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Belloc_sideI think the poet I am least confident about including here, in a series about great writers, is Hilaire Belloc. Though an eminently serious writer in prose, his poems were largely playful. And they are not playful in the unusually creative manner of Carroll or Lear, but are designed for simple amusement.

He is best known for his cautionary tales, about Jack who disobeyed his nurse and was eaten by a lion, and Georgie who ate string, but on looking through them I thought they did not really merit quotation. They were clearly written for children, and there is not much subtle or thought provoking about them, entertaining as they are.

Much more fun I think are his excursions into the adult world, when he engaged in sly satire that resonates even today. His poem about the great hope of the government who wept in Parliament can be an object lesson for aspiring politicians even today –

Lord Lundy from his earliest years
Was far too freely moved to Tears.
For instance if his Mother said,
“Lundy! It’s time to go to Bed!”
He bellowed like a Little Turk.
Or if his father Lord Dunquerque
Said “Hi!” in a Commanding Tone,
“Hi, Lundy! Leave the Cat alone!”
Lord Lundy, letting go its tail,
Would raise so terrible a wail
As moved His Grandpapa the Duke
To utter the severe rebuke:
“When I, Sir! was a little Boy,
An Animal was not a Toy!”

His father’s Elder Sister, who
Was married to a Parvenoo,
Confided to Her Husband, Drat!
The Miserable, Peevish Brat!
Why don’t they drown the Little Beast?”
Suggestions which, to say the least,
Are not what we expect to hear
From Daughters of an English Peer.
His Grandmamma, His Mother’s Mother,
Who had some dignity or other,
The Garter, or no matter what,
I can’t remember all the Lot!
Said “Oh! That I were Brisk and Spry
To give him that for which to cry!”
(An empty wish, alas! For she
Was Blind and nearly ninety-three).

The Dear Old Butler thought-but there!
I really neither know nor care
For what the Dear Old Butler thought!
In my opinion, Butlers ought
To know their place, and not to play
The Old Retainer night and day.
I’m getting tired and so are you,
Let’s cut the poem into two!

Second Part:

It happened to Lord Lundy then,
As happens to so many men:
Towards the age of twenty-six,
They shoved him into politics;
In which profession he commanded
The Income that his rank demanded
In turn as Secretary for
India, the Colonies, and War.
But very soon his friends began
To doubt is he were quite the man:
Thus if a member rose to say
(As members do from day to day),
“Arising out of that reply . . .!”
Lord Lundy would begin to cry.
A Hint at harmless little jobs
Would shake him with convulsive sobs.
While as for Revelations, these
Would simply bring him to his knees,
And leave him whimpering like a child.
It drove his colleagues raving wild!
They let him sink from Post to Post,
From fifteen hundred at the most
To eight, and barely six–and then
To be Curator of Big Ben!. . .
And finally there came a Threat
To oust him from the Cabinet!

The Duke — his aged grand-sire — bore
The shame till he could bear no more.
He rallied his declining powers,
Summoned the youth to Brackley Towers,
And bitterly addressed him thus–
“Sir! you have disappointed us!
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! . . . My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!”

The Aged Patriot groaned and died:
And gracious! how Lord Lundy cried!
And quite delightful is his remonstrance about a lord who did not understand his place
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
In addition to these entertainments, Belloc also wrote poems similar to Kipling’s about Sussex, which he too cherished. Unlike Kipling he engaged in some comparisons, which are interesting to read now too, when England seems to have given up efforts to develop other areas and the men of the South Country are now almost totally dominant (apart that is from the Scots, who always had a different value system)
WHEN I am living in the Midlands
That are sodden and unkind,
I light my lamp in the evening:
My work is left behind;
And the great hills of the South Country 5
Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it’s there walking in the high woods
That I could wish to be, 10
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me.

More telling though was Belloc’s more spiritual account in Duncton Hill of the impact of place and one’s devotion to it, with its suggestion of immortality based on involvement with nature

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.

The spring’s superb adventure calls
His dust athwart the woods to flame;
His boundary river’s secret falls
Perpetuate and repeat his name.
He rides his loud October sky:
He does not die. He does not die.

The beeches know the accustomed head
Which loved them, and a peopled air
Beneath their benediction spread
Comforts the silence everywhere ;
For native ghosts return and these
Perfect the mystery in the trees.

So, therefore, though myself be crosst
The shuddering of that dreadful day
When friend and fire and home are lost
And even children drawn away –
The passer-by shall hear me still,
A boy that sings on Duncton Hill.

I should not however omit Belloc’s best know poets for adults, if indeed one can use the term about an obsession with undergraduate days and values. This was not however unusual, in particular with regard to Belloc’s College at Oxford, Balliol, which was seen as a nursery for colonial administrators (and also a number of poets, including Mathew Arnold and Swinburne and Hopkins of those I have written about thus far). It was the head of Balliol in the middle of the 19th century, Benjamin Jowett, who is credited with the transformation of the university into a proper educational institution, rather than a place where the upper classes disported themselves between school and politics or whatever they chose to do.

It was Jowett who turned the university into a place that trained youngsters of all backgrounds to become productive members of society whatever they did – which included expanding the teaching of science. In that regard he, together with Thomas Arnold the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, were the key figures in the educational reforms that allowed England to escape revolution because they promoted access to elite training to the emerging middle classes – who were thus absorbed into useful and interesting work on a par with that of the more privileged, which in turn obviated the need for sudden or even violent change.

Belloc’s celebration of Balliol then was not simply sentimental. The form it took is a bit extravagant, but the sentiments would have been appreciated by many of those in positions of importance in Britain, not just Balliol or even Oxford men. The poem, To the Balliol Men Still in Africa, though it seems quaint now, represents a very important development in British social history
Years ago when I was at Balliol,

Balliol men – and I was one –
Swam together in winter rivers,
Wrestled together under the sun.
And still in the heart of us, Balliol, Balliol,
Loved already, but hardly known,
Welded us each of us into the others:
Called a levy and chose her own.
Here is a House that armours a man
With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger,
And a laughing way in the teeth of the world
And a holy hunger and thirst for danger:
Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again:
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.
I have said it before, and I say it again,
There was treason done, and a false word spoken,
And England under the dregs of men,
And bribes about, and a treaty broken:
But angry, lonely, hating it still,
I wished to be there in spite of the wrong.
My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill
And the hammer of galloping all day long.
Galloping outward into the weather,
Hands a-ready and battle in all:
Words together and wine together
And song together in Balliol Hall.
Rare and single! Noble and few!…
Oh! they have wasted you over the sea!
The only brothers ever I knew,
The men that laughed and quarrelled with me.
Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again;
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.