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.