Ralph McInerny


Chesterton died relatively young, with his authorial boots on, whereas Belloc lived on to enormous old age. There are several evocations of him in the diaries of Evelyn Waugh. “He has grown a splendid white beard and in his cloak, which with his hat he wore indoors and always, he seemed an archimandrite.” But the great man had become garrulous and obsessed. “He talked incessantly, proclaiming with great clarity the grievances of forty years ago.” That was in 1945. Some seven years later, there is this. “Enter old man, shaggy white beard, black clothes garnished with food and tobacco. Thinner than I last saw him, with benevolent gleam. Like an old peasant or fisherman in French film. We went to greet him at door. Smell like fox. He kissed Laura’s hand, bowed to me saying, ‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.’”

Old age, Charles de Gaulle was to say, is a shipwreck. In these lines of Waugh we certainly see the captain of the Nona beached and bewildered in a present in which he only fitfully lived. Somehow they seem a not altogether inappropriate coda to the years of ferocious literary activity. That had ceased now but it was Belloc’s achievement as a writer – among other things – that elicited the admiration and piety of Waugh. Visits to Belloc were a duty that sat lightly on the younger writer. He attended the great man’s funeral and chided Diana Cooper for wanting to stay away. “The chief reason, of course, for attending funerals is to pray for the soul of the dead friend. The other reason is courtesy to the surviving relations...”

We have been spared the sight of Chesterton grown senile and a bore, but of course that would not have affected our estimate of his achievement. No more do these glimpses of a shuffling old man detract from the enormous achievement of Hilaire Belloc. The two men were linked, by themselves and others, and fused into the Chesterbelloc. Perhaps the most charming examples of their collaboration is to be found in those novels of Belloc that were illustrated by Chesterton. One thinks of the portrait by Gunn in which Chesterton is seated at a table, drawing, with Belloc to his left, looking on, and behind the two, egg bald and somewhat aloof, Maurice Baring. Maybe Baring seems a little embarrassed to be there when the two seated giants are so visibly enjoying themselves.

There are three common notes characteristic of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. First, there is their fecundity, the seemingly ceaseless flow of words from their pens. Second, is the variety of their literary products. Third, is the Christian vision that was as natural to them as the air they breathed.

There is a sense in which it does not matter whether an artist produces much or little: the quality of his opus is the salient thing. Mere quantity is neutral in the sense that some artists produce a very great deal and it is only mediocre or bad, whereas others labor over one or two works which achieve perfection. Obviously it is large amounts of good stuff that one means when he invokes fecundity as a mark of greatness.

It will of course be said that neither Belloc nor Chesterton had time to agonize over any particular work. They wrote under financial pressure or to make deadlines and had to get the thing done. That makes the high quality of most of their work all the more impressive. But it is the sheer fun the two seemed to have had in doing most of what they did that characterizes them. Try and imagine either Belloc or Chesterton with writer’s block or talking about the agony of creation. They did not have time for the mannerisms of the second-rate. Analogously, Chester ton remarked about art school that there seemed to be far more artists than people who produced art.

It would be inaccurate to portray Chesterton as a failed artist though the career he eventually had was scarcely the normal outcome of an art school education. The fact is that he became an artist in a minor sense at least. He had a sure hand and the illustrations already mentioned exhibit a visual imagination of great variety. The faces are all clearly by the same artist but no two are alike. There is a clear family resemblance to the figures Chesterton painted for his puppet theater when he was a boy. Belloc on the other hand had aspired to be a don, for years hoping for election as a fellow of an Oxford College. That did not happen and this failure bothered him for many years. Had he won the sinecure of an Oxford fellowship he would have been able to write in a more leisurely and academically acceptable fashion. That was his claim. But surely from time to time it must have occurred to Belloc that failure to become an Oxford don was one of the best things that ever happened to him. As a member of Parliament he came to despise the company he had to keep. It is doubtful that he would have found prolonged proximity to the dons he excoriated in his poetic defense of Chesterton any more palatable. In their different ways, Belloc and Chesterton became free lances, fighting battles of their own choosing on multiple terrains. There was no job description for either man that preceded his endeavors. Ubi vult spirat.

Chesterton said that the world of Charles Dickens was the best of all impossible worlds, and something similar is often thought of his. After all, he was an optimist, he wrote a rollicking prose that often runs away from sense to become a music that mystifies and delights. He can seem so innocent, almost prelapsarian. I suspect that this is one of his greatest accomplishments.

Because it was an accomplishment. Chesterton was not born Chesterton, nor was his future persona thrust upon him. The choice he made was between being Chesterton or going mad. What would going mad have been like? He was attracted to the sensuous decadence of Swinburne. There is a point in his young manhood of which he wrote almost allegorically when he turned from darkness and evil toward the light.

The chapter in his autobiography called “How to be a Lunatic” covers the years during which he studied art at the Slade School in London and became enthralled with spiritualism and the Ouija board. In the period of despair through which he went, Chesterston dabbled in diabolism; later he came to think that he was one of the few who did who really believed in devils. His emergence from this slough of despond is what made him seem an optimist. “Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.” What remained to him of religion was the “one thin thread of thanks.” Wonder. Gratitude. Wonder, it has been said, is the origin both of philosophy and of poetry. It turned Chesterton into an exuberant poetic philosopher of gratitude. To see being against the background of nothingness is to see it as created.

Second, there is the variety of their output. Poems serious and comic, novels, book length essays, monographs, collections of essays, memoirs, literary criticism, biography, apologetics, political philosophy, economics – these are genres in which both men wrote. Chesterton even tried history in A Short History of England and it can be said without too much stretching that Belloc wrote detective fiction. To say that the two men overlapped may seem a pun, but they did, even where they seemed most to differ. But if we consider only the kinds that both wrote lots of it is striking. Their poetry deserves more attention than it has received, though it has not been overlooked. Garry Wills some years ago wrote a marvelous essay on Chesterton’s poetic works. Belloc’s verse for children has been so popular that his other verse is almost eclipsed by it. But Tarantella, to which Marvin O’Connell alludes in his piece, is a hauntingly beautiful poem, intricate in its prosody, sustained in its music.

Third, there is the Catholic outlook that defines the bulk of the work of these two men. In this post-conciliar time when Catholics are alleged to have moved out of the ghetto so as to address the modern world with renewed confidence, the apologetic voice is all but silent. More seriously still, there seems to be missing the robust confidence that the faith is an inestimable gift. Where is the unambiguous assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is the fullness of Christianity and that the faith is the best thing that ever happened to the human race? Belloc and Chesterton were ferocious Catholics, unequivocal Catholics, confessing Catholics, labeled and known to be such. This was the source of their catholicity, not an obstacle to it.

Were ever two thinkers less denominational and sectarian? Neither man thought of the faith as one option among many. It was for everyone. Their missionary zeal was based on the realization that they did not own Christianity; they knew that there are only brethren and separated brethren. It is in very small degree the defects of those in the Church that explain that separation. Men and women have been seduced by the siren song of modernity, to which the faith is an antidote. Try to imagine either Belloc or Chesterton suggesting that, while modernity is a great thing and enjoying success after success, nonetheless we ought to turn back to the Middle Ages and to a discredited view of things. It can’t be done. Yet how often this seems to be the choice believers pose to their contemporaries.

The odd contemporaneity of these two men lies above all in their faith. It is our shared faith that makes what they say seem inevitable even when no one else ever said it half so well. C. S. Lewis said of his return to the faith that it put him in possession of the outlook of the writers whose works it was his task to teach. A bonus. There is more than this in the case of Belloc and Chesterton. They enable us to recover gratitude for the faith and wonder at its possession. Not only do we see the role it played in their own efforts. We begin to see the role it should play in ours. All the time. Exuberantly.

This article first appeared in Catholic Dossier