|An illustration from 'The Old Road'|
Belloc I have long considered simply the best essayist in the English language. I am quite capable of saying the same of Chesterton. In any case, Chesterton is today clearly much better known than Belloc. These two men were great friends; they talked together over much of their respective lifetimes about the highest things and about everything, even about "nothing" as Belloc wrote in a famous essay. In having both their writings we are simply blessed. The opportunity to write something rather regularly on Belloc, as I have for many years on Chesterton in the Midwest Chesterton News, is something to which I distinctly look forward.
I have long grown skeptical of any idea that a thing is necessarily good because it is well-known. Many well-known things are quite bad. Some of the very best things, like, say, the Nicene Creed, are not very well-known even when they are well-known and to be recited every Sunday. We cannot think of Chesterton without in some sense thinking of Belloc. I have always found each in his own way to be a source of delight, wisdom, insight, truth, and, especially in the case of Belloc, of a certain poignancy, or nostalgia, that has constantly touched my soul whenever I came across it.
The reader of this column will find me talking about this poignant side of Belloc rather a lot. Belloc was a man who walked and sailed and remembered. This is not to be a scholarly column, nor a matter of historical insight into Belloc's time and writings. I gladly leave that task to others. The good reader will find here the Belloc that moved my soul, the Belloc that brought me to places and to things and to persons I would never have otherwise met or known about. Belloc was a man of this earth in the only way a man can be a man of this earth, by being unsettled in it and by it, especially by its beauty, by the memory of things past, even by the memory of things that might have been otherwise.
My book Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays (Ignatius Press, 1994) contains fifty-four chapters. Why? Because this is the number of essays in J. B. Morton's collection Selected Essays of Hilaire Belloc (Methuen, 1948). This wonderful book was actually being discarded from the library of a religious house in San Francisco in which I was living at the time. I retrieved it. The house's loss is definitely my gain.
The fifty-fourth and last essay in the Morton collection is entitled "On Dropping Anchor." The essay begins, "The best noise in all the world is the rattle of the anchor chain when one comes into harbour at last and lets it go over the bows." Now, I am not sailor enough to know this rattling sound, nor why it might be the "best noise in all the world", even though my last name, in German, means "noise" or sound, especially, as I like to think, the sound of a bell.
In sailing one does not always drop anchor, but rather picks up stationary moorings. This means that there is no anchor dropping. But this mooring situation is always precarious, as Belloc recounts in his trying to tie up the Silver Star at an empty mooring by the Royal Yacht Squadron grounds up the Medina. He had, however, tied up at a rich man's moorings. According to the custom of courtesy, Belloc recounts, one can "pick up any spare mooring one could find." The rich man, who appeared with his big yacht on the scene, did not think so. Belloc's moral reflection on this incident of the rich man denying his little boat common courtesy was memorable: "Riches, I thought then and I think still, corrupt the heart."
The next tangle with moorings happened to Belloc when he was sailing to Orford town over the bar of the Orford River. Belloc and his companion spotted a buoy and tied up to it, much to the objections of the people on shore. To his surprise, the mooring did not hold his boat. He could not figure out why until he realized that he had tied up to a temporary mooring set up for a rowing regatta, which was why the folks on shore were trying to shout at him not to tie up there. The incident so struck Belloc that he wrote an eighteen line poem about it. "The men that lived in Orford stood / Upon the shore to meet me...."
From this experience, Belloc concludes that it is better to have moorings of one's own, or else to use one's own anchor and hear the chains rattle. This situation of anchors and moorings sets Belloc to further reflection: "I love to consider a place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea." No wonder Morton chose this essay for the last essay in the Collection!
Belloc them proceeds to imagine such a place that he shall "reach at last." It shall be a cove surrounded by high hills with no houses or signs of men. There should be a little beach and a "breakwater made by God." The tide shall smoothly come in and out of the cove, like a "cup of refreshment and of quiet, a cup of ending." He shall guide his boat up the fairway into the channel and on into the cove that will be cut off from an opening to the sea. The sea he shall see no more, though he can still hear its noise. All around will be silence. "All alone in such a place, I shall let go the anchor chain, and let it rattle for the last time." He will let the anchor into the clear and salty water, maybe four lengths or more, so that the boat may swing at its anchor. Once secure, he will "tie up (his) canvas and fasten all for the night and get ready for sleep."
This will be the end of Belloc's sailings, in this lovely, imaginary cove, with the steep hills surrounding, the anchor chains finally rattling into the blue, salty water. "And that will be the end of my sailing." The Belloc who sails no more, of course, is the Belloc who has finally come home into his cove, who has finished with what delights and dreams this world has given to him in his Silver Star.
Let me repeat again these nostalgic, memorable words: "I love to consider a place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea." This is the human condition, isn't it? We live in a world that makes us love to consider a place we have not yet seen, a place that we shall reach at last. The "end" of Belloc's sailing is, after all, our end, isn't it?
From Generally Speaking, October, 1996.