It’s difficult to know how to begin writing about Hilaire Belloc. He was such a versatile writer, traversing and transcending every genre. How does one encapsulate the scope of his achievement or the magnitude of his spirit in the space of a brief essay? It’s akin to trying to capture the immensity of the seas that he sailed in the finiteness of the flagons from which he imbibed.
Mindful, in fact, of his larger-than-life character, which is made manifest in his nickname of Old Thunder, and continuing with the metaphor, we might say that it is beyond anyone’s capability to put this particularly tempestuous storm of a personality into any mere teacup of an essay.
So be it. We shan’t endeavor to achieve the impossible. Instead, we’ll offer the briefest of overviews of his literary achievement, his oeuvre, and then we’ll look at the particular place in that oeuvre of one of his classic works, The Cruise of the “Nona,” just published in a splendid new edition by Peter Kwasniewski at Os Justi Press.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The reason that it’s difficult to say anything adequate about Belloc’s literary achievement is that he wrote on anything, everything, and even on nothing. His volume of published essays entitled On Nothing was published in 1908; On Everything was published in 1909; and On Anything and On Something in 1910. Finally, in 1923, taking the omnivorous theme to its reductionist extreme, he published a volume of essays entitled On.
It is appropriate and decorous that we should have commenced our overview of Belloc’s works with his volumes of essays because he is one of the finest essayists ever to grace the English language. He is also one of the finest poets. In poems such as “Ha’nacker Mill,” “Tarantella,” “The End of the Road,” and “Twelfth Night” he forges his place among the illustrissimi and eminenti of English poets.
As a Catholic apologist, in works such as The Great Heresies and Survivals and New Arrivals, he rivals his great friend G.K. Chesterton as a champion and defender of the Faith. In his works of history, especially those covering the period of Tudor and Stuart tyranny in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he exposes the lies and deception of what he calls the “enormous mountain of ignorant wickedness” that constituted “tom-fool Protestant history.”
If the foregoing illustrates that Belloc can be considered a jack of all trades and a master of many, he is, nonetheless, not the master of all that he surveyed. As a novelist, he seems almost tongue-tied, his Muse almost mute in works of fiction, stale and stolid, which wane in the presence of the waxing of the brilliance of his other works.
We will conclude this brief overview of the panoramic landscape of Belloc’s achievement with a genre of which he is a master and which he might be said to have made his own. This is the travel farrago.
In works such as The Path to Rome, The Four Men, and The Cruise of the “Nona,” he combines the literary form of the travelogue with that of the farrago, which is to say that these works are, at one and the same time, linear narratives connected to a journey, which are interwoven with a seemingly random dispersal of anecdotal thoughts and musings. They are animated by the tension between the forward momentum maintained by the author’s account of the journey and the inertial force of the tangential interruptions and digressions.
Whereas the literal linear narratives represent the horizontal dimension of these works, the digressionary musings signify the vertical movement of the contemplating soul toward the things of God. This combination constitutes a distinct literary genre, one in which Belloc excelled. Having experimented initially with what might be called the “travel-farrago” in the writing of The Path to Rome, he would return to it with great success in The Four Men and, finally, in The Cruise of the “Nona.”
As for the third and final of Belloc’s great travel-farragoes, published in this new edition by Os Justi Press, it differs from the earlier two books in that it is not a peripatetic perambulation but a nautical odyssey. Whereas The Path to Rome recounts the author’s musings as he trudges across Europe as a pilgrim, and whereas The Four Men charts the author’s ramblings, both rhetorical and peripatetic, as he crosses the county of Sussex, Belloc’s very own Shire, The Cruise of the “Nona” is set at sea, not on land, and is subject, therefore, to time and tide and to the timeless tidings that accompany man’s close encounter with the wide expanse of the deep.
And there is another aspect of The Cruise of the “Nona” which separates it from the two earlier books. The cruise itself, from Holyhead in Wales to Shoreham in Sussex, was undertaken by Belloc in May 1914, only three months after the tragic early death of his wife. It is, therefore, an older, sadder, newer, and wiser Belloc, one who has been crucified by grief, whose voice animates the pages of the book. It might be said that the cruise, undertaken so shortly after the most cataclysmic event in his life, had been not merely a voyage of self-discovery but very much a voyage of recovery. This is evident in the tribute he pays in The Cruise of the “Nona” to the healing power of the sea:
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. 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 shall return…. 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 mortal powers which brought us into being. It is not only the symbol of the mirror, but especially it is the messenger of the Divine.
Even those of us who have not sailed the seven seas, who are mere landlubbers, can experience the ocean as the symbol of the mirror, as something which shows us ourselves in the very depths of our being, and as something which is the messenger of the Divine. We can do so by standing on the shore and looking out over the waves to the distant horizon. We can do as the Catholic composer Michael Kurek did. We can express this marriage of the mind to mystery in verse:
At ocean’s edge,
Watching, silently expecting
Losing myself in it,
It becomes clear.
The sea is watching me.
It knows deep things about me,
Things no one could guess,
Not even I.
Michael Kurek uses these words as the inspiration for his musical tone poem “The Sea Knows.” In a similar vein, Belloc’s own mystic communion with the deep inspired his muse’s own tone poem, a poem in prose. Such is The Cruise of the “Nona.” It is a voyage to the very heart of things, which moves with the rhythm of the waves in synchronized harmony with the beating of the Sacred Heart, the Heart which heals suffering and sorrow through suffering and sorrow itself.
This essay is an adaptation of Joseph Pearce’s foreword to the new edition of The Cruise of the “Nona.”