Portrait with a Wart or Two

Belloc: A Biographical Anthology

edited by Herbert van Thal
Knopf, 386 pp., $8.95

Hilaire Belloc
Hilaire Belloc; drawing by David Levine

If one is interested in an author, one cannot help asking oneself: “Suppose I had to make an anthology from his works, what would I select?” This means, of course, that one will be unfairly prejudiced against any selection which differs from one’s own. In the case of a poet, though different readers may have different preferences, their principle of selection will, I think, be the same: they will try to select what, in their opinion, are his best poems, those, that is, which seem most likely to survive the test of time. Thus, I cannot imagine anyone, when making a selection from Wordsworth, including the sonnet “Spade with which Wilkinson has tilled his lands,” on the grounds that, bad though it is, only Wordsworth could have written it.

But in the case of a man like Belloc, who wrote not only “pure” literature but was also a prolific journalist, a highly polemical writer about history, politics, public affairs, the problem of selection is much more difficult, because one cannot separate the artistic fabricator from the propagandist, the literary man-of-action. In the case of the former, his personality, his foibles, are, or should be, of no concern to the public; in the case of the latter, they are important and significant.

About Belloc the artist, all readers, whatever their religious and political convictions, will agree on two points. Firstly, he is, like Swift, one of the great masters of straightforward English prose. Even when I find what he is saying wrongheaded or absurd, I have to admire how he says it, his clarity, vigor, and elegance; and whenever his subject is one to which dogmas are irrelevant, as when he is describing his experiences as a French conscript, or his adventures among savage mountains and on stormy seas, or his visits to little known cities, I am completely enchanted. Secondly, as a writer of Light Verse, he has few equals and no superiors. (His “serious” poems, like the Sonnets, seem to me bien fait, but without original vision, an imitation of poetry-in-general.)

Since I, personally, am interested in Belloc the literary artist, not in Belloc the polemicist, my own anthology would consist almost entirely of passages from Hills and the Sea, The Path to Rome, The Cruise of the Nona, Many Cities, Cautionary Tales, Peers, and More Peers. I would also certainly include, and here I am most grateful to Mr. van Thal for reprinting it, since I had never read it before, his magnificent Taylorian lecture, On Translation, from which I cannot resist quoting a brief sample.

If you come across the French word “constater,” which in point of fact you do in nearly all official documents with which you may have to deal, you must always replace it by a full English sentence, even so ample as, “We note without further comment,” or “We note for purposes of…

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