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Coarse and Sublime: The Extraordinary Writing of Hilaire Belloc

January 3, 2018


He could be coarse.

That’s for certain.

Returning home from a dusty pilgrimage bereft of money, food, or even a clean shave, Hilaire Belloc would barge uninvited into his friend G.K. Chesterton’s house, rummage rudely through the icebox, and bellow for beer and bacon. At the very moment that this unkempt, uncouth, half-drunk friend made his outrageous appearance, Chesterton was very nervously entertaining the buttoned-down Victorian brothers, Henry and William James.

Or when delicately warned that his Catholicism was causing many of his constituents to consider voting for another candidate for the House of Commons, Belloc didn’t shrink from his Faith. Rather, he gathered a group in front of a Catholic school building and, gripping his Rosary beads, told his doubting public that if rejected on account of his religion, “I shall thank God that He spared me the indignity of being your representative.”

That was just Belloc’s way.

He had the passion of a zealot and the fight of a pugilist. Revered atheist and public intellectual H.G. Wells once observed that, “Debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm.” And the Sailor in Belloc’s brilliant novel The Four Men offered a taste of Belloc’s fire when he proclaimed his “Christmas Song”:

May all good fellows that here agree

Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me

And may all my enemies go to hell

Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!

May all my enemies go to hell

Noel! Noel!

That was just Belloc’s way.

He could be coarse. But he could also be sublime.

In a beautiful essay titled, On Dropping Anchor, Belloc (the passionate sailor) recalls adventures and misadventures inherent in the simple act of “dropping anchor”of finding short respite in the midst of casual or vigorous seafaring. Belloc considered the time he tied his boat, the Silver Star, to a “noble buoy” after a particularly harrowing night at sea and promptly fell asleep. He was jarred awake by “a Colonial accent swearing in an abominable manner” from a “man of prodigious wealth, all dressed in white, and with an extremely new cap on his head. His whiskers also were white and his face bright red, and he was in a great passion.” Screaming indignantly that Belloc had no right to tie up to the rich man’s moorings, Belloc apologized and rowed away thinking, “Riches corrupt the heart.”

Another time, Belloc remembered escaping from a perilous sea, sailing upriver and tying up to a small buoy in the middle of his boat’s path. In spite of the yelling and howling from the men along the short, Belloc waved them off (think John Candy driving and dismissively nodding in Planes, Trains and Automobiles as frantic passersby yelled, “You’re going the wrong way!”). Before long, he was struck that the boat continued, unabated, upriver while dragging the buoy with it. That was because it was a marker in a boat race in which the shore-lined screamers were interested parties. Belloc puckishly ends his story, “Soon it was after dark, and we replaced the buoy stealthily, and when we came in to eat at the Inn we were not recognized.” 

Belloc tells the humorous story of wrong place, wrong time, mistakes and misunderstandings. It is the witty, if not wearisome, story of life. But this is not where he ends. It is the disarming warm-up to a profound longing we all have amidst the struggles and fights, the waywardness and weariness of our daily lives. Here is where Hilaire Belloc shines.

“I love to consider the place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea.

This place will be a cove set round with high hills on which there shall be no house or sign of men, and it shall be enfolded by quite deserted land; but the westering sun will shine pleasantly upon it under a warm air. It will be a proper place for sleep.

The fair-way into that haven shall lie behind a pleasant little beach of shingle, which shall run out aslant into the sea from the steep hillside, and shall be a breakwater made by God. The tide shall run up behind it smoothly, and in a silent way, filling the quiet hollow of the hills, brimming it all up like a cupa cup of refreshment and of quiet, a cup of ending.

Then with what pleasure shall I put my small boat round, just round the point of that shingle beach, noting the shoal water by the eddies and the deeps by the blue color of them where the channel runs from the main into the fair-way. Up that fair-way shall I go, up into the cove, and the gates of it shall shut behind me, headland against headland, so that I shall not see the open sea anymore, though I shall still hear its distant noise. But all around me, save for that distant echo of the surf from the high hills, will be silence; and the evening will be gathering already.

Under that falling light, all alone in such a place, I shall let go the anchor chain, and let it rattle for the last time. My anchor will go down into the clear salt water with a run, and when it touches I shall pay out four lengths or more so that she may swing easily and not drag, and then I shall tie up my canvas and fasten all for the night, and get me ready for sleep. And that will be the end of my sailing.”

Hilaire Belloc could be coarse. But there was something in him common among God’s favored onesakin to that which was found in a troubled Caravaggio or a self-absorbed Evelyn Waughthat, once tapped, revealed a touch of the Divine. It is a deeply Catholic story. Out of the rough can emerge the smooth, out of the repellent can arise the remarkable, and out of the indelicate can blossom the sublime.

Hilaire Belloc.

How human. How Catholic.

How very extraordinary.