Hilaire Belloc—poet, novelist, essayist, biographer, historian, polemicist and propagandist—was a writer so prolific and versatile that it is almost impossible to designate any one of his works as best or even representative; but THE PATH TO ROME is in many ways as typical as any in revealing his intellectual attitudes, the nature of his faith, his outlook on the world, and the qualities of his style.
The book is an account of a walking tour that Belloc made one summer from Toul, in eastern France, across the Alps in Switzerland, and down through northern Italy to Rome. Throughout the book Belloc provides a great many digressions: accounts of the people and the scenery, essays on society and character, stories told to divert the reader much in the manner that Laurence Sterne used stories in his accounts of his travels, observations on language, culture, universities, and poetry. But Belloc’s principal digression from the theme of his walking tour is his constant reference to and discussion of the Roman Catholic faith. Although THE PATH TO ROME is not a symbolic journey into Catholicism, it is an attempt to get at the essential meaning of experience by observing the area as closely as possible, just as, for Belloc, Catholicism was the religion which expresses the essential truths of experience. Catholicism is an important theme in THE PATH TO ROME; the religion gives the digressions a sense of direction, just as Rome itself provides the geographical direction of the tour.
Throughout, Belloc provides maps and sketches that he himself drew. The maps, all complete with directional arrows toward Rome, show the villages he passed through and the mountains he crossed in Switzerland. The mountains are drawn with faces, passes, and routes clearly shown. The sketches of buildings and churches that interested him along the way are also drawn with a great deal of careful detail. Twice, on his walking tour, Belloc persuaded himself to take short train journeys. In both instances, once just before he reached Milan and once not far from Siena, Belloc was almost out of funds. Had he continued walking, he would not have had enough money to buy the minimum amount of food to sustain him on his walking tour. Thus he saved time and took the train to the city where his money was waiting for him.
THE PATH TO ROME is written in the first person. But Belloc frequently interrupts his monologue by means of a character called “Lector” who derisively jibes at the author for any pretentious statement or complains when the narrative is broken off to pursue one of Belloc’s pet theories. The author answers Lector and often puts him down.
Lector is a convenient device for Belloc, a means of focusing the reader’s attention on the particular point or digression the author is eager to make. For example, Lector’s interruptions allow Belloc to go on about human pride and pride in the intellect, one of the sins that he finds most harmful among human beings. Lector is also a means of self-satire, for he sometimes complains after the author has indulged in a passage of purple descriptive prose, reminding the author of his original dedication to simple and careful writing. Lector, in other words, gives Belloc’s account a wider perspective, allows the reader to see that the author, while strongly immersed in his own observations and point of view, is also wise enough to detect the possible relevant objections to and inconsistencies in his work.
Belloc, beginning his book with an assault on conventional proverbs and wise sayings, announces his intention to see and understand life fully and sympathetically; he refuses to be bound by the petty little guides for experience like “A penny saved is a penny earned.” In rejecting such sayings, Belloc plans to devote himself to largeness, width of both understanding and expression. He has a kind of Rabelaisian appreciation of all sides of human activity; and during the course of his journey he has many opportunities to demonstrate this largeness. He is simple, kind, though shrewd when he needs to be, in all his dealings with the peasants and innkeepers he meets along the way. Frequently tattered and dirty from his walking, he is sometimes misjudged by the people he encounters. But he often shows, and is shown, kindness and friendship as well as a genuine ability to understand the forces that mold these people.
At one point, in Italy, he is arrested as a tramp, but he is generally able to find both inexpensive food and revealing conversation at places where he stays. His Rabelaisian quality is also evident in his appreciation of good food and good wine. He carries a quart of the wine of the area with him all the time, and he stops for at least one good meal each day. In addition, he demonstrates a real respect for the people who live close to the earth, whose constant and necessary preoccupations are with food and drink and the essentials of physical life.
Belloc’s faith, however, dominates the book even more strongly than does his desire to understand people. He always makes a point of noticing whether the people he encounters are Roman Catholics, and, although he does not judge them on this basis, he feels strongly the error of those who do not belong to his Church. He attends mass almost every morning on the entire journey. He praises the Germans he meets for their constant interest in things spiritual, and he frequently points to his own love of the richness of ritual. At one point, in a long digression on the values of attending mass, he asserts that the mass allows one to forget passions and cares, that ritual relieves the individual from the necessity of making judgments and controlling his own life, that man receives enormous satisfaction from acting as thousands before him have acted and formally releasing himself into the hands of a higher power.
Belloc, in frequent digressions of this sort, is able admirably to point out the value and necessity of his faith. He also praises religion from another point of view: he uses it as the antidote to the niggling, penny-pinching, narrow commercialism he so much deplores. At times he connects this commercialism with the rise of the middle classes historically, although, at other times, he praises the middle classes for their continuous and conventional devotion to religion as well as for their bravery in facing the hard and difficult circumstances of their lives.
Belloc’s greatest enemy, however, is not commerce but the pride man often has in his intellect and powers of analysis. In his most bitter digressions, he attacks the pedants and the academics who, saturated with intellectual pride, find man the measure of all things. Such people, Belloc feels, are skeptical about religion, ultimately wicked, and unaware of all the various delights and depths of experience.
Throughout THE PATH TO ROME, Belloc uses a rich, discursive, allusive style. Despite his promises to be brief and to the point, he rarely is; and part of the pleasure of the book is contained in the rich and highly discursive use of language. His style fits his long ramble, his frequent pauses to sketch, to observe, to ruminate. And his enjoyment of his own language parallels his enjoyment of people and places. His style is, perhaps, less effective when he is describing the magnificence of the scenery or the grand view from an Alpine peak. In such passages, his writing is likely to be florid, to deliver rhapsodies in conventional terms. Belloc, as writer and as observer, is best when dealing with people, when describing, from his firmly held but wide point of view, the ideas and reactions of the people he meets.
Belloc did not hold to all the firm resolutions with which he began his journey. He twice took a train; he did not (because of a snowstorm that drove him back) cross the Alps at the point that would lead him most directly to Rome. But consistency or allegiance to man-made resolutions was not the most important thing for Belloc. He did have a good time, and he did complete his physical, humane, and spiritual journey to Rome. He wandered, observed, and lectured along the way, fully appreciating the human and spiritual life he encountered on a journey that was both physically and spiritually rewarding.