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Rhyme and Reason

Hilaire Belloc


BEFORE the First World War, the writers Shaw, Chesterton, Belloc and H G Wells were known as the 'Famous Four'. They held massive debates in public theatres and drew thousands into their intellectual battles, an early version of the verbal combat on television today.

Of the four, Belloc is the least well known today. Yet some of his sayings are more applicable to the present day than many of the political proposals of the other three. For instance, Belloc felt that the West had suffered spiritual decline as opposed to Islam.

"In Faith we have fallen inferior to Islam."

During the Second World War he singled the Germans out for their treatment of the Jews.

"The Third Reich has treated its Jewish subjects with a contempt for justice which would be a sufficient warranty for demanding its elimination from Europe. Cruelty to a Jew is as odious as cruelty to any human being, whether that cruelty be moral in the form of insult, or physical."

Politician, journalist, travel writer Belloc had much recognition in his time. He also wrote poetry. This, I think, was his greatest gift. Had he devoted more time to his poetry, I think he could have occupied a high position as a poet today. The sonnet (right) addressed to sleep has not, in my view, been bettered in English. It is almost as if we are on board a boat sailing softly into a benevolent night before blessed oblivion settles in.

Shakespeare has always been thought to have had the last word on the subject with his "Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care".

But I think old Hillary (as his friends used call him) in this sonnet brings us as close as any poet has done to that shadowy state in which we spend one quarter of our lives.