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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
33. Hilaire Belloc
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

Two other living writers I will now commend to you, and then I shall have done.

The parents of Mr. Belloc, with a happy prevision, anticipated by some decades the entente cordiale, and their brilliant son felicitously manifests in his own person many of the admirable qualities of both races. In England he is reported to be forcefully French, and it may be surmised that when in France he is engagingly British. Fortunately for our literature, it is in the language of his mother that he has found his expression. Many are the beautiful utterances scattered through his charming works: two of the most picturesque deal with the greatness of France; the subject of one is the Ancient Monarchy, and of the other the Great Napoleon:—
"So perished the French Monarchy. Its dim origins stretched out and lost themselves in Rome; it had already learnt to speak and recognised its own nature when the vaults of the Thermæ echoed heavily to the slow footsteps of the Merovingian kings.

"Look up the vast valley of dead men crowned, and you may see the gigantic figure of Charlemagne, his brows level and his long white beard tangled like an undergrowth, having in his left hand the globe, and in his right the hilt of an unconquerable sword. There also are the short strong horsemen of the Robertian House, half hidden by their leather shields, and their sons before them growing in vestment and majesty and taking on the pomp of the Middle Ages; Louis VII., all covered with iron; Philip, the Conqueror; Louis IX., who alone is surrounded with light: they stand in a widening, interminable procession, this great crowd of kings; they loose their armour, they take their ermine on, they are accompanied by their captains and their marshals; at last, in their attitude and in their magnificence they sum up in themselves the pride and the achievement of the French nation.

"But Time has dissipated what it could not tarnish, and the process of a thousand years has turned these mighty figures into unsubstantial things. You may see them in the grey end of darkness, like a pageant, all standing still. You look again, but with the growing light, and with the wind that rises before morning, they have disappeared."

* * * * * "There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows, through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn, in silence, with the head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon.

"After him there trailed for days the shadows of the soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men. It was as though the cannon smoke at Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains.

"But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard, and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords."
Time and circumstances have changed our ancient enemies into our honoured friends, and the race that fought against us at Waterloo has cemented its friendship towards us with its blood; and as we look back over the century that divides us from Waterloo we can now with Mr. Belloc salute the sombre figure of the defeated conqueror.

Your loving old
G.P.

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