The Balm of the Sea and Hilaire Belloc’s Grateful Consolation

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                20 June 2019

Corpus Christi 2019

Epigraph

“The sea is the consolation of this our day, as it has been the consolation of the centuries. It is the companion and receiver of men. It has moods for them to fill the storehouse of the mind, perils for trial, or even for an ending, and calms for the good emblem of death….But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us….May it be to others what it has been to me.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona)

***

One year after Hilaire Belloc published his memorable masterpiece The Cruise of the Nona (1925), he also first brought out his varied collection of earlier essays, entitled Short Talks with the Dead and Others (1926), which contained a short but vivid maritime piece “The Coastguard, or the Balm of the Salt.”1

After our considering but a few parts of this brief 6-page essay– where we shall soon meet the encouraging and grateful Coastguardsman–we shall thereby understand a little more why the sea was always a consolation to Hilaire Belloc, in spite of its many risks and benumbing languors and very sudden, even mortal, dangers.

For example, the essay’s narrator begins his grateful tale with these words, which are also evocative of his beloved home with its coastal surroundings in Sussex:

The Sea that bounds South England has as many moods as any sea in the world, and one of its moods is that of calm vision like St. Monica by the window at prayer.

When the Sea of South England is in this mood, it is very hard upon sailing men; especially if they have no horrible motor on board; there is no wind upon the sea; all lies asleep. (113-114)

Belloc’s Narrator will himself henceforth refer to a certain “Jonah”–another sailor man and literary gentleman who likewise has aboard a sailing companion—who modestly reminds one of Belloc himself. For, we shall later discover that this “Mr. Jonah” has himself published “sixty-nine books” (117) many of which were “salty” and thus had “to do with the sea.” (117)

Now we may see how the Narrator (Belloc himself ) vividly (though sometimes hyperbolically) presents Jonah in his becalmed boat drifting along off the south coast of England:

The sea was in such a mood [of windless calm] two or three years ago, when this writing fellow [and skipper], Mr. Jonah, sat in his little boat cursing the saintly calm of the great waters. It was hot; it was about five o’clock in the afternoon; and save for the drift of the tide he had not made as many miles since noon as he had passed hours. Now and then a little cat’s paw would just dimple the silky water and then die out again. The big lugsail which was her only canvas (for such breath as there was came aft [came over the stern], and it was no use setting the jib [up there at the bow]) hung like despair in the souls of evil men grown old. To the North, in the haze, and fairly close by, was England; that famous island. But in the way of a port or shelter, or place to leave the boat till the next free day (and writers never have much spare time for sailing), there was none for many miles. (114—my emphasis added)

Jonah “had hoped to get into a river mouth of his acquaintance before evening; that hope he must now abandon.” (114) Moreover, now “he was anxious what he should do” (114):

With him [Jonah the writer] there was a younger companion; and when it was clear that things were hopeless, when the blazing sun had set in a sea of glass, and the long evening had begun, the unfortunate pedlar of prose and verse and rhetoric and tosh [British slang for “trash or rubbish”] saw that there was nothing for it but to take to the oars. Before doing this he looked along the haze of the land through his binoculars and spotted a Coastguard Station. There he thought he would leave the craft for the night. His boat (it was the second and smaller of his fleet) was not too big to be hauled up above the high-water mark, and there seemed no prospect of bad weather.

He could return to push her off again in a few days.

They bent to the oars, and before darkness had quite fallen the keel had gently slid up upon fine sand, and these two men, the nib driver and his younger companion, waded ashore with the warping [the mooring] rope, and on the end of it they bent a little kedge [a light anchor] to hold her; for the tide had turned and the flood [the high tide] had begun. (114-115—my emphasis added)

After this memorable presentation of an inescapable part of sailing the seas (done intentionally without any motor aboard), we are further surprised by the increasing awareness and courtesy of the Coastguardsman:

They walked up to the Coastguard’s house, and were received with due courtesy but without enthusiasm. The Coastguard undertook, however, to look after the boat for an agreed sum, and the column filler [scribbler journalist], this fellow Jonah, took a piece of paper to write down with his poor fountain pen his name and address, that he might give it to the Coastguardsman.

Then it was that the moment of miracle came! (115)

In contrast to the way Belloc’s essay began—i.e., with another man’s denunciation of his own published writings—we shall now see an ardent welcome and praise for an author named “Jonah.”

Before we glimpse more closely the Coastguardsman’s ebullient praise of Jonah, we turn to the candid form of disapproval with which the Belloc essay unexpectedly and ironically opens:

I have just set down (and you, I hope, have read—since I wrote it for the strengthening of my fellow men) an experience of mine with one of the readers of my books: a man in a train who treated what I had written with great contempt.

Now I have to relate a contrary experience [with the Coastguardsman]. But I will not say that it happened to myself [in propria persona], for if I did that I should mislead [sic—perhaps thus modestly to deceive the reader?]. I will only swear to this, that it did happen to a penman [writer] of my own sort, that is, to a man who was not a best seller, and who ground out his life in journalism and little known novels [like Belloc’s own gracious book, Belinda …?] and who loved the sea. So let Jonah be his name.

Well, this is what happened to Jonah; and, in reading it, let the great host of writers lift up their hearts and be comforted; it is, for them, a most encouraging story. (113—my emphasis added)

To return to that unexpected “moment of miracle” with the Coastguardsman who is to have a sudden and joyful recognition about his older visitor, who is himself a sailing man as well as a prolific writer, to boot:

The Coastguard bent his eyes upon the paper [with Jonah’s name and address written dimly upon it] and was transfigured. His whole being was changed. His soul was illuminated. His frame shook. When he spoke it was in a voice that seemed to hesitate in his throat with emotion—utterly different from the business-like seaman’s tone in which he had hitherto accepted payment for service….

He [Jonah] had never tasted fame [and such praise before], and least of all from such a source [like the literate Coastguardsman], in such a field. He remembered his sixth Aeneid [Virgil’s Book 6]: if good fortune is to come, it will come from a source whence one expects it least of all. (115—my emphasis added)

After Jonah asked the Coastguard “Would you like me to send you a book?” (116)–for “Fame trumpeted to him from the lips of a sailor-man” (116)–the Coastguard humbly said:

“Oh, sir! I have them all!”

“What!” shouted the inky-one [Jonah the writer], “All my sixty-nine books!”

Well, sir, all that have anything to do with the Sea.”

At this the literary gentleman [Jonah] was struck dumb, for he had not found such faith in Israel.”

He said: “May I send you my —,” and here he mentioned a book long dead, damned and done for, but with plenty of salt water about it; a book written in a very affected manner, and well deserving of oblivion.

The Coastguard could hardly believe his ears: “Oh, sir,” he said, “if you will do that it will be the proudest moment of my life! And will you inscribe it for me?”

“I will indeed,” said the writer [Jonah], courteously…. And so he did. (117–my emphasis added)

Would that Jonah could have sent to the sincere and grateful Coastguardsman a copy of Hilaire Belloc’s The Cruise of the Nona, or at least a copy of the last two pages (328-329) of that salty work and profound personal witness.

CODA

As a balm for the refreshment of a receptive reader, here are the last two pages of Hilaire Belloc’s 1925 book: The Cruise of the Nona: The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash [from Wales around to Essex], with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners:

We slept under such benedictions, and in the morning woke to find a little air coming up from the south like a gift, an introduction to the last harbour. We gave the flood [tide] full time (for they do not open the gates, and cannot, until high water); then, setting only mainsail and jib, we heaved our anchor up for the last time, and moved at our pleasure majestically between the piers, and turned the loyal and wearied Nona towards the place of her repose.

And now good-bye to thee, /Thou well-beloved sea,” as John Phillimore [Belloc’s own dear friend and a Classics scholar who was himself to die only one year later, in 1926] very excellently translates the Greek of other landed sailors dead.

The sea is the consolation of this our day, as it has been the consolation of the centuries. It is the companion and receiver of men. It has moods for them to fill the storehouse of the mind, perils for trial, or even for an ending, and calms for the good emblem of death. There, on the sea, is a man nearest to his own making [building of character], and in communion with that from which he came, and to which he shall return. For the wise men of very long ago have said, and it is true, that out of the salt water all things came. The sea is the matrix of creation, and we have the memory of it in our blood.

But far more than this is there in the sea. It presents, upon the greatest scale we mortals can bear, those not moral powers which brought us into being. It is not only the symbol or the mirror, but especially is it [analogically, and thus fittingly, ] the messenger of the Divine.

There, sailing the sea, we play every part of life: control, direction, effort, fate; and there can we test ourselves and know our state. All that which concerns the sea is profound and final. The sea provides visions, darknesses, revelations. The sea puts ever before us those twin faces of reality: greatness and certitude; greatness stretched almost to the edge of eternity (greatness in extent, greatness in changes not to be numbered), and the certitude of a level remaining forever and standing upon the depths. The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and the wastes of the land; for of all the creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow [a close paraphrase of two poignant lines from Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad]. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament [nourishing mystery] of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me. (328-329—my emphasis and the offered clarifying brackets added)

Hilaire Belloc and Philip Kershaw were companions again on this last sailing of the beloved Nona. Since his friend Kershaw died in 1924, one year before The Cruise of the Nona was published, Belloc made the following elegiac addition and dedication to his 1925 book: “To the Memory of Philip Kershaw My Brave and Constant Companion Upon the Sea: But Now He Will Sail No More.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1See Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1925) and Hilaire Belloc, Short Talks with the Dead and Others (Kensington, England: The Cayme Press, 1926). The essay “Coastguard, or the Balm of the Salt” will be found in Short Talks with the Dead on pages 113-118. In my home library, there is also to be found an undated and “second edition” and replication-reprint of Short Talks with the Dead published in London, England by Sheed & Ward (31 Paternoster Row, London E.C. 4: the Pelican Press). All further references will be to the above-cited first editions, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

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