Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Happy Birthday to You, Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc was born on July 27, 1870 and died on July 16, 1953. I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning to talk about this great Catholic writer at 7:45 a.m. Eastern/6:45 a.m. Central. (Note that July 27 is Matt Swaim's birthday, too. Matt is the producer of the Son Rise Morning Show, broadcasting on the EWTN Radio Network from Cincinnati, Ohio!)

Belloc (Joseph Hilaire Pierre Rene) was born in France; his father was French, his mother English. After his father's death, his mother brought him and his sister Marie to England, where he attended the Oratory School in Birmingham founded by Blessed John Henry Newman. He then served in the French military as required and returned to attend Balliol College at Oxford. He was president of the Oxford Union Debating Society and hoped for a fellowship at All Souls. Belloc married Elodie Hogan in 1896 and they had five children before her death in 1914, one of whom, Louis, died in World War I. Belloc became British citizen in 1902.

Frederick Wilhelmson, author of a study of Belloc titled Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man, A Study in Christian Integration, pubished by Sheed and Ward in 1953, commented on his energy and vigor in another essay:

At my last count, Hilaire Belloc wrote 153 books. The business has to do with vigor, an enormous lust for life, and a willingness to make mistakes. Belloc did not give a damn for what anybody thought of him. He wrote his life of King James II in a hotel on the edge of the Sahara in ten days: “It is full of howlers and is the fruit of liberty.” He walked to Rome as a young man, coming in upon the Appian Way on a mule drawn cart — but with his feet dragging on the road so his vow would not be broken.

His vigor was legendary, and I have mentioned as well his lust for life. Belloc — and this is a key to understanding his role as a Catholic apologist — was a man totally at home in this world, but one who knew it was an illusion to be so at home. There was not a trace of Manicheanism in him, and he called puritanism, in his biography of Louis XIV, an “evil out of the pit”, meaning the pit of hell. A mountain climber, he was even more a sailor. His Hills and the Sea and The Cruise of the Nona are classics. If The Path to Rome is the work of a young genius, rollicking and rolling his way over mountain and valley toward the Eternal City, The Four Men, on the contrary, called by its author “A Farrago”, was penned in solitude mixed with melancholy. Grizzlebeard, the Poet, and the Sailor are all extensions of Myself, and Myself is Belloc. Only when life is lived close to the senses, when the intelligence is engaged immediately on what is yielded to man through the body, is the paradox of sadness in created beauty brought home in all its delicacy and inexorableness. Page after page of Belloc’s writing is troubled by a deep and troubled gravity, heightened by his profound communion with the things of his world: English inns; old oak‑burnished and sturdy; rich Burgundy and other wines” that port of theirs” at the “George” drunk by the fire with which he began this book; the sea and ships that sail — but, please, “no abomination of an engine”; the smell of the tides. These loves run through Belloc’s essays, recurring themes testifying to a vision movingly poetic in its classic simplicity. His eyes are fixed on the primal things that always nourished the human spirit, on the things at hand.

Unfortunately, Wilhelmson's book is hard to find (fortunately for me, I bought a used copy several years ago!). When Belloc ran for Parliament in 1906, his campaign manager told him not to mention his Catholicism--so Belloc proclaimed during one of his speeches: "Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being your representative." I think that story exemplifies Wilhelmson's argument in his book as well as his note that "Belloc did not give a damn for what anybody thought of him".

In honor of his birth, let us raise a glass of fine Burgundy (rouge, bien sur!), since, as Belloc 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!

You can hear a recording of him singing for a radio program here.


  1. Wonderful! I really enjoyed the recording of his voice.

  2. Isn't it amazing what you find on YouTube?