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Towards a Geography of the Unknown Country

On an essay by Belloc.

I had been hoping to share with readers something of my friend Hans and his recent fortunes (he is dating!), but just as I had taken pen in hand (I use the expression proverbially), the man himself appeared at his customary place beneath my office window.

“My friend,” he said, after I had lifted the sash and laid aside the screen, “are you familiar with the treatise written by your countryman Belloc”—the reader will remember his habit of referring to all English writers as American and vice versa—“on the Unknown Country?”

“Of course,” I told him. “I have the essay collection in which it appeared somewhere.”

“This is pleasing to me,” he said, helping himself to a cigarette. “Today I will set you an assignment. You must collate the references of Squire Belloc and attempt further researches into the geography of that commonwealth.”

His giving me “homework,” as it were, is not an unusual occurrence. Though Hans is the furthest thing from a snob in these matters, my friend nevertheless believes that I am something of an idler and that in the absence of such promptings, I will let such meager abilities as I possess go to seed.

“When you have finished the habilitation, perhaps you might publish certain extracts from it in one of the several popular English journals which take an interest in such proceedings?”

I told him this was supremely unlikely—tastes were not now what they had been in Belloc’s time—but that I might nevertheless find a home for the piece somewhere or other.

This seemed to satisfy him. Without saying another word he finished his cigarette in silence and departed, leaving me to my work, which I thus commence:

My earliest acquaintance with that strange country to which Belloc brought readers’ attention came in what one of his fellow journalists once called a “good bad book.” This work is one I no longer possess and I am not sure whether it would be easy now to obtain a copy of Star Wars Junior Jedi Knights: The Golden Globe. I recall neither the plot nor the characters’ names nor anything else from the book save a single passage (the words of which I have likewise forgotten) in which a boy and a girl, awakened from sleep by some mysterious prompting, come half-dreaming to the banks of a dark river and set out upon a raft into a night of golden mist. This image has remained in my mind long after many loftier things have departed from it. Otherwise, I am afraid that until my teenaged years, when I first heard Van Morrison, the only reference to the unknown country I had encountered was in the well-known seventh chapter of The Wind in the Willows.

With the coming of adolescence, however, I became something of a scholar of the place. But my education was haphazard; I began where I ought to have ended up, and so my first guide was Eliot. His earlier work betrays very little familiarity with the place, though there are presages and hints even in “Prufrock”; his Four Quartets, whatever their shortcomings as poetry, are full of signposts which I followed backwards until I hit upon the track leading back toward that place which, like Belloc’s young man, I was convinced was my very home.

I soon discovered that the pre-Socratics had some of them ventured into it, and that Plotinus in his Enneads had set up a permanent residence. One anonymous writer of the Middle Ages had found something rare in the literature, a glimpse of such houses as they have in that place (“covered with mats of divine jewels and fine cotton raiment, and on those thrones appeared divine lotuses adorned with numerous jewels”). Milton, though he had some dim notions of it as a young man, picked up only in reading, would visit himself only after he had apparently lost his sight:

Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm;
Others, whose fruit, burnished with golden rind,
Hung amiable. . .

Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; meanwhile murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringéd bank with myrtle crowned
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.

Pope at the age of twelve had ventured forth to that place

Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire

but he would not, alas, return. Likewise Tennyson, who as a young man recalled something of the music:

Here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass

but would later find his ears unaccountably stopped up. Blake (who by his own account was kidnapped and taken thence), Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Yeats made countless trips, all of them so well known that it would be purposeless to recall their particulars here. Keats, whom Belloc had singled out, made a boast of how frequent had been his excursions:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold. . .

Among German writers Goethe went occasionally and directed his readers to follow him thither (“Flieh! auf! hinaus ins weite Land!”) and Rückert of course had been there time out of mind. Hölderlin was perhaps the most experienced traveler of his age, and it may be indeed that he assumes too much familiarity on the part of his reader with the objects of his description. The French continually sought it until the Middle Ages, but seem to have lost interest afterward until the time of Verlaine, who in frustration gave up the search, content that others might experience what he could not:

Un vaste et tendre
Semble descendre
Du firmament
Que l’astre irise

Other unfortunate authors have sought the place in vain. Novalis’s Night Hymns are a continual lament for his inability to be afforded so much as a furtive glance. Gray had read something of it and passes on his intelligences casually, after the manner of a weather bulletin:

The untaught harmony of spring:
While whisp’ring pleasure as they fly,
Cool zephyrs thro’ the clear blue sky
Their gather’d fragrance fling.

Spenser made a record of a voyage, but upon arriving found he disliked the place. Housman, whose constitution did not permit him to attempt a first-hand investigation, nevertheless labored after it in the best authors, got his notes in order, polished and corrected the thing, and presented what others had told in one of the ablest modern editions; for all that he was uncertain that it existed. And then there are of course some authors who would not recognize the unknown country were they placed squarely in the middle of it, given compasses, protractors, and all the other accouterments of surveying, or even maps. Dryden was such a writer and so was Dean Swift; so were Gibbon, Macaulay, Strachey, and indeed most of our ablest historians (excepting Runciman and Dom Knowles).

In prose, as Belloc says, the records are somewhat meagerer. The Arabian Nights Entertainment is an exception:

All the trees were loaded with extraordinary fruit, of different colours on each tree. Some bore fruit entirely white, and some clear and transparent as crystal; some pale red, and others deeper; some green, blue, and purple, and others yellow: in short, there was fruit of all colours. The white were pearls; the clear and transparent, diamonds; the deep red, rubies; the green, emeralds; the blue, turquoises; the purple, amethysts; and those that were of yellow cast, sapphires.

So, too, is The Tale of Genji, in Arthur Waley’s version:

There was a wattled fence over which some ivy-like creeper spread its cool green leaves, and among the leaves were white flowers with petals half unfolded like the lips of people smiling at their own thoughts.

It is a bit of a cheat, I suppose, to turn here to Holy Writ, whose author possessed certain advantages, but as Belloc permits himself one such example, I shall evince the words of the blind man recorded by the evangelist: “I see men as trees, walking.” The modern novel is less rich, though it would be remiss not to mention that Joyce in his Portrait and and in certain episodes of Ulysses gives evidence of having visited. Many will not believe me when I say so, but heedless of their scorn I will declare that Virginia Woolf too was well acquainted with the place, so much so that she writes of it even in her anonymous reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. But she stole her best description of it from Charles Elton, a portly barrister who wrote in verse:

Come out and climb the garden-path,
Luriana Lurilee,
The China rose is all abloom
And buzzing with the yellow bee
We’ll swing you on the cedar-bough,
Luriana Lurilee.

I wonder if it seems to you
Luriana Lurilee
That all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
Are full of trees and waving leaves,
Luriana Lurilee.

How long it seems since you and I,
Luriana Lurilee.
Roamed in the forest where our kind
Had just begun to be,
And laughed & chattered in the flowers,
Luriana Lurilee.

How long since you and I went out,
Luriana Lurilee
To see the kings go riding by
Over lawn and daisylea,
With their palm-sheaves and cedar-leaves
Luriana Lurilee.

There are many other worthy travelers—I have said nothing of Sir Thomas Browne, who lived there almost continuously; or of Sidney, Drayton, and other Elizabethan gentlemen explorers; or of Larkin, who discovered that the place could be reached by train and even bus; and I have also ignored those infrequent cinematic records made by Ozu, Powell and Pressburger, Charles Laughton, and Rohmer—but I must leave off now.

Still, before doing so I must share the fullest account of the unknown country I have read, not indeed the longest, but to my mind the most exact and for that reason the most melancholy. It is worth quoting in full:

Towards the close of the fourth century a.d., a certain fisherman of Wu-ling, who had followed up one of the river branches without taking note whither he was going, came suddenly upon a grove of peach-trees in full bloom, extending some distance on each bank, with not a tree of any other kind in sight. The beauty of the scene and the exquisite perfume of the flowers filled the heart of the fisherman with surprise, as he proceeded onwards, anxious to reach the limit of this lovely grove. He found that the peach trees ended where the water began, at the foot of a hill; and there he espied what seemed to be a cave with light issuing from it. So he made fast his boat, and crept in through a narrow entrance, which shortly ushered him into a new world of level country, of fine houses, of rich fields, of fine pools, and of luxuriance of mulberry and bamboo. Highways of traffic ran north and south; sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs were heard around; the dress of the people who passed along or were at work in the fields was of a strange cut; while young and old alike appeared to be contented and happy.

One of the inhabitants, catching sight of the fisherman, was greatly astonished; but, after learning whence he came, insisted on carrying him home, and killed a chicken and placed some wine before him. Before long, all the people of the place had turned out to see the visitor, and they informed him that their ancestors had sought refuge here, with their wives and families, from the troublous times of the House of Ch‘in, adding that they had thus become finally cut off from the rest of the human race. They then enquired about the politics of the day, ignorant of the establishment of the Han dynasty, and of course of the later dynasties which had succeeded it. And when the fisherman told them the story, they grieved over the vicissitudes of human affairs.

Each in turn invited the fisherman to his home and entertained him hospitably, until at length the latter prepared to take his leave. “It will not be worth while to talk about what you have seen to the outside world,” said the people of the place to the fisherman, as he bade them farewell and returned to his boat, making mental notes of his route as he proceeded on his homeward voyage.

When he reached home, he at once went and reported what he had seen to the Governor of the district, and the Governor sent off men with him to seek, by the aid of the fisherman's notes, to discover this unknown region. But he was never able to find it again. Subsequently, another desperate attempt was made by a famous adventurer to pierce the mystery; but he also failed, and died soon afterwards of chagrin, from which time forth no further attempts were made.

The author, a poet and politician of the fifth century, is wrong in only one particular, namely, that no more essays of voyages were made. They were of course made almost without ceasing, though one thinks with less frequency now than in times past.