Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1410
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 rendezvous at the British Museum, where “mother” and “son” would tour the galleries. Finally, Robins, having tired of Masefield’s filial pose and the maternal role imposed on her, called off the relationship.
After a period of desolation caused by Robins’s withdrawal, Masefield moved his family to an old manor house in the Berkshire hills. It was at this time that he wrote the long narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy, which established his fame as the premier poet of the Georgian period.
Masefield’s life as a literary country squire was disrupted by the start of World War I. Although he tried to enlist in the army, Masefield was not able to join a combat branch because of his poor medical record but was accepted for service in the British Red Cross, going to France in 1914 with the British Expeditionary Force. Later, in 1915, he was posted to the Dardanelles, where he participated in the debacle at Gallipoli. Because of his literary reputation, he was relieved of his duties as a field officer and sent by the Red Cross to promote the war effort with two lecture tours of the United States.
As the war ended, Masefield moved his residence again, settling at Boar’s Hill, near Oxford. His neighbors there included Gilbert Murray, Sir Arthur Evans, and Robert Bridges. Masefield became the landlord for a young war-poet, Robert Graves, to whom he leased a cottage on his property. Masefield also became a friend to Edmund Blunden, another war-scarred writer who was returning to Oxford to be a professor of poetry. The two young veterans saw Masefield as a mentor who, like them, was opposed to modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Edith Sitwell, and stood, like them, rooted in the native English tradition.
The postwar years were good ones for Masefield. He was the originator of annual verse recitals called the Oxford Recitations and devoted himself to writing plays again as well as history books about the war. He founded a local amateur theatrical company in 1919 that put on the plays of Euripides, William Shakespeare, and John Galsworthy. The Hill Players, as they were called, performed in a theater called the Music Room from 1922 until 1932, staging several experimental plays by young, unknown playwrights as well as some of Yeats’s later plays and Masefield’s own Tristan and Isolt and The Trial of Jesus. In effect, Masefield had created his own private theater, where he could try out his plays without worrying about commercial success. He could give young dramatists a vehicle for their plays and could cast his friends and family in the parts.
At the end of the decade, Masefield was named poet laureate, and in 1930, he moved from Boar’s Hill to Pinbury Park, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. There, Masefield lived in a grand house with great rows of oak trees, playing his part as a public figure with quiet dignity, but, as before, another world war disturbed his serene life.
Masefield once again offered his services to the nation and, during the dark days of the early war years, produced an inspiring story of the escape of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. Personal grief came to him in this war: His son Lewis was killed in action in the African desert while serving with the Royal Ambulance Corps. The aging Masefield never fully recovered from the heartbreak caused by his son’s death. In the years after the war, his life was given over to letter writing, by which he kept up a wide range of friendships, and to completing his sequence of autobiographical works. His official duties as poet laureate kept him occupied in cultural affairs, promoting the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and serving as president of the National Book League. In the autumn of 1959, his wife became ill, and she died in 1960 at the age of ninety-three. Masefield’s life became increasingly reclusive, but he continued to write. Among the works required by his office were poems on the deaths of T. S. Eliot and President John F. Kennedy, Jr. Indeed, Masefield’s energy as a writer seemed inexhaustible, and he produced his last book, In Glad Thanksgiving (1967), when he was eighty-eight years old. On May 12, 1967, he died and was cremated. His ashes were placed in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, though he had requested that they should be scattered in the winds and waters of his native downs.