Hilaire Belloc wrote on literally anything and everything, “literally” being meant quite literally. His book On Anything, published in 1910, had been preceded the previous year by his book On Everything. He also published On Nothing in 1908 and On Something in 1910. Then, in 1923, he took the omnivorous whimsy to its utmost conclusion, publishing On.
Such volumes display Belloc’s versatility as an essayist, illustrating not only the many facets of his Catholicism but also his catholicity of taste for anything, everything, and, most beguilingly, for nothing in particular. Thus, for instance, he writes “On the Pleasure of Taking Up One’s Pen,” “On Ignorance,” “On Tea,” “On Them,” “On Death,” “On Experience,” “On Sacramental Things,” “On Song,” “On the Rights of Property,” “On Old Towns,” and, appropriately enough at the conclusion of one of the volumes, “On Coming to an End.”
In the pages of these meandering miscellanies, one discovers more about Belloc the man than is discernible in any of his other works except for those hauntingly personal pilgrimages of the soul, The Path to Rome (1902), The Four Men (1912), and The Cruise of the Nona (1925), in which the author waxes wistful and whimsical on the first things, the permanent things, and in general on the things (and the Thing) that give meaning to, and make sense of, anything and everything else.
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These three “pilgrimages,” taken together, might be dubbed “travel-farragoes,” a distinct literary genre in which Belloc excelled. As discussed in the previous “nutshell” on The Path to Rome, they are, at one and the same time, both travelogues and farragoes; linear narratives connected to a journey interspersed with seemingly random anecdotal musings on anything and everything. As such, they are not for those who are in a hurry but for those who wish to saunter with the author in the leisurely pursuit of those things that are worth pursuing at leisure; and those things worth pursuing at leisure are, of course, the very things that are worth spending our whole lives getting to know better.
Although The Path to Rome was, according to Belloc’s own appraisal, the best book he ever wrote, there is little doubt that The Four Men warrants a place of distinction as one of the finest works of this finest of writers. Although it was not published until 1912, Belloc seems to have embarked on it as early as 1907, originally planning to call it “The County of Sussex.” In 1909, he told Maurice Baring that it would describe “myself and three other characters walking through the county; the other characters are really supernatural beings, a poet, a sailor and Grizzlebeard…they only turn out to be supernatural beings when we get to the town of Liss, which is just over the Hampshire border.”
Although the “four men” are figments of Belloc’s imagination, they are also facets of his own character. Belloc was himself a poet and a sailor, whereas the elderly character Grizzlebeard could be seen as those aspects of Belloc’s character which were rooted in the past: Belloc the historian, the Catholic, and the traditionalist. As for the fourth man, Myself, he is the narrative voice that holds the whole thing together.
As they walk the length of the county of Sussex, these four characters discourse on this, that, and just about everything else: on local eccentrics and local saints; on “awful towns” ruined by modernity which need to be avoided like the plague; on the worst and best things in the world; on fairies; on the holy sacrifice of the Mass; on the money-devil; on the singing of kettles and the singing of drinking songs; on the birth of rivers, the hammering of heretics, and the curing of pigs; on inns; on the soul; on worried ghosts and the dead who haunt the dreams of men; on the very best beer; on ancient kings and legendary wars; on hunting men and horses; on first loves and noble sacrifices; on strange philosophers and singing dukes; on politicians who sell their souls; on eggs and bacon and cheese; on the breaking of bread and the breaking of fellowship.
The Path to Rome and The Four Men are pilgrimages conveying a soul’s love for the soil of its native land, which in the former case is the macrocosmic “Europe of the Faith” in which Belloc was raised and in the latter case is the microcosmic Shire in which he was also raised. Home, like Rome, is a “holy place,” and The Four Men is full of spiritual premonitions of “the character of enduring things” amid the decay of time:
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…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.
One is struck upon reading these wistfully eloquent words from the preface to The Four Men with their similarity to the preface to The Path to Rome, in which Belloc had written that “one’s native place is the shell of one’s soul, and one’s church is the kernel of that nut.” In both books, he lays the foundations of what might be termed the “theology of place.”
This concept, which can be said to be truly at the heart of Belloc’s work, is quintessentially incarnational. A sense of “place” is linked to the love of home, and the love of home is itself salted by the home’s temporary absence or unattainability. Paradoxically, it is the sense of exile that gives the love of home its intensity and its power. The theology of place is therefore rooted in the earth and yet reaches to Heaven. It is expressed most sublimely in the Salve Regina, in which the “poor banished children of Eve,” lost in “this vale of tears,” hope that, “after this our exile,” we might behold the Blessed Fruit of our Mother’s womb, Jesus, who is the soul’s true home.
This understanding of the spiritual significance of “home,” this theology of place, is such a recurrent theme in Belloc’s work that it could be said to be almost omnipresent. Few writers have felt so intensely the sense of exile, and hence the love of home, to the degree to which it is invoked by Belloc. From the love of Sussex at the heart of The Four Men and in poems such as “Ha’nacker Mill” or “The South Country,” to the love of Europe in general, and France in particular, evoked in The Path to Rome and in poems such as “Tarantella,” his work resonates with the love of earth as a foreshadowing of the love of Heaven.
It is in this soil-soul nexus that the nub of Belloc’s profundity is to be discovered. It manifests itself in the tension between permanence and mutability and finds infectious expression in the perfect balance between wistfulness and whimsy. Although these qualities are to be found in all of Belloc’s work, as expressions of the very spirit of the man himself, they are to be found to an exceptional degree in The Path to Rome and The Four Men.
In my introduction to the Ignatius Press edition of The Path to Rome, I wrote that “The Four Men rivals it, and perhaps surpasses it, as a vehicle for Belloc’s wit and wisdom, or as an outpouring of his irrepressible personality.” Since Belloc considered The Path to Rome his best work, it seems that I am in disagreement with the great man himself in such effusive praise of The Four Men. No matter. Even if we are to defer to Belloc’s own judgment, it is no small thing to be Belloc’s second best, or even his third best book. In any event, like all of Belloc’s books, it deserves to be read and reread by all who hunger for the “enduring things” in an age of deplorable change.
Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-fourth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”