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Hilaire Belloc's Uncollected Political Verse MICHAEL H. MARKEL Drexel University W. N. Roughead begins his preface to the 1970 revised edition of Hilaire Belloc's Complete Verse, "This book contains what I believe to be the whole of Belloc's poetry."1 However, Belloc published some thirty additional poems, most of which are political satires, that he himself did not include in any of his verse collections and that Roughead apparently did not know existed.2 Most of the verses date from 19111913 , when he was devoting the bulk of his energies to muckraking journalism. These political poems are, on the whole, technically sophisticated yet aesthetically flawed. Several, however, most notably those in which Belloc invokes himself as a comic character, are first-rate. The uncollected verse shows the considerable extent to which Belloc succeeded in transforming contemporary political intrigue and corruption into sharp-edged satires. Several of the uncollected poems are nonpolitical lyrics and light verse that might have fit comfortably in one or another of Belloc's collections. "Stop-Short," for instance, is a characteristic meditation on mortality: Ramonde, Alise, Inalfas, Amoreth In mountain-guarded gardens vainly gay Wasted the irrevocable breath, And sought to lose in play The fixed, majestic questioning eyes of Death, By turning theirs away.3 Belloc also wrote four "epigramophones" for the journal Gramophone, the following being one example: The owners of the Gramophone rejoice To hear it likened to the human voice. The owners of the Human Voice disown Its least resemblance to the Gramophone.4 Then there is "A Modernist Ballade," a clever parody of free verse, in which Belloc turns his own beliefs inside out: in justifying why he isn't 143 Markel: Hilaire Belloc's Uncollected Political Verse using "ordinary rhythm [which] might have been neater," he explains that "thought loses freedom under the stress/ Of rules, dogmas, and everything of that sort or race."5 "A Modernist Ballade" provides a key to understanding Belloc's decision not to collect his political verse. He believed firmly in the rules and dogmas. He was as fastidious about the quality of his verse as he was casual about the quality of his prose. In a letter to Evan Charteris written on 24 October 1939, near the end of his long career, Belloc stated: I am writing verse again merely in order to cheat the Camard, which is French for the Snub Nose and is one of the names for Death. I am afraid I will leave a great deal unfinished and that is a pity because I publish so little, but I have before me the example of many poets good and bad who did a lot in their last year or two. Unfortunately I am always over-ashamed of my own work and it is only after years that I can decide whether it is worth publishing. . . .6 Belloc never wavered from his thoroughly classical poetic principles. His models were the ancients (whom he read in the original languages) and the English and French Renaissance as well as neoclassical poets. His masterpiece, "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine," is high comedy in the style of Pope: . . . But what are these that from the outer murk Of dense mephitic vapours creeping lurk To breathe foul airs from that corrupted well Which oozes slime along the floor of Hell? These are the stricken palsied brood of sin In whose vile veins, poor, poisonous and thin Decoctions of embittered hatreds crawl: These are the Water-Drinkers, cursed all! . ..' In Avril (1904), his study of the French Renaissance poets, Belloc wrote that "those whose energy is too abundant seek for themselves by an instinct the necessary confines without which such energy is wasted," and that "energy alone can dare to be classical."8 Energy and classical restraint are indeed the main characteristics of Belloc's best verse. He used his vast prosodie talents to render his particular-and sometimes idiosyncratic-subjects impersonal and compelling. In Milton (1935) he wrote that "the greatest verse does not proceed immediately from the strongest feeling. The greatest verse calls up the strongest emotion in the reader, but in the writer it is a distillation, not a cry...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 143-156
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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