Maurice Baring’s Proposed Addition to The Romance (and Tragedy) of Tristan and Isolde

Dr. Robert Hickson

11 June 2021

Sacred Heart of Jesus

Saint Barnabas (d. 60)

Epigraphs:

September 19.—To-day I was on the beach with Tristram and he asked me [Isolde of Brittany] if I saw a ship. I said I did. He asked me if the sail was black, and as the doctor had told me to humour him, I said it was. Upon which he got much worse, and I had to call the doctors. They said he was suffering from hypertrophy of the sensory nerves.

September 20.—Tristram unconscious. The Queen of Cornwall [i.e., Isolde the Fair] just arrived [in Brittany and she had come on the ship with two colors of sail, after all]. Too busy to write.” (Maurice Baring, Lost Diaries (1913), page 20—my emphasis added—Chapter II—“From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany.”)

***

“Standing by the wall [listening to the candidly intimate conversation between her husband Tristan and already his close confident and friend, her own brother, Kaherdin], Isolde of the White Hands had overheard everything. How much she had loved Tristan! [She had just recently married Tristan and she was his legal wife.]…At last she learned of his love for another [Isolde the Fair of Cornwall]. She kept every word in mind: if only some day she could, how she would avenge herself on her [i.e., on Isolde the Fair of Cornwall] whom he loved most in the world. But she hid it all; and when the doors were open again she came to Tristan’s bed and served him with food as a lover should….but all day long she thought upon her vengeance.” (The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (1945 and 1950, pages 165-166—the Hilaire Belloc translation.)

***

“And Tristran trembled [both from his poisoned wound from a hostile spear in battle, together with his yearnings for his beloved soon to arrive from Cornwall, as he still hoped] and said: ‘Beautiful friend, you are sure that the ship is his [brother Kaherdin’s] indeed?’

“’I saw it plain and well. They have shaken it out [the sail] and hoisted it very high, for they have little wind. For its colour, why, it is black.’

“And Tristan turned him [himself] to the wall, and said [to his wife Isolde]: ‘I cannot keep this life of mine any longer.’ He said three times: ‘Isolde, my friend.’ And in saying it the fourth time, he died. ….Near Tristan, Iseult of the White Hands crouched, maddened at the evil she had done [her acts of vengeance], and calling and lamenting over the dead man [her husband]. The other Iseult [the Queen arrived just now from Cornwall] came in and said to her [Tristan’s wife]: ‘Lady, rise and let me come by him; I have more right to mourn him that you have—believe me. I loved him more.‘” (The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (1945, 1960), page 171-172—my emphasis added.)

***

On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, this brief essay will attempt to present Maurice Baring’s own ironic parody, entitled “From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany,”1 and thereby help us raise many worthy questions about the substance and tone and emotion and seeming omissions of Joseph Bédier’s larger and elaborate composite French text (a narrative poetic tale of some 170 prose pages)—and as largely translated into English by Hilaire Belloc.2 Maurice Baring’s freshly brief and intentionally incomplete excerpt also gives us an alternate version of the end of the romance and tragedy. The longer and variously important last chapter of this poetic “high tale of love and of death” (pages 162-173) presents to us a shuddering (and yet reflective) one-word title: “Death.” Then what?

By reading closely Maurice Baring’s nuanced (and characteristically magnanimous) ten-page literary parody, an attentive reader of The Romance of Tristan and Isolde will see and understand much more about the famous and unmistakably tragic medieval (largely Celtic) legend. And such a reader will also be better able to raise informed questions about what is not present and to be accounted for! There are loose ends in the longer romance, as well: for example, the virtuous character and conduct of King Mark of Cornwall and the Irish Mother’s consequential Irish Potion which she intended for her daughter and her vowed future husband!

Maurice Baring compactly imagines and depicts the reflections of young Isolde of Brittany as a docile daughter and harp-player who will soon be married to the unexpected visitor, Tristan of Lyoness. Baring presents the whole domestic atmosphere and increasing commentary of Isolde over five months from spring to early autumn:

May 1—Mamma sent me up a message early this morning that I was to put on my best white gown with my coral necklace, as guests were expected. She didn’t say who. Nurse was in a fuss….I can’t think why, as there was no hurry. I came down punctually at noon….I was told to get out my harp, and to sit with my back to the light….I was to play only Breton songs. I said I didn’t know any. She [Mamma] said that didn’t matter; but that I could say anything I knew and call it a Breton song. I said nothing, but I thought, and I still think, this was dishonest. (10-11—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After waiting “a long time” during which “Papa and mamma were fidgety,” (10) the seneschal, Morgan, announced the arrival Sir Tristan with his squire, Kurneval. Isolde’s first perceptive impressions of Tristan were expressed in her diary, as follows—about the man who will very soon now be her husband:

Rather an oldish man walked in, with a reddish beard, and many wrinkles. One of his front teeth was broken and the other was black. He was dressed in a coat of mail which was too tight for him. He had nice eyes and seemed rather embarrassed. (12)

Isolde innocently continues her candid descriptions:

Mamma and papa made a great fuss about him and brought me forward [in my white gown and with my cleansed white hands] and said: “This is our daughter Isolde,” and mamma whispered to me: “Show your hands.” I didn’t want to do this….

Sir Tristan bowed deeply, and seemed more and more embarrassed. After a long poise he said: “It’s a very fine day, isn’t it?”

Before I had time to answer, mamma broke in by saying: “Isolde has been up by six with the falconers.” This wasn’t true and I was surprised that mamma should be so forgetful. I hadn’t been out with the hawkers for weeks.

Then dinner was served. It lasted for hours I thought, and the conversation flagged terribly. Kurneval, Sir Tristan’s Squire, had twice of everything and drank more cider than was good for him. After dinner, mamma told me to fetch my harp. (12-13—italics in original; my bold emphasis added)

After Isolde complied with her mother’s request for her “to sing a Breton song,” Isolde admitted:

I was just going to say I didn’t know one, when she frowned at me so severely that I didn’t dare. So I sang a Provençal orchard song about waking up too early….Sir Tristan said: “Charming, charming, that’s German isn’t it; how well taught she is. I do like good singing.” Then he yawned, although he tried not to, and papa said he was sure Sir Tristan was tired, and he would take him to see the stables. Sir Tristan then became quite lively and said he would be delighted. (13-14—my emphasis added)

Sir Tristan, after then reliably learning her name, said to her papa as to his daughter’s name– “Isolde”–“Oh! What a pretty name!” (14)

Five days after the first entry of 1 May, Isolde of Brittany makes another entry in her diary:

May 6—They’ve [Tristan and his Squire Kurneval] been here a week now and I haven’t seen much of them; because Sir Tristan has been riding with papa nearly all day, and every day. But every day after dinner mamma makes me sing the Provençal song, and every time I sing it, Sir Tristan says: “Charming, charming, that’s German, isn’t it?” although I’ve already told him twice now that it isn’t. I like Sir Tristan, only he’s very silent, and after dinner he becomes sleepy directly, just like papa. (15—my emphasis added)

One day later, on 7 May, Isolde was suddenly told by her parents something unexpected:

Then mamma cried and papa tried to soothe her and said: “It’s all right, it’s all right, and then he blurted out that I was to marry Sir Tristan next Wednesday….Sir Tristan [on 8 May one day later!] has gone away—to stay with friends– he is coming back on Tuesday night [on 11 May, shortly before their marriage [on 12 May]….

May 12—. The wedding went off well….After Mass we had a long feast. (15-16—my emphasis added)

Now we come a little closer to conflict and confusion:

Tristan made a speech [at the marriage feast] and got into a muddle about my name [Isolde], and everyone was silent. Then he said I had beautiful hands [“Isolde of the White Hands”] and everybody cheered. After supper we were looking out on the sea, and just as Tristan was becoming talkative I noticed that he wore another ring, besides his wedding ring, a green one made of jasper. I said, “What a pretty ring! Who gave it you?” He said, “Oh, a friend,” and changed the subject. Then he said he was very tired and went away. (17—my emphasis added)

Tristan thus crudely left his marriage feast. Unasked, he just “went away” (17).

What kind of man, after all, is he now increasingly showing himself to be? (That is to say, especially in Maurice Baring’s ironic parody and subtle depiction here!)

In this context, Baring’s Isolde goes on to say, as follows, in her diary entry of 13 May:

In any case Tristan, who has been very gloomy ever since he’s been here, has got to go and fight in a tournament. He says he won’t be away long and that there’s no danger; not any more than crossing the sea in an open boat [such as the sailing from Cornwall to Brittany?], which I do think is dangerous. He starts tomorrow at dawn [14 May]. (17-18—italics in original; my bold emphasis added)

In her 17 May entry, she says: “Tristan was brought back on a litter in the middle of the night” (18) and she is “very anxious” (18). Moreover;

Papa and mamma arrive to-morrow with the doctor. Tristan insists on sleeping out of doors on the beach. The doctor says this is a patient’s whim and must be humoured. I’m sure it’s bad for him, as the nights are very cold. (18-19—my emphasis added)

Isolde added on 1 July that “The doctors say there is no fear of immediate change” (19), but over a month later—on 10 August—“Mamma says that the Queen of Cornwall (whose name is Isolde the same as mine) is coming for a few days, with her husband [King Mark of Cornwall] and some friends.” (19—my emphasis added)

Furthermore, mamma is reported to have said about this untimely and sudden visit:

I do think it’s very inconsiderate, considering how full the house is already; and Tristan being so ill—and insisting on sleeping on the beach—it makes it very difficult for everyone [as of 10 August]. (19—my emphasis added)

Isolde of Brittany, Tristan’s wife, wrote on 1 September in her diary: “Tristan is no better. He keeps on talking about a ship with a black sail.” (19—emphasis added)

Almost three weeks later (on 19 September), with the other Isolde of Cornwall not yet having arrived with her husband and warmly landed, Isolde of the White Hand wrote the following entry:

To-day I was on the beach with Tristan and he asked me if I saw a ship. I said I did. He asked me if the sail was black, and as the doctor told me to humour him, I said it was. Upon which he got much worse, and I had to call the doctors. They said he was suffering from hypertrophy of the sensory nerves. (20—my emphasis added)

One day later—on 20 September — the ship from Cornwall landed safely in Brittany after many dangerous and delaying storms (as some scholars have said, and have written, such as Joseph Bédier). Isolde of the White Hands has this brief and final entry on 20 September: “Tristan unconscious. The Queen of Cornwall [Isolde the Fair] just arrived. Too busy to write.” (20—my emphasis added)

The reader, it is hoped, will now also fittingly read and contrast and savor the tragic end of the famous tale in the longer poetic version in prose: the Bédier-Belloc version and translation. It would also help us appreciate more adequately the evocative tones and allusions and artfulness of our beloved Maurice Baring.

CODA

A Glimpse of the Other Isolde and of Her Husband, King Mark of Cornwall, as quoted from the end of The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (172-173):

And when she [Isolde of Cornwall] had turned to the east and prayed God, she moved the body [of Tristan] a little and lay down by the dead man, beside her friend. She kissed his mouth and his face, and clasped him closely; and so gave up her soul, and died beside him of grief for her lover.

When [the magnanimous and forgiving] King Mark heard of the death of these lovers, he crossed the sea and came into Brittany….And he took their beloved bodies away with him upon his ship to Tintagel, and by a chantry to the left and right of the apse he had their tombs built round….Thrice did the peasants cut it down [the growing, twining “green and leafy” briar], but thrice it grew again as flowered and as strong [“in the scent of its flowers”]. They told the marvel to King Mark, and he forbade them to cut the briar any more.

–FINIS–

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1Maurice Baring, Lost Diaries (London: Duckworth & CO., 1913), Chapter II: “From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany,” pages 10-20. The Diary covers the five-month interval from May 1 to September 20, but the year is not given nor otherwise specified. All future references will be to this text and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this short essay.

2The longer literary text that will occasionally be referred to or cited is: The Romance of Tristan and Iseult —as retold by Joseph Bédier and as translated from the French by Hilaire Belloc– (New York: The Heritage Press, 1960; and also the earlier published in 1945—with a copyright in 1945 by Pantheon Books, Inc., from whom permission has been obtained here. All further variant spellings of the name of ISEULT will be henceforth standardized, if possible, as ISOLDE. For example: The Romance of Tristan and Isolde—and both Isoldes will be so written, one of them being from Ireland and then Cornwall, and the other one being of Brittany. The Heritage Press format and text of 173 pages will also be placed in parentheses above, if needed for a convenient reference of comparison. Given the varieties of spellings in use, Tristan will also, when feasible, stand as a preferred spelling and replacement for Tristram.

On Hilaire Belloc and a Great Wind

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.

CODA

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.

–Finis–

© 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.”

Maurice Baring’s Multi-Faceted 1912 Travelogue: Round the World in Any Number of Days

Dr. Robert Hickson

9 September 2020

Saint Peter Claver, S.J. (d. 1654)

Epigraphs

“Shortly afterwards [on 21 June 1912], he started on his tour round the world [until October of 1912], the result of which was what seems to me one of the most enchanting, also one of the most unusual travel-books ever written: Round the World in Any Number of Days.” (Dame Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1938), page 42—my bold emphasis added.)

***

“In October of the same year (1912) The Times sent him to the Balkans, where war had broken out. I think this persistence of newspaper editors in using Baring as War Correspondent is impressive and creditable to both parties….One may conclude it was not only on account of his vivid narrative style, but also because of his enterprise and reliability, that he was once more sent to the seat of war by the foremost English Journal.” (Dame Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring (1938), pages 42-43—my bold emphasis added.)

***

“And I, for one, in any case, felt that come what might, I had had my dream. I had had a glimpse of Eden, a peep into the earthly paradise.” (Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1926), page 97—my emphasis added.)

***

It should be of worth to us yet today to see some of the nourishing perceptiveness and insights of Maurice Baring in his 1912 travel writings less than two years before the outbreak of World War I. Although Baring’s vivid and varied record of his five-month trip was first published in the United States in 1914, we shall now refer to, and often to quote, only from a later publisher’s unified and final 1926 English edition, which is still entitled: Round the World in Any Number of Days.1

From June to October 1912, Maurice Baring (1874-1945) first sailed east from England to Naples, Italy, on to India and Ceylon, then on to Australia and New Zealand, and briefly (but very movingly) through Roratonga and Papeete, Tahiti (mindful also of the beautiful Marquesas Archipelago) and onward to San Francisco, and then winding up by train coming down the Hudson River Coast into New York City (and Long Island), from which he sailed back to England, in order to begin his mission to the Balkans as a trusted War Correspondent.

After this brief introduction and partial summary, let us first consider how Baring concretely presents a fresh mango as it was recommended to him in Ceylon so as to alleviate the “damp heat that saps your very being” (38):

It is when you are dressed for dinner and you come down into the large high dining-room, full of electric fans, that you realize that it is impossible to be cool. It is an absorbing, annihilating damp heat that saps your very being.

The first thing to do is to eat a mango. Will it be as good as you are told it is? Yes, it is better. At first you think it is just an ordinary apricot and then you think it is a banana; no, fresher; a peach, a strawberry, and then a delicious, sharp, fresh, aromatic after-taste comes, slightly tinged with turpentine, but not bitter. Then you get all the tastes at once, and you know that the mango is like nothing else but its own incomparable self.

It has all these different tastes at once, simultaneously. In this it resembles the beatific vision as told of by St. Thomas Aquinas. The point of the beatific vision, says St. Thomas, is its infinite variety. (38—italics in the original)

Baring then immediately elaborates upon his unusual analogy of Beatitude’s “infinite variety” with the concurrent variety of tastes accessible to one who is savouring a fresh mango:

So that those who enjoy it [i.e., the vision of beatitude] have at the same time the feeling that they are looking at a perfect landscape, hearing the sweetest of music, bathing it a cold stream on a hot day, reaching the top of a mountain, galloping on grass on a horse that isn’t running away, floating over tree-tops, reading very good verse, eating toasted cheese, drinking a really good cocktail [or wine!]—and any other nice thing you can think of, all at once. The point, therefore, of the taste of the mango is its infinite variety. It was probably mangoes which grew in Eden on the Tree of Knowledge, only I expect they had a different kind of skin then, and were without that cumbersome and obstinate kernel which makes them so difficult to eat. (38-39—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Such a perceptive and extended passage on beatitude and a mango fruit is a representative instance of Baring’s multi-faceted and unusual pre-World War I travelogue. And there is more to come.

For example, Maurice Baring—the Russian scholar and linguist—then freshly mentions the reliable reports or realities of “ghosts at sea” and he modestly says:

But I have spoiled that story. I have merely told the bare facts; what you want is the whole thing: the dialogue, the details; the technical terms. Ghosts at sea are more frightening than ghosts on shore, but I think the worst of all ghosts are river ghosts or, for instance, the ghosts that haunt the rivers of Russia. They have green, watery eyes, hair made of weeds, and they laugh at you when they see you and then you go mad. This naiad ghost is called Russalka. I have never seen one or any other ghost either, but I have once in the company of a friend [Hilaire Belloc] heard a ghost sing. (47—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Baring at once adds a footnote to this passage in the 1926 edition, where he now more revealingly says: “Now that the age of reticence has gone his name [my friend] can be mentioned. It was H. Belloc.” (47—my emphasis added)

Throughout his Round the World, Maurice Baring mentions and quotes his friend Hilaire Belloc, as well as G.K. Chesterton, and even Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted, often witty, Lexicographer. For example, Baring says:

So that one wonders [at times] how it happens that any one goes to sea [and thereby also then has “the possibility of drowning”!]; and one is inclined almost to agree with Dr. Johnson’s opinions on the subject.

“A ship,” he said, “is worse than a gaol [jail]. There is in a gaol better air, better company, better conveniences of every kind, and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger [as in drowning!]. When men come to like a sea-life they are not fit to live on land.”

“Then,” said [James] Boswell, “it would be cruel in a father to breed his son to the see.”

It would be cruel,” said Johnson, “in a father who thinks as I do. Men go to sea before they know the unhappiness of that way of life; and when they come to know it, they cannot escape from it, because it is then too late to choose another profession, as, indeed, is generally the case with men when they have once engaged in any particular way of life.” (52—my emphasis added)

In view of these wholehearted and differentiated words, Baring soon again quotes Dr. Johnson who also sincerely said: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or not having been at sea.” (58)

Maurice Baring also shows his sincere admiration of the poet and scholar, Andrew Lang (59-61).

We thus propose to give only a selection of Baring’s thoughts. First of all, Baring gives us the context for his subsequent personal words about the Scottish poet, scholar, and translator, Andrew Lang himself, who had just died in July of 1912 (having been born in Scotland in 1844):

And yet it happens that many writers [like Belloc and Baring themselves!] write books on different subjects. Andrew Lang, for instance; at Fremantle [a port-city on the west coast of Australia] we heard the sad news of his death. Personally I knew him slightly and he had shown me much kindness. Also we had corresponded about a ghost story. I have literally fed on his books since I was fifteen. When a boy awakens to a love of literature and his enthusiasm for a number of authors is kindled to a white-hot pitch, he wishes to see that enthusiasm confirmed and justified in the writings of older men, and he turns to the critics. The critics pull his favourite poets to pieces, and sniff, and cavil, and patronize, and analyze, and damn with faint praise, and dissect, and blame, and make reservations, and deal out niggard approval. Nothing is so trying to the young as the jaded palate of elder critics. But in Andrew Lang’s criticism (so lightly and beautifully put, so unpedantic and so easy) the boy will find the enthusiasm he expects. (59—my emphasis added)

Baring then remembers other examples of Lang’s admirable qualities:

In a letter to me Andrew Lang once said he appreciated all the poets from Homer to Robert Bridges, with the exception of Byron. I’m sorry he didn’t like Byron. But I didn’t like Byron as a boy, and it was as a boy that Andrew Lang what I most needed, praise of my favourites—Shelley, Keats, William Morris, Dumas; of all the poets I had just discovered and the romantics in whom I was revelling, and of French verse into the bargain.

As a boy, when I began to read the critics, I found that they despised French verse, and I wondered. But Andrew Lang was my solace. He understood. He knew the language….You must be used to the sound of French to appreciate French verse….

Andrew Lang is an author who spent the large capital of his wit, his learning, his wide sympathies, royally and generously without stint; he was a master of English prose, and some of the best pages he ever wrote were flung into leaders in the Daily News….He had a fine and rare appreciation of the world’s good verse; he could write ghost stories, fairy tales, doggerel; he was a supreme dialectician, an amusing parodist, a prince of letter-writers, as well as a poet;—perhaps he was of all things a poet. The following translation [by Andrew Lang] of Rufinus’ lines to Rhodocleia, sending her a wreath, is a good example of his verse. He has turned an exquisite Greek poem into an exquisite English poem: [then the full poetic translation is actually provided on page 61]….

Practically I saw nothing of Australia, but I suppose there is no harm in writing these notes—the mere rough impressions of a fugitive traveller. (59-61—my bold emphasis added)

Such is Maurice Baring’s sincere forthrightness and his modesty.

In September of 1912, Baring was in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and we hear about someone he memorably met:

One of the most interesting people I have met here is a French lady of the highest culture and education, Soeur Marie Joseph, who is at the head of a Home of Compassion for derelict children. She went out to the Crimean War [1853-1856] under Florence Nightingale and looked after the wounded on the battlefield that knew nothings of anaesthetics. She told me that sometimes the doctors, after a day of surgical operations, would be drunk with the fumes of the blood. The wounded had to be tied down to be operated on, and sometimes, where this was not practicable, people had to sit on them.

Soeur Marie Joseph is very fond of New Zealand. She came out, attracted by what she heard of the [native] Maoris, and she knew the Maoris with an intimate thoroughness. She has a great admiration for them; and she gave me many instances of their chivalry and nobility of character….This morning at one of the Catholic churches here the priest preached a most interesting sermon….I have had a glimpse of New Zealand, such as no books and no pictures could give me, and I have consequently enriched my store of experience and extended the frontiers of my outlook. (85-86—my emphasis added)

In mid-September 1912, Baring arrived first in Roratonga en route to Tahiti, and noticed, among other distinctive qualities, that the Tonga natives spoke with special tones:

Their voices are in harmony with the liquid musical quality of their language, which consists of soft open vowels. It is, I suppose, the most melodious of all human languages….

I bathed in the sea, and then…I went on board once more. From Roratonga it only takes two days to get to the island of Tahiti [in French Polynesia], and the steamer anchored at Papeete [the capitol of French Polynesia] on Friday, September 20 [1912].

Roratonga gives you a kind of foretaste of the whole charm and beauty of the South Seas. It is the appetizer, …not the whole meal. Tahiti is the whole thing; the real thing, the thing that one has dreamt about all one’s life; the thing which made Stevenson [Robert Louis Stevenson] leave Europe for ever. All tellers of fairy tales, and all poets from Homer downwards, have always imagined the existence of certain Fortunate islands [“the Happy Isles”] which were so full of magic and charm that they turned man from his duty and from his tasks, labour, or occupation in which he was engaged, and held him a willing captive, who would not sell his captivity for all the prizes of the busy world. (90-91—my emphasis added)

After Baring’s further presentations of Tahiti’s allurements (or perilous temptations?), he says:

I cannot imagine anything more ideal than to possess a schooner fitted with a small motor in case of calm, and to cruise [under sail] about the waters between Tahiti and the Marquesas [the archipelago], which, one is told, are the most beautiful of all….They are things to be seen; they are places to be seen and lived in; not to be written about. The pen can give no idea of their charm….Loath as I was to go, at the end of twenty-four hours I felt it was a good thing that I was going, otherwise I should have been tempted to remain there for the rest of my life….

We left Tahiti in the afternoon, when the greater part of the population came down to the wharf to see us off. We left feeling like Ulysses [Odysseus] when he was driven by force (or by Penelope’s letters) from the island of Calypso. And I, for one, in any case, felt that come what might, I had had my dream. I had had a glimpse of Eden, a peep into the earthly paradise. (95-97—my emphasis added)

Before leaving these varied and inviting samples of Maurice Baring’s 1912 travelogue, I propose to present one scene from his brief time in San Francisco:

The next night I left San Francisco for Chicago. Before leaving San Francisco, I had a dinner at a restaurant called the “New Franks” [run by “a Dalmatian” with “a French cook or cooks”]. It is a small restaurant, and it provides the best food I have ever eaten anywhere….I was not hungry the night I went to the New Franks. I was not inclined to eat, but the sheer excellence of the cooking there excited my greed, and bade my appetite rise from the dead….And I had never tasted anything so good in my life [not even a mango!]….

The trouble about small restaurants, when they are excellent, is, that they become well known, and are then so largely patronized that they become large and ultimately bad.

Once I was walking in Normandy with a friend [perhaps Hilaire Belloc?], and we stopped in a very small town to have luncheon at an hotel. We asked if there was any wine. Yes, there was some wine, some Burgundy, some Beaune. We tried a bottle, and it surprised us. Surprise is, in fact, a mild word to describe the sharpness of our ecstasy.

“Is not this wine very good?” we asked of the host.

“Yes, sirs,” he answered, “it is very good. It is very old, but there is not much of it left.”

Now, my friend was a journalist, who writes about French towns and French wines in the English Press.

Whatever happens,” I said to him, “if you write about this town and about this wine, which I know you will do, you must not divulge the name of the town.”

He agreed. He wrote an article about the town, he grew lyric over the wine, and looted all the poets of the world from Homer downwards for epithets and comparisons fit for it. He did not mention the name of the place.

The year after he returned to the same place and ordered a bottle of the Burgundy. There was no more left. Some English gentlemen, the host told him, had come on purpose from England to finish it.

Now, I am sure some very intelligent man, and a man who was passionately fond of good wine, read the article and guessed, from the description, the whereabouts of the little French town and the precious liquid.

The moral of this is: “Don’t tell secrets in the newspapers; don’t even tell half a secret.”

The evening I left San Francisco I had a small adventure. I asked a man the way to some street. He told me the way, and then, catching hold of my arm, he said, “You will stand me a drink.”….Then he said, “I’m a bum….I’m a booze-fighter.” He added with engaging frankness that he was half drunk: an under-statement. (114-118—my emphasis added)

Such is the richness and variety of Maurice Baring’s writing, even his travel writing on the eve of the coming and soon spreading War.

God’s good foison” – “God’s good abundance”—is what the Catholic poet, John Dryden (d. 1700), once generously said of the earlier Catholic poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400).

Such an abundance also characterizes the writing and the heart of Maurice Baring, who, three years before his 1912 voyage, became a Roman Catholic. It was on 1 February 1909 that he was received into the Church, on the Vigil of Candlemas.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1 See, first of all, Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company—The Riverside Press Cambridge, October 1914), 248 pages. The final 1926 edition, with longer dedications added, is published, as follows: Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1926 ), pages v-xv, and 1-140. Illustrations are by Basil Blackwood; and Dedications are now to his close friend, Dame Ether Smyth, Doctor (and Composer) of Music; and to his valorous Companion in World War I, Major Bowman, D.S.O., M.C. Henceforth, all references to and quotations of Baring’s text will be to the 1926 edition, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay. We shall now accent a representative selection of Baring’s insights.

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.

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.