Author’s Note, 5 May 2021 (Feast of Pope Pius V (d. 1572)): This reflection on Hilaire Belloc’s 1911 essay about sailing and the wind, and about how they become a special symbol for his life, and for the life of others, was first written some 8 years ago, in 2013. This Belloc essay captures so much of his abiding spirit and his hopes, and this not long before he would have the shock of suddenly losing both his wife Elodie (on 2 February, 1914) and his eldest son Louis, who was an aviator and who died in World War I with his body never to have been found.
Dr. Robert Hickson
11 February 2013
Our Lady of Lourdes
When Hilaire Belloc was a vigorous forty years of age, and three years before his life was shaken and shattered by the death of his wife Elodie on Candlemas 1914, he wrote an intimately evocative essay, entitled “On a Great Wind.” This brief and vivid piece—characteristically combining concrete intimacy and sacred mystery in his inimitably poetic “sacramental prose”—leads us also to the contemplation of God’s Natural Creation and to man’s resourceful uses and appreciations of the wind, especially with his manifest sense of beauty in the use of the sail upon the seas.
“On a Great Wind” was first published in 1911 in his collection of essays entitled, First and Last.1 For those who have read Belloc’s comparably beautiful essays, “The Missioner” and “The Mowing of a Field,”2 will also respond with grateful wonder at his resonant versatility in the presentation of fundamental components of human life, and the things of moment to man.
Belloc makes us at once receptive and attentive by how he begins his reflection on the Wind:
It is an old dispute among men, or rather a dispute as old as mankind, whether Will be a cause of things or no….The intelligent process whereby I know that Will not seems but is, and can alone be truly and ultimately a cause, is fed with stuff and strengthens sacramentally as it were, whenever I meet, and am made a companion, of a great wind. (285)
Belloc’s companion and beloved friend, G.K. Chesterton, also touches upon this profound matter, and shows his uniquely “reverential memory” and pietas when he later wrote: “Will made the world; Will wounded the world; the same divine Will gave to the world for the second time its chance; the same human Will can for the last time make its choice.”3
Cheerfully guarding himself against the imputation of Pantheism, Belloc goes on to say:
It is not that this lively creature of God [namely, the Wind] is indeed perfected with a soul; this it would be superstition to believe….but in its vagary of way, in the largeness of its apparent freedom, in its rush of purpose, it seems to mirror the action of a mighty spirit. (285)
Then our Belloc gets more specific and illustrative, as he did later in his great book, The Cruise of the Nona (1925). (We also see him sailing as a boy in his little sailboat!)
When a great wind comes roaring over the eastern flats towards the North Sea, driving over the Fens and the Wringland, it is like something of this island that must go out and wrestle with the water, or play with it in a game or battle; and when upon the western shores [e.g., of Cornwall], the clouds come bowling up from the horizon, messengers, outriders, or comrades of a gale, it is something of the sea determined to possess the land. The rising and falling of such power, such hesitations, its renewed violence, its fatigue and final repose—all these are symbols of a mind; but more than all the rest, its exultation! It is the shouting and hurrahing of the wind that suits a man. (285-286)
Then with a poignant note about friendship as well as companionship, Belloc takes us to consider deeper analogies and proportions:
Note you, we have not many friends. The older we grow and the better we can sift mankind, the fewer friends we count, though man lives by friendship. But a great wind is every man’s friend, and its strength is the strength of good-fellowship; and even doing battle with it is something worthy and well chosen. (286)
With some conditional sentences and sharp contrasts, Belloc leads us to the threshold of enlargement and maybe also of fear:
If there is cruelty in the sea, and terror in high places, and malice lurking in profound darkness, there is no one of these qualities in the wind, but only power. Here is strength too full for such negations as cruelty, as malice, or as fear; and that strength in a solemn manner proves and tests health in our souls. (286—my emphasis added)
Then, he will try to explain himself a little:
For with terror (of the sort I mean—terror of the abyss or panic at remembered pain, and in general, a losing grip of the succours of the mind), and with malice, and with cruelty, and with all the forms of that Evil which lies in wait for men, there is the savour of disease…..We were not made for them, but rather for influences large and soundly poised; we are not subject to them but to other powers that can always enliven and relieve. It is health in us, I say, to be full of heartiness and of the joy of the world, and of whether we have such health our comfort in a great wind is a good test indeed. (286-287—my emphasis added)
As is to be expected, he supports his contention with vivid specificities:
No man spends his days upon the mountains when the wind is out, riding against it [on horseback] or pushing forward on foot through the gale, but at the end of his day feels that he has had a great host about him. It is as though he had experienced armies. The days of high winds are days of innumerable sounds, innumerable in variation of tone and intensity, playing upon and awakening innumerable powers in man. And the days of high wind are days in which a physical compulsion has been about us and we have met pressures and blows, resisted and turned them; it enlivens us with the simulacrum of war by which [in manly self-defense] nations live, and in the just pursuit of which men in companionship are at their noblest. (287—my emphasis added)
In his consideration of traditional and rooted things, Belloc considers the objections and pretensions of progressive innovators, especially in the new technologies:
It is pretended…that certain pursuits congenial to man will be lost to him under the new necessities; thus men sometimes talk foolishly of horses being no longer ridden, houses no longer built of wholesome wood and stone, but of metal; meat no longer roasted, but only baked; and even stomachs grown too weak for wine. There is a fashion [as of 1911] of saying these things, and much other nastiness. Such talk is (thank God!) mere folly. For man will always at last tend to his end, which is happiness [or “beatitude,” as he also often added], and he will remember to do all those things which serve that end, and especially the using of the wind with sails. (287-288—my emphasis added)
For the remainder of his essay, he will take us to the sea and to the sails in the wind, and his words are instinct and resonant with reality, as all of those who have sailed will immediately and gratefully recognize. Here is the salt of reality with the savor of goodness:
No man has known the wind by any of its names who has not sailed his own boat and felt life in the tiller. Then it is that a man has most to do with the wind, plays with it, coaxes or refuses it, is wary of it all along; yields when he must yield, but comes up and pits himself against its violence, trains it, harnesses it, calls it if it fails him, denounces it if it tries to be too strong, and in every manner conceivable handles this glorious playmate. (288)
Can we not see young Hilaire Belloc sailing his little “cranky” dinghy off the Sussex coast, and hear him singing, too, his festive sea chanties? Then he becomes more sternly protective of the true art and plenitude of sailing:
As for those who say men did but use the wind as an instrument for crossing the sea, and that sails were mere machines to them, either they have never sailed or they were quite unworthy of sailing. It is not an accident that the tall ships [like the Eagle, the U.S. Coast Guard barque and current training vessel for the cadets] of every age of varying fashions so arrested human sight and seemed so splendid. The whole of man went into their creation, and they expressed him very well; his cunning, and his mastery, and his adventurous heart. For the wind is in nothing more capitally our friend than in this, that it has been, since men were men, their ally in the seeking of the unknown and in their divine thirst for travel which, in its several aspects—pilgrimage, conquest, discovery, and, in general, enlargement—is one prime way whereby man fills himself with being. (288-289—my emphasis added)
Once again, our beloved Belloc takes us back in history, and imagines what it was like in the early Spring for those whom he has often, less affectionately, called “the Scandinavian pirates”:
I love to think of those Norwegian men who set out eagerly before the north-east wind when it came down from their mountains in the month of March like a god of great stature to impel them to the West.4 They pushed their Long Keels out upon the rollers [i.e., rolling logs], grinding the shingle of the beach at the fjord-head. They ran down the calm shallows, they breasted and they met the open sea. Then for days they drove under this master of theirs and high friend [“the wind called Eager”], having the wind for a sort of captain, and looking always out to the sea line to find what they could find. It was the springtime; and men feel the spring upon the sea even more surely than they feel it upon the land. They were men whose eyes, pale with the foam, watched for a landfall, and that unmistakable good sight which the wind brings us to, the cloud that does not change and that comes after the long emptiness of sea days like a vision after the sameness of our common lives. To them the land they discovered was wholly new. (289-290—my emphasis added)
We can feel the empathetic Belloc indentifying with these Nordic sailors, and with their quickening and their enlargement. Then he surprises us with a concluding reflection and an evocation of his own childhood, as he invites us to an enticing and accessible adventure still:
We have no cause to regret the youth of the world, if indeed the world were ever young. When we imagine in our cities that the wind no longer calls us to such things, it is only our reading that blinds us, and the picture of satiety [or comfortable complacency] which our reading breeds is wholly false. Any man today may go out and take his pleasure with the wind upon the high seas. He also will make his [enlarging] landfalls to-day, or in a thousand years; and the sight is always the same, and the appetite for such discoveries is wholly satisfied even though he be only sailing, as I have sailed, over seas that he has known from childhood, and come upon an island far away, mapped and well known, and visited for the hundredth time. (290—my emphasis added).
Once, during a deep theological discussion with Father John A. Hardon, S.J. about “the Analogy of Being” and “Analogical Predication,” he memorably and succinctly suddenly said to me: “The highest function of Nature is to provide Analogies for the Supernatural Mysteries,” so as to lead us to “the Beatific Vision” where “Beatitude” means that “we shall be made happy by God.” Similarly, but now in Josef Pieper’s own earlier-related words, Hilaire Belloc’s vividly presented sense of refreshment and adventure and enlargement will thus help us en route in “learning how to see again.” And perhaps recognizing what we then see, as if for the first time, and yet more deeply.
O how much, even in this brief essay, the great-souled Belloc can teach us, and especially the young. To include those who, like Belloc himself, aspire, sub Gratia, to Spiritual Childhood.
Near the end of his deeply meditative and very great maritime narrative of adventure, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), Hilaire Belloc will modestly reveal to us even a little more of his heart:
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 [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 toward the place of her repose. ‘And now good-by to thee, /Thou well-beloved sea,’ as John Phillimore [his friend, a Classics Professor] 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 the 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 [a “bona mors”]. There, on the sea, is a man nearest to his own making, and in communion with that from which he came, and to which he will 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, uponthe greatest scale we mortals can bear, those not mortal powers which brought us into being. It is not only the symbol or the mirror, but especially is the messenger of the Divine.
There, sailing the sea, we play every part of life: control, direction, effort, fate; and there we can 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 the twin faces of reality: greatness and certitude; greatness stretched almost to the edge of infinity (greatness in extent, greatness in changes not to be numbered), and the certitude of a level remaining forever and standing upon the deeps. The sea has taken me to herself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and wastes of the land; for [as Homer once also said in The Iliad, and cherished by Belloc] of all the creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. [And its consoling, restorative waters, as with the waters of Our Lady of Lourdes, also make Sacramental Baptism in Grace now even more accessible for the receptive and the resolute.] May it [this Sacramental Mystery, a vivid Mysterium] be to others what it has been to me.5
May Hilaire Belloc also be for others—especially for the young—what, for so many years, he has been to me.
© 2013 Robert D. Hickson
© 2021 Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, First and Last (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1912—the second edition; first published in 1911), pp. 285-290.
2These essays are to be found, respectively, in On Everything (1909) and in Hills and the Sea (1906), “The Missioner” in the former collection, and “The Mowing of a Field” in the latter collection of Belloc’s varied essays.
3G.K. Chesterton, The Common Man (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950), p. 236—in his essay, entitled “The Outline of Liberty,” pp. 233-237. The ironic “apologetic” sentence immediately following the above quotation is also characteristic of our Chesterton: “That [i.e., that world-view or conviction] is the real outstanding peculiarity, or eccentricity, of the peculiar sect called Roman Catholicism.” (p. 236)
4In his essay, “The Missioner,” Belloc even gives the Norse name for the wind, which was actually called “Eager”! About that gifted Christian missioner to Norway who is also called “the Flute Player,” Belloc wrote: “In this way the oath was done [i.e., the promise to return the Missioner to his Homeland unmolested]. So they took the Flute Player for three days over the sea before the wind called Eager, which is the north-east wind, and blows from the beginning of the open season; they took him at the beginning of his fourth year since his coming among them, and they landed him in a little boat in a seaport of the Franks [and, once again,“in the vineyard lands”], on Roman land [in Normandy]….The Faith went over the world as a very light seed goes upon the wind, and no one knows the drift on which it blew; it came to one place and to another, and to each in a different way. It came, not to many men, but always to one heart, till all men had hold of it.” See the last page of “The Missioner, pp. 261-269, in Hilaire Belloc, On Everything (London: Methuen & Company, 1909), p. 269—my emphasis added.
5Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925), pp. 328-329—the last two pages of the book, which was dedicated to his beloved friend, Maurice Baring—my emphasis added. Belloc also shows again his deep-hearted friendship and “reverential memory” when he composes an additional inscription to his long-time sailing companion, and places it at the very beginning of his adventurous narrative: “To the Memory of Philip Kershaw My Brave and Constant Companion upon the Sea: But Now He Will Sail No More.”