John Edward Masefield was born June 1, 1878, in Ledbury, Herefordshire. His very early years were happy ones, although the children in the family spent their time with their nurse and saw little of their parents; they saw their mother only between teatime and bedtime at six o’clock. She died a few weeks after giving birth to a sixth child when John was six-and-a-half years old. Their grandparents died a year after their mother, and the family, in reduced circumstances, moved into the grandparents’ home. John occasionally visited his godmother, wrote his first poems when he was about ten, and went to boarding school. His father died at age forty-nine after suffering from mental disorders. Taking over as guardians, his aunt and uncle suggested that John be trained to go to sea in the merchant marine. Although he wanted to write or paint, he decided to pursue seafaring because the son of a governess whom he had liked enjoyed being a cadet on the school ship H.M.S. Conway.
Masefield joined that ship when he was thirteen and left it when he was sixteen, having learned a good deal of mathematics and navigation. He became an apprentice on a four-masted cargo barque sailing for Chile, which did not touch land for three months. During the voyage, he had some trouble with seasickness and experienced the fury of Cape Horn storms. He was released from service after he became seriously ill with sunstroke and a possible nervous breakdown. After a hospital stay in Valparaiso, he went home. His aunt nagged him into going to sea again; but he deserted ship in New York, causing his uncle to cut him off financially.
The seventeen-year-old Masefield could not find work in that depression year; thus, he and an acquaintance became vagrants, getting occasional work on farms and sleeping out, an experience that gave him great empathy for the down-and-out. After some months, he returned to New York City,...
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