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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Thursday 23 July 2015

There is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.

The Mowing of a Field is a true story by Hilaire Belloc written in 1906. Narrated here with a soothing guitar accompaniment by Harry Verey. It is really a Eulogy to a very real place in an area Harry knows well and not far from where he was born. It also describes in some detail the art of hand-scything. It still is an astonishingly beautiful place.

''There is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land. The roads to the Channel do not traverse it; they choose upon either side easier passes over the range. One track alone leads up through it to the hills, and this is changeable: now green where it nears the homesteads and the barns. The woods grow steep above the slopes; they reach sometimes the very summit of the heights, or, when they cannot attain them, fill in and clothe the coombes. And, in between, along the floor of the valley, deep pastures and their silence are bordered by lawns of chalky grass and the small yew trees of the Downs.

The clouds that visit its sky reveal themselves beyond the one great rise, and sail, white and enormous to the other, and sink beyond that other. But the plains above which they have traveled and the Weald to which they go, the people of the valley cannot see and hardly recall. The wind, when it reaches such fields, is no longer a gale from the salt, but fruitful and soft, an inland breeze; and those whose blood was nourished here feel in that wind the fruitfulness of our orchards and all the life that all things draw from the air.

In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through a fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man’s Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade, I saw the sea. To this place very lately I returned.

The many things that I recovered as I came up the countryside were not less charming than when a distant memory had enshrined them, but much more. Whatever veil is thrown by a longing recollection had not intensified nor even made more mysterious the beauty of that happy ground; not in my very dreams of morning had I, in exile, seen it more beloved or more rare. Much also that I had forgotten now returned to me as I approached—a group of elms, a little turn of the parson’s wall, a small paddock beyond the graveyard close, cherished by one man, with a low wall of very old stone guarding it all round. And all these things fulfilled and amplified my delight, till even the good vision of the place, which I had kept so many years, left me and was replaced by its better reality. “Here,” I said to myself, “is a symbol of what some say is reserved for the soul: pleasure of a kind which cannot be imagined save in a moment when at last it is attained.”

When I came to my own gate and my own field, and had before me the house I knew, I looked around a little (though it was already evening), and I saw that the grass was standing as it should stand when it is ready for the scythe. For in this, as in everything that a man can do—of those things at least which are very old—there is an exact moment when they are done best. And it has been remarked of whatever rules us that it works blunderingly, seeing that the good things given to a man are not given at the precise moment when they would have filled him with delight. But, whether ’tis be true or false, we can choose the just turn of the seasons in everything we do of our own will, and especially in the making of hay. Many think that hay is best made when the grass is thickest; and so they delay until it is rank and in flower, and has already heavily pulled the ground. And there is another false reason for delay, which is wet weather. For very few will understand (though it comes year after year) that we have rain always in South England between the sickle and the scythe, or say just after the weeks of east wind are over. First we have a week of sudden warmth, as though the south had come to see us all; then we have the weeks of east and southeast wind; and then we have more or less of that rain of which I spoke, and which always astonishes the world. Now it is just before, or during, or at the very end of that rain—but not later—that grass should be cut for hay. True, upland grass, which is always thin, should be cut earlier than the grass in the bottoms and along the water meadows; but not even the latest, even in the wettest seasons, should be left (as it is) to flower and even to seed. For what we get when we store our grass is not a harvest of something ripe, but a thing just caught in its prime before maturity: as witness that our corn and straw are best yellow, but our hay is best green. So also Death should be represented with a scythe and Time with a sickle; for Time can take only what is ripe, but Death comes always too soon. In a word, then, it is always much easier to cut grass too late than too early; and I under that evening and come back to these pleasant fields, looked at the grass and knew that it was time. June was in full advance; it was the beginning of that season when the night has already lost her foothold of the earth and hovers over it, never quite descending, but mixing sunset with the dawn.

Next morning, before it was yet broad day, I awoke, and thought of the mowing. The birds were already chattering in the trees beside my window, all except the nightingale, which had left and flown away to the Weald, where he sings all summer by day as well as by night in the oaks and the hazel spinneys, and especially along the little river Adur, one of the rivers of the Weald. The birds and the thought of the mowing had awakened me, and I went down the stairs and along the stone floors to where I could find a scythe; and when I took it from its nail, I remembered how, fourteen years ago, I had last gone out with my scythe, just so, into the fields at morning. In between that day and this were many things, cities and armies, and a confusion of books, mountains and the desert, and horrible great breadths of sea.

When I got out into the long grass the sun was not yet risen, but there were already many colours in the eastern sky, and I made haste to sharpen my scythe, so that I might get to the cutting before the dew should dry. Some say that it is best to wait till all the dew has risen, so as to get the grass quite dry from the very first. But, though it is an advantage to get the grass quite dry, yet it is not worth while to wait till the dew has risen. For, in the first place, you lose many hours of work (and those the coolest), and next—which is more important—you lose that great ease and thickness in cutting which comes of the dew. So I at once began to sharpen my scythe.

There is an art also in the sharpening of the scythe, and it is worth describing carefully. Your blade must be dry, and that is why you will see men rubbing the scythe-blade with grass before they whet it. Then also your rubber must be quite dry, and on this account it is a good thing to lay it on your coat and keep it there during all your day’s mowing. The scythe you stand upright, with the blade pointing away from you, and put your left hand firmly on the back of the blade, grasping it: then you pass the rubber first down one side of the blade-edge and then down the other, beginning near the handle and going on to the point and working quickly and hard. When you first do this you will, perhaps, cut your hand; but it is only at first that such an accident will happen to you.

To tell when the scythe is sharp enough this is the rule. First the stone clangs and grinds against the iron harshly; then it rings musically to one note; then, at last, it purrs as though the iron and stone were exactly suited. When you hear this, your scythe is sharp enough; and I, when I heard it that June dawn, with everything quite silent except the birds, let down the scythe and bent myself to mow.

When one does anything anew, after so many years, one fears very much for one’s trick or habit. But all things once learnt are easily recoverable, and I very soon recovered the swing and power of the mower. Mowing well and mowing badly—or rather not mowing at all—are separated by very little; as is also true of writing verse, of playing the fiddle, and of dozens of other things, but of nothing more than of believing. For the bad or young or untaught mower without tradition, the mower Promethean, the mower original and contemptuous of the past, does all these things: He leaves great crescents of grass uncut. He digs the point of the scythe hard into the ground with a jerk. He loosens the handles and even the fastening of the blade. He twists the blade with his blundes, he blunts the blade, he chips it, dulls it, or breaks it clean off at the tip. If any one is standing by he cuts him in the ankle. He sweeps up into the air wildly, with nothing to resist his stroke. He drags up earth with the grass, which is like making the meadow bleed. But the good mower who does things just as they should be done and have been for a hundred thousand years, falls into none of these fooleries. He goes forward very steadily, his scythe-blade just barely missing the ground, every grass falling; the swish and rhythm of his mowing are always the same.

So great an art can only be learnt by continual practice; but this much is worth writing down, that, as in all good work, to know the thing with which you work is the core of the affair. Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognize its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one’s prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.

In this way, when I had recovered the art after so many years, I went forward over the field, cutting lane after lane through the grass, and bringing out its most secret essences with the sweep of the scythe until the air was full of odors. At the end of every lane I sharpened my scythe and looked back at the work done, and then carried my scythe down again upon my shoulder to begin another. So, long before the bell rang in the chapel above me—that is, long before six o’clock, which is the time for the Angelus—I had many swathes already lying in order parallel like soldiery; and the high grass yet standing, making a great contrast with the shaven part, looked dense and high. As it says in the Ballad of Val-es-Dunes, where

The tall son of the Seven Winds Came riding out of Hither-hythe,

and his horse-hoofs (you will remember) trampled into the press and made a gap in it, and his sword (as you know)

was like scythe In Arcus when the grass is high And all the swathes in order lie, And there’s the bailiff standing by A-gathering of the tithe.

So I moved all that morning, till the houses awoke in the valley, and from some of them rose a little fragrant smoke, and men began to be seen. I stood still and rested on my scythe to watch the awakening of the village, when I saw coming up to my field a man whom I had known in older times, before I had left the Valley.He was of that dark silent race upon which all the learned quarrel, but which, by whatever meaningless name it may be called—Iberian, or Celtic, or what you will—is the permanent root of all England, and makes England wealthy and preserves it everywhere, except perhaps in the Fens and in a part of Yorkshire. Everywhere else you will find it active and strong. These people are intensive: their thoughts and their labors turn inward. It is on account of their presence in these islands that our gardens are the richest in the world. They also love low rooms and ample fires and great warm slopes of thatch. They have, as I believe, an older acquaintance with the English air than any other of all the strains that make up England. They hunted in the Weald with stones, and camped in the pines of the green-sand. They lurked under the oaks of the upper rivers, and saw the legionaries go up, up the straight paved road from the sea. They helped the few pirates to destroy the towns, and mixed with those pirates and shared the spoils of the Roman villas and were glad to see the captains and the priests destroyed. They remain; and no admixture of the Frisian pirates, or the Breton, or the Angevin and Norman conquerors, has very much affected their cunning eyes.

To this race, I say, belonged the man who now approached me. And he said to me, “mowing?” And I answered, “Ar.” Then he also said “Ar,” as in duty bound; for so we speak to each other in the Stenes of the Downs.

Next he told me that, as he had nothing to do, he would lend me a hand; and I thanked him warmly, or, as we say, “kindly.” For it is a good custom of ours always to treat bargaining as though it were a courteous pastime; and though what he was after was money, and what I wanted was his labor at the least pay, yet we both played the comedy that we were free men, the one granting a grace and the other accepting it. For the dry bones of commerce, avarice and method and need, are odious to the Valley; and we cover them up with a pretty body of fiction and observances. Thus, when it comes to buying pigs, the buyer does not begin to decry the pig and the vendor to praise it, as is the custom with lesser men; but tradition makes them do business in this fashion:

First the buyer will go up to the seller when he sees him in his own steading, and, looking at the pig with admiration, the buyer will say that rain may or may not fall, or that we shall have snow or thunder, according to the time of the year. Then the seller, looking critically at the pig, will agree that the weather is as his friend maintains. There is no haste at all; great leisure marks the dignity of their exchange. And the next step is, that the buyer says: “That’s a fine pig you have there, Mr.—” (giving the seller’s name). “Ar, powerful fine pig.” Then the seller, saying also “Mr.” (for twin brothers rocked in one cradle give each other ceremonious observance here), the seller, I say, admits, as though with reluctance, the strength and beauty of the pig, and falls into deep thought. Then the buyer says, as though moved by a great desire, that he is ready to give so much for the pig, naming half the proper price, or a little less. Then the seller remains in silence for some moments; and at last begins to shake his head slowly, till he says: “I don’t be thinking of selling the pig, anyways.” He will also add that a party only Wednesday offered him so much for the pig—and he names about double the proper price. Thus all ritual is duly accomplished; and the solemn act is entered upon with reverence and in a spirit of truth. For when the buyer uses this phrase: “I’ll tell you what I will do,” and offers within half a crown of the pig’s value, the seller replies that he can refuse him nothing, and names half a crown above its value; the difference is split, the pig is sold, and in the quiet soul of each runs the peace of something accomplished.

Thus do we buy a pig or land or labor or malt or lime, always with elaboration and set forms; and many a London man has paid double and more for his violence and his greedy haste and very unchivalrous higgling. As happened with the land at Underwaltham, which the mortgagees had begged and implored the estate to take at twelve hundred and had privately offered to all the world at a thousand, but which a sharp direct man, of the kind that makes great fortunes, a man in a motor-car, a man in a fur coat, a man of few words, bought for two thousand three hundred before my very eyes, protesting that they might take his offer or leave it; and all because he did not begin by praising the land.

Well then, this man I spoke of offered to help me, and he went to get his scythe. But I went into this house and brought out a gallon jar of small ale for him and for me; for the sun was now very warm, and small ale goes well with mowing. When we had drunk some of this ale in mugs called “I see you,” we took each a swathe, he a little behind me because he was the better mower; and so for many hours we swung, one before the other, mowing and mowing at the tall grass of the field. And the sun rose to noon and we were still at our mowing; and we ate food, but only for a little while, and we took again to our mowing. And at last there was nothing left but a small square of grass, standing like a square of linesmen who keep their formation, tall and unbroken, with all the dead lying around them when the battle is over and done.

Then for some little time I rested after all those hours; and the man and I talked together, and a long way off we heard in another field the musical sharpening of a scythe.

The sunlight slanted powdered and mellow over the breadth of the valley; for day was nearing its end. I went to fetch rakes from the steading; and when I had come back the last of the grass had fallen, and all the field lay flat and smooth, with the very green short grass in lanes between the dead and yellow swathes.

These swathes we raked into cocks to keep them from the dew against our return at daybreak; and we made the cocks as tall and steep as we could, for in that shape they best keep off the dew, and it is easier also to spread them after the sun has risen. Then we raked up every straggling blade, till the whole field was a clean floor for the tedding and the carrying of the hay next morning. The grass we had mown was but a little over two acres; for that is all the pasture on my little tiny farm.

When we had done all this, there fell upon us the beneficent and deliberate evening; so that as we sat a little while together near the rakes, we saw the valley more solemn and dim around us, and all the trees and hedgerows quite still, and held by a complete silence. Then I paid my companion his wage, and bade him a good night, till we should meet in the same place before sunrise.

He went off with a slow and steady progress, as all our peasants do, making their walking a part of the easy but continual labor of their lives. But I sat on, watching the light creep around towards the north and change, and the waning moon coming up as though by stealth behind the woods of No Man’s Land.''


Thursday 16 July 2015

Hilaire Belloc's death on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel...

London July 16 (A.A.P)

Hilaire Belloc, one of the leading figures in English literature, died today 11 days before his 83rd birthday. He had been critically ill since Sunday when he burnt himself badly by falling in the study of his home near Horsham, Sussex.

After the accident he was taken to a Roman Catholic nursing home at Guildford, Surrey, where he underwent an operation.


Mr. Belloc was born at St.Cloud, a Paris suburb, in1870, son of a French barrister and an Irishwoman.

Educated at Oxford, he began his literary career by publishing a collection of verses and sonnets, followed by two collections of children's rhymes.

In all he produced more than 100 books in 40 years, including travel books,
history, poetry, biography, essays, and some novels.

Among his better known works are "The Path To Rome," the essays of "Hills And The Sea," "Marie Antoinette," the Sussex travels of "The Four Men", a biography
of "Napoleon," the novels "Mr. Clutterbuck's Election" and "The Green Overcoat," and a "History of England."

Mr. Belloc entered Parliament as a Liberal in 1906, but resigned in 1910.

Thursday 2 July 2015

An Invitation to The Modern Traveller (1898): Hilaire Belloc's Satirical and Youthful Narrative Verse by Dr Robert Hickson...

Dr Robert Hickson


There is another side to this;

With no desire to prejudice

The version of our Leader,

I think I ought to drop a hint 

Of what I shall be bound to print,

In justice to the reader....

But still these bureaucrats pursued,

Until they reached the Captain's tent.

They grew astonishingly rude; 

The Russian simply insolent,

Announcing that he had been sent

Upon a holy mission,

To call for the disarmament

Of all our expedition.

He said: “The miseries of war

Had touched his master to the core”;

It was extremely vexing

To hear him add, “he couldn't stand 

This passion for absorbing land;

He hoped we weren't annexing.”...

Blood [i.e., Captain Blood] gave us each a trifling sum

To say that he was deaf and dumb

And backed the affirmation

By gestures so extremely rum,

They marked him on the writing pad:

“Not only deaf and dumb, but mad.”

It saved the situation.

“If such a man as that” (said they)

“Is Leader, they can go their way.”

(Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (1898), pp. 56, 60-61)


Sin [i.e., Commander Sin], walking out alone in quest

Of Boa-constrictors that infest

The Lagos Hinterland,

Got separated from the rest, 

And ran against a band

Of native soldiers led by three—....

Who threaten England's power at sea,

And, but for men like Blood and me [i.e., Captain Blood and Mr. Rooter],

Would drive her navies from the sea,

And hurl her to perdition.”

(Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller, p. 58)


Only permit me [i.e., Mr. Rooter] once again

To make it clearly understood

That both those honourable men,

Commander Sin and Captain Blood,

Would swear to all that I have said,

Were they alive; but they are dead!

(Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller, pp. 79-80)


I never shall forget the way

That Blood upon this awful day

Preserved us all from death.

He stood upon a little mound,

Cast his lethargic eyes around,

And said beneath his breath:

“Whatever happens we have got

The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

(Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller, p. 41)


If we would want to appreciate the comic genius of Hilaire Belloc, and especially the inimitable comic cadence and comic syntax which mark and unmistakably pervade his 1898 narrative verse satire, The Modern Traveller (1), we should first consider the larger structure of his work and the nature of his boastful and mendacious narrative persona, Mr. Rooter.

For, Rooter is the only survivor of the three former associates who went south from England on a set of adventures into Africa—as purported explorers and actual exploiters, speculators and swindlers. His two other partners were Commander Sin and Captain Blood, who regrettably never returned, but died under unfortunate conditions on the expedition.

Moreover, Rooter early on in his narrative revealed to the eager, interviewing journalist from The Daily Menace that his two deceased friends were of very different characters:

The world has very rarely seen

A deeper gulf than stood between

The men who were my friends.

And, speaking frankly, I confess

They never cared to meet, unless

It served their private ends....

The contrast curiously keen

Their characters could yield

Was most conspicuously seen

Upon the Tented Field.

Was there by chance a native tribe

To cheat, cajole, corrupt, or bribe?—

In such conditions Sin would burn

To plunge into the fray,

While Blood would run the whole concern

From fifty miles away.

(21, 25-26)

Our Belloc, then as a young twenty-eight-year-old man, rumbustiously chose to write this longer piece of satirical narrative verse after already writing much of his own playful, often ironic, children's verse (2); but before he was to become (along with G.K. Chesterton) much more earnestly resistant to Great Britain's imperial actions in Southern Africa in the Boer War (1899-1902). Belloc and Chesterton were for the humane scale of the “Little England,” and not the “Big England” of the expanding British Empire. Belloc also knew of the larger colonial struggles already underway in Africa (3) for control of some of the valuable range of natural (and other) resources there. Several travel narratives of European explorers in Africa were already written and widely read, and more than a few of them had inordinate exaggerations therein and sometimes much unreliable, indeed deceptive, information—as well as some self-aggrandizement and epic boasting—all of which incited a man like Belloc to compose Satire! We should remember all of this when we now further consider the largely unverifiable Travel Narrative of Rooter!

When one first hears Mr. Rooter's name, and soon also sees his condescending and supercilious pretensions as he is interviewed by The Daily Menace, one philologically trained such as I is at once prompted to look up his name in the Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles (1955). There one finds an apt and manifoldly suggestive definition under the entry “rooter,” as a noun: namely, a “rooter” is “an extirpator, eradicator, uprooter (of something)”; and is also construed with an “out” and “up,”as well as an “of.” Thus, we may fittingly think of someone who is “an uprooter of truth,” or also “an uprooter of honour.”

Belloc cleverly arranges the questionable Rooter's Interwoven Narrative in fourteen sections—fourteen verse-paragraphs, as it were—and these short sections are numbered conveniently with Roman Numerals (I-XIV). Although, regrettably, I cannot adequately convey the enhancing importance and redolent charm of Basil Blackwood's own complementary and interwoven illustrations, I hope now to present enough of Hilaire Belloc's text so as to encourage a reader to read and to savour the adventurous verse in its entirety—and especially to read it aloud, and more than once!

When we first start to read The Modern Traveller, we must try to become oriented, especially about the Narrator, for he is very swift and sudden:

The Daily Menace, I presume?

Forgive the litter in the room.

I can't explain to you

How out of place a man like me

Would be without the things you see,—

The Shields and Assegais [Spears] and odds

And ends of little savage gods....

And so the Public want to hear

About the expedition

From which I recently returned:

Of how the Fetish Tree was burned;

Of how we struggled to the coast,

And lost our ammunition;

How we retreated side by side; 

And how, like Englishmen, we died.

Well, as you know [sic!], I hate to boast,

And what is more, I can't abide

A popular position.


We do not yet know how well the journalist from The Daily Menace knows the adventurous narrator, nor do we ever discover that. But, we do gradually discover that Commander Sin and Captain Blood (and maybe even Rooter himself) are not really Englishmen, but are presented as having some obscure origin or a mixture of composite cultures, not Anglo-Saxon; and Sin and Blood are mercenaries of sorts, one military and the other a financial buccaneer, respectively. (Rooter himself may actually be a Dutchman of sorts, but even that alien European provenance is not so certain.)

In the interview granted to the journalist, Rooter tells us that it is, for sure, “not a formal interview” (7), and we soon discover that Rooter himself is now writing his book about the Expedition, and it is soon to be published and made public. But, Rooter will first tell his interviewer (and us) about Commander Sin:

Poor Henry Sin from quite a child,

I fear, was always rather wild;

But all his faults were due

To something free and unrestrained, 

That partly pleased and partly pained

The people whom he knew.

Untaught (for what our times require),

Lazy, and something of a liar,

He had a foolish way

Of always swearing (more or less);

And lastly let us say

A little slovenly in dress,

A trifle prone to drunkenness;

A gambler also to excess,

And never known to pay....(4) 

But really vicious? Oh, no!

When these are mentioned, all is said.

And then—Commander Sin is dead:

De mortuis cui bono?


Rooter, after showing his interviewer a picture (indeed “a portrait”) of Commander Sin, goes on to characterize him further:

Pray pause awhile, and mark

The wiry limbs, the vigorous mien,

The tangled hair and dark;

The glance imperative and hot,

That takes the world by storm:....

He was not born

In Little England! No!

Beyond the Cape, beyond the Horn [the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn],

Beyond Fernando Po, [an Island off Equatorial Guinea; once Portuguese?]

In some far Isle he saw the light

That burns the torrid zone,

But where it lay was never quite

Indubitably known.

Himself inclined to Martinique,

His friends to Farralone. [Farralon Islands off San Francisco, California?]

But why of this discussion speak?

The Globe was all his own! [A Globalist and a Globalist Imperial Mercenary!]

Oh! surely upon such a birth

No petty flag unfurled!

He was a citizen of earth,

A subject of the world!


Rooter will now introduce us to Commander Sin's sharp contrast in character, Captain Blood, William Blood, who is sometimes called “Bill”:

Now William Blood, or, as I still

Affectionately call him, Bill,

Was of a different stamp;

One who, in other ages born

Had turned to strengthen and adorn

The Senate or the Camp.

But Fortune, jealous and austere,

Had marked him for a great career

Of more congenial kind—

A sort of modern Buccaneer,

Commercial and refined.

Like all great men, his chief affairs

Were buying stocks and selling shares....

But such a task could never fill 

His masterful ambition

That rapid glance, that iron will,

Disdained (and rightfully) to make 

A profit here or there, or take

His two per cent. Commission.

His soul with nobler stuff was fraught; 

The love of country, as it ought

Haunted his every act and thought....

Till, after many years, the deep

Imperial emotion,

That moves us like a martial strain,

Turned his Napoleonic brain

To company promotion [to speculative, even deceitful, projects]....

And Blood was always there....

A little whirlpool turned about

The form immovable and stout,

That marked the Millionaire....

Blood was another pair of shoes:

A man of iron, cold and hard,

He very rarely touched a card,

But when he did he cheated.....

There was our Leader in a phrase:

A man of strong decisive ways,

But reticent and grim—

This reticence, which some have called hypocrisy

Was but the sign of nature's aristocracy—

Though not an Englishman, I own,

Perhaps it never will be known 

What England lost in him.

(18-19, 23-24, 27)

So, now, we finally know—if we may trust Rooter—that neither Captain Blood (the Leader of the Expedition to Africa) nor Commander Sin himself was an Englishman. Blood, moreover, as mentioned above, is shown to be a kind of mercantile and financial Buccaneer; and Sin was a military-naval Mercenary and yet, to boot, a Versifier of sorts:

And Sin (who had a happy knack

Of rhyming rapidly and well 

Like Cyrano de Bergerac)....

But this fastidious taste [about a “pâté de foie gras”]

Succeeded in a startling way;

At Dinner [aboard] on the following day

They gave us Bloater Paste. [a fatty herring spread]

Well–hearty Pioneers and rough

Should not be over nice;

I think these lines are quite enough,

And hope they will suffice

To make the Caterers [aboard] observe

The kind of Person whom they serve.


Rooter then lets us see the things he puts in his Diary, which make us start to wonder about him and his reliability. For example, he tells his Daily Menace Interviewer, as follows:

At sea the days go slipping past.

Monotonous from first to last—

A trip like any other one

In vessels going south. The sun

Grew higher and more fiery. [as we approached Africa]

We lay and drank, and swore, and played 

At Trick-my-neighbor in the shade;

And you may guess how every sight,

However trivial or slight,

Was noted in my diary....

On June the 7th after dark

A young and very hungry shark

Came climbing up the side. [up the side of the ship]

It ate the Chaplain and the Mate—

But why these incidents relate?

The Public must decide,

That nothing in the voyage out

Was worth their bothering about,

Until we saw the coast, which looks

Exactly as it does in books.

Oh! Africa, mysterious Land!

Surrounded by a lot of sand

And full of grass and trees,

And elephants and Afrikanders,

And politics and Salamanders,...

And native rum in little kegs,

And savages called Touaregs....

And tons of diamonds, and lots

Of nasty, dirty Hottentots,

And coolies coming from the East;

And serpents, seven yards long at least

And lions that retain

Their vigour, appetite and rage

Intact to an extreme old age

And never lose their mane.

[Opulent Africa] Mined for gold

By lordly Solomon of old,

Who sailing northward to Perim [Island at the entrance of the Red Sea, off Yemen]

Took all the gold away with him,

And left a lot of holes;

Vacuities that bring despair

To those confiding souls

Who find they have bought a share 

In marvellous horizons, where

The Desert terrible and bare

Interminably rolls....

Vast Continent! Whose cumbrous shape

Runs from Bizerta to the Cape [of Good Hope]

(Bizerta on the northern shore, [of Tunisia] 

Concerning which, the French they swore

It never should be fortified

Wherein that cheerful people lied)....

To thee, dear goal, so long deferred

Like old Æneas—in a word [as in Virgil's Aeneid and the meeting of Dido]

To Africa we came.

We beached upon a rising tide

At Sasstown on the western side; [of Africa, on the coast of Liberia]

And as we touched the strand [of Liberia, near the Ivory Coast ]

I thought—(I may have been mistook)—

I thought the earth in terror shook

To feel its Conquerors land. 

(33-34, 35-36, 38—my emphasis added)

Rooter then tells how now that they are in Liberia and trying to arrange an excursion with some help from the local natives, they were fortunate to find some prestigious local assistance:

In getting up our Caravan

We met a most obliging man,

The Lord Chief Justice of Liberia, 

And Minister of the Interior...

And in a single day

Procured us Porters, Guides, and kit,

And would not take a sou for it

Until we went away—

But when we went away, we found

A deficit of several pound—

We wondered how this fellow made

Himself so readily obeyed,

And why the natives were so meek;

Until by chance we heard him speak,

And then we clearly understood

How great a Power for Social Good

The African can be....

We did the thing that he projected,

The Caravan grew disaffected,

And Sin and I consulted;

Blood understood the Native mind.

He said: “We must be firm but kind.”

A Mutiny resulted.

(39-41—my emphasis added)

But their fearsome Leader, Captain Blood, knew how at once to deal with this revolt—according to Rooter's own account of the sequel—and we shall now see the effects of Blood's stern countenance:

He marked them in their rude advance

He hushed their rebel cheers;

With one extremely vulgar glance

He broke the Mutineers.

(I have a picture in my book

Of how he quelled them with a look.)

We shot and hanged a few, and then

The rest became devoted men.

And here I wish to say a word

Upon the way my heart was stirred

By those pathetic faces.

Surely our simple duty here

Is both imperative and clear;

While they support us, we should lend

Our every effort to defend,

And from a higher point of view

To give the full direction due

To all the native races.

(42—my emphasis added)

After Rooter's Expedition will soon also encounter some further Adventures and Misadventures— Enriching Opportunities for Land-Development Schemes and Swindles; Dangerous Wild Animals; Foreign Foes; Disease and the Plague; Desertion by their Caravan-Porters; and Capture by the Native Tribe and “Their Savage King” (64)—Captain William Blood himself will now show another slippery side of his Character, after he is first forthrightly asked by the Tribal King himself to suggest a fitting amount to be sought for his own Ransom and consequent full Release to go back to England.

After our Threesome, while mercifully out on “Parole,” had ungratefully tried—but failed—to ambush and slay the Tribal Monarch himself during his solitary and “usual Morning Stroll”:

The King was terribly put out;

To hear him call the guard and shout,

And stamp, and curse, and rave

Was (as the Missionaries say)

A lesson in the Godless way

The heathen will behave.

He sent us to a Prison, made

Of pointed stakes in palisade

And there for several hours

Our Leader [Blood] was a mark for bricks,

And eggs and cocoanuts and sticks,

And pussy-cats in showers.

Our former porters seemed to bear 

A grudge against the Millionaire. [Captain Blood]

(68-69—my emphasis added)

Rooter now only refers to his “friend, Bill” impersonally as “the Millionaire,” and almost as if the Natives would know that financial fact. And then the Loyal Rooter resumes his Tale:

And yet the thing I minded most

Was not the ceaseless teasing

(With which the Captain was engrossed),

Nor being fastened to a post

(Though that was far from pleasing);

But hearing them remark that they

“Looked forward to the following day.”

(69—my emphasis added)

Though there are already hints of Rooter's disloyalty (as well as loss of earlier-pretended personal affection)—to include his blatant trivialization of the suffering of others, especially his own Leader's—now we shall see the ruse Rooter and Sin in common propose to the Tribal King, but only after Blood slyly gives an unexpectedly demeaning characterization of himself. For, it was Blood's specious way of trying to lower the price of his own Ransom, at least as the Perfidious Rooter himself now claims:

On seeing our acute distress,

The King—I really must confess—

Behaved uncommon handsome;

He said he would release the three

If only Captain Blood and he

Could settle on a ransom,

And it would clear the situation

To hear his [Blood's] private valuation.

“My value,” William Blood began,

“Is ludicrously small.

I think I am the vilest man

That treads this earthly ball;

My head is weak, my heart is cold,

I'm ugly, vicious, vulgar, old,

Unhealthy, short and fat.

I cannot speak, I cannot work,

I have the temper of a Turk,

And cowardly at that.”

(71-72—my emphasis added)

After Blood's moral and economic estimation of himself in this awkward situation, the Tribal King (“who seemed upon the whole/ a man urbane and well inclined” (64) and who “behaved uncommon handsome” (71)) was now still graciously indignant, but then finally became provoked:

The King was irritated, frowned,

And cut him [Blood] short with “Goodness Gracious!

Your economics are fallacious!

I quite believe you are a wretch,

But things are worth what they will fetch. [“But every man has got his price,” (70), said Wise Blood himself, as well, before.] 

I'll put your price at something round,

Say, six-and-thirty thousand pound?”

But just as Blood began with zest,

To bargain, argue, and protest,

Commander Sin and I [the Perfidious Rooter!]

Broke in: “Your Majesty was told

About a certain bag of gold;

If you will let us try, [i.e., Sin and Me, while Blood remains as Hostage!]

We'll find the treasure, for we know

The place to half a yard or so.”

(72—italics in original; my bold emphasis added)

Now Our Belloc will artfully convey Rooter's Imposture even further, as the Narrator himself, with his False Compassion, revealingly now says:

Poor William! The suspense and pain

Had touched the fibre of his brain;

So far from showing gratitude, [for our proposal to retrieve the gold!]

He cried in his delirium: “Oh!

For Heaven's sake, don't let them go.”

Only a lunatic would take

So singular an attitude,

When loyal comrades for his sake 

Had put their very lives at stake.

(72-3—my emphasis added)

Belloc's Irony is precious—and inimitable—and it now increases: both by way of the King's Stipulation and Conditional Permission for the Gold-Search, and by way of the Subtle Transition that comes at the very Commencement of the next Verse-Chapter.

Rooter now simply says in his own untrustworthy narrative persona:

The King was perfectly content

To let us find it;—and we went. [Sin and I]

But as we left we heard him say,

“If there is half an hour's delay

The Captain will have passed away.”

(73—my emphasis added)

Rooter and Sin, having made no further inquiries about this manifestly strict condition, nor even making any request for a further clarification or alleviation, they both took off!

The next Verse-Chapter (Chapter XIV—the last one in the Poem) then immediately begins with the following words—ironic words about those Bounders (and Seeming Deserters), Sin and Rooter:

Alas! Within a single week

The Messengers despatched to seek 

Our hiding-place had found us, [and sent by the clearly suspicious King!]

We made an excellent defense

(I use the word in legal sense),

But none the less they bound us.

(Not in the legal sense at all

But with a heavy chain and ball).

With barbarism past belief

They flaunted in our faces

The relics of Our Noble Chief; [Captain Blood himself]

With insolent grimaces,

Raised the Historic Shirt before

Our eyes, and pointed to the floor

To dog-eared cards and loaded dice; [implements for cheating!]

It seems they sold him by the slice.

Well, every man has got his price.

(74-75—my emphasis added)

As we approach the end of the Poem—also the end of Rooter's Shameless Boasts and his Self-Vaunting Proofs of Virtue amidst his own purported Torture—we now first all-too-flippantly hear from the Loutish Rooter about the way such a good friend Sin had died:

The horrors followed thick and fast,

I turned my head to give a last

Farewell to Sin; but, ah!, too late,

I only saw his horrid fate—

Some savages around a pot

That seemed uncomfortably hot;

And in the centre of this group [inside the pot]

My dear companion making soup.

(75—my emphasis added)

The love of a friend is a touching thing!

Rooter's Heroic Boasts now once again begin:

And I was very glad to see

That they were going to torture me....

They hung me up above the floor

Head downwards by a rope;

They thrashed me half an hour or more,

They filled my mouth with soap; [a condign punishment for Liars?]

The jobbed [sic] me with a pointed pole [jabbed me?]

To make me lose my self-control,

But they did not succeed.

Till (if it's not too coarse to state)

There happened what I simply hate,

My nose began to bleed....

My calm and my contemptuous smile

Compelled them to proceed....

They tried a dodge that rarely fails,

The Tub of Regulus with Nails—[The Roman Hero-General tortured at Carthage]

The cask is rather rude and flat

But native casks are all like that—

The nails stuck in for quite an inch,

But did I flinch? I did not flinch.

In tones determined, loud and strong

I sang a patriotic song. [Regulus of Rome was also a Patriot!]

(76-78—my emphasis added)

May we now try to imagine the countenance and bearing of the Journalist from The Daily Menace as he is listening to all this?

But now will come Mr. Rooter's Final Doxology—along with his words of Solid Self-Admiration:

Thank Heaven it [the Torture] did not last for long!

My misery was past;

My superhuman courage rose

Superior to my savage foes;

They worshipped me at last.

With many heartfelt compliments,

They sent me back at their expense,

And here I am returned to find

The pleasures I had left behind.

(79—my emphasis added)

Is it not touching to see the grief Rooter still feels for his tortured and deceased Companions Two?

He is now, however, more concerned about his London reception, and he is especially happy just

To go the London rounds!

To note the quite peculiar air

Of courtesy, and everywhere 

The same unfailing public trust

In manuscript that fetches just

A thousand!...a thousand clear

Of heavy, round, impressive, dear,

Familiar English pounds!

(79—my emphasis added)

The Cash Nexus is still of moment to our Patriot, Regulus Rooter, and thus he is first very attentive to gain the “Unfailing Public Trust.”

By way of his sustained and artful Irony, Hilaire Belloc certainly knows how to give us a true Comic Catharsis, and thereby to teach us many moral matters of moment in a subtle, as well as in a rumbustious manner. The salt of his irony is enlivening.

May more and more readers feel worthily invited now to read aloud the entire narrative verse-satire, The Modern Traveller, as well as all of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses for Children; and also his delightfully sustained Prose Satire, entitled The Mercy of Allah.


1)Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), 80 pp. in length—and containing many vivid and indispensably enhancing illustrations within the narrative text by Belloc's close friend, Basil T. Blackwood (“B.T.B.”). Henceforth, page references to this text will be placed above, in the main body of the essay, and in parentheses.
2) For example, Hilaire Belloc's The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and More Beasts (for Worse Children).
3) For example, H.M. Stanley's published 1890 Travel Narrative, entitled In Darkest Africa.
4) These boldly accented lines were especially appreciated by Hilaire Belloc's beloved poetic friend, Maurice Baring, who quoted them with delight, almost exactly, in his own 1911 book, which was dedicated to their mutual friend, “Gilbert K. Chesterton,” and entitled The Russian People (London: Methuen & CO. LTD, 1911), p. 56. Baring often quoted Belloc's verse with affection, often allusively and sometimes without mentioning Belloc's name explicitly. A deft and gracious sign of their friendship!

Dr Robert Hickson. This article was first published on Catholicism.org