Published in The Saint Austin Review, 2 (November, 2002), 11-13.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057
“ON THE CHARACTER OF ENDURING THINGS”
“And on this account, Sussex, does a man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things.”
– Belloc, The Four Men, Preface.1
The Path to Rome recounted the walk that Belloc took by himself from his old French army post in Toul to fulfill his vow to reach High Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the twenty-ninth of June. This walk took place in 1901.2 The following year, 1902, exactly one hundred years ago, Belloc records a second equally “wonder-full” walk that he took in his home county of Sussex in England. The termination of both these walks, one suspects, was the same, albeit one ending at St. Peter’s, the other at his own home. On second thought the first walk did not exactly finish with Mass at St. Peter’s. As he tells us, Belloc arrived when Mass was just ending. A priest told him in Latin that the next one would begin in twenty minutes. So he added twenty minutes to his pilgrimage and thus delightfully to his book.
During this extra time, Belloc, crossing St. Peter’s Square, with no little amused irony, passed by an “Egyptian obelisk which the great Augustus had nobly dedicated to the Sun.” “The Reader” then wanted to know, after all this wandering about Europe, whether he planned to say anything of Rome itself? “Nothing, dear Lector,” Belloc retorted. Instead, while waiting, he went into a café down a long narrow street, where he “called for bread, coffee, and brandy.” In the remaining few moments, he wrote doggerel verses summing up his now completed “Path” to Rome – “Drinking when I had a mind to, / Singing when I felt inclined to; / Nor ever turned my face to home / Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.”
The Four Men also ends with verse: “When friend and fire and home are lost / And even children drawn away – / The passer-by shall hear me still, / A boy that sings on Duncton Hill.” Belloc concludes the second walk simply, “full of these thoughts and greatly relieved by their metrical expression, I went, through the gathering darkness, southward across the Downs to my home.” For Belloc, the kinship between home and Rome was not accidental.
The second walk lasts from the twenty-ninth of October to the second day of November, 1902. Included, in other words, with all their symbolisms, are All Hallows’ Eve, All Hallows’ Day, and All Souls’ Day -- the “Day of the Dead,” as Belloc named it. These solemn days recall the human condition -- we live, we sin, we repent, or perhaps we don’t. From the beginning, what we are destined for, even if we do not reach it, is glory. But, as Belloc is aware, some there are, Pelagians all, who claim that they need no grace to attain such glory and are proudly confident that they can save themselves.
Later, outside the Crabtree Inn on the 31st of October, the four men, whom we shall soon meet, stop for beer and cheese. The Sailor decides to sing “in a very full and decisive manner” (48). The song that he chooses is marvelously entitled, “Song of the Pelagian Heresy for the Strengthening of Men’s Backs and the very Robust Out-thrusting of Doubtful Doctrine and the Uncertain Intellectual.” No song-title is better suited to our time of doubtful doctrines and uncertain intellectuals who seek to accomplish everything, even their own salvation, for and by themselves.
Belloc gives the notes and the words of this little Pelagian tune. The words are remarkable: “Pelagius lived in Kardanoel, / And taught a doctrine there, / How whether you went to Heaven or Hell, / It was your own affair. / How, whether you found eternal joy / Or sank forever to burn, / It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy, / But was your own concern.” One of the fellow walkers called this doctrine “blasphemous,” but the Sailor maintained it was “orthodox,” which it wasn’t. He proceeded to sing the final “semi-chorus,” as it is called: “Oh, he didn’t believe / In Adam and Eve, / He put no faith therein! / His doubts began / With the fall of man, / And he laughed at original sin.” The verses go on to recount the whole history of such heresy in song – no doubt the only way it should be studied. All utopias begin, I suspect, by this “laughing at original sin.” They all end as a result by making things worse by “having nothing to do with the Church.”
Belloc likewise records the tradition, not to be found specifically in Genesis, to be sure, that the Garden of Eden was originally found in his home county. On finishing this book, we can well believe it. He gives the following account of this local lore:
When Adam was out (with the help of Eve) to name all the places of the earth (and that is why he had to live so long), he desired to distinguish Sussex, late his happy seat, by some special mark which would pick it out from all the other places of the earth, its inferiors and vassals. So that when Paradise might be regained and the hopeless generation of men permitted to pass the Flaming Sword at Shiremark Mill, and to see once more the four rivers, Arun and Adur, and Cuckmere and Ouse, they might know their native place again and mark it for Paradise (43).
The method Adam used to accomplish this special marking of Paradise that is Sussex was that, in this county alone, everything would be called by its opposite geographical name. Down would be called Up, and North would be called South. Moreover, “no one in the County should pronounce ‘th,’ ‘ph,’ or ‘sh,’ but always ‘h’ separately, under pain of damnation.” For Belloc not only were Rome and home identified, but both commenced in that Paradise originally located in the county of Sussex, Belloc’s own county.
As I try to read T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” every Ash Wednesday, so I endeavor to reread every year Belloc’s Four Men during these five “All Hallows” days. Belloc is right; enduring things are found here in this book, including a certain sadness that always seems to be about Belloc, in spite of his amazing jollity. Belloc, almost as much as Plato, is poignantly aware of the passingness of life and the need to attach what happens in time to more eternal things.
The Preface of The Four Men begins, “My county, it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden. On this account, Dear Sussex, are those women chiefly dear to men who, as the seasons pass, do but continue to be more and more themselves, attain balance, and abandon or forget vicissitude.” Belloc’s enduring things include the things he knew, the ones he loved, particularly the women.
The Four Men describes a walk through Sussex. The book includes maps, songs, sketches, and drawings. It is a perfect multi-media book and would make a wonderful film but only by a director wise enough not to change a word of the text. The sketches of the bridges, the stone buildings, the valleys are especially fine. The “four” men are each Belloc himself. They are called respectively, “Himself,” “Grizzelbeard,” “the Poet,” and “the Sailor.” In his complete life, Belloc of course was each of these men. He himself had sailed the seas, we remember the cruise of the Nona, written verses, and would grow old. He was a man who did not forget what he saw or knew. He loved companionship, but he also realized that it did not remain, however important it was while it lasted. “Himself” remarks to Grizzelbeard, after they agree to walk together, “for all companionship is good, but chance companionship is best of all...” (5). We shall return to the end of companionship when the four cease to walk together.
The walk began on October 29th, 1902, at an Inn, called the “George,” at Robertsbridge. Alone, “Himself” sat drinking a glass of port. A “multitude of thoughts” came into his head but most importantly “the vision of the woods of home and of another place – the place where the (river) Arun rises.” He talks to himself. He mocks himself that the purpose of his business far away seems to be only “to make money,” the result of which he will return to spend more than he earns. What about ultimate things? He chides himself, “all the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not heed at all.” The things that “are of moment to men” are indeed usually ignored until Belloc decides to walk in Sussex.
This is what The Four Men is about, the things that we should heed lest they run past us like a river. Or as he says to himself, “what you are doing is not worth while, and nothing is worth while on this unhappy earth except the fulfilment of a man’s desire.” It is at this point in his solitary broodings that “Himself” first meets Grizzelbeard, a man “full of travel and of sadness.” They also meet the Sailor. They agree to walk together to the end of Sussex. “This older man and I have inclined ourselves to walk westward with no plan, until we come to the better parts of the county, that is, to Arun and to the land I know,” Himself explains to the Sailor.
As the walk begins, the three finally run into the fourth companion, a youthful Poet. “His eyes were arched and large as though in a perpetual surprise, and they were of a warm grey colour. They did not seem to see the things before them, but other things beyond; and while the rest of his expression changed a little to greet us, his eyes did not change. Moreover, they seemed continually sad.” Grizzelbeard, “as though he was his father,” tells the Poet that these three are good men. He will enjoy the walk. “Only come westward with us and be our companion until we go to the place where the sun goes down, and discover what makes it so glorious” (16). Who could resist such a destination, where the Sun goes down, to discover “what makes it so glorious?”
As they continue their walk through Sussex, each recounts things he knew of the area. They know the geography and lore of the place. The first story has to do with St. Dunston. This is a wild narrative of how St. Dunston tricked the Devil and thus caused a great moat to be built in the land. Belloc includes some wise demonology, reminiscent of the lies that this same tainted gentleman told our mother Eve in the Sussex Paradise: “And indeed this is the Devil’s way, always to pretend that he is the master, though he very well knows in his black heart that he is nothing of the kind” (19).
One of the remarkable things about Belloc is the place that food plays in his life, vivid and concrete reminders of our incarnational existence. He would certainly have disdained and mocked modern dietary admonitions about cholesterol and calories. My favorite Belloc meal is the following. The last light of the day had disappeared. “The air was pure and cold, as befitted All-Hallows....” (146) The four men reached the edge of the Downs headed for the Hampshire border. Mist was on the Rother. They came to an old inn.
Sounds of singing from inside the inn greeted them. The men singing seemed to be farmers on a sales day. The bar of the inn was elegant. Some fifteen men were inside harmonizing and drinking. The four men were tired and the other party would last long. The four were thus served at another table. What did they eat after their long day’s march? The meal consisted
of such excellence in the way of eggs and bacon, as we had none of us until that moment thought possible upon this side of the grave. The cheese also ... was put before us, and the new cottage loaves, so that this feast, unlike any other feast that yet was since the beginning of the world, exactly answered all that the heart had expected of it, and we were contented and were filled (147).
I would hesitate to count the caloric intake here, but such a feast, “this side of the grave,” in its description surely fulfills what Leon Kass, in his great book, called, “Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.”3
After this feast, it was time for a pipe. Each called for his own drink. “Himself” had “black currant port.” Grizzelbeard chose brandy. The Sailor bought the Poet beer, while the Sailor sipped claret. They then join the group of farmers. They sing together the rousing “Golier.”
This scene recalls that wonderful institution the inn. The Sailor, who has seen the world, remarks, “there is not upon this earth so good a thing as an inn; but even among good things there must be hierarchy” (62). The best inn in the world, we are told, was the Inn at Bramber; now forgotten, it will not return. The great inns are listed. Their very names charm us and take us out of ourselves: the Star of Yarmouth, the Dolphin at Southhampton, the Bridge Inn of Amberley, the White Hart of Storrington, the Spread Eagle of Midhurst, “that oldest and most revered of all the prime inns of this world,” the White Hart of Steyning, the White Horse of Storrington, and the Swan of Pentworth. Our business sees that these “were only mortal inns, human inns, full of a common and reasonable good; but round the Inn at Bramber, my companions, there hangs a very different air” (63). This is the inn of memory, so perfect that it cannot be visited again. “And what purpose would it serve to shock once more that craving of the soul for certitude and for repose?” Indeed, what purpose would it serve?
The conversation along the paths of Sussex is of battles and loves, of earthy things like fires and breakfast and ale. The best of ales is named in the Sailor’s famous All Hallows’ Day song: “May all good fellows that here agree / Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me, / And may all my enemies go to hell! / Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!” (126). But midst this levity, we find an amazing profundity to their conversation.
The mystery of how we stand to one another in the highest things comes back again and again. “Everything else that there is in the action of the mind save loving,” Grizzelbeard points out, is of its nature a growth: it goes through its phases of seed, of miraculous sprouting, of maturity, of somnolescence, and of decline. But with loving it is not so; for the comprehension by one soul of another is something borrowed from whatever lies outside time: it is not under the confines of time. Then it is passes, it is past – it never grows again: and we lose it as men lose a diamond, or as men lose their honour (27).
“Himself” objects that loss of honor is worse than loss of friends’ love. Grizzelbeard did not think so. Honor is outside of us. We do not give it to ourselves. “Not so men who lose the affection of a creature’s eyes. Therein for them, I mean in death, is no solution.” What concerns Grizzelbeard is the mystery of the ”passing of affection.” Love is not under the confines of time, neither in its coming or in its going.
Belloc is never too far from warning us of the machinations of the academic and intellectual mind. “Himself” at one point remarks that “the Poet was now thoroughly annoyed, not being so companionable a man (by reason of his trade) as he might be. For men become companionable by working with their bodies and not with their weary noddles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing” (123). We only know ourselves when we first know what is not ourselves.
On the final day, the four men arise early to end their chance companionship. They know they will never meet again. Grizzelbeard touchingly sums up their experience:
There is nothing at all that remains: nor any house, nor any castle, however strong, nor any love, however tender and sound, nor any comradeship among men however hardy. Nothing remains but the things of which I will not speak, because we have spoken enough of them already during these four days. But I who am old will give you advice, which is this -- to consider chiefly from now onward those permanent things which are, as it were, the shores of this age and the harbours of our glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea (157-58).
Grizzelbeard speaks here of death. The four then pause “for about the time which a man can say good-bye with reverence.” They go their own ways. “Himself” watches them depart “straining my sad eyes.” He then returns to the Downs and his home.