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The Path to Rome
By Hilaire Belloc
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Path to Rome
When that first Proverb-Maker who has imposed upon all peoples by his epigrams and his fallacious half-truths, his empiricism and his wanton appeals to popular ignorance, I say when this man (for I take it he was a man, and a wicked one) was passing through France he launched among the French one of his pestiferous phrases, "Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte"; and this in a rolling-in-the-mouth self-satisfied kind of a manner has been repeated since his day at least seventeen million three hundred and sixty-two thousand five hundred and four times by a great mass of Ushers, Parents, Company Officers, Elder Brothers, Parish Priests, and authorities in general whose office it may be and whose pleasure it certainly is to jog up and disturb that native slumber and inertia of the mind which is the true breeding soil of Revelation.
For when boys or soldiers or poets, or any other blossoms and prides of nature, are for lying steady in the shade and letting the Mind commune with its Immortal Comrades, up comes Authority busking about and eager as though it were a duty to force the said Mind to burrow and sweat in the matter of this very perishable world, its temporary habitation.
"Up," says Authority, "and let me see that Mind of yours doing something practical. Let me see Him mixing painfully with circumstance, and botching up some Imperfection or other that shall at least be a Reality and not a silly Fantasy."
Then the poor Mind comes back to Prison again, and the boy takes his horrible Homer in the real Greek (not Church's book, alas!); the Poet his rough hairy paper, his headache, and his cross-nibbed pen; the Soldier abandons his inner picture of swaggering about in ordinary clothes, and sees the dusty road and feels the hard places in his boot, and shakes down again to the steady pressure of his pack; and Authority is satisfied, knowing that he will get a smattering from the Boy, a rubbishy verse from the Poet, and from the Soldier a long and thirsty march. And Authority, when it does this, commonly sets to work by one of these formulæ: as, in England north of Trent, by the manifestly false and boastful phrase, "A thing begun is half ended," and in the south by "The Beginning is half the Battle"; but in France by the words I have attributed to the Proverb-Maker, "Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte."
By this you may perceive that the Proverb-Maker, like every other Demagogue, Energumen, and Disturber, dealt largely in metaphor—but this I need hardly insist upon, for in his vast collection of published and unpublished works it is amply evident that he took the silly pride of the half-educated in a constant abuse of metaphor. There was a sturdy boy at my school who, when the master had carefully explained to us the nature of metaphor, said that so far as he could see a metaphor was nothing but a long Greek word for a lie. And certainly men who know that the mere truth would be distasteful or tedious commonly have recourse to metaphor, and so do those false men who desire to acquire a subtle and unjust influence over their fellows, and chief among them, the Proverb-Maker. For though his name is lost in the great space of time that has passed since he flourished, yet his character can be very clearly deduced from the many literary fragments he has left, and that is found to be the character of a pusillanimous and ill-bred usurer, wholly lacking in foresight, in generous enterprise, and chivalrous enthusiasm—in matters of the Faith a prig or a doubter, in matters of adventure a poltroon, in matters of Science an ignorant Parrot, and in Letters a wretchedly bad rhymester, with a vice for alliteration; a wilful liar (as, for instance, "The longest way round is the shortest way home"), a startling miser (as, "A penny saved is a penny earned"), one ignorant of largesse and human charity (as, "Waste not, want not"), and a shocking boor in the point of honour (as, "Hard words break no bones"—he never fought, I see, but with a cudgel).
But he had just that touch of slinking humour which the peasants have, and there is in all he said that exasperating quality for which we have no name, which certainly is not accuracy, and which is quite the opposite of judgment, yet which catches the mind as brambles do our clothes, causing us continually to pause and swear. For he mixes up unanswerable things with false conclusions, he is perpetually letting the cat out of the bag and exposing our tricks, putting a colour to our actions, disturbing us with our own memory, indecently revealing corners of the soul. He is like those men who say one unpleasant and rude thing about a friend, and then take refuge from their disloyal and false action by pleading that this single accusation is true; and it is perhaps for this abominable logicality of his and for his malicious cunning that I chiefly hate him: and since he himself evidently hated the human race, he must not complain if he is hated in return.
Take, for instance, this phrase that set me writing, "Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte." It is false. Much after a beginning is difficult, as everybody knows who has crossed the sea, and as for the first step a man never so much as remembers it; if there is difficulty it is in the whole launching of a thing, in the first ten pages of a book, or the first half-hour of listening to a sermon, or the first mile of a walk. The first step is undertaken lightly, pleasantly, and with your soul in the sky; it is the five-hundredth that counts. But I know, and you know, and he knew (worse luck) that he was saying a thorny and catching thing when he made up that phrase. It worries one of set purpose. It is as though one had a voice inside one saying:—
"I know you, you will never begin anything. Look at what you might have done! Here you are, already twenty-one, and you have not yet written a dictionary. What will you do for fame? Eh? Nothing: you are intolerably lazy—and what is worse, it is your fate. Beginnings are insuperable barriers to you. What about that great work on The National Debt? What about that little lyric on Winchelsea that you thought of writing six years ago? Why are the few lines still in your head and not on paper? Because you can't begin. However, never mind, you can't help it, it's your one great flaw, and it's fatal. Look at Jones! Younger than you by half a year, and already on the Evening Yankee taking bribes from Company Promoters! And where are you?" &c., &c.,&—and so forth.
So this threat about the heavy task of Beginning breeds discouragement, anger, vexation, irritability, bad style, pomposity and infinitives split from helm to saddle, and metaphors as mixed as the Carlton. But it is just true enough to remain fast in the mind, caught, as it were, by one finger. For all things (you will notice) are very difficult in their origin, and why, no one can understand. Omne Trinum: they are difficult also in the shock of maturity and in their ending. Take, for instance, the Life of Man, which is the Difficulty of Birth, the Difficulty of Death, and the Difficulty of the Grand Climacteric.
LECTOR. What is the Grand Climacteric?
AUCTOR. I have no time to tell you, for it would lead us into a discussion on Astrology, and then perhaps to a question of physical science, and then you would find I was not orthodox, and perhaps denounce me to the authorities.
I will tell you this much; it is the moment (not the year or the month, mind you, nor even the hour, but the very second) when a man is grown up, when he sees things as they are (that is, backwards), and feels solidly himself. Do I make myself clear? No matter, it is the Shock of Maturity, and that must suffice for you.
But perhaps you have been reading little brown books on Evolution, and you don't believe in Catastrophes, or Climaxes, or Definitions? Eh? Tell me, do you believe in the peak of the Matterhorn, and have you doubts on the points of needles? Can the sun be said truly to rise or set, and is there any exact meaning in the phrase, "Done to a turn" as applied to omelettes? You know there is; and so also you must believe in Categories, and you must admit differences of kind as well as of degree, and you must accept exact definition and believe in all that your fathers did, that were wiser men than you, as is easily proved if you will but imagine yourself for but one moment introduced into the presence of your ancestors, and ask yourself which would look the fool. Especially must you believe in moments and their importance, and avoid with the utmost care the Comparative Method and the argument of the Slowly Accumulating Heap. I hear that some scientists are already beginning to admit the reality of Birth and Death—let but some brave few make an act of Faith in the Grand Climacteric and all shall yet be well.
Well, as I was saying, this Difficulty of Beginning is but one of three, and is Inexplicable, and is in the Nature of Things, and it is very especially noticeable in the Art of Letters. There is in every book the Difficulty of Beginning, the Difficulty of the Turning-Point (which is the Grand Climacteric of a Book)—
LECTOR. What is that in a Book?
AUCTOR. Why, it is the point where the reader has caught on, enters into the Book and desires to continue reading it.
LECTOR. It comes earlier in some books than in others.
AUCTOR. As you say.... And finally there is the Difficulty of Ending.
LECTOR. I do not see how there can be any difficulty in ending a book.
AUCTOR. That shows very clearly that you have never written one, for there is nothing so hard in the writing of a book—no, not even the choice of the Dedication—as is the ending of it. On this account only the great Poets, who are above custom and can snap their divine fingers at forms, are not at the pains of devising careful endings. Thus, Homer ends with lines that might as well be in the middle of a passage; Hesiod, I know not how; and Mr. Bailey, the New Voice from Eurasia, does not end at all, but is still going on.
Panurge told me that his great work on Conchology would never have been finished had it not been for the Bookseller that threatened law; and as it is, the last sentence has no verb in it. There is always something more to be said, and it is always so difficult to turn up the splice neatly at the edges. On this account there are regular models for ending a book or a Poem, as there are for beginning one; but, for my part, I think the best way of ending a book is to rummage about among one's manuscripts till one has found a bit of Fine Writing (no matter upon what subject), to lead up the last paragraphs by no matter what violent shocks to the thing it deals with, to introduce a row of asterisks, and then to paste on to the paper below these the piece of Fine Writing one has found.
I knew a man once who always wrote the end of a book first, when his mind was fresh, and so worked gradually back to the introductory chapter, which (he said) was ever a kind of summary, and could not be properly dealt with till a man knew all about his subject. He said this was a sovran way to write History. But it seems to me that this is pure extravagance, for it would lead one at last to beginning at the bottom of the last page, like the Hebrew Bible, and (if it were fully carried out) to writing one's sentences backwards till one had a style like the London School of Poets: a very horrible conclusion.
However, I am not concerned here with the ending of a book, but with its beginning; and I say that the beginning of any literary thing is hard, and that this hardness is difficult to explain. And I say more than this—I say that an interminable discussion of the difficulty of beginning a book is the worst omen for going on with it, and a trashy subterfuge at the best. In the name of all decent, common, and homely things, why not begin and have done with it?
It was in the very beginning of June, at evening, but not yet sunset, that I set out from Toul by the Nancy gate; but instead of going straight on past the parade-ground, I turned to the right immediately along the ditch and rampart, and did not leave the fortifications till I came to the road that goes up alongside the Moselle. For it was by the valley of this river that I was to begin my pilgrimage, since, by a happy accident, the valley of the Upper Moselle runs straight towards Rome, though it takes you but a short part of the way. What a good opening it makes for a direct pilgrimage can be seen from this little map, where the dotted line points exactly to Rome. There are two bends which take one a little out of one's way, and these bends I attempted to avoid, but in general, the valley, about a hundred miles from Toul to the source, is an evident gate for any one walking from this part of Lorraine into Italy. And this map is also useful to show what route I followed for my first three days past Epinal and Remiremont up to the source of the river, and up over the great hill, the Ballon d'Alsace. I show the river valley like a trench, and the hills above it shaded, till the mountainous upper part, the Vosges, is put in black. I chose the decline of the day for setting out, because of the great heat a little before noon and four hours after it. Remembering this, I planned to walk at night and in the mornings and evenings, but how this design turned out you shall hear in a moment.
I had not gone far, not a quarter of a mile, along my road leaving the town, when I thought I would stop and rest a little and make sure that I had started propitiously and that I was really on my way to Rome; so I halted by a wall and looked back at the city and the forts, and drew what I saw in my book. It was a sight that had taken a firm hold of my mind in boyhood, and that will remain in it as long as it can make pictures for itself out of the past. I think this must be true of all conscripts with regard to the garrison in which they have served, for the mind is so fresh at twenty-one and the life so new to every recruit as he joins it, he is so cut off from books and all the worries of life, that the surroundings of the place bite into him and take root, as one's school does or one's first home. And I had been especially fortunate since I had been with gunners (notoriously the best kind of men) and not in a big place but in a little town, very old and silent, with more soldiers in its surrounding circle than there were men, women, and children within its useless ramparts. It is known to be very beautiful, and though I had not heard of this reputation, I saw it to be so at once when I was first marched in, on a November dawn, up to the height of the artillery barracks. I remembered seeing then the great hills surrounding it on every side, hiding their menace and protection of guns, and in the south and east the silent valley where the high forests dominate the Moselle, and the town below the road standing in an island or ring of tall trees. All this, I say, I had permanently remembered, and I had determined, whenever I could go on pilgrimage to Rome, to make this place my starting- point, and as I stopped here and looked back, a little way outside the gates, I took in again the scene that recalled so much laughter and heavy work and servitude and pride of arms.
I was looking straight at the great fort of St. Michel, which is the strongest thing on the frontier, and which is the key to the circle of forts that make up this entrenched camp. One could see little or nothing of its batteries, only its hundreds of feet of steep brushwood above the vineyards, and at the summit a stunted wood purposely planted. Next to it on the left, of equal height, was the hog back of the Côte Barine, hiding a battery. Between the Côte Barine and my road and wall, I saw the rising ground and the familiar Barracks that are called (I know not why) the Barracks of Justice, but ought more properly to be called the Barracks of petty tyrannies and good fellowship, in order to show the philosophers that these two things are the life of armies; for of all the virtues practised in that old compulsory home of mine Justice came second at least if not third, while Discipline and Comradeship went first; and the more I think of it the more I am convinced that of all the suffering youth that was being there annealed and forged into soldiery none can have suffered like the lawyers. On the right the high trees that stand outside the ramparts of the town went dwindling in perspective like a palisade, and above them, here and there, was a roof showing the top of the towers of the Cathedral or of St. Gengoult. All this I saw looking backwards, and, when I had noticed it and drawn it, I turned round again and took the road.
Excerpted from The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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