Hilaire Belloc’s 1910 Reflective Essay “On Sacramental Things”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                       26 September 2019

The Eight North American Martyrs (d. 1642-1649)

Saint Thérèse Couderc (d. 1885)

Epigraphs

One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery; one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, first published in July 1931), page 275—my emphasis added)

***

Truth comes by Conflict” (Hilaire Belloc’s own Epigraph to his 1931 book, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England.)

***

Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past….But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in his 1910 Anthology entitled On Something, pages 263 and 265—my emphasis added. )

***

“Now that story [of the Dovrefjeld in central Norway’s mountains] is a symbol, and tells a truth. We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; a woman and a child, a man at evening, a troop of soldiers; we hear notes of music, we smell the smell that went with a passed time, or we discover after the long night a shaft of light upon the tops of the hills at morning: there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in the author’s own 1910 Anthology, On Something, page 265—my emphasis added.)

***

 

In January of 1910, when Hilaire Belloc was almost forty years of age and already widely traveled on land and sea, he published his intimately reflective essay “On Sacramental Things,” which was first presented in his own authorial anthology, entitled On Something.1 He will effectively teach us herein to be more perceptive and attentively receptive and grateful; and, he will give us help to preserve a vivid memory and even sacred devotion.

Moreover, near the end of his essay, Belloc will even show us a rare portion his heart, as he gives us his own memorably purified version of an old Norse Tale with its evocative presentation of trustworthiness and the implicit meaning of a Vow and of Loyal Love.

Mindful of the nourishing needs of the soul of man, Belloc begins his refreshing reflections, as follows:

It is good for a man’s soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident [or providence?] to be in communion with the whole world. If he has not the faculty of remembering these things in their order and of calling them up one after another in his mind, then let him write them down as they come to him upon of piece of paper. They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end [“Respice Finem!”]. To consider such things [e.g., one’s end and purpose] is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their power consists. (257-my emphasis added)

Belloc then directly gives us an initial taste of what he has so vividly perceived and remembered himself, especially from all his travels afoot in Europe, in North Africa, and on his formidable 1901 Path to Rome:

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others see her, and holding out her hands toward it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon and warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and and flying clouds; a group of soldiers, seen suddenly in manoeuvres, each man intent upon his business, all working at the wonderful trade, taking their places with exactitude and order and yet with elasticity; a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under and old wall; the sea smell of a Channel seaport town; a ship coming up at one out of the whole sea when one is in a little boat and is waiting for her, coming up at one with her great sails merry and every one doing its work, with the life of the wind in her, and a balance, rhythm, and give in all that she does which marries her to the seawhether it be a fore and aft rig and one sees only great lines of the white, or a square rig and one sees what is commonly called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail, that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventures, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting boat from which we watch her is one of the [consoling, sacramental] things I mean….

They do so nourish the mind! A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend;…chief and most persistent [is the] memory,[namely] a great hill when the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape, all along the little hours that were made for sleep and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it reveals a height in the sky. This last picture I would particularly cherish, so great a consolation is it, and so permanent a grace does it lend later to the burdened mind of a man. (257-259—my emphasis added.)

Belloc is certainly a sensitive “tuning-fork,” as it were, able to perceive nuances of atmosphere and the varied responses of the human soul to geography or to the radiant goodness of a human face and the fresh face of a child. Sometimes he just bursts out in his own digressions, such as this passage:

Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illumines and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more that truth absolute; they appear as truth acting and creative….

So one begins to understand, as the pure light shines and grows,…what has been meant by those great phrases which still lead on, still comfort, and still make darkly wise, the uncomforted wondering of mankind. Such is the [slightly modified] famous phrase: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor can it enter into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that serve [and thereby love] Him.” [1 Corinthians 2:9] (260-261—my emphasis added)

Before Belloc introduces us to a Norse Tale, he mentions a little-known place:

There is another place more dear to me but which I doubt whether any other but a native of the place can know….A traveller [suddenly] breaks through a little fringe of chestnut hedge and perceives at once before him…the most historic of European things, the chief of the great capitals of Christendom and the arena in which is now being debated…the Faith, the chief problem of this world. (263—my emphasis added)

Just after his commentary on the Faith and its challenges and its consequent, permanent struggles, he tells us about “the Master Maid” (263):

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation [of sacramental things that lead us to God and thus to the seven sacraments and to a greater sacred devotion]: Notes of music, and, stronger than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past. [In this context, we recall The Concept and Reality of the “Memoria Corporisthe Memory of the Body—as in the Body of the Lord, or in the Body, the Corpus, of Sacred Tradition.]

There is a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent.2 It is to be found in his [1904] Tales from the Norse. It is called the “The Story of the Master Maid.” (263—my emphasis added)

As he had earlier done with his 1903 translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult,3 Hilaire Belloc now again shows us how he is able to summarize and purify a sometimes truculent Scandinavian tale, and to do it with compactness and lucidity and a resonant poignancy:

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was faerie, and there was a spell upon her [cast by a troll]. But he won her out of it in various ways, and they crossed the sea together, and he would bring her to his father’s house, but his father was a King. As they went overseas together, he said and swore to her that he would never forget how they had met and loved each other without warning, but by an act of God, upon the Dovrefjeld. Come near to his father’s house, the ordinary influences of the ordinary day touched him; he bade her enter a hut and wait a moment until he had warned his father of so strange a marriage; she, however, gazing into his eyes, and knowing how the divine may be transformed into the earthly, quite as surely as the earthly as the earthly into the divine, makes him promise that he will not eat human food. He sits at his father’s table, still steeped in her and in the seas. He forgets his vow and eats human food, and at once he forgets.

Then follows much for which I have not space, but the woman in the hut by her magic causes herself to be at last sent for to the father’s palace. The young man sees her, and is only slightly troubled as by a memory which he cannot grasp. They talk together as strangers; but looking out of the window by accident [or providence?] the King’s son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: “So it was with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld.” Then he [the young man] remembers all. (264-265—my emphasis added)

As we are savoring Belloc’s tones and tenor, and his gracious brevity, he says, once again, that “We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; …[and] there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (265—my emphasis added)

He had, at the outset of his essay, earlier said: “To consider such things is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their [mysterious] power consists.” (257) At the end of his inquiring essay, he says: “But why all these [sacramental] things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (265—my emphasis added)

Granted our own slightly greater perceptiveness now as to the “Memoria Corporisour memory of the body of thingsmay we now also better be able to contemplate with love the Passion of the Lord.

And to contemplate, as well, the Passion (and the Joys) of Our Lady, the Blessed Mother.

Santa Madonna!

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,”is to be found in his anthology On Something (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1910), pages 257-265.) All future references will be to this 1910 edition and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this appreciative essay.

2See Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-1896), Popular Tales from the Norse (London, 1904).

3See Hilaire Belloc, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (London: George Allen, 1903) as translated from the French of Joseph Bédier by Hilaire Belloc. See also a later-published text: Hilaire Belloc, Tristan and Iseult (London: Unwin Books and George Allen, 1913 and 1961).

Strategic Bombing and the Innocents: Considering Gertrud von Le Fort and Pope Pius XII in Response to World War II

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        8 September 2019

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Epigraphs

“I was…thinking…about the nights in the city when the sirens had wailed so horribly to say: The foreign airplanes are coming!….That was eight years ago, and the [1939-1945] war has been over for a long time. I am not a little child now; I am a big boy—twelve years old soon. Yet even today, Mommy never talks to me about airplanes—I know she wishes I would forget all about the sirens and the airplanes. But I cannot forget them, although my thoughts always go only up to the edge of the memory—when I try to think of the most terrible moments, then suddenly there is a big hole, as dark as the cellar where we were sitting then, and there is such a terrible droning noise that I can no longer think about anything. Then all I hear is Mommy’s voice, loud and clear as a shout through all the other shouting: ‘Mary, take my child into your arms!’….

“When I began to think and see again, I thought at first that it really was the Virgin Mary holding me in her arms because Mommy’s face was as black as the picture of Our Lady of Altötting that hung in her room. But soon I noticed that it was Mommy’s face, covered with smoke and soot, completely frozen with fear and terror….” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents” (7-46) in The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019—first published in 1960 in German and entitled “Die Unschuldigen”), see now pages 7-8 for the above-cited passage.)

***

“Several days later the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents, to whom the castle chapel is dedicated….The priest said that the [Psalm 124:7] verse expresses the voice of the Holy Innocents.

“Suddenly one of the refugee women began to whimper audibly. ‘But the children did not escape at all; they froze! They lay motionless and stiff on the ice when we fled across the lagoon [as was our coming from East Prussia]. They threw them into the water like dead fish!’ She moaned so loudly that the priest had to interrupt his sermon until they had led the woman out.

“Later when we left the chapel, Mommy was standing on the stairs holding in her arms the woman who had whimpered before. She had nestled her head on Mommy’s bosom and wept very gently and quietly. Later Grandmama told Mommy that she would like to explain to the woman [refugee] the psalm verse she had misunderstood. But Mommy just shook her head.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 28-29—my emphasis added)

***

“Mommy [Melanie, Heini’s mother] never goes with Grandmama to church in Niederasslau. Since she lost her rosary, she does not go to Mass anymore, either—she does not even go to the castle chapel when one is said there. But Mommy cannot stand the castle chapel at all because it is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. On the chapel wall to the right of the altar is a painting of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” page 18)

***

“I think that Grandmama was much fonder of Uncle Eberhard than of my father [Karl], who was also her son, after all….But there is something else that Grandmama has against my father.

“’You hold Karl’s death [by suicide] against him, Mother,’ Mommy recently said to her—Karl was my father–‘and yet it was a noble, heroic death,’

“’But not for a Christian,’ Grandmama replied. ‘A Christian must find another way out.’ Grandmama, I think, is very pious….

“But then she [Mommy] told me honestly and decisively, ‘No, Heini, your father shot himself, but his death was nevertheless a noble one. Your father preferred to die rather than to kill the innocent.’” Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 15-16 and 33—my emphasis added)

***

“’Karl [my officer husband] did not fear certain death,’ Mommy insisted. ‘He feared God, and you claim to be a pious woman.’

“’But you are unwilling to be one,’ Grandmama replied, ‘and that is at bottom the reason for all your trouble and unrest. God permitted this terrible event [a massacre in 1944 France at Oradour]; if you could believe in Him, you would soon find peace.’

“’No, on the contrary, then I most certainly would not find peace,’ Mommy said stubbornly, ‘because if God existed, He would have to be as indignant as I. But there cannot be a God, because the whole world is full of the suffering of the innocent!

“’That is precisely how the world was redeemed,’ Grandmama said calmly. ‘The guilty merely get their just punishment, but the sight of innocent people suffering softens hearts—Christ suffered, too, although He was innocent. Until you accept that, you cannot be a Christian woman.’

“’And I do not want to be one,’ Mommy protested, again looking quite desperate.’…I thought, ‘What Grandmama just said really sounded beautiful and mysterious. Why, then, will Mommy not accept it?’ But then I recalled what Herr Unger recently said to her: ‘But what could be the reason why people today no longer believe the piety of pious people?‘ (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 30-31—my emphasis)

***

“’But why, then, did Grandmama weep so bitterly at my bedside [after again Heini’s having been wounded by the fall of the tower-bell, but not a bomb]? I never knew she [in her poised dignity] could still weep like that! And why did she then tell you that she can now understand why you no longer want to pray?‘….

“’Well, does Uncle Eberhard not want to marry you anymore?’

“’No, my poor child rescued me from that.’

“’Oh, then I am glad, Mommy. But why are you kneeling down all of a sudden? Can you pray again now? And why are you praying downstairs in the chapel? Is there another Mass today for the Holy Innocents?

“’It is the domestics and the refugees, darling [and all the “children of Oradour” in France (46)]. I think they are praying for you.’….

“’So, now I want to go to the children—but suddenly I can no longer stand up—someone has to carry me. Ah, Mommy if you can pray again [as on page 8], then please say once again: Mary, take my child in your arms…’

“’Mary, take my child…‘” (45-46—my emphasis added) [Finis]

***

Introducing Gertrud von Le Fort’s 1960 poignant and at times very disturbing novella, “The Innocents,” has seemed a fitting way to speak of Allied strategic bombing in World War II, as well as of the later 24 January 1943 Allied demand for unconditional surrender. It may also lead us to wonder what Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church first specifically thought and then did about these two major moral decisions and the consequential actions. (Pope Pius XII, who knew German well, died on 9 October 1958, not long before Gertrud von Le Fort published “The Innocents,” which was dedicated to the lost children: “In memory of the children who died in World War II.”1 )

Moreover, Gertrud von Le Fort—by her vivid fiction—has intimately depicted some of the deep and longstanding effects of the promiscuous and often cynical aerial bombing, to include the ill fruits of revenge that such bombing so often incited and aggressively reciprocated, especially after the innocent were deliberately or negligently slaughtered. Culpable ignorance and culpable negligence were frequently present, as it appears—and as I have been told by pilots and naval aviators.

In this short reflection, I therefore propose to discuss, without any apparatus of learning, some of what I have learned over the years, to include oral history, beginning with my time as an eager cadet at West Point from 1960-1964.

The theorists of strategic bombing all essentially claimed that such a method would shorten the war, and avoid the stalemate-situation and moral horror of the Trenches of World War I, especially in Western Europe.

But, a declaration of unconditional surrender would—and did—protract the war, especially in light of the earlier vengeful “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles (and the related stark Trianon Treaty and such). The enemy would also become more resolute as well as much more distrusting and deceptively mistrustful. That is to say, an already betrayed enemy was all too likely to “hunker down” intransigently and try to endure.

The strategic air power theorists had a set of presuppositions—fundamental premises—on which to base their confidence and their practices: the “industrial web theory” (about a vulnerable interdependent society of modernity); the belief that the bombers could get though to their targets without a fighter escort; their confidence that they could find, and in a timely way, the most important long-range strategic targets (such as the key nodes and choke points in the infrastructure of Romanian oil fields, so indispensable for sustained logistics); the reliable and continuous employment and precision of the new Radar); and their pilots’ ability to handle safely unexpended ordnance after an incomplete bombing mission over Germany, for example. But, almost all these assumptions were false. (My former father-in-law, a combatant bomber pilot in the 8th Air Force, told me calmly that, of course, he, like the other crews, often just dumped unused bombs anywhere he could—on cities or on the countrysides—before he returned to England and safely landed without any active munitions. He also landed in the Soviet Union twice, both times because of near emergencies, but, he reported, it was not a welcoming place or “ally” to be visiting, even briefly.)

Stalin first said that he wanted the capitalistic Western societies to fight each other and thereby to deplete each other, and then he would arrive into their own dissolution and take charge. Later, he did not want his putative Western allies to come up through Northern Italy into Austria. He even made some suggestions that, if the West did that, he just might have to make a Separate Peace with Germany, instead, another Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty (on 3 March 1918, late in World War I). But, this time, he said, to the advantage of the Soviet-Russians and not to the Germans. Stalin slyly wanted his Western allies to attack as far west as possible, instead, for example starting in western France so that the Soviet Army could more easily advance into eastern and central Europe (like the Mongols, but even further). Here was the country who had made an August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, after losing to the Poles the decisive August 1920 Battle of Warsaw,2 which occurred only two years after Brest-Litovsk Surrender (in March of 1918). To appease their new Soviet ally (soon after 22 June 1941), England, on 6 December 1941, even declared war on heroic, anti-Bolshevist Finland, opening the way to the Soviet conquest of the three Baltic Republics.

From all things I have read down the years—and from all the searching questions I have asked—I have never discovered that Pope Pius XII ever even mentioned his warning or cautious assessment of “Strategic Bombing” and of the moral and immoral effects of effectively unlimited “Unconditional Surrender,” which Stalin himself hesitated to accept and to proclaim openly and then also to apply.

If anyone could give me evidence of Pope Pius XII’s analysis and resistance to Strategic Bombing and Unconditional Surrender taken together, and mercilessly applied, I would be very grateful—and even consoled.

Father John Anthony Hardon, S.J. once tested me orally by asking: “Is evil within the Divine Providence?” I said “Yes” but that didn’t get me very far, nor help my understanding very much. But Father then slyly said: “If you had said ‘No,’ however, we would have a problem!”

Then we spoke about the Mystery of the Permissive Will of God. For, Father said that God allows certain evils to avoid a greater evil or sometimes to enable a greater good to come forth and to abide. Then I said: “Papal Diplomacy certainly is a Test of your larger and manifold insights about the Providence of God.” What Pope Pius XII did or did not do—nor mention—during World War II is another Test about the purposes and allowances of the Divine Providence. No matter what, World War II was not—is not—“the Good War.” Gertrud von Le Fort has helped us to realize and to spread this true fact with empathy and with compassion.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Gertrud von Le Fort, The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), page 7 for her Dedication. All further references to “The Innocents” will be to this recent edition, and will be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of this brief essay.

2For the conduct and the strategic implications of this battle and victory against the great Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the excellent book by Viscount Edgar Vincent D’Abernon (d. 1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931—or its later 1977 Reprint by Hyperion Press in Westport, Connecticut.)

Hilaire Belloc on Sailing and the Salt of Reality: The Cruise of the Nona (1925)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   31 July 2019

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556)

Epigraphs

“Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half of foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality. (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), page 323—my emphasis added.)

***

“It is with Torbay [on the Devon coast] as with the Fowey coast [in south Cornwall]. I have known it only under such weathers as leave a hint of heaven: never have I opened Torbay in passing Berry Head but it was morning, with the young sea delighting in a leading breeze; and once, a draught to last forever, I came up under such a dawn and with so tender a dying crescent in the sky that I spent an hour in Paradise.

“What are those days of glory? They are not memories: are they premonitions, or, are they visions?

“They are not memories, though perhaps Plato thought them so, and our modern pantheists…called and believed them so.

I will hope that they are premonitions, hints granted beforehand of a state to be attained. At the worst they are visions of such a state lying all about us, the home of the Blessed, which we are permitted to glimpse at for a moment, even those of us sad ones who may never reach that place.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 160-161—my emphasis added.)

***

After receiving recurrent encouragement to do so, I have also now come to think that it would indeed be a worthy thing to do: namely, to frame and present some vivid and varied and unmistakably profound passages from Hilaire Belloc’s 1925 book The Cruise of the Nona.1 Moreover, it seems to me to be especially desirable to accent Belloc’s multiform passages on sailing and the salt of reality. For, considered together they also show his deep heart, and he himself often said that “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” (55)

Furthermore, his lengthy volume of almost 350 pages also contains a capacious and intimately challenging subtitle: The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash, with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners. Yet, surprisingly, this sustained overflowing, truly abundant book—written by an exuberant man in his fifty-fifth year of life—contains no index, nor any specific chapter-designations! Therefore, a keen reader of such a book might all too easily lose himself and not even be easily able to find once again those many inserted and refreshing expressions of wisdom and eloquence, and often of heart-rending poignancy which Belloc presents in passing and with a quiet implicitness. (The two above-quoted Epigraphs may well provide another hint to the reader of what Belloc will be willing to combine and to share with us with such candor and robust magnanimity—and with such unassuming and humbling modesty and with his frequent irony and humor.)

Let us now go directly to one of Belloc’s manifold and resonant passages to be found early in his maritime journey along the coast of Wales:

So we drifted down the narrow entry and out into the open sea [off Wales]; and all that afternoon, under a wind now slightly lifting, now falling again, we crept eastward and a little south, making more way as the sun declined, because the wind was shifting westward on to our quarter; and on that I was glad, for I desired to look into Port Madoc, which I had not seen since I was a child. I had vivid memories of it during a wonderful journey overshadowed by that air wherewith the Creator blesses childhood, lending to everything an active flavour of the divine; which is in three things, Clarity, Magnitude, and Multiplicity of strong emotion.

For the divine reveals itself in a special multiplicity, in an infinite variety. All that there is in colour and in music, and in line and in affection, and those added other raptures innumerable, such as we know not of nor can conceive—that is to be at last our beatitude: that is the fullness of being. In childhood our innocence permits us some little glimpse of such things; but with the passage of the years [if they are found to be without adequate Divine Grace] they are lost altogether. The light in the lantern goes out, and the living thing within us fails, and is stupefied, and dies….

If any man doubts the Fall of Man…let him consider this decay of heaven within ourselves as the maturity of our manhood develops. The more we are of this world and the more we know of it, the further we are drifting from the shores of the Blessed. (27-28—my emphasis added).

Shortly after this passage and his trying experience with the incompetent Welsh pilot (“a local trickster” (37)), we find Belloc now in a different spirit and he shows us other facets of his character and his nautical language:

Nona, cruising and voyaging Nona, wanderer over the seas of Britain, how in the solitude of your companionship my mind does lead me from one thing to another!….

The new day having come, we got the half-ebb [tide] a little before six o’clock, and threaded away down the Channel for the open sea.

I ought, I suppose, to have stopped in Port Madoc, and [to have] renewed the memories of my childhood. But a fig for the memories of my childhood, at six o’clock in the morning: at six o’clock of a May morning, and a nice little leading breeze, all cold a merry! The memories of childhood and the contemplation of the divine are for the evening; they go with candle-light, and with a wine I know, and with friends of twenty years. But, so help me He that made me, when I find the morning wind blowing well for the salt and myself freshly roused from a good sleep, I am full of nothing but the coming of the course and an eagerness for the line of the sea against the sky and the making of a further shore.

It ought to be more dangerous to float down on the ebb [tide] without a local trickster [like that dangerously feckless Welsh channel-and-harbour pilot bungling at night!], than to come up upon the flood [tide]. But fortune served, and the swirl of the ebb plainly marked the channel under that heartening [morning] light, with the glory of a new day shooting over the tops of the great and solemn mountains [of Wales] eastward, by the land.

Therefore, without misadventure, we came to the last marking buoy and took to the sea; running easily with the wind nearly aft, but a little on the port quarter, so that all was well. (37—my emphasis added)

We must not move on without first giving a little attention to Belloc’s reaction and commentary concerning that volunteer Welsh Pilot:

With the last of the light, and a westerly air which was but the suggestion of a breeze, we groped north anxiously for the opening to Port Madoc channel. How I should make it, even upon the flood [high tide], in the darkness, I knew not; for the sands [sand bars] there are miles wide, and this channel…shifts continually. But God sent me a pilot….

Nor was he a pilot, as the event shall show; but at any rate he belonged to that shore, and would have more knowledge that I. So I gave him the helm

The gliding [of the Nona] stopped; there was a slight thrill. She had hit Wales: an under-water, advance guard of Wales. The man at the helm was not apologetic, he was not humble, but he was at least subdued….I forbore to reproach him, not from kindness, but from cowardice….

To be coming thus into a very shoal fairway [the deeper channel], after dark, and to be in the hands of a pilot who was quite clearly one of God’s Three Great Welsh Fools—one of the triad, one of the Three Great Fools of Britain—was a strain to the temper, a strain to breaking point. It was no good my taking the tiller, for I had no idea of the channel, and only saw now and then, straining my eyes forward, a little blob on the darkness that would be a drum-headed buoy slowly drifting past as we lifted [off the sand bar] on the young flood [tide]. (31-32—my emphasis added)

Immediately after his delightfully humorous report and consequential detection of provocative folly, our beloved Belloc proceeds with an even deeper impish reflection, which is also full of irony:

I used to think that the irritation against fools was irrational and purposeless. Where it is written in Holy Writ [but done deftly and ironically so in Saint Paul himself!] that one should tolerate fools even with gladness, I thought that this was a general rule of conduct. But now I know it to be a counsel of perfection and, indeed, like so many things in the Old Testament, a counsel generally to be avoided. (33—my emphasis added)

The sustained artful charm of this rascal man is a fragrant enlivening balm. Do we agree?

Belloc also records with keen perceptions his meetings with two other men, one who seems to have been some kind of an exile, and the other was one who so generously supported all “sailormen” (123), and was especially now supporting the grateful Belloc himself.

After passing across Cardigan Bay, “a run of seventy-odd miles” (55), Belloc was first to meet a man, unnamed, who spoke “the most beautiful English” (55):

We let go the anchor, and, tying up our canvas [sails] in a very slovenly fashion, we hailed the shore and got a boat to come out, seeing that I had lost my own dinghy during the tempest in Bardsey Sound.

The man who came out to us in the boat hailed us as he approached in the most beautiful English….It was a privilege and an honour to be rowed to shore by such a man, for he was free of his conversation and all that he said was interesting, true, and well put….He asked us as we landed an astonishingly small payment for his services and then he promised to meet us again at a fixed hour to take us aboard [the Nona again]. In all things this man was worthy and a friend, for I could see in his eyes that he suffered exile. (55-56—my emphasis added)

Belloc’s second perceptive and very memorable encounter with a virtuous man began like this:

From the Cornish town [to the north] I had the next morning to make my way back to London; and Stephen Reynolds, whom I met, got her [the Nona] round the land safely to the ports upon the southern side [of the Cornwall peninsula, around Lands End, and perhaps beyond unto the likely larger port of Penzance], whence later I resumed this cruise2: Stephen Reynolds, that strongest-souled and most sincere of men, who desired and did good all his life. It is the meeting with such men, and the comparison of their public label with their true function, of their false renown or lack of renown with their certain standing in the eyes of their Maker, which lead all wise men to a perfect contempt for the modern world.

Does anyone remember him now of those who are reading this? Perhaps one or two, perhaps no one. He loved the poor: he understood the sea. He was a brother and a support to sailing-men, and he had charity, humility, and justice in equal poise. But the truth is, I take it, that our world is no longer fitted for governance by, nor even for advice from, its rare great men. It is fitted for governance by those who boast so exact an admixture of folly and of vice as makes them reasonably consonant with the stuff [or the mob] they have to govern. As for those who are too good for us, or too wise for us, why, the sooner they are out of it the better for them. And so it is the better with Reynolds….

But I wish that I could come across him again in this world, somewhere at the meeting of sea and land, and talk with him again about the schools of fishes, and the labours of those who seek them along our shores, and the souls of sailormen. (123 –my emphasis added)

Belloc was especially grateful, but also quite embarrassed by his likely failure after he, once again, had “sickened at the attempt” (124) out on the sea so as to turn “the point of Cornwall.” (124)

Later on, Belloc is given another bitter trial because of the crude and wrathful manners of a slick rich man at sea, and Belloc thus ironically finds some momentary (but quite impolite) relief by uttering himself a vividly imaginative and eloquent malediction (which we shall also aptly forgive):

What is less forgivable in the rich is their contempt for the usage of the sea, and their forgetfulness of its brotherhood….As with this man [“so rich that he must have stolen it…and his face purple with passion” (217)], his monstrous great ship soon steamed away down westward, and I sincerely hope that he struck that honest reef, the reef called Calvados, in a fog, making for Deauville [on the coast of France], and was drowned. (217—my emphasis added)

But Belloc was later to speak of an even greater trial, especially for his little boat:

I take it that there is no trial more trying in the sailing of a little craft than taking her through blinding weather at night inshore—whether that weather be blinding through feather-white slants of snow or through violence of sudden rain. (210—my emphasis added)

While we are absorbing and feeling such a situation ourselves, Belloc also intermittently presents us with another poignancy warmly remembered, and conveyed in his intimate personalizing of an inshore land formation, the Pillars of Old Harry and His Wife:

You are out of this main stream just before the ebb begins, and another, younger flood [tide] takes you up past Old Harry and toward Poole [a large seaport village on the Dorset coast].

Old Harry is an isolated chimney of chalk rock which still stands, expecting doom. He had a wife standing by him for centuries—a lesser (but no doubt nobler) pillar. She crashed some years ago and now he is alone. He cannot wish to remain so much longer, staring out to sea without companionship. I think he longs for his release. (207-208—my emphasis added)

Belloc will also teach us important things about truth, after first linking it to active sailing:

My [sailing] companion had never held a tiller, but he was very expert at all sports, and I thought to myself, “I will see whether so simple a thing as steering a boat [“at the fall of darkness”] cannot be easily accomplished by a man at the first trial. Then shall I be able to get whatever I badly need, which is a little sleep.”….I had given him his course [on the compass], and naturally, he had lifted [discovered] the light [on the horizon, the specific target and nautical marker] in good time. But he, for his part, could not get over it; he thought it a sort of miracle….that so clumsy a thing as a tiller and a rudder, and so coarse an instrument as an old battered binnacle compass, should thread the eye of a needle like that; it was out of all his experience….

That things should turn out so gave him quite a new conception of the sea and the sailing of it, and he talked henceforward as though it were his home.

This corroboration by experience of a truth emphatically told, but at first not believed, has a powerful effect upon the mind.

I suppose that of all the instruments of conviction it is the most powerful. It is an example of the fundamental doctrine that truth confirms truth….On this account, it is always worth while, I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense….yet it is worth making, for the sake of the truth, to which we owe a sort of allegiance…because whenever we insist upon a truth we are witnessing to Almighty God. (47-49—my emphasis added)

And, as Hilaire Belloc repeatedly said throughout his writings: we must always loyally remember proper proportion, “that quality vital to truth, the sense of proportion.” (254—my emphasis added)

Here now we have some hearty Rabelaisian glimpses of Belloc’s earlier life of sailing and singing, as was mentioned in passing as he was then aboard the Nona and going south to Cornwall:

For we designed to beat in again after a few miles, and so make our way down Channel towards the Cornishmen. There was certainly quite enough wind: “All the wind there is,” as an old Irish sailor said to me once during an Atlantic gale so abominable that he and I could not walk against its icy, sleeting December fury, but had to crawl forward tugging along the rail by main force, all up the windward side….That was a passage worthy of remembrance….I learnt from a stoker two songs: one called “The Corn Beef Can,” and the other called “The Tom Cat.” They are of the great songs of this world. (107—my emphasis added)

Considering now how we may also fittingly present many other of Belloc’s insights, we shall sometimes shorten the presentations themselves as well as the framing context and background of his substantial thought and varied tonal words. See the following page-references of Belloc’s lengthy book for an elaboration of his own helpful verbal shorthands:

For example, “an hypothesis” is not to have the same standing as “a fact” (77); those like Belloc who are also “much alive to the mystery of things” (81) such as “the mystery of tides” (96); anchoring properly and courageously facing “all the wind there is” (107, 209).

We now more attentively present some additionally memorable sentences of Belloc:

“We met him with gratitude: he was of that very considerable class known as the Good Rich, with whom are the Penitent Thieves, the Reformed Drunkards, the Sane Professors, the Womanly Furies, and all other candidates for heaven.” (92)

“The Nona is like those women who are peevish and intolerable under all conditions of reasonable happiness, but come out magnificently in distress. I lie; for the Nona is never peevish and intolerable.” (109—my emphasis added)

It is no use to argue nor much use to command in the face of imbecility.” (110—emphasis )

“The Faith is an attitude of acceptance towards an external reality: it is not a mood.” (117)

Well, what will come out of that welter, that corruption into which the decomposition of the Christian culture is now dissolving? What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion.” (122—my emphasis added)

Our only peace is doing God’s will; which includes going to pieces in the fifties, or sixties, or seventies, like an old disreputable, sodden, broken-down hulk [and sailboat] too long adventured upon the sea.” (186-187—my emphasis added)

“Poole harbour has traps within as well as this grinning trap of an entry, and the worst of these traps is the patchiness of the holding-ground [for anchors]. Unless you know where to drop anchor, you may be dragged in Poole, upwards, upon as fierce a tide as I know….But with all that, and although the Nona has caught fire there (the sea brings all adventures), Poole is a harbour that will always have good memories for me; and perhaps the Nona will go there at last to die.” (209—my emphasis added)

“And while they so thought [about the future] in terms of the only thing they knew, there had already arisen [in the 7th Century], in a place remote and utterly insignificant, among tribes of a few hundreds without power, culture, or tradition, under conditions utterly negligible, the flaming spirit of Islam.” (246—my emphasis added)

“It is in the irony of Providence that the more man comes to control the material world about him, the more does he lose control over the effects of his action; and it is when he is remaking the world most speedily that he knows least where he is driving.” (228—my emphasis added)

“For it is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.” (293—my emphasis added)

“Once I spent the whole day drifting with the tide from the two Etaples Lights to the Dune, and very nearly all the way back, but even that did not persuade me to a motor, for, of all things abominable to God and His Saints, I know of nothing more abominable than machinery and petrol and the rest on board a little cruising boat. I would rather die of thirst, ten miles off the headlands in a brazen calm, having lost my dinghy in the previous storm [in Bardsey Sound], than to have on board what is monstrously called to-day an ‘auxiliary.’ The name is worthy of the thing. By auxiliaries the Roman army perished.” (296, 23, 55—my emphasis added)

“What gives me great pleasure in them [the “Channel Pilot” and the “West Coast Pilot”] is that they are also picturesque. The unknown authors let themselves out now and then, and write down charming little descriptive sentences praising the wooded heights above the sea, or sounding great notes of warning which have in them a reminiscence of the Odyssey. One paragraph I have put to memory, and often recite to myself with delight. It runs thus (after praising a particularly difficult passage or short cut behind a great reef of our coasts): ‘But the mariner will do well to avoid this passage at the approach of the turn of the tide; or if the wind be rising, or darkness falling upon the sea.’ I like this. If I could write Greek, I would write hexameters, translating that noble strain into the original of all seafaring language….” (305-306) It recalls Homer himself, whom Belloc cherished.

Turning to statements of any reality after a dose of advocacy [or a “the habit… of propaganda”] is like getting out into the fresh air from an intolerable froust [a stale and cramped and hot stuffiness, or congestion].” (323—my emphasis added)

So, too, is it with the freshness and spaciousness of Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic Homeric Sailor .

CODA

Now we shall fittingly see and hear some of sailor Hilaire Belloc’s final preparations for the coming home—with the salt of reality—to the last harbour of his beloved Nona:

A great full moon rose up out of the east, out of the seas of England, and the night was warm. There was a sort of holiness about the air. I was even glad that we had thus to lie outside under such a calm and softly radiant sky, with a few stars paling before their queen.

We slept under such benedictions, and in the morning woke to find a little air coming up from the south like a gift, and introduction to the last harbour. We gave the flood full time (for they do not open the gates, and cannot, till 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. (327-328)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). All further references to the book will be from this text, and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2After his exquisite tribute to Reynolds, Belloc later openly said: “I confess to a complete ignorance of going round the land, that is, of turning the point of Cornwall, and of passing from the northern to the southern coast. Three times have I set out from Saint Ives [on the northern coast] with the firm intention of passing the Longships, and putting her round up-Channel. Never have I done so….Had I ever fallen so low as to put a motor into the Nona, she would have gone around like a bus or a taxi; but under sail alone it was forbidden me. Each of the three times I started with a light wind and was becalmed; and at the end of the each of those calms I drifted back so far upon the flood [tide] that I sickened of the attempt….That is why I sent the Nona round the land.” (123-124—my emphasis added) Was the Nona sent by sea, after all, or by a trailer and vehicle, instead? I do not know. The ambiguity has stumped me.

Hilaire Belloc’s The Cruise of the Nona (1925) and Elegiac “The Death of the Ship” (1931)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  16 July 2019

Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1251)

The Day of Death of Hilaire Belloc (d.1953)

Epigraphs

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 reveredfrom 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 Baringwill 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 parallelsbetween 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 partif 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 oncewill 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.

–Finis–

© 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.

Hilaire Belloc on the Presence and the Passing of Human Affection

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    8 July 2019

Saint Isabella of Portugal (d. 1336)

Epigraph

“What then is this thing Sloth which can merit the extremity of divine punishment? Saint Thomas’s answer is both comforting and surprising: tristitia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of spiritual good. Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair….Sloth is the condition in which a man is fully aware of the proper means of his salvation and refuses to take them because the whole apparatus of salvation fills him with tedium and disgust.” (Evelyn Waugh, The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh—edited by Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), page 573—from an essay entitled “Sloth” on pages 572-576.)

***

In 1928, when he was fifty-eight years of age, Hilaire Belloc published his novel, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age.1 It was an intimate book that this magnanimous author himself especially cherished, since it was a moving depiction of human affection itself, and of the poignant possibility (or at least the sorrowful appearance) of its permanent loss.

By way of clarifying contrast, sixteen years earlier (when he was still a vigorous forty-two and only two years before the sudden and devastating death of his beloved wife Elodie) Belloc published The Four Men,2 wherein each of the four characters (personae) discussed “the worst thing in the world” (49).

One of the four composite and presented personae of Belloc himself –“Grizzlebeard” by namegives his own considered and deeply stunning response to that searching question. We thus propose to examine Grizzlebeard’s experienced presentation of his own elegiac view, amidst the resistantor even contradictoryreplies of the Other Three Personae: namely, the Poet and the Sailor and Myself.

Let us now closely follow Grizzlebeard’s reflections, after his first contradicting the shalloweven flippantprior words of both the Poet and the Sailor:

“You are neither of you right,” he said. “The worst thing in the world is the passing of human affection. No man who has lost a friend need fear death,” he said. (49—my emphasis added)

Now continues Grizzlebeard’s exposition:

Grizzlebeard (solemnly). “You [Sailor] talk lightly as though you were a younger man than you are. The thing of which I am speaking is the gradual weakening, and at last the severance, of human bonds. It has been said that no man can see God and live. Here is another saying for you, very near the same: No man can be alone and live. None, not even in old age.”….

Then Grizzlebeard went on:

When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside which is like the cold of space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly. Absolute dereliction is the death of the soul; and the end of living is a great love abandoned.” (50—my emphasis added)

After Myself’s proposed qualification about the healing of the soul, our elder then responds and properly differentiates the situation, if the wounded soul be also deprived of grace:

Grizzlebeard (still more solemnly). “All wounds heal in those who are condemned to live, but in the very process of healing they harden and forbid renewal. The thing is over and done.” (50—my emphasis added)

Myself then speaks about the loss of honour as being worse than the loss of friends, which thus prompts the older man again to reply:

Grizzlebeard. “Oh, no. For the one is a positive loss [of a friend], the other imaginary [the possible enduring loss of honour]. Moreover, men that lose their honour have their way out by any one of the avenues of death. Not so men who lose the affection of a creature’s eyes. Therein for them, I mean in death, is no solution: to escape from life is no escape from that loss [of a friend’s affectionate eyes]. Nor of the many who have sought in death relief from their affairs is there one (at least of those I can remember) who sought that relief on account of the loss of a human heart.”….

Grizzlebeard. “You are both of you [Poet and Sailor] talking like children. The passing of human affection is the worst thing in the world….But the decay of what is living in the heart, and that numbness supervening, and that last indifferenceoh! these are not to be compared for unhappiness with any other ill on this unhappy earth. And all day long and in every place, if you could survey the world from a height and look down into the hearts of men, you would see that frost stealing on.”(51-53—my emphasis added)

Perhaps analogously thinking of the traditional deadly vice of spiritual sloth (acedia)which was known as a special danger to the elderlyMyself asks Grizzlebeard: “Is this a thing [such cold indifference or congealed estrangement] that happens, Grizzlebeard, more notably to the old?” (53)

Grizzlebeard responds:

“No. The old are used to it. They know it, but it is not notable to them. It is notable on the approach of middle age. When the enthusiasms of youth have grown either stale or divergent, and when, in the infinite opportunities which time affords, there has been opportunity for differences between friend and friend, then does the evil appear. The early years of a man’s life do not commonly breed this accident. So convinced are we then, and of such energy in the pursuit of our goal, that if we must separate we part briskly, each certain that the other is guilty of a great wrong. The one man will have it that some criminal [as in France with the Captain Alfred Dreyfus Affair] is innocent, the other that an innocent man was falsely called a criminal. The one man loves a war [such as the Boer War], the other thinks it unjust and hates it (for all save the money-dealers think of war in terms of justice). Or the one man hits the other in the face. These are violent things. But it is when youth has ripened, and when the slow processes of life begin, that the danger or the certitude of this dreadful thing appears: I mean the passing of affection. For the mind has settled as the waters of a lake settle in the hills; it is full of its own convictions, it is secure in its philosophy; it will not mould or adapt itself to the changes of another. And, therefore, unless communion be closely maintained, affection decays. Now when it [human affection] has decayed, and when at last it has altogether passed, then comes the awful vision of which I have spoken, which is the worst thing in the world.” (53-54—my emphasis added)

After some rather shallow comments insouciantly, and much less gravely, made by the Poet and by the Sailor, Myself again has some additionally helpful words to offer:

“You Poet and you Sailor, you are both of you wrong there. The thing [“the passing of human affection”] has been touched upon [“by the great poets” (54)], though very charily, for it is not a matter for art. It just skims the surface of the return of Odysseus [to his home in Ithaca], and the poet Shakespeare has a song about it which you have doubtless heard….Moreover, a [Sussex] poet has written of the evil thing in this very County of Sussex, in these two lines:

“’The things I loved have all grown wearisome, The things that loved me are estranged or dead.’” (55-56—my emphasis added)

After hearing just one word from that poetic couplet, Grizzlebeard has a further insight:

“’Estranged’ is the word: I was looking for that word. Estrangement is the saddest thing in the world….The reason that the great poets have touched so little upon this thing is precisely because it is the worst thing in the world. It is the spur to no good deed, nor to any strong thinking, nor does it in any way emend the mind. Now the true poets, whether they will or no, are bound to emend the mind; they are constrained to concern themselves with noble things. But in this [estrangement] there is nothing noble. It has not even horror nor doom to enhance it; it is an end, and it is an end without fruition. It is an end which leaves no questions and no quest. It is an end without adventure, an end complete, a nothingness; and there is no matter for art in the mortal hunger of the soul.” (56-57—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc must have seen—and even tasted—the deep effects of this decay and passing of human affection. The evidence he must have beheld and wholeheartedly known in the lives of others, and maybe also in his own life.

Belloc knew himself, very sensitively,“the danger or the certitude of this dreadful thing” (54) of “the passing of human affection.” He also cherished good companionship and friendship and the warm and nourishing hospitality of inns.

If it be permitted to me to make a small concluding comment from my reading of Hilaire Belloc over many years—at least since 1971—I believe that Hilaire Belloc himself also came to be especially alert to the subtle danger of one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Acedia (Accidia)i.e., Spiritual Sloth.

Our beloved Belloc thus also feared and protected himself mightily against that subtle, sabotaging danger of a “heavy worldly sadness in the face of spiritual good”or, a growing “Tristitia de Bono Spirituali” in the discerning words of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Spiritual Sloth is also characterized by “a roaming unrest of spirit.” In other words, and in Saint Thomas’ compact but lucid Latin, spiritual sloth is marked by an uprooted (and also uprooting)evagatio mentis.”

Spiritual Sloth, we should note, is therefore much more than mere laziness or weariness or a growing sense of futility, although we may now also perceive the peril of the luring temptations of the sorrow and sadness coming from the decay and then “the passing of human affection.” That is to say, even from Hilaire Belloc’s own abiding sorrow at the 1914 Candlemas Death of his Wife, Elodie, and then the death of two of his three sons, Louis and Peter—one in World War I and the latter in World War II. What a burden of loyal sorrow in his long fidelity! And yet he preserved his font of joy and his cherished friendships, with his gratitude always.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publication, 2014), 130 pages.

2Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merill Company Publishers, 1912). All further page references to the book will be to this text and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay.

Hilaire Belloc’s Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (1928)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                29 June 2019

The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Hilaire Belloc’s Arrival Afoot in Rome (in 1901)

Epigraph

“’I have told you,’ he [Sir Robert Montgomery, Belinda’s father,] said, that ‘I know—I understand—the affections of youth….I married late: you have a father too much advanced in years for your opening life. Your mother, who is now a saint in Heaven, you never knew. But I myself, long before your age [now eighteen], had among my companions one to whom the deepest of human affections was far, far from unknown.’” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publication, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 First Edition), page 31—my emphasis added)

***

“Such, gentle reader, were the loves of Belinda and Horatio; tried as by fire, torn asunder, rejoined, they attained at last to wedded felicity under an ancestral roof, until, after the brief accidents of this our mortality, they were united forever in Paradise.” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age, page 130)

***

Over the last few weeks, my wife and I have eagerly attempted to introduce our daughter (11) once again to some unmistakably challenging examples of excellent literature: such as Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 historical novel of the early seventeenth century, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi). We are now gratefully reading that book aloud together—along with our young son (8)—especially some of the extended central passages of that eloquent and memorable novel—with my wife herself now expressively and adroitly doing the reading. We are doing this, in part, so as to prepare an excited Isabella for her own reading soon of the entire demanding 500-page novel, now from the beginning.

Moreover, I have also thought that Isabella would thereby then be ready to read another, but shorter (130-page), nineteenth-century historical novel of purity (with its frequently gracious and expressed affections, as well as with some passionate robustness and youthfulness and vividly “chivalrous daring”). That is to say, Hilaire Belloc’ own cherished 1928 novel, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age.1

Hilaire Belloc especially cherished this carefully constructed and nuanced romantic tale; a tale of protective and attentive affection and the fidelity of faithful memory. (He had slowly composed and refined his gradually forming novel for some five years, between 1923 and 1928, and only then did he consent to publish his completed text.)

Set in England and France, the resultant Tale of Affection now tells us, in large part, about a young man of twenty-three and a young woman of eighteen, two neighbors who, having a common boundary between their spacious properties, had once been childhood playmates. But this Horatio and Belinda have just discovered in their unexpected outdoor meeting something deeper and more enduring. Something that touches and soon profoundly affects their faithfully plighted hearts.

However, this developing bond and its likely fuller maturation unto marriage displeases several persons, some of them in Belinda’s own family (to include her father) and some of them truly vulnerable men and already in deep debt and deceitful suitors of Belinda, such as Sir Henry Portly of Molcombe Abbey (43) and his intrusively malicious litigious agent, such as sly Lawyer Fox of Bath.

Because of certain customary limitations and strict prohibitions made by Belinda’s father, Sir Robert Montgomery, which were to be applied while he is to be away from Wiltshire for two important weeks in London, Belinda and Horatio are thwarted. They are not permitted to be with each other, but they could only write letters to each other. However, and fatefully, these four actually written letters of deep affection were intentionally blocked from their delivery—because of the malicious interdiction of a complicit lonely spinster woman.

Leaving Belinda, Horatio first goes apart from home on horseback, thinking that Belinda herself has rejected him and his sincere love. He intends to go permanently abroad to the main continent of Europe (to France at first). However, as it turns out, Horatio shows, now as a wandering pauper in France, much more of his virtuous moral character. With “chivalrous daring,” he even rescues from a gang of robbers by night a distinguished noble French woman who originally had come from England many years ago. Because he had been wounded in the rescue, he was taken by the widowed Marquise to her nearby Château and it was proposed to him, quite firmly, to remain there himself until he had fully healed. (The widow’s name, we gradually discover, was Esmeralda de la Ferronnière and she had been in retirement since about 1824, the year of death of the French King, Louis XVIII, when her own husband, the Marquis, also died.)

Not long after Horatio’s nighttime escorted arrival at the Château, Sir Robert Montgomery himself, along with Belinda and their whole entourage, came to seek a rescue themselves, after one of their three carriages (especially a smaller chaise) broke down and gravely wounded their lead horse.

When Robert Montgomery heard from one of the servants the spoken name of the Marquise of the Château, he was stunned. Thus began many memories from his own youth and his germinating affections, as well. This helped him better understand Belinda’s own plighted heart and “long fidelity,” as well as her special sufferings recently (which was why her father decided to take her on a refreshing tour to continental Europe). Self-knowledge grew and was expressed—though sometimes with restraint—also to the once-beloved and still cherished Marquise de la Ferronnière herself, who had her own cherished memories of deep affection and Robert’s own “long fidelity” (116).

Most movingly, Horatio and Belinda met again and understood the belatedly revealed reasons for their earlier and painful misperceptions of each other, especially as to why their own very affectionate love-letters were not received and then reciprocated. The honorable character of Horatio grew in the eyes of Sir Robert and Esmeralda, as well as of Belinda—and that much-tested young couple was now at last permitted to marry there in France. Belinda and Horatio prepared for their wedding and soon were bound in sacred matrimony by Reverend John Atkins, their accompanying Anglican vicar and Belinda’s own tutor, especially in intimate matters of religion. Then would soon come the return to England of the whole extended company, to include Marquise Esmerelda herself, where she would dwell for long portions of the year. For, the two Wiltshire estates of Halston and Marsden would now “eventually unite in their common patronage the two livings” (129) and then invite a beloved friend and companion of long ago to dwell there, even permanently, but in a companionship of fittingly gracious, respectful purity and thus “without peril.” (125).

In an earlier passage, Belloc—or rather the Narrator—deftly reveals part of the novel’s fertile theme:

They err who pretend that the years, though they may obscure, can eliminate a primal passion. The soul is immortal. If once it suffer the imprint of that one emotion [love] which links time with eternity, the imperishable mark remains. The flood will return in full, unconquerable might, provoked by a tone, a scent, a glance, a name. This man [Sir Robert Montgomery], so far advanced in the business of living, already conscious of the grave, had suffered a resurrection from the dead. He had heard the name of Ferronnière…. He heard a voice, he rose and trembled, the great doors were ceremoniously opened, and the woman appeared. (114)

Let us also briefly try to present the comparable courtesy and purity of youth, now that we have hopefully been touched by the gracious conduct and sentiments of Sir Robert and his affectionate companion of long ago, Marquise Esmeralda. We shall introduce the unexpected meeting of Belinda and Horatio out of doors, each of them walking near or along a stream that forms part of the boundary between their own individual family estates. First, we consider Belloc’s presentation of the awakening and subsequent wandering walk afield of Belinda “close on noon” (13):

She woke, indeed, to the day and place, yet these were changed as though now infused with wonder….So, dreaming in full wakefulness, the girl…wandered under the high sun across the lawn…toward a dense wood of pines; there she proposed to rest awhile in the shade, and commune with a little brook which eddied clear under a plank thrown across its waters, and ran with a happy murmur to join the Avon near at hand. The stream formed part of the boundary…and…[she] turned her feet toward that spot….

Upon the farther bank, in the neighbouring park from which the stream divided her, a sandy slope…led up by a narrow path…to a great grove which hid the old and ruinous house of Halston beyond [i.e., Horatio’s home]. Thence, at the same hour, with high noon past, and the more powerful sun distilling every savour from grass and leaf and earth, Horatio sauntered out, bound no whither, filled with the power of summer which grew to harvest all around….The grove summoned him to its recesses; he received the influence of the great beeches and their shade as though the half darkness were alive. He came out into the further blinding light, and the sound of the stream below beckoned him insensibly down the path to the water between the wealths of fern.

She saw him as he came through the bracken, with active carriage, with uplifted face. It seemed to her that there was something there inspired; and her imagination put courage and adventure into his advance, as though he were setting out on a quest. He turned a corner of the path to cross the rustic bridge, and was aware of one [who is] scarcely known yet deeply known, whose airy figure among the solemn pines arrested all his being. When he had approached and discovered her face, it was not the familiar feature of a friend, but Radiance personate. In him, for her, [there] approached a god.

The moment was magical. It was as though some music had transformed the world….But in the heart of the high wood a Presence, shining in a shaft of light, triumphantly let fly the arrow from the bow. (13-16—my emphasis added)

To appreciate more fully the personal qualities and religious-philosophical orientation of Belloc’s chosen Narrator of this Tale of Affection, we may now consider the way he is presented to us at the outset, especially on the first two pages. We may thereby notice what is there, but also what is not there—such as the absence of the Catholic Faith and of a fair presentation of earlier Catholic History:

Within the [Anglican] parish, and adjoining the village, of Marlden, in a stately mansion known as The Towers, whose ample lawn sweeps down in smooth luxuriance to the pellucid waters of the Avon, resided a gentleman respected throughout the County of Wiltshire as Sir Robert Montgomery….

The baronet (for such was his rank) enjoyed the esteem of his equals, the respectful affection of his inferiors, and the devotion of an only daughter, an only child, upon whom her mother (long dead) had bestowed the pleasing name of Belinda.

That devotion of the widowed father repaid with a particular and careful attention, the dignity of which could hardly veil his deep, his doting fondness. No expense was spared in providing Belinda’s earliest years with a solid grounding in the rudiments of polite learning, while, as her girlhood blossomed into riper charms, a further selection of instructors drawn from both sexes perfected her in Italian, French, the art of painting in water-colours, every department of deportment, and the pianoforte.

Thus did Belinda Montgomery, as she entered her eighteenth year, unite every refinement of culture to beauty of an entrancing mould; a mind naturally apt and generous, trained to its fullest powers, informed a frame of surpassing grace, and the whole was inspired by a soul wherein had been firmly planted the precepts of our sublime religion. (1-2—my emphasis added)

We may now wonder about the meaning of the “our” in “our sublime religion.” (2) Who is it, for example, who largely conducted Belinda’s own formative religious education?

We shall fittingly now meet at least one of her teachers, “the Reverend John Atkins,” (2) who will also be the one who later marries Belinda and Horatio. But the Narrator presents now the matter of Belinda’s deeper religious formation:

To this last and awful matter the good vicar of the parish, the Reverend John Atkins, had applied himself with constant zeal. His living (of which Sir Robert was patron) did not so completely engross his time as to forbid him the hours required for the young lady’s spiritual education: nor were the emoluments of such a task ungrateful to one whose humble needs were but narrowly met by the tithe and glebe of the parish.

Under such guidance Belinda grasped in turn the nature and attributes of her Creator, the scheme of the Atonement, the promise of a blessed Heaven, the menace of a dreadful Hell, the original institution of Episcopacy; and the errors of Rome upon the one hand, of dissent upon the other. The Book of Common Prayer was her constant companion, and on the richly inlaid table of her private boudoir lay open, for daily consultation, the Holy Bible. (2—my emphasis added)

Near the end of Belloc’s presented Tale, we see not only some of the more comic elements in Reverend Atkins’ beliefs and words and professional conduct; but also some of his deeply warm affection and good-hearted sentimentalism:

In the room which had been set aside for the chapel of the [marriage] ceremony,… the household was assembled, the Reverend Mr. Atkins vested and prepared. He had required, he had demanded, he had obtained, a glass of port wine and a biscuit, which was his invariable custom to consume before a Celebration, in protest against the Romish novelties of certain [Anglican] colleagues. As, with practiced intonation, he recited the profound phrases of the Marriage Service, the Marquise, who had missed for so long the beautiful Liturgy of her youth, was deeply moved; while old Fanchette, the only French domestic not a Papist and, therefore, privileged to attend, was equally affected by the sacred scene, though, being ignorant of the English tongue (a Huguenot [Calvinist] from the Vaudois), she could do no more than reverently follow the rhythms of the sacred office.

Averse though he was to the extempore usage of the Caledonian Communion [the Scotttish, and perhaps Calvinist Rite?], Mr. Atkins did not forbear to add at the end of his ministration a short but heartfelt prayer of his own for the young people [Belinda and Horatio] who would eventually unite in their combined patronage the two livings of Halston and Marlden. Tears stood in the eyes of the good old man as he alluded with a native delicacy to the possibility of offspring. Himself a celibate,…the more pathetically did he extend both hands in benediction over the bowed heads of the kneeling couple, while his uplifted eyes sought Heaven in a prayer for their fruitful happiness. (129-130—my emphasis added)

CODA

The reader of this tale of affection and purity will also gratefully find many memorable displays of Hilaire Belloc’s capacious versatility and depictions of lapses of true and chivalrous nobility. For example: Sir Robert Montgomery’s unexpected outburst and eloquent diatribe against the perceived character of Horatio Maltravers and his lineage (25); the presentation on the debt bondage of certain gentry and the cold manipulations of the financial oligarchs (to include the looting of the monasteries, both historically and now) (41-46); Horatio’s hospitable welcome at an inn and the special gift of his horse, Crusader (66-71); the voyage by ship from Dover to France (71-72); the Marquise’s rescue (78).

In the presence of his daughter Belinda, Sir Robert Montgomery passionately rejected her own choice, demeaned her beloved, and had an astonishing outburst at last, full of Shakespearean invective:

“Horatio!” he thundered. “Horatio Maltravers? A beggar’s brat, disreputably dragged up by a hermit? A pauper? A young wastrel? An out-at-elbows fellow, a scrap and rag-bag, a rotten Oxford coxcomb all curls and debts, a miserable futility.” (25)

On high finance and debt bondage and desperate (often immoral) attempts to become unsnarled:

This lamentable situation [of progressive and often compound interest and resultant “debt bondage”] had risen from an action only too common upon the part of the gentry. Sir Henry’s father [Sir Orlando Portly] had the fatal imprudence to speculate on ‘Change [sic—the Financial Exchange]….

The rumor spread by Herr Amschel—later and better known as Baron de Rothschild—that the glory of Britain had set on the field of Waterloo [fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815], had led Sir Orlando…to sell…in the hope of reaping an immense profit when all should be acquainted with the fatal truth [the purported loss of victory]. He [Sir Orlando] had not allowed for the business acumen of the great banker. For Amschel-Rothschild had secretly procured the news of victory in advance of all, and had had the admirable foresight to spread accounts of defeat for the better preparation of the market.

It was upon these accounts that Sir Orlando [Portly] had [disastrously] speculated in London, confident in the ruin of our cause. (42-43—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Horatio’s necessary stopover at an inn in Dover, en route to France, because of the rough seas:

The landlord, standing at the door to welcome a guest [Horatio] whose distinguished bearing he had justly appreciated at his approach, bowed low to receive him, and asked him what service he might render.

“Let my horse [Crusader],” answered the gentleman dismounting, “be led to his stable, whither I will accompany the groom to see that all is in order: the saddle and its bags carefully lodged aside, the creature’s coat well rubbed down, a rug provided, and an ample feed of good oats—for a man’s first duty is to his mount. Next I will ask for a simple meal with a bottle of your best, and that disposed, I will beg a word with you.”….

“I would be brief. You have seen me accompany to his stall my best friend….Take, take I pray you, this steed of mine—the final object of my domestic affections—for I depart from England, and for ever! He is worthy of your acceptance….you will give him the home I desire….With you he will be secure from the sloth, the folly, the cruelty of bad horse-masters….I leave him in good hands. I ask no more….I go abroad for long, for long indeed. If you will harbour my gallant, my faithful Crusader, it is upon me that the boon is conferred.”

He was silent.

“Sir,” replied the host, in deep tones of ill-concealed emotion. “I shall keep him not as a gift, but as a trust, until I have the honour and pleasure of seeing your face again. (69-70—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s journey by ship to France in the heavy storm:

Within a few minutes [out of the protective have] the winds embraced her in full violence….The waves rose mountains high as the shore receded into the murk….The Captain (whose name was Beaver) affirmed, with rough sea-oaths, that in all his 317 crossings of the Channel he had never known so fearful a hurricane, and in the thickness of the flying scud the white sea-walls of England [of the cliffs of Dover] turned ghostly as though leagues away, (71-72—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s answer to a question the Marquise Esmerelda posed to him after he had rescued her from night-robbers in France, a question as to his “destination”:

“Destination,” he answered, “I have none. I am a wanderer, self-exiled from the home of my childhood. I seek but the next hostelry [inn], thence to continue through the world my trackless and lonely way.”

“Nay,” said she decidedly, in that clear voice to which its mere hint of a French habit added a subtle charm, “then our course is plain. You must accompany me to my Château, which is near at hand, and there remain till you are healed of your wound. I will take no denial. That you are a gentleman your idiom, your gait, your accoutrement assure me. That you are the bravest of the brave [especially with your openly “Chivalric Daring” (81)] (she concluded, with an assuring glance) you have yourself proved.” (78—my emphasis added)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1See Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 first edition). The first edition, as published in England in 1928, was published in London by Constable & Co. LTD. The American First Edition was published in New York and London by Harper & Brothers in 1929, and that edition additionally contains eight Illustrations. All future references, however, will be to the 2014 re-print text by Loreto Publications, and the references will placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

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.