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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Throughout his life Masefield delighted in describing ships and the sea, and the most obvious focus of “Cargoes” simply has to do with ships. Though a dirty coaster is not the sort of vessel to which he usually responded, this poem clearly shows the poet’s love of various kinds of ships. Masefield imagines these ships at their most attractive: in action, dipping and butting in both smooth and choppy seas. When Masefield contrasts three very different ships from three very different historical eras, he implies that the wonders of ships and the sea, despite some changes, remain constant. Because the poem contains no clauses and hence no statements, it is tempting to say that Masefield has produced a pretty anthology-piece with very little meaning. Yet the contrast of the poem’s stanzas yields a simple but effective view of history as well as a perspective on Masefield’s own age.

The ancient world is shown as sensual, given to exotic pleasures. Its boats are propelled by human power over modest distances. In contrast, the world of the sixteenth century is magnificent and heroic. Its wind-driven ships traverse vast oceans and bring cargoes that are beautiful and opulent: gems and gold that are worth a great deal. In both stanzas, the ships are bringing their wonderful things back home for the enjoyment of those who live there.

Regardless of whether Masefield literally believed in these readings of history, they serve as a backdrop for his view of contemporary life in stanza 3. Modern life is one of change. The dirty coaster is propelled by a steam engine, a comparatively recent machine that was supplanting time-honored sail power even as Masefield was serving as a sailor. This world is not a pleasant one. The coaster is not a pretty ship, and it is having a difficult time steaming in the choppy seas. Moreover, it is not bringing wonderful things back home to be enjoyed; it is taking a cargo of goods, many of them manufactured goods, away for delivery or sale at some unspecified port, perhaps elsewhere in Britain or across the English Channel in France. These goods are not sensual or beautiful but practical, commercial, utilitarian, and sometimes cheap: rails for railroads, hardware, tin trays.

Even so, this modern ship has an energy that Masefield finds admirable. The coaster suggests the side of British life that Masefield wishes to praise: not the elegant refinements of the Victorian aristocracy but the vigor of the common working people.