THE OTHER DAY as I was sailing down channel at dawn I contemplated a piece of rope (which was my only companion) and considered how many things attached to it, and of what sort these were.
I considered in the first place (as it has become my unhappy custom to do about most things) how mighty a theme this piece of rope would be for the modern rubbish, for the modern abandonment of common sense. I considered how many thousand people would, in connexion with that bit of rope, write that man had developed it through countless ages of upward striving from the first dim savage regions where some half-apelike creature first twisted grass, to the modern factory of Lord Ropemaker-in-chief, which adorns some Midland Hell today.
I considered how people made up history of that kind entirely out of their heads and how it sold by the wagon-load. I considered how the other inventions which I had seen arise with my own eyes had always come suddenly, with a burst, unexpectedly, from the oddest quarters. I considered how not even this glaring experience was of the least use in preventing fools from talking folly.
Next I considered, as I watched that bit of rope, the curious historical fact of anonymity. Someone first thought out the bowline knot. Who was it? He never left a record. It seems that he desired to leave none. There would appear to be only two kinds of men who care about leaving a record of themselves: artists and soldiers. Innumerable other creators since the world began are content, it would seem, with creation and despise fame. I have often wondered, for instance, who invented forming fours. I very much doubt his being a soldier. Certainly he was not a poet. If he had been a soldier he would not have let you forget him in a hurry—and as for poets, they are good for nothing and could no more invent a useful thing than fly.
Note you, that forming fours is something which must have been invented at one go. There is no "Development" about it. It is a simple, immediate and revolutionary trick. It was not—and then it was. Note you also that until the trick of forming fours was discovered, no conversion from line into column was possible, and therefore no quick handling of men. So with knots and so with splicing. There are, indeed, one or two knots that have names of men attached to them. There is Walker's knot, for instance. But Walker (if Walker it was who invented it) made no great effort to perpetuate his fame, and all the common useful knots without which civilization could not go on, and on which the State depends, were modestly given to mankind as a Christian man, now dead, used to give his charity without advertisement.
And this consideration of knots led me to another, which was of those things which had been done with ropes and which without ropes would never have happened. The sailing of the sea, the execution of countless innocent men, and now and then, by accident, of somebody who really deserved death. The tying up of bundles, which is the solid foundation of all trade; the lasso for the catching of beasts; the hobbling of horses; the strengthening of man through pulleys; the casting of bridges over chasms; the sending of great messages to beleaguered cities; the escapes of kings and heroes. All these would not have been but for ropes.
As I looked at the rope I further considered how strange it was that ropes had never been worshipped. Men have worshipped the wall, and the post, and the sun, and the house. They have worshipped their food and their drink. They have, you may say, ceremonially worshipped their clothes; they have worshipped their headgear especially, crowns, mitres, ta-ra-ras; and they have worshipped the music which they have created. But I never heard of anyone worshipping a rope. Nor have I ever heard of a rope being made a symbol. I can recollect but one case in which it appears in a coat-of-arms, and that is, I think, in the case of the County or City of Chester, where, as I seem to remember, the Chester knot is emblazoned. But no one used it that I can remember in the Crusades, when all coats-of-arms were developing. And this is odd, for they used every other conceivable thing—windmills, spurs, boots, roses, staffs, waves of the sea, the crescent moon, lions and leopards and even the elephant, and black men's heads, birds, horses, unicorns, griffons, jolly little dogs, chess boards, eagles—every conceivable thing human or imaginary they pressed into service; but no ropes.
One would have thought that the rope would have been a basis of measurement, but there are only two ways in which it comes in for so obvious a purpose, and one of these is lost. There was the old Norman wrap, which was vague enough, and there is the cable, the tenth of a sea mile. But the rope does not come into any other measurement; for you cannot count the knots on a log line as a form of measurement with ropes. The measurement itself is not drawn from the rope but from geographical degrees.
Further, I considered the rope (as it lay there) on its literary side. No one has written verses to ropes. There is one verse about ropes, or mainly about ropes in a chaunty, but I do not think there is any poem dedicated to ropes and dealing mainly with ropes. They are about the only thing upon which verse has not been accumulated—bad verse—for centuries.
Yet the rope has one very important place in literature which is not recognized. It is this: that ropes more than any other subject are, I think, a test of a man's power of exposition in prose. If you can describe clearly without a diagram the proper way of making this or that knot, then you are a master of the English tongue. You are not only a master—you are a sign, a portent, a new discoverer, an exception among your fellow men, a unique fellow. For no one yet in this world surely has attained to lucidity in this most difficult branch of all expression
I find over and over again in the passages of those special books which talk of ropes, such language as—"This is a very useful knot and is made as follows: a bight is taken in the standing apart and is then run over right handedly, that is with the sun or, again, the hands of a watch (only backward), and then under the running part and so through both times and hauled tight by the free end." But if any man should seek to save his life on a dark night in a sudden gust of wind by this description he would fail: he would drown.
Take the simplest of them. Take the Clove Hitch. Write a sentence in English which will explain (without a picture) how to cast a Clove Hitch. I do not think you will succeed.
Talking of this literary side of ropes, see how the rope has accumulated, like everything else, a vast army of technical terms, a whole regiment of words which are its family and of which it is very jealous. People who write of ropes are hardly able to keep off these words although they mean nothing to the reader and are but a darkening and a confusion. There is stranding and half-stranding and there is parcelling, serving and whipping, and crowning and all the rest of it.
How came such words there? Who thought them to the point? On what possible metaphors were they founded? In nearly all other groups of technical words you can trace the origin, but here you cannot. Nor can you find the origin of the names for all the hundred things that are made of ropes. Why is a gasket called a gasket? Why is a grommet called a grommet ? Why is a true lover's-knot called a true lover's-knot? or a tack a tack? Now and then there is a glimmering of sense. Halyard is obvious and sheet is explicable. Outhaul and downhaul might be Greek or German so plainly do they reveal their make-up. But what are you to make of bobstay, parrel, runner and shroud? Why are ratlines ratlines? What possible use could they be to a rat? They are no good for leaving a sinking ship, though excellent for running up out of the rising water. "Springs" I half understand, but whence in the name of Chelsea came "painter"? Reef points might pass. That is if you admit reef—which, I suppose, is the same as "reave" and "rove"—but, great heavens, where did they get "earrings"—and why do you "mouse" hooks, and what have cats to do with anchors?
A ship is a little world, a little universe, and it has a language of its own, which disdains the land and its reasons.
~Hilaire Belloc (1921)