John Masefield Masefield, John - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Masefield, John 1878–1967

Masefield was an English poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, critic, and children's book author. He was often drawn to the sea as a theme for his poetry, and it is perhaps for the poem "Sea Fever" that he is best remembered. Masefield was awarded the Order of Merit in 1935 and was named Poet Laureate of England in 1930. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

L. A. G. Strong

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Masefield was a copious writer, and one of the most uneven whom our time can show. His official position as Poet Laureate stimulated him to produce, conscientiously and dutifully, a number of morceaux, the poetic equivalent of journalism, works of which the chief interest was the occasion that evoked them. (p. 5)

The more closely one comes to consider any aspect of Masefield's work, the more deeply does one realize that the man is, essentially and all the time, a poet. Even at their flattest and most dutiful, the worst of the occasional pieces have style and technical polish. They are well groomed. (p. 6)

Love and knowledge of the English countryside were innate. The sea and seafaring folk had been stamped upon the impressionable years of his adolescence. He had learned to fend for himself, and to observe people who worked hard for their living by earning his own amongst them: and, at the right time, the right reading had come his way in a book store, and the future Laureate had drunk of a pure English spring of inspiration, in a country which isolated him, and so increased its power. Strongest of all, his youth gave him a life-long and passionate sympathy with the under-dog, the unprivileged, the victim, the man or woman or child (or animal) who is ''ard done by'. (p. 7)

[Masefield's] masterpiece, Reynard the Fox, [is] the finest English narrative poem of the century, and one of the finest in our language. Here was what the poet had been born to achieve. Here was a subject and a setting which gave him...

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Fraser Drew

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Masefield's] chief dedication is to what he feels is the English spirit and to the interpretation to the world of that spirit, the land and the heritage from which it springs, and the men and words and deeds that it inspires. (p. 15)

From Salt-Water Ballads (1902) to Grace Before Ploughing (1966), there is frequent evidence of [Masefield's] interest in the early years of Britain. In several poems he combines historical reminiscence with his favorite theme of the persistence of human influence in those places where human existence has been especially violent or tragic or beautiful. (p. 22)

In his retelling of the tales of Tristan and of Arthur, Masefield does not follow Malory or any other Arthurian storyteller completely. He even adds new details, new motives, new characterizations of his own, borrowing and inventing freely in the medieval tradition. (p. 27)

Although he shows corruption in medieval government in a manner that constantly suggests modern parallels, Masefield's picture of Arthurian Britain and its people is generally a stirring and attractive one. (p. 30)

Much of Masefield's work, particularly the two early collections of short stories and several later books of verse, shows evidence of his interest in folklore as well as in his nation's history and her heroic legends. (p. 34)

In the second part of [the poem] "August, 1914," Masefield turns to a theme that has a particular fascination for him, a theme that recurs frequently in his poetry and his prose, the concept of immortality "near the men and things we love," of the persistence of the beautiful and the good near the original scene of that beauty and that goodness, a place "inestimably dear." (p. 51)

[The] interest in the old English past, which led eventually to the novel, Badon Parchments (1947), and to the many Arthurian poems, runs through the Lollingdon Downs volume (1917) with the concomitant themes of mutability and the persistent influence of the human spirit upon the land. (p. 52)

Masefield's knowledge of the landscape and the land is intimate and reveals itself over and over again in his poetry and in the descriptive passages of his novels and essays. One need look only at the last pages of The Everlasting Mercy (1911) or at Reynard the Fox (1919) or The Country Scene (1937) to find striking evidence of this detailed and sympathetic knowledge. (p. 56)

In [the novel] The Street of Today, the countryside near Pudsey and Drowcester creates an idyllic background for the courtship of Lionel and Rhoda and initiates some philosophical digressions on the part of the novelist. Masefield writes much more convincingly about the English April than about the love affair of the chief characters, who are stilted, unreal figures with strange conversations and marionette-like behavior. Often only the descriptive passages redeem the book from dullness. (p. 59)

[It is evident that Masefield] makes little use of the English landscape in his prose narratives. His most successful attempts at fiction, Sard Harker and The Bird of Dawning, have employed either the sea or a foreign locale.

An examination of the narrative poetry of Masefield yields a far different conclusion. Of the major narrative poems, only Enslaved (1920) and Rosas (1918) have exotic backgrounds, one African, one Argentine, while Dauber, a sea poem, has one long English episode in flashback. The other six are completely English, except for one Argentine sequence in The Daffodil Fields, and many of the shorter narratives have English settings. (p. 60)

[The role of the English landscape] never assumes the proportions of that of Egdon Heath and the Wessex country of Thomas Hardy, but it is often more than a pleasant backdrop for the action of the narrative. At times the land, its weather, and its plant and animal life reflect and intensify the moods of the characters in the poems;… the landscape is often in contrast to the action, as Masefield employs his favorite device of the juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty, or of the contrast of peace in nature, tumult in man. (p. 61)

["The Love Gift" and "Tristan's Singing"] do not have the reality of the descriptions in the earlier narrative poems. They have a tapestry-like quality, like the pictures in a Chaucerian dream-vision, and the figures of Nature and her attendant creatures have beauty and color, but not life. (p. 72)

Of the long verse narratives by Masefield, the quietest and most serene is King Cole (1921). It is as free from the rush and excitement of Reynard the Fox and Right Royal as it is from the danger and violence of Rosas and Enslaved, the pathos of Dauber and The Widow...

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