The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Cargoes” is a short lyric poem consisting of three five-line stanzas. In each, Masefield describes a different kind of ship. The first two lines of each stanza describe the ship moving through water; the last three list the different cargoes the ships are carrying.

The ship in stanza 1 is a quinquireme, a large vessel rowed by groups of five oarsmen. Masefield’s ship is being rowed from “distant Ophir,” a region in either Arabia or Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea, to the northern end of that sea. (Masefield must have intended the term “Palestine” to apply to the land at the farthest reach of the present Gulf of Aqaba.) The ship’s goal is a happy one, for Palestine is a safe “haven” with sunny skies. This boat carries a cargo of animals, birds, exotic woods, and wine.

Masefield found many of his details in the Old Testament. Nineveh, an important Assyrian city, is often mentioned there. Many of the details of this stanza—ivory, apes, peacocks, and cedars—come from 1 Kings 10. That chapter also mentions drinking vessels, though not the wine in them, and “almug trees,” which may be the same as sandalwood trees.

In stanza 3, the poem moves ahead about two thousand years to the sixteenth or seventeenth century and changes its focus to the West Indies. A galleon was a large sailing ship often used in trade between Spain and Latin America, a part of the world Masefield himself knew well from his days...

(The entire section is 449 words.)