Dr. Robert Hickson 16 July 2019
Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1251)
The Day of Death of Hilaire Belloc (d.1953)
“Nona was an old-fashioned cutter of ten tons, that is to say some thirty feet long, slow, but reliable. Built in 1874, she had belonged to my father [Arthur, Lord Stanley of Alderley] for a few years when in 1914, being appointed to the Governorship of Victoria, he gave her to Belloc. The Cruise of the Nona was the result, for my father kept Nona at Holyhead [in Wales] when Belloc set out to bring her to his home waters of the Sussex shore.” (See the new 1955 Introduction—written by the Younger Lord Stanley of Alderley—to The Cruise of the Nona (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1956), page xxii—my emphasis added)
“Indeed, I think that there stand out among all the boats of history, supreme, singular, incomparable to lesser things…two boats—Noah’s Ark and the Nona; and of these two, the Nona is the better ship. I judge this by the pictures of the ark I have seen upon match-boxes, which I take to be upon the whole our best text, though late and somewhat corrupt. Such a craft [the Ark] could not have been handled with any satisfaction. It has no gear, only a sort of deckhouse; but it is famous, and of such antiquity that it should be revered—from its time onwards there has been nothing but the Nona. You talk of the Ñina; of Columbus’s other ships [and many others besides]…But none of all these [other candidates numerously mentioned] ships is to be mentioned in the same breath as the Nona [i.e., “the chief boat of all the boats of the world” (309)].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925), page 309—my emphasis added)
In 1931, when he was sixty-one years of age, Hilaire Belloc published an elegiac but vividly affectionate essay entitled “The Death of the Ship” which was evocative of many of the adventures and misadventures he had had while sailing the Nona. Belloc’s plangent essay was published six years after his The Cruise of the Nona (1925), which was also close to being an intellectual autobiography in many ways, and it certainly provides a good background for understanding “The Death of the Ship.”1 For, “The Ship” alluded to is the Nona, and not to either of the other two sailing crafts that he had briefly owned: first, there was the Phya; and later, after the Nona could sail no more, came the further gift of his friends, the Jersey.
Two fitting passages from The Cruise of the Nona2—to be found in Belloc’s own extended (often playful) Dedication of his book to his beloved friend, Maurice Baring—will now also help us to appreciate more fully the later essay “The Death of the Ship.”
The first passage goes vividly (yet modestly) like this:
My Dear Maurice….How then should I approach this task which has been set me of writing down, in the years between fifty and sixty, some poor scraps of judgment and memory? I think I will give it the name of a Cruise; for it is in the hours when he is alone at the helm, steering his boat along the shores, that a man broods upon the past, and most deeply considers the nature of things. I think I will also call it by the name of my boat, the Nona, and give the whole book the title “The Cruise of the Nona,” for, in truth, the Nona has spent her years, which are much the same as mine (we are nearly of an age, the darling, but she a little younger, as is fitting), threading out of harbours, taking the mud, trying to make further harbours, failing to do so, getting in the way of more important vessels, giving way to them, taking the mud again, waiting to be floated off by the tide, anchoring in the fairway, getting cursed out of it, dragging anchor on shingle and slime, mistaking one light for another, rounding the wrong buoy, crashing into other people, and capsizing in dry harbours. It seemed to me, as I considered the many adventures and misadventures of my boat, that here was a good setting for the chance thoughts of one human life; since all that she [Nona] has done and all that a man does make up a string of happenings and thinkings, [often seemingly?] disconnected and without shape, meaningless, and yet full: which is Life. (iv, xii-xiii—my emphasis added)
Our Belloc, in a second passage, proceeds to express his further-refreshing analogies—or parallels—between the voyage of a soul and the sailing of a boat (especially when sailing in a boat without any engine aboard, not even a little motor in the auxiliary dinghy for a possible rescue!):
Indeed, the cruising of a boat here and there is very much what happens to the soul of a man in a larger way. We set out for places that we do not reach, or reach too late; and, on the way, there befall us all manner of things which we could never have awaited. We are granted great visions, we suffer intolerable tediums, we come to no end of the business, we are lonely out of sight of England, we make astonishing landfalls [from the sea]—and the whole rigmarole leads us along nowhither, and yet is alive with discovery, emotion, adventure, peril, and repose.
On this account I have always thought that a man does well to take every chance day he can at sea in the narrow seas. I mean, a landsman like me should do so. For he will find at sea the full model of human life; that is, if he sails on this own and in a little craft suitable to the little stature of one man….But if he goes to sea in a small boat, dependent upon his own energy and skill, never achieving anything with that energy and skill save [except for] the perpetual repetition of calm and storm, danger undesired and somehow overcome, then he will be a poor man, and his voyage will be the parallel of the life of a poor man [indeed often like the modest Belloc himself]—discomfort, dread, strong strain, a life all moving. What parallel I shall find in the action of boats for a man in the middle sort, neither rich nor poor, I cannot tell….At any rate, I am now off to sail the English seas again, and to pursue from thought to thought and from memory to memory such things as have occupied one human soul, and of these some will be of profit to one man and some to another, and most, I suppose, to none at all. (xiii-xiv—my emphasis added)
With the help of this larger background, we may now turn more attentively to Hilaire Belloc’s 1931 essay, “The Death of the Ship,” wherein we shall especially find the concurrent and permeating presence of affection and elegy. Without mentioning the name of Nona, his lady, he begins his tale of her death and intimately growing loyalty:
The other day there was a ship that died. It was my own ship, and in a way I would it had not died. But die it had to, for it was mortal, having been made in this world: to be accurate, at Bembridge, in the Isle of Wight, nearly sixty years ago. Moreover, since boats also must die, it is right that they should die their own death in their own element; not violently, but after due preparation; for, in spite of modern cowardice, it is better to be prepared for death than unprepared. (195—my emphasis added))
Anticipating some objections already, Belloc makes some polite distinctions while alluding to an enduring dispute made contentiously prominent also in Mediaeval Christendom:
They may tell me that a ship has no being at all; that a boat is not a person, but is only a congeries of planks and timbers and spars and things of that sort. But that is to open up the whole debate, undecided, branched out, inexhaustible, between realism and nominalism—on which I wish you joy. (195—my emphasis added)
Resuming his narration, now more personally and intimately so, he says:
She was my own boat, and I knew her very well, and I loved her with all my heart. I will offer you speculation on whether, now she has dissolved her being in this world of hers—which was sand and mud, salt water, wind and day and night and red and green lights, and harbours far away—she shall not be a complete boat again with all her youth upon her, in a paradise of boats. You may debate that at your leisure. (195-196—my emphasis added)
Making some analogies between the ageing of a man and the ageing of a sailboat, Belloc says:
She had been patched up for years past. So are men in their old age and their decay. As the years proceeded she had been more and more patched up. So are men more and more patched up as the years proceed. Yet all those who loved her tried to keep her going to the very last. So it is with men.
But my boat was happier than men in this, that no one desired her death. She had nothing to leave, except an excellent strong memory of days calm, days windy, days peerless, days terrific, days humorous, days empty in long flats without a breath of wind, days beckoning, principally in the early mornings, leading on her admirable shape, empress of harbours and of the narrow seas. Also, she had no enemies, and no one feared her. There was no one to say, as there is of men, “I shall be glad when they are out of the way.” There was no one to wish her that very evil wish which some men do other men—themselves evil: “I am glad to think that he is dead.”
No. My boat went most honourably to her death. She had nothing to repent, nothing to regret, nothing to fear, nothing to be the cause of shame. It is so with things inanimate, and, indeed, with animals. It is so with everything upon this earth, except man. (196—my emphasis added)
After another deserved tribute to the Nona—“My boat was the best sea-boat that ever sailed upon the sea,” (196)—Belloc tells us that:
Four men were happy on board her, five men she could carry, six men quarrelled. She did not sail very close to the wind, for she was of sound tradition and habit, the ninth of her family and perhaps the last. To put her too close [to the wind] was to try her, and she did not like it. But she would carry on admirably four points off [being in irons], and that is all you need in any boat, I think. She drew just over to just under 6 foot, according to the amount of human evil there was aboard her and of provision therefor. And she never, never failed.
She never failed to rise to a sea, she never failed to take the stiffest or most sudden gust. She had no moods or tantrums. She was a solid, planted thing. There will be no more like her. The model is broken. There was a day when I should have cared very much [for her vulnerable, patched up condition]. Now I am glad enough that she has gone down the dark way from which, they say, there is no return. For I should never have sailed her again. (197-198—my emphasis added)
Drawing us to consider more closely Nona’s designed and constructed seaworthiness, Belloc says:
He who had designed the lines of her approached the power of a creator, so perfect were they and so smooth and so exactly suited to the use of the sea….They made her to be married to the sea.
As to speed, I suppose she never in her life made nine full knots in one hour….I say I doubt if she every made nine knots in the hour, even on that famous day when she ran violently over-canvassed because she had jammed a block, roaring from the flats east of Griz Nez [i.e., Gris Nez in France, and across the English Channel] to the flats in Romney in just over three hours, not knowing whither she went, nor I either until the land was suddenly upon us—as suddenly as the land had left us when we first rushed out into the thick weather—and that, God help me! was more than a quarter of a century ago. (198—my emphasis added)
As we approach Belloc’s conclusion, he mentions some other memorable voyages or effective sprints with his seaworthy and reliable Lady Nona:
She once ran me from the same Torquay to the Solent in less time than it takes a man to betray his loyalties or to deny his God: or, at least, in less time than it takes to change his habits in the way of treason.
She once took me round from Dorsetshire to Cornwall [Penzance and Land’s End!] one summer night and with a wind off the land which was much too strong in passing Bolt Head; and she has taken me here and she has taken me there; and now we are to part—if not for ever, at any rate for a good many weeks or months or years. Which things, I suppose, are inconsiderable to Eternity. No matter. We part. (199—emphasis added)
After this poignancy and somewhat unsuccessfully attempted detachment on his part, Hilaire Bellow will now become much more sincere, and even Homerically elegiac, in conclusion, for we might remember that Belloc often repeated Homer’s words from the Iliad spoken, unexpectedly, by the two observant, articulate, and compassionate Divine Horses: “Of all the creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, none is so full of sorrow as a man.” Remembering his cherished sailboat and their deep bond, Belloc will comparably now lead us to his own compassionate conclusion:
The patching up [of the Nona] had got more and more difficult. It had to be renewed more and more often. The expense was nothing. We will always pay for doctors when it is a matter of those we love. But off the Norman coast [of French Normandy] the other day she gave me that look which they give us before they leave us, and she started a plank [in the hull]. It was high time. Had she not been near the piers it might have gone hard with those on board. But she got through, though the channel was pouring in, and she reached the basin within, her cock-pit half full, and then lay upon the mud. And there she did what corresponds in man to dying. She ceased to be a boat for the purposes of a boat any longer. She was no-longer-patch-up-able. She had fulfilled her task. It was all over. She had taken to her repose.
Very soon she with hammer and wedge was dissolved into her original elements—all that was mortal of her—and the rest is on the seas of paradise. I wish I were there—already: now; at once: with her. (199-200—my emphasis added)
This Hilaire Belloc essay is not likely to be forgotten by anyone who—even once—will have attentively savored its wholeheartedness and its sincere spontaneity and nuanced tones of language.
Belloc was always grateful and he was intimately faithful to the Nona, as he was long deeply loyal to his beloved wife Elodie (d. 2 February 1914)
On this anniversary of Hilaire Belloc’s own death in 1953, we still pray for his spiritual alacrity and for the repose of his vivid soul, and for his communion still with all whom he loved and all who loved him.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, “The Death of the Ship,” Chapter XXXII (pages 195-200) of Belloc’s Anthology, entitled A Conversation With A Cat and Others (London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1931). All future references to this Belloc essay will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this current commentary and essay.
2Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). The Dedication to Maurice Baring will be found on pages vii-xiv, and we shall only present Belloc’s words from pages xii, xiii, and xiv. All further reference to The Cruise of the Nona will be placed above in the main body of this essay, in parentheses.