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.

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.