John Edward Masefield was born on June 1, 1878, in the small town of Ledbury in rural Herefordshire, England; he was the son of George Edward and Carol Parker Masefield. Masefield’s father, a fairly successful solicitor, died at the age of forty-nine following a period of mental disorder that may have been caused by the death of Masefield’s mother, who died from complications following childbirth in 1885. Left an orphan when he was only six years old, Masefield was taken in by his aunt and uncle, who reared him in pleasant circumstances in a Victorian country house called The Priory. There, young Masefield learned to love the waters, woods, and flowers of Herefordshire, and from his aunt’s teaching he acquired a love for literature, particularly the narrative poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1888, Masefield was sent to the King’s School in Warwick as a boarding student. Homesick and unhappy at Warwick, Masefield ran away from school, and though he was to return, it was obvious that this experience with formal education was not to produce the desired results.
Masefield was allowed to join the merchant navy, leaving home at thirteen and enlisting as a midshipman; he was posted to the HMS Conway, a famous training ship. During his days as apprentice seaman, he took long voyages to South America and around Cape Horn, but the arduous life of a sailor was not to his liking, and he jumped ship in New York, giving up his berth as sixth officer on the White Star liner Adriatic. The young Masefield’s disgraceful behavior caused his uncle to disinherit him, and Masefield was forced to take whatever work he could find. For some time, he lived a nearly vagrant life in Greenwich Village, where he started to write poetry seriously. Masefield remained in New York for two years before returning to London in 1897, where he took a post as a bank clerk, a position he held for three years, during which time he started to publish some of his own verse and to meet some of the London literati, becoming acquainted with William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge, along with others whom he came to know during regular gatherings in Bloomsbury. Masefield’s first book of poems, Salt-Water Ballads, was published in 1902 and enjoyed immediate success, becoming popular with the public and critics alike.
Masefield met Constance Crommelin in 1903, and they were married the same year, when he was twenty-five years old and his bride was thirty-five. Despite the difference in their ages, the marriage seems to have been as happy as most. Masefield acquired a job as an editor and settled in Greenwich with his wife and baby daughter. In 1904, Masefield received an offer to write for the Manchester Guardian, but newspaper writing deflected him from his main interest at this period—writing plays. He managed to turn out a series of dramas, despite the demands of producing reviews and articles for the Manchester Guardian seven days a week. Although most of Masefield’s early dramatic writings were left unfinished or destroyed, he completed and produced his first play, The Campden Wonder , in 1907. In addition to writing six more plays in the years before World War I, he produced novels, stories, sketches, his first long verse narratives, and more ballads and poems, although he considered himself to be primarily a playwright. In 1910, about the time of the birth of his son Lewis, he become involved with Elizabeth Robins, an American actress and leader of the suffragettes. Although she was nearly fifty and he was only thirty-one, he became totally enamored of her. For her part, she accepted Masefield’s attentions with reservation, and their affair was conducted under the guise of an imaginary mother-son relationship, he calling her “mother” and she addressing him as her “little son.” Most of Masefield’s ardor went into his letters; he often wrote her as many as two a day. Their actual meetings were confined primarily to...
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