As I try to reread T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” on Ash Wednesday, a practice I heartily recommend to all those who doubt our greatness, so I also try to meditate on Belloc’s The Four Men during those most Christian of days at the end of October and the beginning of November. I have always felt that these days, more than any others, were designed for us, saints and sinners that we are. No Mass is more beautiful than that of All Saints’ Day on November 1, and at no time do we remember those of us who have died more than on All Souls’ Day on November 2.
These are the days when those of us who are Christians doggedly insist before that world in which there is no hope that we do not believe in God as some sort of abstraction but as Someone with whom we shall dwell. No other God is really worth believing in. Yet the very fact of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is a reminder of the risk God took in creating us. Some of us will somehow love Him, others of us, probably most of us, will barely succeed in finding Him. No doubt it is possible some of us will not choose Him at all. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day remind us that we can only have the glory even of ourselves if we first choose it. Perhaps the Eve of All Hal lows reminds us that we need not choose it, that there are indeed demons and specters vying for our attention.
Several years ago, a friend of mine spent a semester in England, a friend who believes in giving gifts mindful of place and time. This is how I happen to own a copy of Belloc’s The Four Men, one of the most wondrous books I know. The four men are, no doubt, all Belloc himself, even though each has a name in the dialogues of the walk that they take together in Sussex. They are introduced as Grizzlebeard, the Poet, the Sailor, and “Myself.” The walk occurred on those enormously symbolic Christian days, from October 29 to November 2, in the year 1902, from the days immediately before All-Hallows Eve, to All-Hallows Day, to All Souls Day.
As the four days ended and the four men were about to part to their own ways, they decided to have a farewell feast, to celebrate, as men should, their chance days together. On the 29th of October, Belloc found himself in the “George” pub in Robertsbridge, drinking port before a fire with thoughts “through which at last came floating a vision of the woods of home and of another place—the lake where the Arun rises.” So musing, Belloc was determined to see his native country again, on foot, as things we love should be seen. The passingness of things is most poignant at the end of October, the days grow much shorter, especially in England. You have crossed sea and land about many different duties, “but all the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not know at all”—these are the words that are difficult to forget, “the things that are of moment to men.” We can pass through our lives and forget to deal with the things that are important. Is there a sadness greater than this?
As Belloc thought these things over to himself, he hit the table with his fist to emphasize his determination. “As I said these things to myself I felt as that man felt of whom everybody has read in Homer with an answering heart: that `he longed as he journeyed to see once more the smoke going up from his own land, and after that to die.’ ” Grizzlebeard is unexpectedly in the inn listening to Belloc mutter these things to himself: he suggests that they set out together. So Belloc accepts the companionship of Grizzlebeard, of his old age, “for all companionship is good, but chance companionship is the best of all.”
On the way the Sailor and the Poet join the walk to discover the smoke going up from Belloc’s own land. Belloc did not believe that we loved God apart from real flesh and real blood, apart from our love of bacon and eggs and the sea and the walks along the River Arun that formed his heritage. But I started off with the feast at the end of the walk.
As we thus decided upon the nature of the feast, the last of the light, long declined, had faded on the horizon behind the latticework of bare branches. The air was pure and cold, as befitted All Hallows, and the far edges of the Downs toward the Hampshire border had level lines of light above them, deeply coloured, full of departure and of rest. The pure and cold air befits All Hallows when we see the light above the Downs, light full of departure and rest.
In their discussions about the farewell feast, they had spoken of cheeses and of port. Belloc then speaks to the Poet:
And undoubtedly, Poet, you acquired in other counties a habit of eating that Gorgonzola cheese, which is made of soap in Connecticut; and Stilton, which is not made at Stilton; and Camembert, and other outlandish things. But in Sussex, let me tell you, we have but one cheese, the name of which is CHEESE…. 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.
In our own land, where the smoke is seen on the hills, we eat what is best, what is there, the cheese upon which a man may live for the rest of his life.
The four men finally find an old inn “brilliantly lighted.” There were farmers in for a sale. The four men heard singing from within. They knocked and were let into the inn. They found a pleasant bar with a large room in which 15 or 20 men were drinking and singing. All were hearty and some old. These men had finished their meals, but the four men ordered theirs,
which was of such excellence in the way of eggs and bacon, as we had none of us until that morning thought possible upon this side of the grave. The cheese also, of which I have spoken, 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 to all that the heart had expected of it, and we were contented and were filled.
The four then called for their pipes and drink, Belloc for his black currant port (not that Portuguese concoction that is “but elderberry liquorice and boiled wine”), Grizzlebeard for brandy, the Poet, at “the Sailor’s expense,” for beer, and the Sailor for claret.
On the following day they took their leave of each other. Grizzlebeard turned to Belloc with “a dreadful solemnity”:
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.
With this the four men parted.
As Belloc walked slowly away he was sober. “I went till suddenly I remembered with the pang that catches men at the clang of bells what this time was in November; it was the Day of the Dead.” He remembered the earthly immortality of a man who has loved his life and his land.
Ah! but 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 (I thought), it will be a friend to him for ever, and he has outflanked Death in a way.
In the end, Belloc sang his poem about the outflanking of death—”He does not die (I wrote) that can bequeath/ Some influence to the land he knows….” These are the things that are of moment to men, the pure and cold air that befits All Hallows, the cheese on which a man may live all the days of his life, the feast that was unlike any other that yet was since the beginning of the world, the things that answer to all that the heart expected, the gifts of particular time and place.
It was on All Souls’ Day, 1902, that Belloc “full of these thoughts” walked “through the gathering darkness southward across the Downs to my home.”