In returning to Belloc’s essays, I am reminded that he was one of the undisputed masters of English prose. Will we see such discernment and grace in a writer again? I may sound as despairing as Belloc does in Places, his last book of essays published in 1941. In the preface he rather dourly reflects on the lost innocence of Europe before the World Wars: “I have here collected many an impression of travel of the sort which I fear can never be repeated in a ruined world.” Fortunately, this gloominess intrudes only a little in his travel sketches.
In his piece “The Silences,” Belloc shares his recurring quest for solitude, which is a reflection of man’s search for spiritual repose. It is a quest that he admits will never be fulfilled this side of the grave. Yet it is one that all healthy men feel compelled to indulge in from time to time.
If you would commune with the dead and people solitude with shades, you will find your best opportunity in deep woods…. [T]he great woods give one all that gift of isolation, in so far as it can be enjoyed at all upon this earth, and they have in them an inhabiting silence. One might add “an inhabited silence,” for spirits return there and they are companionable. The trees are brotherly to man, especially the greater trees.
In a similar reverie about his travels to Sweden, Belloc writes
Those countrysides extend so endlessly… and their towns and villages set within such surroundings are so much at ease with the created world inanimate… they are so clothed with interminable woodland and so dominated by the ever-present silence, that there still returns to me as I call them to mind that phrase of which they seemed to me the physical expression: “The Northern Peace.”
Belloc’s fascination with landscapes is a curious thing. He explains that during the Middle Ages people wrote “of towns and places, but not of hills… nor of distant horizons on the way.” It was not till more recent times “that this fashion changed, and that men began to record the road as well as the place to which the road led….” Although Belloc seems to indulge this modern taste for scenery, he is not a romanticist nor, worse, a naturalist. His description of landscapes invariably recalls the medieval fashion for allegory, in which the environment has a meaning that only man, as something unique in creation, can give it.
Places is one of Belloc’s best collections. It is to be hoped that these and other essays will someday find their way back in print.