Two Gentlemen from Sussex

On the face of it, there could no more different people in terms of politics and religion than Hilaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling. Belloc, as one half of the notorious “Chesterbelloc” was one of the most powerful apologists for Catholicism the Anglosphere has ever known. Kipling was a conventional Anglican and a devout Freemason — for all that his old “Mother Lodge” in India included, as we are told in his ode to it, “Castro from the fittin’-sheds, The Roman Catholick!” Belloc was a “Little Englander” — hating the Boer War as an act of aggression, and loathing the British Empire as an instrument of oppression. Kipling was an Imperialist’s Imperialist, and saw the war in South Africa as a fight for civilisation against Calvinist superstition. Belloc was a crypto-Jacobite; Kipling almost worshipped Queen Victoria (“The Widow at Windsor”), and was a valued friend of George V. Belloc once wrote of Kipling that “All of us who have travelled can witness to the effect of Kipling upon the reputation of England abroad. Kipling’s ignorance of Europe, his vulgarity and its accompanying fear of superiors (which modern people call an inferiority-complex) have profoundly affected and affected adversely the reputation of England and the Englishman throughout the world.”

This certainly is a harsh criticism; but one thing it belies are the large number of similarities between the two men. Although both regarded themselves as true blue Englishmen, both were outsiders: Kipling was born in India, Belloc in France — and they had to deal with the stigma that being a foreigner held in late Victorian Britain. At the same time, they both maintained a deep love of their respective homelands. Even so, both would marry Americans — Elodie Hogan of Napa, California, for Belloc, Carrie Balestier of Rochester, New York for Kipling. Both spent long periods of time in the United States, neither which time, however, nor the nationality of their spouses, really improved their opinion of America or Americans.

Belloc was a medievalist to be sure, and believed the Middle Ages to the apogee of English civilisation; but while Kipling was quite willing to sing the praises of progress and modernity to a point, he was bitten with the Medieval bug as so many Victorians were — in style, if not religion. Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911) was married to Alice Mac Donald (1837-1910); Alice’s sister Georgiana was married to the Late Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, and was also the mother of painter Philip Burne-Jones, and so aunt not only of Kipling but also Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Aunt Georgiana was also the confidante and friend of George Eliot, William Morris, and John Ruskin. As a result, young Kipling got to know William Morris. Chesterton and Belloc derived a great deal of inspiration for Distributism from Ruskin and Morris — as indeed, did Kipling.

A comparison of such poems as Kipling’s “If” and Belloc’s “To the Balliol Men Still in Africa” reveal a great deal of commonality in terms of what it is to be a man, and to do one’s duty. It is here, in a human sense, that the two writers are at their closest. Certainly, Belloc would recognise in the author of “Recessional” a man who knew only too well where the paths of glory really run to.

But where the duo had the most in common was their love of Sussex. Both had settled in that most English of all counties, and then done their best to become part of the landscape. Belloc’s house, Kingsland, in Shipley near East Grinstead, has its own mill, which Belloc put back in order. Kipling did the same with the mill at the house he settled in, Bateman’s in Burwash. In truth, If you read Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Belloc’s The Four Men, the duet’s shared love of England in general and Sussex most particularly jumps out. Compare these two poems, as an example:

The South Country by Hilaire Belloc

When I am living in the Midlands

That are sodden and unkind,

I light my lamp in the evening:

My work is left behind;

And the great hills of the South Country

Come back into my mind.


The great hills of the South Country

They stand along the sea;

And it’s there walking in the high woods

That I could wish to be,

And the men that were boys when I was a boy

Walking along with me.


The men that live in North England

I saw them for a day:

Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,

Their skies are fast and grey;

From their castle-walls a man may see

The mountains far away.


The men that live in West England

They see the Severn strong,

A-rolling on rough water brown

Light aspen leaves along.

They have the secret of the Rocks,

And the oldest kind of song.


But the men that live in the South Country

Are the kindest and most wise,

They get their laughter from the loud surf,

And the faith in their happy eyes

Comes surely from our Sister the Spring

When over the sea she flies;

The violets suddenly bloom at her feet,

She blesses us with surprise.


I never get between the pines

But I smell the Sussex air;

Nor I never come on a belt of sand

But my home is there.

And along the sky the line of the Downs

So noble and so bare.


A lost thing could I never find,

Nor a broken thing mend:

And I fear I shall be all alone

When I get towards the end.

Who will there be to comfort me

Or who will be my friend?


I will gather and carefully make my friends

Of the men of the Sussex Weald;

They watch the stars from silent folds,

They stiffly plough the field.

By them and the God of the South Country

My poor soul shall be healed.


If I ever become a rich man,

Or if ever I grow to be old,

I will build a house with deep thatch

To shelter me from the cold,

And there shall the Sussex songs be sung

And the story of Sussex told.


I will hold my house in the high wood

Within a walk of the sea,

And the men that were boys when I was a boy

Shall sit and drink with me.


Sussex by Rudyard Kipling

God gave all men all earth to love,

But since our hearts are small,

Ordained for each one spot should prove

Belovèd over all;

That, as He watched Creation’s birth,

So we, in godlike mood,

May of our love create our earth

And see that it is good.

So one shall Baltic pines content,

As one some Surrey glade,

Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament

Before Levuka’s Trade.

Each to his choice, and I rejoice

The lot has fallen to me

In a fair ground—in a fair ground—

Yea, Sussex by the sea!


No tender-hearted garden crowns,

No bosomed woods adorn

Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,

But gnarled and writhen thorn—

Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,

And, through the gaps revealed,

Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,

Blue goodness of the Weald.


Clean of officious fence or hedge,

Half-wild and wholly tame,

The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge

As when the Romans came.

What sign of those that fought and died

At shift of sword and sword?

The barrow and the camp abide,

The sunlight and the sward.


Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west

All heavy-winged with brine,

Here lies above the folded crest

The Channel’s leaden line;

And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,

And here, each warning each,

The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring

Along the hidden beach.


We have no waters to delight

Our broad and brookless vales—

Only the dewpond on the height

Unfed, that never fails—

Whereby no tattered herbage tells

Which way the season flies—

Only our close-bit thyme that smells

Like dawn in Paradise.


Here through the strong and shadeless days

The tinkling silence thrills;

Or little, lost, Down churches praise

The Lord who made the hills:

But here the Old Gods guard their round,

And, in her secret heart,

The heathen kingdom Wilfrid found

Dreams, as she dwells, apart.


Though all the rest were all my share,

With equal soul I’d see

Her nine-and-thirty sisters fair,

Yet none more fair than she.

Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,

And I will choose instead

Such lands as lie ’twixt Rake and Rye,

Black Down and Beachy Head.


I will go out against the sun

Where the rolled scarp retires,

And the Long Man of Wilmington

Looks naked toward the shires;

And east till doubling Rother crawls

To find the fickle tide,

By dry and sea-forgotten walls,

Our ports of stranded pride.


I will go north about the shaws

And the deep ghylls that breed

Huge oaks and old, the which we hold

No more than Sussex weed;

Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s

Begilded dolphin veers

And red beside wide-bankèd Ouse

Lie down our Sussex steers.


So to the land our hearts we give

Till the sure magic strike,

And Memory, Use, and Love make live

Us and our fields alike—

That deeper than our speech and thought,

Beyond our reason’s sway,

Clay of the pit whence we were wrought

Yearns to its fellow-clay.


God gives all men all earth to love,

But since man’s heart is small,

Ordains for each one spot shall prove

Beloved over all.

Each to his choice, and I rejoice

The lot has fallen to me

In a fair ground—in a fair ground—

Yea, Sussex by the sea!

Sadly, and to this age’s unending discredit, Belloc and Kipling share one other trait — to be disliked and disregarded by this age’s academic and artistic establishment. Lord Dunsany told a young Ray Bradbury (who in turn related it to a young me) that Rudyard Kipling was the greatest writer of English in the 20th century. I can agree with that, on a purely stylistic level; I would say that Belloc tops him as far as content and intent. But neither deserve the opprobrium which their memories are regularly handed — it is like watching squirrels biting a statue.

But at least, heretical though it is and heretic though Kipling was, Kipling has been better done by his parish church of Rottingdean, than Belloc has been by his of East Grinstead. In years gone by, the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation’s website had a wonderful tribute to Belloc. Mention of him is missing entirely in the current version. That, surely, is the saddest difference between the two gentlemen from Sussex.