John Masefield Poetry: British Analysis
John Masefield’s difficulties in life—his early poverty, ill health, and arduous labors—caused him to develop a reflective attitude toward the world. Although he is often thought of as a writer of rollicking sea and narrative poems, his poetry is usually concerned in some way with the tragedy of human life; it is seldom simply humorous. He seemed to value most highly his more formal philosophical poems, although his lighter pieces have been the most popular. Many of these poems seem simple because he chose to speak in the vernacular about common experiences. His own experiences, however, gave him great empathy with the downtrodden, and he deliberately chose to treat such matters, as he points out in “Consecration.” He will not speak of the great, he says, but of the lowly and scorned; and he ends the poem with a heartfelt “Amen.”
Masefield’s poems about the life of the common sailor are firmly rooted in the ballad tradition. He makes use of a dramatic speaker as he skillfully interweaves narrative and lyrical material. A number of such poems deal with death at sea; some treat the subject lightly, in a manner of a sea chantey, but the harsh realities underlie the touches of humor. In “The Turn of the Tide” and “Cape-Horn Gospel I,” the soul or ghost wants to continue working on the ship after death. Masefield’s most famous work, “Sea Fever,” is about these two realities, the harshness and the appeal of life at sea. The title suggests a disease; the sea can be a kind of addiction. Masefield’s refrain repeatedly emphasized that the speaker “must go down to the seas again,” while alliteration effectively evokes the rhythms of wheel and wind and sail. The speaker responds to a call; he has no choice in the matter. The life is like that of the vagrant gypsy, or, not so explicitly, like the gull’s and the whale’s. The life of the sea fascinates, but it is also lonely, gray, and painful. The middle stanza of the three, however, contains none of these negative images, suggesting that the very heart of the matter is the delight in the movement of the ship. In the last stanza, the wind no longer pleasantly makes the white clouds fly; it is as sharp as a “whetted knife.” From this life, the speaker, in the last two lines, desires two things: “quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.” The sea journey is suddenly the journey of life, with a final sleep at the end. According to the glossary that Masefield supplied for the Salt-Water Ballads, a trick is “the ordinary two-hour spell at the wheel or on the lookout,” but the “long trick” suddenly suggests the trip itself and life itself, for Masefield has transformed the realistic situation into a symbolic one with a single word.
“Cargoes” is a different type of sea poem, without a speaker or story line. Three ships are described briefly, each in one short stanza. Masefield here is an imagist presenting only the pictures, with no explicit connections between them and no commentary on them. The inclusion of the last freighter, the British coaster, seems ironic, since it is less attractive than the ships of the past; it is actually dirty and sails in less attractive seas. Including it may also seem ironic because of its cargo: such humble items as coal and tin trays. It can scarcely be compared with the quinquereme from Nineveh with its glamorous apes and ivory, or with the Spanish galleon with its jewels and gold; yet it is the modern representative of a tradition that goes back to the ancients. A third irony is that it actually exists, whereas the others are gone, though, of course, it too will become a thing of the past. Here, Masefield makes skillful use of meter and stanza form, the unusual number of spondees imparting a feeling of strength, reinforced by the periodic use of two short lines rather than a single long one. Masefield made light of objections that a ship from Nineveh was not plausible because Nineveh was two hundred miles inland. As Constance Babington Smith notes in John Masefield: A Life (1978), he responded to a question of an Eton boy: “I can only suggest that a Ninevean syndicate must have chartered the ship; even so it was odd.” The first line of the poem is musical in its repetition of sounds, including the n, short i, and v. It is not improbable that the poet chose Nineveh for its alliterative and evocative qualities.
As the modern freighter in “Cargoes” is less distinguished than its antecedents, the modern city in “London Town” is less pleasant than the country and the small town. Masefield is speaking in his own voice here, for in the last line he speaks of the land in which he was bred, and the countryside described is his homeland. The poet alternates stanzas in praise of London with stanzas in praise of the country, but all those in praise of London end with a defect or a deficiency, with a varied refrain in favor of leaving the place. In two of these stanzas, the deficiency is given in only a half line of contrast, as in the statement that the world is busy there, while the mind grows “crafty.” The alternate stanzas praise the countryside without reservation and are prefaced with a joyous song like “Then hey” or “So hey.” The poem is joyous in the delight of the poet in returning to the world of nature, but the criticism of the city is sobering. In the last stanza about London, it hardly matters that the tunes, books, and plays are excellent if “wretchedly fare the most there and merrily fare the few.” The city is a tragic place, for beneath its artifice there is misery and poverty. The irony is somewhat like that of Masefield’s long narrative poem Reynard the Fox, in...
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