Friday, December 18, 2015

Whimsical poet and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, 83, died of burns and shock

             When I am dead, I hope it may be said:

            “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

So wrote the prolific poet, satirist, novelist, essayist, and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, author of more than 150 books, many of which are indeed still read.  The number of his sins, scarlet or otherwise, is not recorded.

Best known for his spiritual travel book, The Path to Rome, and his wry and mordant Cautionary Tales for Children, Belloc was born July 27, 1870, in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France, to a French lawyer father, and an English writer mother. His father was wiped out financially in a stock market crash and died when Hilaire was five, and the boy and his mother moved to England, where he was educated at Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School in Birmingham and at Oxford’s Balliol College, winning the presidency of the Oxford Union and taking a first-class degree in history.

A dual citizen of France and Britain, Belloc served in the French military and was a Liberal member of the British Parliament from 1906 to 1910.  He wrote for and edited various British journals and published a variety of literary output.  When asked why he wrote so much, he told the questioner, “Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.” Impecunious for much of his life, he did manage to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a five-acre estate in West Sussex, a part of England he dearly loved and about which he wrote copiously.

A theologically rigid Catholic, Belloc and his friend and Catholic ally G. K. Chesterton were noted for their ongoing debates with the humanists George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Belloc promoted his religious belief even in his humorous verse.  He wrote:
            Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
            There’s always laughter and good red wine.
            At least I’ve always found it so.
            Benedicamus Domino!
A whole series of grimly whimsical verses, mostly about naughty children who meet unfortunate dénouements, are part of Belloc’s enduring legacy.  One of them deals with a boy named Jim, who ran away from his Nurse at the Zoo:
            He hadn't gone a yard when—Bang!
            With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
            And hungrily began to eat
            The Boy: beginning at his feet.
            Now, just imagine how it feels
            When first your toes and then your heels,
            And then by gradual degrees,
            Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
            Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
            No wonder Jim detested it!

            When Nurse informed his Parents, they
            Were more Concerned than I can say:—
            His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
            Said, “Well—it gives me no surprise,
            He would not do as he was told!''
            His Father, who was self-controlled,
            Bade all the children round attend
            To James's miserable end,
            And always keep a-hold of Nurse
            For fear of finding something worse.

Belloc’s own life had more than a fair share of death and tragic circumstance. His wife, Elodie, whom he married in 1896 and with whom he had five children, died in 1914 of influenza. Their son Louis was killed in 1918 serving in the Royal Flying Corps, and another son, Peter, died in 1941, fighting in World War II with the Royal Marines. Belloc himself suffered a stroke in 1942, from which he never recovered, although he lived another eleven years and wrote a few articles during that time.

On July 5, 1953, in the study of Kingsland, his home at Horsham, Sussex, Belloc fell while putting a log on the fire, and a live coal badly burned his feet.  He was taken to the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Guildford, Surrey, where he underwent surgery, but died of the burns and septic shock on July 16, eleven days before his eighty-third birthday. His fate was a strange echo of the story of Matilda, a little girl in one of his Cautionary Tales, who mischievously called the fire department to her home as a prank, and when, a few weeks later,
            That Night a Fire did break out--
            You should have heard Matilda Shout!
            You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
            And throw the window up and call
            To People passing in the Street--
            (The rapidly increasing Heat
            Encouraging her to obtain
            Their confidence) -- but all in vain!
            For every time she shouted 'Fire!'
            They only answered 'Little Liar!'
            And therefore when her Aunt returned,
            Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

 Belloc was buried next to his wife at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in West Grinstead, Sussex, where he had been a parishioner.

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