John Masefield 1878-1967

“Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers
Riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years,
Rather the scorned, the rejected, the men hemmed in with the spears;

The men of the tattered battalion which fights till it dies,
Dazed with the dust of the battle, the din and the cries.
The men with the broken heads and the blood running into their eyes.

Not the be-medalled Commander, beloved of the throne,
Riding cock-horse to parade when the bugles are blown,
But the lads who carried the koppie and cannot be known.

Not the ruler for me, but the ranker, the tramp of the road,
The slave with the sack on his shoulders pricked on with a goad,
The man with too weighty a burden, too weary a load.

The sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout,
The chantyman bent at the halliards putting a tune to there shout,
The drowsy man at the wheel and the tired look-out.

Others may sing of the wine and the wealth and the mirth,
The portly presence of potentates goodly in girth;
Mine be the dirt and the dross, the dust and scum of the earth!”

Theirs be the music, the colour, the glory the gold;
Mine be a handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould.
Of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold-
Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales be told.” A Consecration

In this poem John Masefield describes himself in full and puts forth his purpose; his destiny in life - “the poet of the ordinary person” . Born in Ledbury, England (also home to Elizabeth Barrett Browning) . The town carries a lore of its own and was memorialized by Wordsworth in his sonnet St. Catherine of Ledbury:

When human touch, as monkish books attest,
Nor was applied nor could be, Ledbury bells
Broke forth in concert flung adown the dells,
And upward, high as Malvern's cloudy crest;
Sweet tones, and caught by a noble Lady blest
To rapture! Mabel listened at the side
Of her loved mistress: soon the music died,
And Catherine said, "Here I set up my rest."
Warned in a dream, the Wanderer long had sought
A home that by such miracle of sound
Must be revealed:--she heard it now, or felt
The deep, deep joy of a confiding thought;
And there, a saintly Anchoress, she dwelt
Till she exchanged for heaven that happy ground. Wordsworth

Much later Hilaire Belloc commented “take those little paradises…grow contented in a vision of Ledbury” the truest example of the trim, compact old English Town. Masefield had no endearing remarks for large cities wherever they are to be found. “Where country life was at its best and beauty of England at its bravest.” He wrote:

“Oh London Town’s a fine town, and London sights are rare,
And London ale is right ale, and br sk’s the London air,
And busily goes the world there, but crafty grows the mind,
And London Down of all towns I’m glad to leave behind.

Then hey for croft and hop-yard and hill, and field, and pond,
With Bredon Hill before me, and Malvern Hill beyond,
The hawthorn white I’ the hedgerow, and all the spring’s attire,
In the comely land of Teme and Lugg, and Clent, and Cleee, and Wyre.”

Masefield showed no interest in schoolwork or in continuing with formal education. In 1894, Masefield, now thirteen, left home (although some accounts say he was booted out), found his way to the nearest open port, joined the crew of the Gilcruix and sailed to Chile. His journal entries tell of his voyage: sightings of unusual sea animals and strange weather anomalies, Exciting as the voyage was the accompanying sea-sickness was distressful and after arriving in the port of Valaparaiso Masefield was hospitalized for sunstroke. Once recovered he booked passage on a steamship returning to London. He signed on again, this time the ship was destined for New York City. When he arrived in New York City he collected his pay and left the ship. In New York City he took rooms at the old Columbia Hotel and roamed the streets of Greenwich Avenue. When cash ran out he took work as a bar-tender and later, left there to work in a carpet factory in the Bronx. He was leading a life of hardship and hazard. He recorded very little of his daily life. During the time Masefield as a bar keep, he spent much of his free time reading Lory’s Morte D’Arthur the only book he owned at the time. For the two years he worked in the carpet factory he used his pay to purchase “up to 20 books a week”. Chaucer became his favorite. He was certain now that life of the sea was not what he wanted instead he would make his career as a writer “cacoethes scribendi”. For our purposes we follow the life of John Masefield in terms of three periods that reflect his personal growth as a writer: early (1902-1911), middle (1911-1917), and late (1919-1923).

He writes: “I did not begin to read poetry with passion and system until 1896. I was living then in Yonkers, New York at 8 Maple Street. Chaucer was the poet, and The Parliament of Fowls the poem of conversion. I read The Parliament all through one Sunday afternoon, with the feeling that I had been kept out of my inheritance and had suddenly entered upon it, and had found it a new worlds of wonder and delight. I had never realized, until then, what poetry could be. After that …I read many poets …and wrote many imitations of them.” He returned to England in 1897. Three years later after he had returned to England came the Salt Water Ballads. It was through poetry and prose where he melded the harshness of ordinary life with the spiritualness and purity underlying man. He became in thought and language not traditional, not Victorian, slightly Georgian, probably Modern but definitely Chaucerian.

His first major published work came in 1902 with Salt Water Ballads. Masefield was twenty-four. There were three hits in this collection: Sea-Fever (see Poems); The West Wind, and Cargoes. These are found in school collections a time and place for every child to know and love. As to Cargoes Marguerite Wilkinson of New Voices wrote: “One of the most beautiful modern poems made out of a symbol … cargo the only symbol used. But in terms of that symbol, and in three short stanzas, Mr. Masefield describes commerce in three great periods of the world’s history. And he contrives to give us a sense of the world’s growth in democracy without saying a word about it.”

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack,
Batting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-warte, and cheap tin trays.

The Manchester Guardian was his publisher and did much to expand his popularity and readership. Next he wrote a group of Ballads (1903) in crude sailor’s dialect, filled with brutality and violence. For reasons never made clear Masefield abandoned poetry and took to writing prose with A Mainsail Haul.

When it was finally republished for American readers in 1927, a reviewer for the Toronto Mail describes the story as “Roistering, reckless roques swagger in picturesque procession across the pages … Incorporated in these tales is everything of fear and fascination that men have found in the sea since the sailing of ships began.”

In 1908 Masefield’s first novel, Captain Margaret was published. It was not a great hit. The second, much better, was Multitude and Solitude in 1909. The first was a kind of romance; the second a strictly reflective work on love. Both were overshadowed by his first drama, The Tragedy of Nan in three acts.

It was the middle or second period of his life Masefield made a giant leap from poems of outcasts and ne’er do wells to those reflecting a higher social consciousness anchored in religion described by Masefield as “an old-fashioned Methodist conversion.” This was a period of long dramatic narrative poems beginning with The Everlasting Mercy (1911) which, when it appeared in the English Review October 1911, was a smashing success to the extent that the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature awarded him the Edmond de Polignac prize of five hundred dollars. It was his first work to be published in America. It was considered an iconoclastic but welcome break from the previous “spiritless poetry” which dominated the times. His second landing in New York City was quite different, now “newspaper reporters met him as his boat landed…Carnegie Hall was crowded to hear him read from his own poetry,” he was met with success and triumph from coast to coast.

His narrative poem The Widow in the Bye Street was another iconoclastic effort where the widow Gurney’s son is hanged for murder, causing her to go mad.. In 1912 Dauber (a true story); next The Daffodil Fields in 1913 ( a story of two men in love with the same woman) and best of all was Dauber, a true-to-life story in poetry, a “magnificent spiritual vision of life”. After this and other works were published in American as a collection, The Story of a Round House, his fame spanned both continents. When the World War I broke out he volunteered for a short period of time as a hospital orderly in a English hospital on French soil. His best and perhaps only patriotic work was Gallipoli, the sole purpose of which was to lift the spirits of the English people after the disaster and loss of the Dardanelles, a loss of thirty-eight thousand Englishmen. It begins:

“A little while ago, during a short visit to America, I was often questioned about the Dardanelles campaign. People asked my why that attempt had been made, why it had been made in that particular manner, why other courses had not been taken, why this had been done and that either neglected or forgotten, and whether a little more persistence, here or there, would not have given us the victory.
These questions were often followed by criticism of various kinds, some of it plainly suggested by our enemies…questions were repeated to me, in the town beyond… Later…I began to consider the Dardanelles Campaign, not as a tragedy, nor as a mistake, but as a great human effort, which came, more than once, very near to triumph, achieved the impossible many times, and failed, in the end, … That the effort failed is not against it; much that is most splendid in military history failed,…this failure is the second grand event of the war; the first was Belgium’s answer to the German ultimatum.”

The response covered the nine month battle in five chapters. His second work requested by British Military Intelligence concerned the battle of the Somme titled The Old Front Line which described the geography of the Somme battleground. He was invited to the United States to lecture on English Literature at both Yale and Harvard. He combined this with a bit of information collecting for the British government that they might elaborate to encourage a friendly mood among Americans about the War and their involvement. Masefield received Honorary Doctorates of Letters from both institutions. The praise and popularity was not endorsed by colleagues – at one point a Stephen Phillips publicly protested the awards “true standards of literature were endangered.”

In 1919 Reynard the Fox was published. This was a poem about a dramatic neck-to-neck steeplechase:

“Right Royal went past him, half an inch, half a head,
Half a neck, he awas leading, for an instant he led…”

Masefield’s “soul’s leap to God” was quite remarkable. In 1922 he offers two dramas, Esther and Berenice, which the New York Times reviews as “the interpretation through the medium of an alien tongue of the music [referring to the fact that these plays were based on Racine’s two tragedies] and ideals of one poet by another, we have that transformation which is the object but too often the despair of translation. The result is two great plays.” Followed by A King’s Daughter, a retelling of the story of Jezebel, Queen of Samaria; and The Pangs of Love, built around the biblical warning “sins of the father.”

In 1924 The Taking of Helen, a prose work, was published. Then in 1925 came a three act play, The Trial of Jesus. In this last or last period Masefield returned to the novel with Odtaa in 1926.

In 1921 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Oxford. In 1923 he organized the Oxford Recitations as a competition based on “to discover good speakers of verse and to encourage the beautiful speaking of poetry.” Although it was abandoned in England, the Poetry Association of Scotland still has an attachment called the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse.

One of his finest short poems is On Growing Old:

“Be with me Beauty for the fire is dying
My dog and I are old, two old for roving
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my hear. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your sea, I cannot wander
Your corn-land, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder.
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies,
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The breath of fire from the beauty of embers.

Beauty have pity! For the strong have power,
The rich their wealth, the beautiful their grace,
Summer of man is sunlight and its flower.
Springtime of man, all April in a face
Only, as in the jostling in the Strand,
Where the mob thrusts, or loiters, or is loud,
The beggar with the saucer in his hand
Asks only a penny from the passing crowd.
So, from this glittering world with all its fashion,
Its fire and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion,
Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch.
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.

Our first characteristic is specific in detail, realism.

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to have in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of irvory
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood cedarwood, and sweet white wine…” Cargoes (see Poems)

“A sloop lay high and dry, a hundred yards from the sea, her bows in the hedge of greenery which marked the limit of the forest, her stern in the shingle of the beach. She had been brought in by a tidal wave, and let down there…The wave which brought her in had uprooted the trees, and then sucked back, leaving her stranded…the sloop was a beauty of the world strong as a roving bull, and of a model like a swan…”
The Abandoned Sloop Masefield

“It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills,
And April’s in the West wind, and daffodils.” The West Wind

“From three long hours of gin and smokes,
And two girls’ breath and fifteen blokes,
A warmish night and windows shut
The room stank like a fox’s gut.
The heat, and smell, and drinking deep
Began to stun the gang to sleep.”

”Night is on the downland, on the lonely moorland,
On the hills where the wind goes over sheep-bitten turf,
Where the bent grass beats upon the unplowed poorland
And the pine-woods roar like the surf.”

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“No Russian novelist, nor a Dostoeveski, not another ever dared such realism as Masefield has given us in his picture of this night’s sin. He makes sin all that it is black and hideous.”

“There is something of Kipling’s drier, scientific realism in Masefield’s Cargoes…In so far as Masefield is a realist in the colloquial sense of dealing with the commonplace aspects of life, he has bee, from the start, a realist only in his rejection of formally poetic matter…later he was to use realism for spiritual ends” Gilbert Thomas

“Thinking of him (Dauber) after many years, he seems to me to be typical of the artist, who in every age will obey the laws of his being and speak his message, in spite of every disadvantage, and in contempt of death.” Masefield

“Personal experience of sea-faring life enabled him to supply reality of detail…” Thomas

“…he has always been a realist who believes in the inexorbale and just working of spiritual law -that central and eternal reality. But he became a realist, in the colloquial sense…” Thomas

“Masefield’s description in this book [Multitude and Solitude] of a tropical storm has been acclaimed as one of the most thrilling in all literature.” Markham

“…began to form images in my mind early in the morning of a fine day in May, 1911. I had risen very early and had gone out into the morning with a friend who had to ride to catch a train some miles away. On our way down a lane in the freshness and brightness of the dew we saw coming towards us, up a slope in a field close to us, a plough team of noble horses followed by the advancing breaking wave of red clay thrust aside by the share. The ploughman was like Piers Plowman or Chaucer’s ploughman, a staid, elderly, honest and most kindly man whom we had long known and respected. The beauty and nobility of this sight moved profoundly all day long.” Masefield ‘s background to The Everlasting Mercy.

Our second characteristic compassion, tragedies of life, social conscious .

“Each one could be a Jesus mild,
Each one has been a little child,
A little child with laughing look,
A lovely white unwritten book;
A book that God will take, my friend,
As each goes out at journey’s end.” Everlasting Mercy

“And he who gives a child a treat
Makes Joy-bells ring in Heaven’s street,
And he who gives a child a home
Builds palaces in Kingdom come…” Everlasting Mercy

“When the last sea is sailed and the last shallow charted,
When the last field is reaped and the last harvest stored,
When the last fire is out and the last guest departed
Grant the last prayer that I shall pray,
Be good to me, O Lord.” D’Avalos’ Prayer

“God dropped a spark down into everyone,
And if we find and fan it to a blaze,
It’ll spring up and glow, like the sun,
And light the wandering out of stony ways.” Widow in the Bye Street

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“the strength that walks in ways of quietness.”

“A depth of tenderness – of feeling for individuals and individuality.” Thomas

Faith that rises from “the praise of life of physical activity, adventure, a part of the Georgian reaction against artificial poetry of the 1890’s...” Thomas

“All of life is material for his seeing eye and his thinking heart as he makes the wonderful familiar and the familiar wonderful.” Markham

“Tragedy at its best is a vision of the heart of life. The heart of life can only be laid bare in the agony and exultation of dreadful acts. The vision of agony or spiritual contest pushed beyond the limits of the dying personality is exalting and cleansing. It is only by such vision that a multitude can be brought to the passionate knowledge of things exulting and eternal.” Masefield- Preface to The Tragedy of Nan

“In my poem I made him help a travelling circus, because I feel that the duty of Kingship is to encourage all the arts which add joy to life. In the circus, it seems to me that one finds all the elements of the noble arts, based as they must be, on physical development, a lively sense of life, and a kindling, compelling quality of personality. Circus artists are true artists. They live apart in hardship and anxiety in wonder to do the artist’s task, which is to awaken a sense of life in their fellows.” Masefield on King Cole

Our third characteristic is adoration of beauty in all things.

“No paradise of flowers,
No quiet triumph of perfected powers:
It lives in the attempt to make it ours.” On Beauty Masefield

“I think of the friends who are dead, who were deak long ago in the past,
Beautiful friends who are dead, though I know that death cannot last;
Friends with beautiful eyes that the dust has defiled,
Beautiful souls who were gentle when I was a child.” Twilight

“Of Beauty, all the wonder, all the power,
All the unearthly color, all the glow,
Here in the self which withers like a flower;
Here in the self which fades as hours pass,
And droops and dies and rots and is forgotten,
Here in the flesh, within the flesh, behind,
Swift in the blood and throbbing on the bone,
Beauty herself, the universal mind,
Eternal April wandering alone…” Sonnet

“Or does Beauty dwell in lovely things,
Scattering the holy hintings of her name
I women, in dear friends, in flowers, in springs,
In the Brook’s voice, for us to catch the same?
Or is it we who are beauty, we who ask,
We by whose gleams the world fulfills its task?” Sonnet

“Roses are beauty, but I never see
Those blood drops from the burning heart of June
Glowing like thought upon the living tree,
Without a pity that they die so soon,
Die into petals, like those roses old,…
Before the smile upon the Sphinx was cold,
Or sand had hid the Syrian and his arts.
O myriad dust of beauty that lies thick
Under our feet that not a single grain
But stirred and moved in beauty and was quick
For one brief moon and died nor lived again;
But when the moon rose lay upon the grass
Pasture to living beauty life that was.” Sonnet

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“…his poetry could touch to beauty the plain speech of everyday life.” Tennyson

“The poet of beauty in action…the poet of beauty of holiness”. Thomas

“See what spiritual beauty and joy these headstrong lovers are losing through their lack of moral restraint.” about The Daffodil Fields Masefield

“Plunged into the underworld, he looked for, and found, its redeeming flashes of beauty and human fellowship. That beauty and fellowship were intensified by the sordidness of their setting…”

“Mr. Masefield has accomplished with his pen what Dauber failed to do with his brush; the beauty of the ship the beauty of dawn and of midnight…unforgettable pictures.” Phelps

“It always seems to me a most moving thing that natural beauty, the running water, the coming of the flowers of the spring, and the singing of birds should go on year after year with so little apparent change and with so little apparent passion while men change and do themselves such wrong in the same scene and subject to the same season.” Masefield on The Daffodil Fields

Our fourth characteristic is drama and story telling, .

“And silence broods like spirit on the brae,
A glimmering moon begins, the moonlight runs
Over the grasses of the ancient way
Rutted this morning by the passing guns. August 14 – Philip the King

“Granted his greatest gifts; a night time came
When the two walking down the water learned
That life till then had only been a name;
Love had unsealed their spirits: they discerned.
Mutely, at moth time there, their spirits yearned.
"I shall be gone three years, dear soul," he said.
"Dear, will you wait for me?" "I will," replied the maid.
So troth was pledged between them. Keir received
Michael as Mary's suitor, feeling sure
That the lad's fortunes would be soon retrieved,
Having a woman's promise as a lure.
The three years' wait would teach them to endure.
He bade them love and prosper and be glad.
And fast the day drew near that was to take the lad.
Cowslips had come along the bubbling brook,
Cowslips and oxlips rare, and in the wood
The many-blossomed stalks of bluebells shook;
The outward beauty fed their mental mood.
Thought of the parting stabbed her as he wooed,
Walking the brook with her, and day by day,
The precious fortnight's grace dropped, wasted, slipped away.” The Daffodil Fields 1915

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“He is at his best when he has a story to tell, and can tell it freely in his own unhampered way, a combination of drama and narrative.” Phelps

“…searching words were beyond defeat. They went home to his already convicted heart and mind like arrows. They hurt. They cut. They awakened. They called, They pierced. They pounded with giant fists. They lashed like spiked whips. They burned like a soul on fire. They clamored, and they whispered like a mother’s love…” Masefield

“I shall never forget the torrid day in 1911 when I lanquidly picked up a blue covered copy of the English Review in a smoker-room, sank with it into a basket-chair, lit my pipe, leisurely opened the magazine, and got one of the shocks and surprises of my life…The room was sudden with horror… Oh! What blasphemy! What indecency!...Then dazed and unbelieving, one read the poem again and again…It began to dawn on us that here was one more of the world’s great, sudden original poems and one of the greatest religious poems ever born…vivid and powerful, …virile…lurid.” Markham of The Everlasting Mercy

“In his prose romances John Masefield has developed such a genre as never was on land or sea. Obscure fears one by one take form with the vividness, the swiftness, the continuity of a nightmare, the unseen fear in the forest, felt by horse and by rider, the fear of dead men coming back, of being locked up when fire is approaching, of being caught, all these fears shot through with the familiar dread of not getting to a place on time…So real in fact do the characters, the scenes, the republic itself become that they seem to bear witness against the author’s own signed statement that ‘the persons and events described in this story are imaginary’” reviewed by the Chicago Daily News.

Our fifth characteristic is humility, sincerity.

“Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth, not blest abode
But the hope, the burning hope, and the road, the lonely road,
Not for us are content, and quiet, and peace of mind
For we go seeking cities that we shall never find.” The Seekers

“The social states of human kinds
Are made by multitudes of minds,
And after multitudes of years
A little human growth appears
Worth having, even to the soul
Who sees most plain it’s not the whole. “ Everlasting Mercy

“Love is a flame to burn out human wills,
Love is a flame to set the will on fire,
Love is a flame to cheat men into mire.” Widow of Bye Street

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“It is not sophistication of mind, but simplicity of spirit…, which promotes vision and understanding…It is not intellect that triumphs in this world but a stupid, though righteous something; and that something can be perceived only by the quick and noble nature.” Masefield

“Masefield is the succession of the great English poets, from Chaucer and Shakespeare downwards, who have taken the whole full-blooded life of man for their domain.” Gilbert Thomas

“I desire to interpret life both by reflecting it as it appears and by portraying its outcome. Masefield

“He did not originate the doctrine that the poet should speak in a natural voice about natural things but brought it into the twentieth century and eased the way back to “the fountain-head of poetry-human nature…”

“There is in the Chaucer a naturalness, a lack of emphasis, a confidence that the object will not fail to make its own impression.”

“Unlike other poets and poet laureates Masefield shunned biographical information. When writers have applied to the poet for personal data they were refused and when unauthorized bios were published he disclaimed them. We know that his marriage was a successful one, the wife, a classics scholar, mathematician, and teacher was faithfully supportive throughout Masefield’s life. One critic described him: “John Masefield has an invincible picturesqueness that stamps him at once as different from his fellows. He is tall, straight, and blue-eyed with a complexion as clear as a child’s. His eyes are amazingly shy…his manner is shy. You feel his sensitiveness and you admire the dignity that is at once its outcome and protection” G.Cumberland

“The sincerity of purpose, solemnity of tone, and majesty of movement manifest in his writing is well in keeping with the subject he has chosen. The choruses which begin the play and end each acat are well calculated to raise the audience spiritually and place them in the proper mood for an acceptance of the divine origin and superhuman power of Christ.” Review of The Trial of Jesus

“There are many legends about Masefield he is the kind of figure that gives rise to legends and, as he is studiously reticent, some of the legends have persisted and have for many persons become true.” Sherman

We close our comments on John Masefield, the poet of the poor, with this verse published posthumously and addressed to Heirs, Administrators and Assigns:

“Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead.
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see.
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.”