Poems from the academy

November 4, 2005

Lines to a Don, by Hilaire Belloc
Remote and ineffectual Don
That dared attack my Chesterton,
With that poor weapon, half-impelled,
Unlearnt, unsteady, hardly held,
Unworthy for a tilt with men -
Your quavering and corroded pen;
Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;
Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,
Don nervous, Don of crudities;
Don clerical, Don ordinary,
Don self-absorbed and solitary;
Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;
Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;
Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,
Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
Don hypocritical, Don bad,
Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;
Don (since a man must make an end),
Don that shall never be my friend.

Don different from those regal Dons!
With hearts of gold and lungs of bronze,
Who shout and bang and roar and bawl
The Absolute across the hall,
Or sail in amply bellying gown
Enormous through the Sacred Town,
Bearing from College to their homes
Deep cargoes of gigantic tomes;
Dons admirable! Dons of Might!
Uprising on my inward sight
Compact of ancient tales, and port
And sleep - and learning of a sort.
Dons English, worthy of the land;
Dons rooted; Dons that understand.
Good Dons perpetual that remain
A landmark, walling in the plain -
The horizon of my memories -
Like large and comfortable trees.

Dons very much apart from these,
Thou scapegoat Don, thou Don devoted,
Don to thine own damnation quoted,
Perplexed to find thy trivial name
Reared in my verse to lasting shame.
Don dreadful, rasping Don and wearing,
Repulsive Don - Don past all bearing.
Don of the cold and doubtful breath,
Don despicable, Don of death;
Don nasty, skimpy, silent, level;
Don evil; Don that serves the devil,
Don ugly - that makes fifty lines.
There is a Canon which confines
A Rhymed Octosyllabic Curse
If written in Iambic Verse
To fifty lines. I never cut;
I far prefer to end it - but
Believe me I shall soon return.
My fires are banked, but still they burn
To write some more about the Don
That dared attack my Chesterton.

Lines to a Don : here is Hilaire Belloc jesting and jousting. This is not the slush of yesteryear, but ice and fire that have kept for a century their sharp cold and their robust warmth.

Much has happened since 1910, including the further debasement of the word "don". Once upon a time, it represented the heights - or at any rate some heights: not just the university professor but the Oxford or Cambridge fellow, quite a fellow. Along came John Carey, an Oxford don who scarified and scared the dons of Oxford. "Down with Dons" was his title to fame. You knew what he meant: see the Oxford English Dictionary , under "donnish": "of the nature or character of a (college) don; having a pedantic stiffness or gravity of manner". (Cardinal Newman speaking.) But Belloc had chosen not to say "Down with Dons". Down, rather, with a particular Don, one who had been wantonly down on Belloc's friend, G. K.

Chesterton, the other half of that pantomime horse, the Chesterbelloc.

Belloc invites us, all the more hyperbolically, to give a ballocking to one ignoble don for the very reason that the don is ordinarily an extraordinarily admirable fellow: "Don different from those regal Dons."

We may most enjoy Belloc here when he vituperates rather than celebrates, but satire and lampoon thrive best in a world that acknowledges that there do exist a few people who should be honoured. In our day, lampoon, the bouncer, has too little praiseworthiness to bounce off. But Lines to a Don , light verse on its feet, bounces buoyantly.

Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry, Oxford University, and professor of the humanities, Boston University, US.

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