity. He had lost it; not through lack of courage, heavy as are the penalties of Truth, but through sloth [Acedia, or Accidie—one of the Seven Deadly Sins, as well]. An effort [as a Catholic Witness] had been required of him in that decisive moment long ago: a certain tearing apart of habits; a virile decision; a firm grasping of the helm and a twist of it. But he had postponed, lingered, waited—and the opportunity was gone. (61-62—my emphasis added)
Those who have read widely in the writings of Belloc—prose and verse—and also know a little more about his own personal life and his abiding sorrows cannot not think of him in this last poignant passage and of how he might have considered his own potentially culpable Acts of Omission, especially in light of his many long discussions with Father Vincent Joseph McNabb, O.P., his beloved friend and spiritual guide and consoler.
At any rate, the passage of responsible reflection should conduce to our own examination, especially as to how we have ourselves been a faithful Witness to the Faith: by our example, by our words and gestures and silence; and how we might have failed, not only by our Acts of Commission, but by our ungenerous or slothful (and evasive) Acts of Omission.
But Belloc's essay will lead us on to another set of surprises, because, while the three men are together for their brief reunion and reminiscences, we discover that “Each in his heart wished that the talk [about “the chances of life” and “the oddity of fortune”] had taken another turn and [each also] hungered for the opportunity each had missed.” (62). They were, in effect, wanting their youth again.
As the three men assembled the next morning for the train to London, “each remembered what had been in his heart the night before [but, regrettably, never shared during their otherwise intimate reunion and discourse]: in each the lost opportunity of youth had been stabbed into life” (63) again, however, by the brash and casual, yet very haunting words of a tall young student the previous night, when he so unexpectedly burst into their “vacant college sitting-room at Oxford” (58) in order to retrieve a book he sought. The young man had spontaneously, bluntly, and mysteriously said, and even in a kind of archaic colloquialism or dialect, as well: “Ye're all of ye wanting your youth, is it? Ye'll have it!” (63—my emphasis added) Then, with abruptness, “he shut the door noisily behind him.” (63) That young student's sudden words were later called “that insane ejaculation” (63) and he himself was merely referred to as “their mad visitor” (63), but both forms of his presence truly haunted them, at least the Lawyer and the Traveller, although “they were both Englishmen and both men of control.” (63), says Belloc's narrator, with a hint of irony.
Now we encounter another surprise, immediately. For, nonetheless, in the case of the Lawyer and Traveller,
Each gave a suppressed cry, for each had become young, the faces were the faces each had known nearly thirty years before. When the squire put down his newspaper in his turn he was more perturbed, for he was less experienced, and he caught the air for a moment with his hands as though he felt a sort of dizziness. He saw their faces and they saw his, the easy, the eager, the ready untouched faces of those distant years. (64—my emphasis added)
It was as if a certain innocence and freshness and purity had returned, and as a gift, and a momentarily shared gift, at last. And we recall how often in his writings Hilaire Belloc relates Memory and Vision: especially the memory of childhood and youth, and the yearning and expectant vision of plenitude and of beatitude that would also endure and not evanesce.
But, our Belloc will keep us suspended a little longer and deal with sobering temporal matters and the usual reactions of somewhat secularist men, before he gives us a last surprise:
Now such is the action of men in [temporal] society, of men long mixed with other men and long corrupt, that no one of these three betrayed what each [in his skepticism] believed to be a passing illusion. But as their conversation continued each grew convinced that indeed a miracle had taken place; that something had interrupted the iron sequence of time, and that opportunity had been restored. Each in his heart went through a violent revolution, looking forward now and no longer looking backward. Each had the eyes of the soul fixed intently upon the Opportunity which now would come again. It would come! The second chance would come! (64—my emphasis added)
Each was in a mood so exalted that the immediate results of such prodigious things did not affect him; each felt a confidence that not only their own time, but all time had rolled backward. In each there was a growing certitude that the years between had been [morally] imagined as a sort of warning [!]; that their lives had been dreamt lives, and that [quite delusively!] they themselves and all England were still young: that it was still 1897.
Again on the principle that “contrast clarifies the mind”—at least the mind of the reader—Belloc now depicts the resurgent caution of the Lawyer and his adversative “But”:
But the lawyer, more accustomed to proof, put a test to himself. The woods [as he observed them from the train] were the same and the river; but they would pass a station that he knew (he might have looked at the date on the newspaper and verified their contents, but even his strict mind was bewildered). He said to himself, “I shall recognise the old station at Didcot.” He was wrong there. For at the junction of the line a pointsman [who regulated the track-connections] made a mistake, and they all three went through that door which I who am writing this and you who are reading it will have to pass. (64-65—my emphasis added)
(So, too, was it the case today in 2013 with those eighty persons who were on the train in Spain—even as wholly unprepared or at least partly unprovided-for Viatores—on their pilgrimage way to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela for the High Feast of Saint James the Greater. For, as we now know, they were suddenly to die en route in an unexpected derailment of their own pilgrimage-train.)
Belloc simply, but soberly, added these words: “It was a Death much more noisy and violent, but on the whole less painful, than most.” (65)
While we are recovering from the shock of this sudden contingency—and still perhaps considering the reality of the Particular Judgment and the Final Verdict of Truth as an inescapable part of the Four Last Things—Belloc goes on to give us more details of the sudden, and perhaps unprepared-for death—that his message might seep in a little more for his attentive reader:
There was a grinding and a heaving and a jarring, a little momentary sharp pain, then flames of which they did not feel the burning. Their bodies, when these were recovered, could not be recognised by the features [not even of their distinctive young faces!], but only by the clothes. (65)
Belloc's narrator finally reveals a part of his own acquaintance with at least one of the three men as he becomes more differentiated about their individual burials and the surrounding obsequies, in reverence to their bodies:
That of the squire was, I am glad to say, sent back to his native fields and buried in the same vault with his father and grandfather, who had been, to start with, a small moneylender in Hereford. That of the lawyer was buried down at his country place, where there were copper beeches and rhododendrons; also there was a memorial service [significantly unspecified] for him at St. Margaret's [an Anglican church?], to which I was asked, but I did not go [for reasons also unspecified]. The traveller was buried near by the accident: and why not? [Was it in consecrated ground?] But they read a nice paper about him at the Royal Geographical Society [as they had earlier analogously done in France with Blessed Charles de Foucauld (d. 1 December 1916), concerning his courageous, early-20th-century geographical book on Morocco, before, that is, his own deep, missionary conversion to the Catholic Faith]. (65—my emphasis added)
One may detect the subtle irony in the heartfelt passage above, without thereby being adequately prepared for Belloc's own final sentence in his essay, emphatically set off as another one-sentence paragraph. After all this preparation and revelation, he only says at the end: “And of such is the kingdom of this world.” (65—my emphasis added)
Will we now also recognize, like Belloc, that this is not enough?
What, however, is our own responsive and faithfully stable, alternate Criterion?
Belloc, for sure and by means of his deft indirection, has given us many motives to pray for a provided-for death, and to pray with fidelity and our loyal love for the great Gift of Final Perseverance—itself a “Magnum Donum,” as we should know, “desursum descendens.”
In his later essay, “On Rasselas” (173-183), which should be read and savored in its revealing fullness, Belloc leaves the reader with more wisdom and encouragement. First speaking of first editions of a great work of literature and then, specifically, of Dr. Johnson's Rasselas itself, he says:
I do not agree with those who pretend that first editions are a vanity. Great wealth will divert them from their proper function and place, as it will divert anything in these days [circa 1926]....as it [“great wealth”] will add folly and pretense and false luxury to such admirable things as the sailing of a boat and hunting. But the first edition of a great book is a thing to be revered. It carries with it (I know not why) something of immediate contact with the author, and of the air in which it was written....But to go back to Rasselas—every man ought to read Rasselas, and every wise man will read it half-a-dozen times in his life. Indeed, a man would do well to read it once a year at least; for never was wisdom better put, or more enduringly; and if it be true that the test of a book [as Maurice Baring also says about the balm of Dostoievski] is the mood in which we lay it down, then this book must have as high marks as anything ever written in English and, therefore, the highest marks of anything ever written in the world. (173-174)
To support his seemingly exaggerated praise—and his admirably generous tribute and gratitude—Belloc then makes an apt contrast with Voltaire's Candide:
It [Rasselas] came out a few years before Candide, and men customarily contrast the one against the other; giving, of course, by far the higher place to Voltaire. But here, in my judgment, they err; for I will stoutly maintain the commonplace that a work of art is not to be judged wholly or even generally by its effect as a work of art, but is rather to be judged by its whole social effect upon man....There is also the prime question whether the book be noble or ignoble, moral or immoral, whether it does good or harm; and our most general judgment must depend upon the old test imposed on us by the ancients, the mood in which we lay it down....No good man is the better for having read Candide, but every man is the better for having read Rasselas. (174-175)
So, too, would be the case a fortiori, in the grateful judgment of this writer, were we to read attentively in the rich corpus of Hilaire Belloc's writings—his verse and prose, his non-fiction and his fiction, to include such unique and magnanimous, comic works such as The Mercy of Allah (1922), which is, like Rasselas, an Apologue: a Moral Tale of great and ascetic effectiveness.
As a sort of footnote, Belloc adds an insight about the incisive, as well as the rhythmically flowing style of substance and lucid concision in Dr. Johnson:
Johnson nearly always, and especially in Rasselas, puts all there is to say of a considered judgment—and a true one—into the antithetical form, than which no better medium has ever been discovered for condensing and preserving a conclusion....Johnson's [“economy” of style] is like strong soup: a concentration of nourishment....[And after giving a lengthy, illustrative passage from Rasselas, Belloc further says:] I would maintain upon this long extract (and I could pick out a dozen as good in the short work) that it has these four qualities—What it says is (1) true, (2) important, (3) of good moral effect, and (4) packed. (175-176—my emphasis added)
As is so with the added, sometimes elegiac, Catholic Witness of Hilaire Belloc, to include Belloc's own reverent Johnsonian sense of “the melancholy Truth to which my heart bears witness.” (183—my emphasis added) Do we agree?
Despite his poignant elegiac doubts at times, may Hilaire Belloc's abidingly yearning hope come to be finally and indefectibly fulfilled, the Visio and the Communio: the “Vision of transcendental truth” (34) and “complete Communion” (32) and, thus, “at last—secure beatitude.” (61-62, his italics)
--Finis-- © 2013 Robert D. Hickson
 Hilaire Belloc, “The Opportunity,” in his 1926 anthology, Short Talks with the Dead and Others ( London: Sheed & Ward, 1926), pp. 58-65. Further references to the passages of this book will be in the main text above, in parentheses.
 Ibid., pp. 31-37. Later in the book, on pages 173-183, is Belloc's profoundly appreciative essay, “On Rasselas,” which very reverently considers Dr. Johnson's Prose Moral Tale, Rasselas, a short work suffused with wisdom and eloquence. It is a work of Ascetical Natural Theology, too, about a young man's coming of age. After seeing and then holding in his hands a First Edition of Rasselas (1759), Belloc said, in his essay's first paragraph: “I bowed down and adored.” (173)