The Poem

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“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 as a sailor. This “stately” (splendid, dignified, majestic) ship began its journey at the Isthmus of Panama, and it progresses with a vessel’s normal up-and-down motion (“dipping”) through the verdant and beautiful islands of the Caribbean. Its cargo contains precious stones (emeralds and diamonds), semiprecious stones, spices, and gold coins. (A “moidore” is a Portuguese coin; the word means literally “coin of gold.”)

In stanza 3 the British ship is neither so pretty as the previous two (it is “dirty”) nor so big. A coaster is a small ship designed chiefly to carry goods along a coastline rather than on the high seas. This coaster is propelled by a steam engine (it has a smokestack), and it moves through the English Channel with a force and motion that resemble an animal butting with its head. Part of its cargo are things to burn: wood for fireplaces and coal mined near Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the eastern coast of Britain. The rest is metal that has been processed or manufactured, perhaps in the British Midlands not far from Newcastle: metal rails with which to build railroad tracks, lead ingots or “pigs,” items of hardware made of iron, and “cheap tin trays.”

Forms and Devices

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Masefield’s poem is formally precise. Each stanza describes a ship in its historical era. Each ship is pictured in motion, and its cargo is then noted. In each stanza the first two and last lines are long, whereas the third and fourth are short; the second and fifth lines rhyme.

The rhythm of each stanza is very similar. Masefield seems to have abandoned usual English syllabic verse for accentual verse, which was being experimented with in his day. This poem is best read with strong accents, giving two beats to each short line and four beats to each long line. An extra half-accent may be given in the second and fifth lines of each stanza to words such as “white,” “green,” and “tin.”

Because “Cargoes” has no clauses, independent or dependent, it makes no statement, provisional or otherwise. Therefore it must depend for its effect on the associations and connotations of...

(This entire section contains 559 words.)

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the words Masefield has chosen. These effects differ significantly from stanza to stanza. Readers may not know that the details of stanza 1 describe Solomon’s lavish court at the time of the visit of the queen of Sheba. Even so, they will sense the exotic and sensual nature of this cargo. Ivory is lovely to touch; it and sandalwood come from far-off regions, even farther away than distant Ophir. Both sandalwood and cedarwood are pleasingly aromatic; white wine is sweet to taste; apes and peacocks may decorate opulent palaces in sun-drenched Palestine.

Even though a quinquireme had sails, Masefield describes only how it is rowed by human power. Other omissions are significant as well. The Bible says that Solomon possessed great quantities of gold and spices, but Masefield does not mention them. In this stanza Masefield distorts geography and history in order to heighten the poetic effect of his lines. Nineveh was a great distance from the Red Sea and flourished long before the era of quinquiremes. It would have been almost impossible for such a large ship to have navigated down the Tigris River from Nineveh. Moreover, quinquiremes were Roman warships, not cargo-carrying vessels. Masefield probably chose the word “Nineveh” mainly for its sound and rhythm and for its aura of importance.

Stanza 2 is almost as exotic as stanza 1 and even more opulent. Masefield may have omitted gold from stanza 1 because he wanted to save it for stanza 2. The emphasis here is on the riches of gold and gems, not on sensual pleasures. Yet these gems, the galleon, and the palm-green shores have a wonderful beauty that may exceed that of the ancient world.

Stanza 3 offers a stark contrast to the first two. The British coaster is in no way beautiful or exotic or wealthy. Instead of the lovely weather of Palestine and the Caribbean, Masefield now provides unpleasant “mad March” days. The seas that cake the smokestack with salt must be butted through with the help of a steam engine. The coaster’s cargo is similarly unexotic,—practical fuels and manufactured goods, some of them ugly.

Masefield varies his sound to suit his subject matter. The first two stanzas are euphonious and slow-moving. Stanza 3 is cacophonous and fairly quick to read; its accents are heavier and less subtle, and its consonants are harsh: “salt-caked smoke-stacks.” One reason “Cargoes” has been anthologized so often is that Masefield’s control of his language produces so much pleasure.