Hilaire Belloc was a prolific writer, who, over the course of fifty years, produced work of fiction, verse, political polemic, history, travelogue and religious tract. His book, ‘The Path to Rome’, is often cited as his most important work. It was certainly his first clear statement of his religious and political ideas: “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe”. Written when he was only in his early thirties, the book is imbued with a deep understanding of human nature and the necessary role of man’s spiritual life. Yet, there is much humour here too. Belloc could not sustain a serious thought for too long without the irresistible desire to poke fun at the conceit of man-made doctrines. As Belloc travelled across Europe, on foot, to Rome, it was the majesty of the Alps that transfixedhim more than any idea in any book. Equally, hearing Mass in a small isolated mountain church was, for Belloc, the most sublime and life-affirming moment.
The Four Men is a very different book. It is confined to the much smaller geographical area than The Path to Rome – the county of Sussex. Yet, at the same time it journeys much further than the Path to Rome – exploring the mystical and unseen world and the destiny of man. Belloc’s chosen vehicle for this odyssey is the chance meeting of four men. These travelling companions never reveal their real names but confer on each other descriptive epithets that most clearly describe their personalities. There is Grizzlebeard, The Sailor, and The Poet. The narrator – Belloc – is simply called ‘Myself’ – “for that is the name I shall give to my own person and my own soul”. From the first pages, the reader is made aware that this is no ordinary travel book or novel and these are no ordinary men. Belloc subtitled his book ‘a farrago’, which the dictionary tells us means a ‘confused mixture’. Although the reader may at times be confused, Belloc was very clear in his intention of exploring all those things in life that to him seemed important and necessary.
It is helpful to see what Belloc’s biographers thought of ‘The Four Men’. All three make the link between The Four Men, published in 1912, and the Path to Rome, published ten years earlier. Writing in 1957 – only four years after Belloc’s death – Robert Speight observes that whereas “The Path to Rome was a pilgrimage, The Four Men is an exploration”. It is “the mixture of the real with the imaginary that gives the book its unique flavour”.
A.N.Wilson agrees, commenting ‘The Four Men’ is different, more poignantly elegiac, more hauntingly religious”. Joe Pearce, Belloc’s most recent biographer believes that in writing The Four Men, Belloc “provided a metaphysical path through Sussex to accompany his path to Rome, a secular pilgrimage conveying a soul’s love for the soil of his native home”. Both Rome and Sussex are holy places and, as a result “The Four Men is full of spiritual premonitions of ‘the character of enduring things’ amid the decay of time”.
Enlightening as these observations are, they obscure the humour that is central to the book. Belloc may have thought deeply about matters both material and Devine, but he also drank deeply as well, and when drinking he liked to sing songs, which he admitted could be both lewd, loud and blasphemous. Just as there was day and night – life and death – so, for Belloc, profundity had to be balanced by levity. This coming at life from two directions simultaneously was the Bellocian way. He found “the goodness of God in the drinking of ale, which is a kind of prayer,” and added, “drinking good ale is a more renowned and glorious act than any other to which a man can lend himself”.
Belloc wrote many songs in the folk song idiom. As a young man, living in Sussex, he would have heard songs being sung by men working in the fields or groups of men singing in inns or at country fairs. ‘The Four Men’ is peppered with these songs, ranging from The Sailor’s Carol (“rank blasphemy”, as Grizzlebeard calls it), to a song about Duke William of Normandy, to the very surreal ‘His Hide is Covered in Hair’. Belloc delighted friends and family with his impromptu rendition of these songs, which more often than not, were sustained by a tankard or two of good ale!
Meeting the Four Men
We are introduced to each of the four characters in turn. The book opens with Myself, sitting in the George pub at Robertsbridge, “drinking that port of theirs,” as he waits, possibly for a train, to take him on “some business”, “not even for ambition or for adventure, but only to earn”. It is then he decides that as he is on the soil of his native Sussex and with “Kent a mile or two behind,” he will walk towards the west and his home by way of the Arun valley. In his mind he resolves to get up and go, back to his home, if only for one day. He slams his hand on the table, exclaiming, “I will go from this place to my home.” He is then surprised to hear the deeper voice of an older man rejoining, “And since I am going to that same place, let us journey there together.” Thinking himself to be alone, Myself is surprised and angry at the interruption, but the old man explains that he too wishes to travel to that part of Sussex also. “A man is more himself if he is one of a number; so let us take the road together, and, as we go, gather what company we can find.” This is Grizzlebeard, who we learn is a tall, vigorous man, though “well on in years.” His eyes are deep set and “full of travel and ofsadness.” His hair is curled and plentiful and “the colour of steel,” as is his beard.
Grizzlebeard and Myself meet their next companion at the inn at Brightling –
We found there a very jovial fellow with a sort of ready smile behind his face, and eyes that were direct and keen. But these eyes were veiled with the salt of the sea, and paler than the eyes of a landsman would have been; for by the swing of his body as he sat there, and the ease of his limbs, he was a sailor.
With the Sailor as the third companion, they meet the fourth, on the road and quickly ascertain who this man may be –
We watched the man before us more closely, and we saw that as he walked his long limbs seemed to have loose joints, his arms dangled rather than swang, he steered no very straight course along the road, and under his felt hat with its narrow brim there hung tawny hair much too long, and in no way vigorous. His shirt was soft, grey and dirty, and of wool, and his collar made one with it, the roll of which peeped above his throat, and his coat was valveteen, like a [game] keeper’s, but he was not like a keeper in any other way, and no one would have trusted him with a gun…..Then we saw him stop suddenly, pull a pencil out of some pocket or other, and feel about in several more for some paper as we supposed. “I am right,” said Grizzlebeard in triumph. “He is a Poet!”
The Poet, Sailor and Grizzlebeard, are already on their journey. It is Myself who changes his plans. Even though, it would seem that the other three join him, it is he who joins them. Famed psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, has written of “the archetype of the triad, which calls for the fourth to complete it,” suggesting that Belloc, however unconsciously, was tapping into a profound symbolism.
Myself comes from the world of work and conformity, Grizzlebeard represents the wisdom of years, while the Poet represents the naivety of youth. The Sailor stands for freedom: “You must not be surprised if I go off by this road or by that at any hour, without your leave or any other man’s; for so long as I have money in my pocket I am determined to see the world.”
It has been suggested that the four men are all aspects of Belloc’s own personality. He is journeying alone but the different aspects of his personality are alive within him. When Belloc was a young man he wished to be a poet. Indeed he wrote much verse throughout his life but he never really believed he wrote as good a verse as he would have wished. For relaxation, Belloc sailed the coast of England in his yacht, the Nona. As an old man he sported a great beard, and although wearied by personal loss (his wife and both his sonsdied when still young) and increasing poor health, he never lost his courteous manner or sense of fun.
Jung might almost have been writing of Belloc when he described the personality type that takes “further steps along the road” than other men. “He will go alone,” wrote Jung, “and be his own company. He will serve as his own group, consisting of a variety of opinions and tendencies – which need not necessarily be marching in the same direction. In fact he will be at odds with himself.” Such a man, Jung concluded, will seek solace in his surroundings as a defence against “his inner multiplicity.” The landscape of Sussex – its hills and rivers, its market towns and villages were, for Belloc, the port in the storm of life. As he travelled around the world for work, sometimes being absent for more months of the year than he was at home, that very home became his anchor amidst the “ever changeful sea” of life.
The Landscape of The Four Men
As the four men talk and walk, they pass through the High Weald of eastern Sussex with “its little pointed hills”, and into the South Downs that dominate the western part of the county. We are always reminded that the landscape is ancient and rooted in the history of past generations:-
So all along the road we went under Chanctonbury, that high hill, we went as the morning broadened: along a way that is much older than anything in the world….By that way we went, by walls and trees that seemed as old as the old road itself, talking of all those things men talk of, because men were made for speech and for companionship…
The landscape is almost a fifth companion and the cause of much discussion and reflection among the four travellers. There is one memorable moment in the book, when Myselfbeholds the full moon rising over Chanctonbury on Hallowe’en. We are invited to see a mystical interaction taking place between the ancient hilltop and the ‘holy moon’ shining down on its prehistoric features. Belloc, the Catholic, often seems more like Belloc, the pagan.
This beloved landscape was indeed a home to Belloc – a spiritual as well as a physical home. As they approach the end of their journey, they stop one last time to drink and sing in a country inn. “I knew myself indeed to be still in my own county”, says Myself, “and I was glad inside my heart, like a man who hears the storm upon the window, but is himself houseled by the fire…”
There were some parts of Sussex that Belloc thought were best avoided. These were towns of “the London sort”, by which he meant Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath and would certainly have included Brighton too, had that town been on their route. These towns had grown up with the railway and represented a dramatic interruption in the slow pace of rural life. This was the “detestable part of the county, which was not made for men, but rather for tourists or foreigners, or London people that had lost their way”.
The sky above the landscape is a recurring theme in ‘The Four Men’, particularly the sky at dusk, a vivid sight “full of departure and of rest”. On approaching Henfield one evening, the four men are deep in conversation and then they see that the day is passing as they walk towards the setting sun:-
The sky was already of an apple green to the westward, and in the eastern blue there were stars. There also shone what had not yet appeared on that windless day, a few small wintry clouds, neat and defined in heaven. Above them, the moon, past her first quarter but not yet full, was no longer pale, but began to make a cold glory; and all that valley of Adur was a great solemn sight to see as we went forward upon our adventure that lead nowhere and away. To us four men, no one of whom could know the other, and who had met by I could not tell what chance, and would part very soon for ever, these things were given. All four of us together received the sacrament of that wide and silent beauty, and we ourselves went in silence to receive it.
The Philosophy of The Four Men
The philosophy of ‘The Four Men’ finds its expression in the landscape, where the spiritual and the every-day come together as one: “…if a man is part of and is rooted in one steadfast piece of earth , which has nourished him and given him his being, and if he can on his side lend it glory and do it service, it will be a friend to him for ever, and he has outflanked Death in a way.”
The elemental forces of life that caused philosophers to pause and consider at length, could for Belloc, be summed in a simple domestic chore, such as the boiling of a kettle:-
I woke next morning to the noise, the pleasant noise, of water boiling in a kettle. May God bless that noise and grant it to be the most sacred noise in the world. For it is the noise that babes hear at birth and that old men hear as they die in their beds, and it is the noise of our households all our long lives long; and throughout the world, wherever men have hearths, that purring and that singing, and that humming and that talking to itself of warm companionable water to our great ally, the fire, is home.
Everything comes in its season and none can escape the turning of the year and the passing of time. All Hallows falls on November 1st, which, Belloc notes, nicely balances out “All Fools”, six months earlier, on April 1st, when the year “is light and young, and when she has forgotten winter and is glad that summer is near, and has never heard the name of autumn at all, or of the fall of the leaves”. Belloc would have been familiar with the folk song “The Life of a Man”, that speaks of man’s life being no more than the leaves on the tree, that will be “beautiful and bright” one day and then be withered by the frost and blown away by the storm.
The Bellocian philosophy, although profound, was not inclined to self-indulgence. At one point in the book, Grizzlebeard gets into a long and heated argument with a philosopher whom he meets in a pub. The ‘balderdash’ conversation is brought to a sudden conclusion when the Sailor ‘baptises’ the philosopher by pouring a tankard of ale over his head. Think, by all means, says Belloc, but not for too long. Comradeship is gained by doing rather thanthinking: “men become companionable by working with their bodies and not with their weary noodles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing”.
Humour of The Four Men
Eighteen pages of ‘The Four Men’ are given over to a long description of “the Great War between Sussex and Kent.” At first the reader imagines that he is learning of an epic conflict from medieval times, although he is not left in any doubt that the tale is very tongue-in-cheek and very much told at the expense of Kent, whose king is described as an irascible illiterate! However the age of knights in armour is soon dispelled, as Myself describes how the men of Sussex belaboured the men of Kent with ash sticks and herded them down to the level crossing over the railway at Brede, where “the little man in green corduroy who kept the level crossing” allowed them to cross – the Sussex men sending the men of Kent scattering in all directions. The war, we are told, all came about because the Kentish folk had purloined a Sussex song and called it their own – a grave offence!
The story is great fun and very amusing, but in case it all seems like a figment of Belloc’s imagination, a letter published in the West Sussex Gazette in 1957, suggested that battles on the Sussex/ Kent border were very real at the time ‘The Four Men’ was set in 1902. The letter also highlights the reality of Sussex individualism, and its determination to keep up local traditions:-
….until this century the county was always markedly different in almost every aspect from the rest of England, and its exclusiveness produced a particularly strong local patriotism that evidenced itself in frequent week-end battles with ‘foreigners’ on its frontiers, particularly with the men of Kent, who, even when I was a boy, were still regarded much as Frenchmen and Germans were.
The main humour in the book is found in the dialogues between the Sailor and the Poet. With the former forever deprecating the Poet’s verse, while praising his own efforts in this regard. The Sailor is forever playfully boastful, declaring on one occasion that the song he is about to sing “is of a good loud roaring sort….and you must know that it is more than one thousand years old”. It had in all probability being composed that very day!
After lamenting one of the Poet’s lyrical efforts, the Sailor declares that he must be a vegetarian and that like most “men of your luxury” he was probably afraid of his body, which was, the Sailor noted, “a lanky thing”. To which Myself added a denunciation of all “water-drinkers also, and caterwauling outers, and turnip mumblers, enemies of beef, treasonable the immemorial ox and the traditions of our human kind!”
Another exchange, see the penniless Poet, mocked for his penury as the four men sit down to eat and drink in another Sussex inn:-
The Poet: In the matter of eating and drinking I am with you all, but in the matter of paying I differ from you altogether, for I have nothing.
Myself: How is this, Poet? It was only today that I saw you with my own eyes at the Bluebell paying for a mug of beer with a labouring man.
The Poet: It was my last money, and I did it for charity.
The Sailor: Then you must have the reward of charity and starve.
The Poet is again the butt of the joke when he suggests they could eat “some kind of cheese”, to which Myself in mock horror tells him that in Sussex there is only one kind of cheese:-
In Sussex, let me tell you, we have but one cheese, the name of which is CHEESE. It is One; and undivided, though divided into a thousand fragments, and unchanging, though changing in place and consumption. There is in Sussex no Cheese but Cheese, and it is the same true Cheese from the head of the Eastern Rother to Harting Hill, and from the sea-beach to that part of Surrey which we gat from the Marches with sword and bow. In colour it is yellow, which is the right colour of Cheese. It is neither young nor old. Its taste is that of cheese, and nothing more. A man may live upon it all the days of his life.
Here is the devout Catholic, Belloc, parodying the Holy Sacrament. But then this was the same Belloc, who on being challenged by a group of rationalists as to how he could possibly believe the Jesuits when they told him that the Holy Communion bread turned into the flesh of Christ and the wine into his blood; responded by saying, “If they told me it turned into elephant’s droppings, I would believe them!” Belloc often shocked his co-religionists as much as he did the sceptics.
Heroes and Villains
Reading ‘The Four Men’, Belloc’s dislike in other peoplebecomes apparent. He disliked lawyers and politicians and especially the new rich whom he saw encroaching in every direction. He also had little time for the police, whom he saw as the servants of the rich. Several times, the four men pass through woods that were private property but through whichthe Sailor knew little known paths they could take “so the servants of the rich could do us no hurt”. It is also stated that a man must be careful if he sings as he walks in the open countryside, as the police will arrest him as a vagabond. The poor say that the rich are wicked and since they are the great majority of men they are “likely to be right”.
Myself recounts the story of ‘Peter the Politician’, who tries to sell his soul, but is forever being frustrated in his attempt by a series of ever inferior Devils. Eventually, Peter the Politician, in anger and frustration, storms out of hell, leaving his soul behind, thus, he loses rather than sells his soul.
We are introduced to the incredibly pompous Lord Justice Honybubble: “the constant exercise of bullying men who could not reply had given him a commanding manner”.
But the real villain of ‘The Four Men’ is the ‘Hideous Being’, who turns out to be very rich indeed and by far the most odious person they meet on their journey:-
He had a lump which was not his fault, and a sour look that was. He was smoking a long churchwarden pipe through his sneering lips. There was very little hair on his face, though he did not shave, and the ear turned towards us, the left ear, had been so broken that it looked pointed, and made one shudder. The sneer on his lips was completed by the long slyness of his eye. His legs were as thin as sticks, and he had one crossed over the other; his boots had elastic sides to them, and horrible tags fore and aft, and above them were measly grey socks thin and wrinkled. He did not turn or greet us as we appeared.
Belloc was a great believer in courtesy and in treating people with good manners. During their journey, the four men, entertained the labouring men they met in the pubs that they visited and paid for their beer “because we were better off than they”.
The poor are, in a sense, the heroes of ‘The Four Men’ – it is their songs that cheer, their beer that quenches the thirst, and their eggs, bacon and cheese that sustain the four companions. But the one man who stands out for praise is John ‘Mad Jack’Fuller, Squire of Brightling in the early nineteenth century. Fuller was a maverick Tory MP, who spent much of his personal wealth on putting the local unemployed to work. He loved to eat and he loved to drink. He was suspended from the House of Commons for insulting the Speaker and after he died he was buried in a pyramid in Brightling churchyard. Myselftells us that Fuller lived in a “roaring way”:-
He spent all his great fortune upon the poor of Sussex and of his own parish, bidding them drink deep and eat hearty as being the habits best preservative of life, until at last he died. There is the story of Fuller of Brightling, and may we all deserve as well as he.
At the end of the Four Men, it seems as if Myself’s travelling companions may not have been ordinary men at all, but spirits, or conjured up aspects of Belloc’s own personality: “But as I walked along I looked furtively first to one side and then to the other…..and it seemed to me (whether from the mist or what not) that they were taller than men; and their eyes avoided my eyes”. Grizzelbeard declares that he and his two companions must now leave Myself this side of the border with Hampshire: “when he had said this, I was confused to wonder from his voice and from the larger aspect of himself and his companions, whether indeed they were men”.
Myself strains his eyes in the mist as he watches them disappear into the enveloping mist. He walks, bereft, high up onto the Downs and writes poetry to ease his mind, concluding:-
So, therefore, though myself be crosst
The shuddering of that dreadful day
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.
Relieved by this poetical release, Myself heads southward “through the gathering darkness” to his home. It is clear that this home is the home to be found after Death as well as a physical home, and as such is a comfort to both the writer and his readers too.