The Quest (R17)

Pursuing my private intention to discover what it is in Hilaire Belloc that I love so much, I’ve read some of his minor novels and returned to the essays.

Apart from some supremely outstanding poems, his verse is negligible but the man is a poet through and through – a ‘maker’ of profoundly affecting prose which has the cadences of true poetry as can be brought out when you make it into the form of a bit of ‘free verse’ (a form which he would have derided in his single-mindedness), thus:-


but one sail & that was brown

loose with the peak dipped ready for hoisting
and he was busy at some work upon the floor
stowing & fitting his bundles –
as he worked he crooned gently to himself…

I hailed him in a low voice
for so much did the silence of that place
impress itself upon all living beings
who were strange to it: what would he do so early –
off fishing or taking parcels down the coast
for hire or goods to sell at some other port?

he said he was doing none of those things
and in a low and happy voice he said:
“I am off  to find what is beyond the sea;
I am out upon this sea northward
to where they say there is no further shore…”

he looked towards that horizon which
stood quite clean & clear between the pier-heads;
his eyes were full of the broad daylight
and he breathed the rising wind
as though it were a promise of new life
and of unexpected things

had he formed a plan? why he was setting out
from this small place…?

“…this is not my home –
I have come to it as you may have come to it
for the first time – I noticed certain shore marks
& signs which had been given me so that
I knew that I had come to the starting-place
of a long voyage: this is the harbour in the north
of which a Breton priest once told me
that I should reach it & when I had moored in it
and laid my stores on board in due order
I should set sail before morning and reach at last
a complete repose…

this voyage which I was born to make in the end
and to which my desire has driven me is towards
a place in which everything we have known
is forgotten except those things which
(as we knew them) reminded us of
an original joy; there I shall discover again
such full moments of content as I have known
and I shall preserve them unfading:
it is in some country beyond this sea;
it has a harbour like this harbour only set
towards the south just as this is towards the north;
but like this harbour it looks out over
an unknown sea and like this harbour
it enjoys a perpetual light;
of what the happy people
in this country are or of how they speak
no one has told me but they will receive me well
for I am of one kind with themselves…

as to how I shall know this harbour
I can tell you only that there is a range of hills
broken by a valley through which one sees
a further and higher range and steering for this hollow
in the hills one sees a tower out to sea upon a rock
and high up inland a white quarry on a hill-top;
and these two in line are the leading marks
by which one gets clear into the mouth of the river
and so to the wharves of the town – and there
I shall come off the sea for ever
and everyone will call me by my name…”

he let go the mooring knot
holding the end of the rope in his hand
and stood looking upward as the sail
slowly filled and pressed the tiller with his knee
paying out the mooring rope without turning round

I said: “You cannot make that harbour –
it is not of this world…”

just at that moment the breeze
caught the peak of his brown sail;
he dropped the tail of the rope which slipped
& splashed into the harbour slime;
his large boat heeled & shot up – he let her go
free & she ran clear away; he looked over his shoulder
& laughed cheerily greeting me with his eyes
and he waved his hand to me in the morning light

the sun rose the town awoke but I could not cease
from watching the brown sail       a smaller & smaller
point upon the sea ; it did not waver for an hour –
I caught it & lost it and caught it again
as it dwindled; for half another hour
I could not swear to it in the blaze;
before I had wearied he was gone

that ulterior shore
was the place we have been seeking
in every cruise and march – the place
we thought at last to see


(constructed from an essay ‘The Harbour in the North’
by Hilaire Belloc in The Hills and the Sea)


This I value of Hilaire Belloc – his vision is not really related to Roman Catholicism at all; it is an other-worldly one composed simply of hills & sea & a long ardent quest.

One thought on “The Quest (R17)

  1. The poem is beautiful – taken from Belloc’s writing, it explains everything about why you would feel so deeply connected.

    Thank you for sharing this with us Colin

    Liked by 1 person

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