Dr. Robert Hickson 10 June 2019
Saint Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093)
Monday in the Octave of Pentecost
“The sea, in all its moods which he knew so well, responded to Belloc’s sense of the insecurity of life. The years continued to take a premature toll of those he loved [after first starting, on 2 February 1914, with the death of his own wife, Elodie, on Candlemas]. His old sailing companion, Phil Kershaw, died in 1924.” (Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (1957), page 478—my emphasis added.)
Hilaire Belloc’s 1906 vivid and versatile collection of essays, entitled Hills and the Sea1, is but anonymously dedicated to “The Other Man,” his hiking and sailing companion and friend of many years, Philip Kershaw, who died in 1924 and to whom Belloc, with a broken heart, then more personally and elegiacally dedicated his great 1925 book on sailing and wisdom, The Cruise of the Nona.2 That 1925 dedication reads, as follows: “To the Memory of Philip Kershaw My Brave and Constant Companion upon the Sea: But Now He Will Sail No More.”
To help recall the high spirits of Belloc and Kershaw back in 1906– when Belloc was also, in his mid-thirties, and still a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons—we propose to consider now a little more closely the energetic seven-page foreword to Hills and the Sea. It surprisingly begins thus, with some epic heightening:
There were once two men. They were men of might and breeding. They were young, they were intolerant, the were hale….They were men absolute. (ix)
How many of us would incuriously close the book at this point?
Further counterpointing the qualities and special characteristics of this unusual pair of friends, however, Belloc will gradually draw us on to a deeper adventurous wonder and rumbustious delight:
They loved each other like brothers, yet they quarrelled like Socialists. They loved each other because they had in common the bond of mankind; they quarrelled because they differed upon all other things. The one was of the Faith [i.e., the Catholic Faith], the other most certainly was not. The one sang loudly, the other sweetly. The one was stronger, the other more cunning. The one rode horses with a long stirrup, the other with a short. The one was indifferent to danger, the other forced himself at it. The one could write verse, the other was quite incapable thereof. The one could read and quote [the ancient Greek pastoral poetry of] Theocritus, the other read and quoted himself alone. The high gods had given to one judgment, to the other valour; but to both that measure of misfortune which is their Gift to those whom they cherish. (ix-x—my emphasis added)
Throughout the festive foreword, Belloc—following an old convention– will deftly resort to the metaphorical deities of classical antiquity and their actions and favored associations. Now thus noting some abiding effects of that special “Gift” of “the high gods” (x), Belloc takes us into deeper things:
From this last [Gift of Measured Misfortune] proceeded in them both a great knowledge of truth and a defense of it, to the tedium of their friends: a devotion to the beauty of women and of this [divinely created] world; an outspoken hatred of certain things and men, and, alas! a permanent sadness also. All the things the gods gave them in the day when the decision was taken upon Olympus that these two men should not profit by any great good except Friendship, and that all their lives through Necessity [Greek “Ananke”] should [would] jerk her bit between their teeth, and even at moments goad their honour. (x—my emphasis added)
With antic and ironic tones, Belloc then says that “The high gods, which are names only to the multitude, visited these men,” namely Dionysius, Pallas Athene, the Cytherean [Aphrodite, Venus], Apollo, and even that rascal Pan. Moreover,
Apollo loved them [these two men and friends]. He bestowed upon them under his own hand the power not only of remembering all songs, but even composing light airs of their own; and Pan, who is hairy by nature and a lurking fellow afraid of others, was reconciled to their [Belloc and Kershaw’s] easy comradeship, and would accompany them into the mountains [like the Pyrenees] when they were far from mankind. Upon these occasions he revealed to them the life of trees and the spirits that haunt the cataracts, so that they heard voices calling where no one else had ever heard them, and that they saw stones turned into animals and men [especially in the darkness!]. (x-xi—my emphasis added)
Belloc will introduce us now to adventures they underwent together, and those they knew alone:
Many things came to them in common. [For example,] Once in the Hills [in the Pyrenees], a thousand miles from home, when they had not seen men for a very long time, Dalua touched them with his wing,3 and they went mad for the space of thirty hours. It was by a stream in a profound gorge at evening and under a fretful moon. The next morning they lustrated themselves with water, and immediately they were healed. (xi—my emphasis added)
Belloc will now show us, in brief, some of his most cherished adventures with Philip Kershaw out at sea and in a great wind, and we thereby taste the very risk and danger of their friendship’s intimate experience of the unexpected:
At another time they took a rotten old leaky boat (they were poor and could afford no other)–they took, I say, a rotten old leaky boat whose blocks [pullies, pulley blocks] were jammed and creaking, and whose rigging [for sailing] frayed, and they boldly set out together into the great North Sea [see also the book’s first essay, “The North Sea,” pages 1-9].
It blew a capful, it blew half a gale, it blew a gale, these sons of Ares [Mars], these cousins of the broad daylight! There were no men on earth save these two [except these two] who would not have got her under a trysail [a little storm sail] and a rag of a storm-jib with fifteen reefs [sail-tucks] and another: not so these heroes. Not a stitch [of sail] would they take in. (xi-xii—my emphasis added)
Our robust young Belloc will now give us a taste of Rabelesian epic boasting, along with the salty maritime language:
They [the two companions] carried all her canvas [her full set of sails even in the gusting gale!], and cried out to the north-east wind [called “Eager”]: “We know her better than you! She’ll carry away before she capsizes, and she’ll burst long before she’ll carry away.” So they ran before it [the wind] largely until the bows were pressed right under, and it was no human power that saved the gybe [and swinging boom]. They went tearing and foaming before it [running before the wind], singing a Saga as befitted the place and time. For it was their habit to sing in every place its proper song—in Italy a Ritornella, in Spain a Segeduilla, in Provence a Pastourou, in Sussex a Glee, but on the great North Sea a Saga. (xii)
With a little more (but also charming) hyperbole, Belloc describes the two men’s arrival back in England:
And they rolled at last into Orford Haven on the very tiptop of the highest tide that ever has run since the Noachic Deluge; and even so, as the crossed the bar [sandbar] they heard the grating of the keel. That night they sacrificed oysters to Poseidon. (xii—my emphasis added)
Belloc then fittingly gives us a glimpse of their welcome rest and fortifying Homeric dreams:
And when they slept the Sea Lady [Thetis, the Mother of Achilles], the silver-footed one, came up through the waves and kissed them in their sleep; for she had seen no such men since Achilles. Then she went back through the waves with all her [attendant] Nereids around her to where her throne is, beside her old father in the depths of the sea. (xii-xiii—my emphasis added)
After Belloc assures us of the exemplary conduct of these two wandering companions—saying that “In their errantry they did great good” (xiii)–he further illustrates their adventures and rescues, which are now more complicated (e.g., the rescue of Andromeda by them, not by Perseus! And then there was their successful hunt for the remote and ferocious Bactrian Bear).
And after such briefly presented, purported heroic adventures, Belloc gets even more imaginatively playful and youthfully quixotic:
And here it is [Dear Reader] that you ask me for their names. Their names! Their names? Why, they gave themselves a hundred names: now this, now that, but always names of power. Thus upon that great march from Gascony into Navarre, one, on the crest of the [Pyrenees] mountains, cut himself a huge staff [walking stick] and cried loudly: “My name is URSUS, and this is my staff DREAD-NAUGHT: let the people in the valley be afraid!”
Whereat the other cut himself a huger staff, and cried out in yet a louder voice: “My name is TAURUS, and this is my staff CRACK-SKULL: let them tremble who live in the Dales!”
And when they had said this they strode shouting down the mountain-side and conquered the town of Elizondo [in Navarre on the river], where they are worshipped as gods to this day. Their names? They gave themselves a hundred names! (xiii-xiv—my emphasis added)
In another high-spirited passage (from another book ) about two men’s travels on foot by night in the steep mountains, Belloc speaks (as I more or less faithfully recall it) of their coming down the slope by night into a remote village and thus to “inspire their admiration, and maybe also their fear”!
Belloc now imagines the further persistence of the Reader who still wants to know their true identity and special qualities, and to behold them in person:
“Well, well,” you say to me then, “no matter about the names: what are names? The men themselves concern me!…Tell me,” you go on, “tell me where I am to find them in the flesh, and converse with them. I am in haste to see them with my own eyes.”
It is useless to ask. They are dead. They will never again be heard upon the heaths at morning singing their happy songs: they will never more drink with their peers in the deep ingle-nooks of home. They are perished. They have disappeared. Alas! The valiant fellows! (xiv-xv—my emphasis added)
After hearing this surprising response to his questing search, the reader may well be discouraged and demoralized. But Belloc will, by way of summary and a certain parting detachment, still have a little consolation and invitation for us all:
But [for your good, too] lest some list of their proud deeds and notable excursions should be lost on earth, and turn perhaps into legend, or what is worse, fade away unrecorded, this book has been got together; in which will be found now a sight they saw together, and now a sight one saw by himself, and now a sight seen only by the other. As also certain thoughts and admirations which the second or the first enjoyed, or both together: and indeed many other towns, seas, places, mountains, rivers and men—whatever could be crammed between the [book] covers. (xv—my emphasis added)
Who of us would not now want to read and savor this varied and abundant book?
By way of conclusion and with a further, but implicit, invitation to us all, here is the way Belloc begins one of his essays wherein he alone is returning home to his cherished Sussex along the nearby sea. The essay is simply entitled “The Mowing of a Field,” and it to be found on pages 202-216 of Hills and the Sea (1906). If one will read this essay in its entirety, one will likely yearn to read and savor—again and again and with gratitude– Belloc’s vivid and profound words. (It has certainly been gratefully so with me—since my first reading of “The Mowing of a Field” almost a half century ago, in the late summer of 1971 and on the ocean seacoast island of my home.)
Here, in part, is how Hilaire Belloc begins his essay:
There is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land….
The wind, when it reaches such fields, is no longer a gale from the salt, but fruitful and soft, an inland breeze; and those whose blood was nourished here feel in that wind the fruitfulness of our orchards and all the life that all things draw from the air.
In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through the fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man’s Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade I saw the sea. To this place very lately I returned.
The many things I recovered, as I came up the countryside were not less charming than when a distant memory had enshrined them, but much more. Whatever veil is thrown by a longing recollection had not intensified nor even made more mysterious the beauty of that happy ground [hills of home]; not in my very dreams of morning had I, in exile, seen it more beloved or more rare…. And all these things fulfilled and amplified my delight. (202-203—my emphasis added)
May such rooted delight, veiled vision and distant memory, and “its better reality” (204) also become a grateful gift to Hilaire Belloc’s other readers, and not only to the men.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, M.P., Hills and the Sea (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906). All future references to this edition’s seven-page foreword, and to the larger main text, will be placed above in the main body of this essay in parentheses.
2Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). There is also a longer, more narrative “Dedication to Maurice Baring” (on pages vii-xiv). For, Baring was also Belloc’s wise and beloved, living friend. The expanded and more explanatory subtitle of The Cruise of the Nona is, as follows: “The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash, with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners.”
3See the longer haunting essay in H. Belloc’s book, Hills and the Sea (1906), pages 31-43 (“The Wing of Dalua”).