Hilaire Belloc died on Thursday, July 16, 1953, a half-century ago. He was simply the best essayist in our language. If someone asks me what is Belloc’s greatest essay, I have to say, honestly, “the last one I read.” I love his essay on the English city of Lynn in Hills and the Sea. His essay on Jane Austen (in Selected Essays) has more to say about men and women than we can find in a million dull books on the topic. “The End of Chateaubriand,” in Miniatures of French History, always recalls to me my chance reading in the Novitiate at Los Gatos an old copy of Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, a book that enchanted me. It was in this Belloc essay that I read, “It was November—the most lonely month of the year.” Indeed, I wrote a “Sense & Nonsense” column on it in November 1994.
Ever since 9/11 and the wars with Muslim terrorists, Belloc’s shadow continually rises over our generation. He understood what our social sciences prevent us from understanding: the power of spiritual forces, for good or ill. To read his discussion of Islam in his Great Heresies, written in 1938, is like reading contemporary history. In a way, it is reading contemporary history. If we hesitate to understand the importance of battles won and lost in the history of man, we would do well to read The Crusades, in which he tells us what an enormous difference military battles make.
There’s a phrase in his Life of Danton that reads, “By the irony of whatever rules and laughs at men.” Belloc, of course, was a Catholic—a “born Catholic,” as he said of himself. It’s a good thing, he once remarked, “never to have to return to the faith,” though he had youthful doubts. Yet we find a certain existential sadness in Belloc. His was a life of disappointment and song, of conversation and brooding silence.
“Why should the less gracious part of a pilgrimage be specifically remembered?” Belloc asked himself in The Path to Rome (1901). “In life we remember joy best—that is what makes us sad by contrast.” Joy is not unacquainted with its opposite. Indeed, we seem to need sadness to understand joy—at least most of us do. Even though we belong to the religion of the cross, or perhaps because we belong to it, joy is higher in rank than sadness.
Belloc’s father was French, his mother English, his wife an American from Napa, California. He lost one son in World War I and another in World War II. He wrote on every subject known to man and God and, at least till he thought them up, on a few that were known to neither.
To me, amid the obvious confusion at the very heart of Catholicism today, his words from his classic walk, The Path to Rome, are of some consolation. As we grow older, he wrote, we worry about the “human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation.” We do indeed.
No one is more nostalgic than Belloc. In an essay titled “The Portrait of a Child” (Selected Essays), he asks, “Do you know that that which smells most strongly in this life of immortality, and which a poet has called ‘the ultimate outpost of eternity,’ is insecure and perishes?” No, we did not know that! Whatever was the man talking about? The “strong smell in this life of immortality”? What “outpost of eternity”?
“I mean,” Belloc explains, “the passionate affection of early youth. If that does not remain, what then do you think can remain?” He levels with us—we who perhaps have forgotten this passion: “I tell you that nothing which you take to be permanent round about you when you are very young is more than the symbol or clothes of permanence.” Belloc speaks of the holiness, sanctity of lives that we catch in childhood portraits—he speaks of what is “true of all that little passage of ours through the daylight.”
There is no book quite like The Four Men. This is Belloc’s walk in his own land in 1902, just over a hundred years ago. This book, too, is simply an enchantment. My copy, alas, is falling apart. In this book, Belloc appears as “Himself” but also as a sailor, a poet, and an old man, all of which he was in his day. “We have come to the term and boundary of this short passage of ours, and of our brief companionship….” These words refer not only to a walk in Sussex, his home county, but to our lives themselves, the “little passage of ours through the daylight.”