John Masefield

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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

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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 full scope for all his powers. Here was a conflict, inevitable, rising from the very nature of things, with a deferred happy ending which satisfied both sides alike, the weary hunted fox escaping the hunters whose urge to destroy him was sublimated in admiration for the gallant dance he led them. In this poem every characteristic, every mannerism is subdued to a single aim. The inspiration flames throughout. (p. 21)

Reynard the Fox is a magical poem, the more magical because the poet's eyes are all the time fixed upon the earth and upon its creatures. Masefield's note of mysticism has never been more strongly and deeply sounded than in this extroverted poem of a typical English activity in a typically English countryside. (p. 25)

It will come as no surprise to the reader that Masefield has written magnificently for children. His peculiar blend of zest and gravity, of relish and intense concentration, together with his love of the technicalities of any craft, make an ideal equipment for a children's writer. The Midnight Folk, and its sequel, The Box of Delights, or, When the Wolves were Running, are among the most sure-footed and robust books for children ever written. Above all their other qualities, they have magic. (pp. 29-30)

The score, then, for John Masefield, his contribution to the life and literature of his time, is one supreme long narrative poem, wholly English, which no one but he could have written: two or three other long poems, original in matter...

(This entire section contains 649 words.)

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and manner, which brought violent gusts of energy to the polite, faintly countrified air of poetry in their day: a handful of short pieces which have passed into current thought: a just, spare, and impassioned commentary upon England's greatest writer: two chronicles of high achievement which match their theme: and other books, poems and plays lit with flashes of intense but intermittent light. He has never written meanly, coldly, or carelessly. He has sided always with the weak against the strong. The right things have moved him, whether to anger or joy. Sensitive, gentle, and brave, he has found his mainspring in love of life and compassion for all that live it. (pp. 34-5)

L.A.G. Strong, in his John Masefield (© L.A.G. Strong, 1964; Longman Group Ltd., for The British Council). British Council, 1964.

Fraser Drew

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[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 in the Bye Street, and the mixture of beauty and brutality that characterizes The Everlasting Mercy and The Daffodil Fields. The realism of King Cole is softened and sweetened by an extraordinary atmosphere of fairyland, which pervades the whole poem….

The English countryside is here, but it is touched with the supernatural and shines with the spirit. This is no photograph in black and white or in colors, nor yet is it the tapestry of landscape to be found in some of the minor narratives; this is water color, painted by a versatile artist who may be at his very best in this medium….

Among the most appealing lines in the poem are those which catalogue the English flowers and list the birds and butterflies and creatures of the forest that follow the piping of the spirit-King. Masefield's poetry is thronged with descriptions of animals and flowers and with similes that employ them, attesting to his love for all life. (p. 73)

Masefield is aware of English weather and season and is sensitive to every change and token. He praises midsummer nights, autumn, and winter snow, but most of all he loves April. A concordance to Masefield's poetry would reveal April as one of his favorite words. Not only does he describe springtime beauty and joy, but he uses April as a symbol for all that is fresh and lovely and bright. (p. 75)

At times [Masefield's] characters fail miserably, as individuals and even as types, and he is particularly inept in his portrayal of women. He does show great skill at other times in his presentation of the men he knows best—the English sailor and the English countryman.

A survey of Masefield's fiction and narrative poetry reveals that his favorite characters are countrymen, sailors, and sportsmen. (p. 78)

In the first poem of Salt-Water Ballads (1902), Masefield pledges himself to the common man, the man "with too weighty a burden, too weary a load."…

Many writers have issued credos and manifestos early in their careers and have lived to abandon their beliefs. Masefield is true throughout his life to the men he promises to serve in "A Consecration." Though he writes about the man with "too weary a load" and "the scorned—the rejected," he does not belong to "the literary school which has sprung up from our awakened social conscience." Like Chaucer, he describes and narrates, but, still like Chaucer, he does not moralize or preach. (p. 96)

Often the Masefield hero is the man who achieves spiritual triumph even in physical defeat…. The theme of defeat and failure haunts much of Masefield's work from The Tragedy of Pompey the Great (1910) through the early narrative poems, Good Friday (1916), and Gallipoli (1916), and recurs in ODTAA (1926) and other later work…. The great Masefield quest is for Beauty, Understanding, Truth, and it exacts from the artist the ultimate in courage and sacrifice. (pp. 97-8)

One of Masefield's most notable achievements is the book Gallipoli, prose epic of the heroic and ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of World War I. It is a detailed picture of the campaign, an explanation of the reasons for its failure, and a supreme tribute to the courage of the English soldier and his Anzac ally. It is a beautifully written and moving account of a great victory cloaked in outward failure, and it is perhaps the poet's finest study of Englishmen who become "a story for ever." In Gallipoli, as in "August, 1914," Masefield's love for his countrymen reaches its most eloquent expression. (pp. 98-9)

It is a commonplace to refer to John Masefield as the sea poet or the sailor's laureate; yet only the reader familiar with the great body of Masefield's poetry and prose can realize the extent to which the sea, the ship, and the sailor have dominated Masefield's life and his work. (p. 135)

Throughout Masefield's poetry the sea, the ship, and the sailor appear and reappear. In the most landlocked of poems, a simile or metaphor of the sea will suddenly light up and make vivid an inland scene or an inland thought, for the poet always turns, whenever in search of a clarifying or life-giving image, to the world which he knows and loves best. (p. 156)

When the reader of Masefield leaves the English ship and turns to the sea itself, he will find treatments of the subject varying from the very romantic to the very realistic. It will not surprise him to learn that one of the three earliest extant Masefield poems is called "Sonnet—To the Ocean." The poem is ponderous and grandiose, with none of the grace of the first published poems like "Sea Fever," but it is Masefield's first recorded tribute to "the thunder of the never-silent sea."

Masefield's best-known poem, "Sea Fever," stamped him early as a romanticist. In "Sea Fever," as in "A Wanderer's Song," "Roadways," and other poems from the 1902 and 1903 collections, the picture is clean, clear, bracing, and glorious, with white clouds flying and the wild Atlantic shouting on the sand…. There is a wide range in these early ballads, from the pure beauty of "Sea Fever" to the rough-and-tumble "Bill," "Fever-Chills," and "Burial Party," with their dialect, occasional "bloody's." (pp. 160-61)

With the exception, perhaps, of "Land Workers," Masefield's laureate verse offers little that will enhance his reputation. (p. 212)

These occasional verses are often nobly conceived and gracefully executed, but like most occasional verse they generally bear the unmistakable stamp of the duty done and the deadline met. (p. 214)

Masefield's place among the Poets Laureate is that of a poet well qualified, by practice and by temperament, for his post. His celebration of England, as has been shown above, began long before his appointment to an official post. He fulfilled the obligations of the Laureateship as conscientiously as Tennyson, more ably than Austin, and more generously than Bridges. Masefield's activities in behalf of the theater, the speaking of verse, and other arts were many; in his person the Poet Laureate changed from the incumbent of a nominal office to "a living symbol of the power and authority" of poetry. (p. 230)

The Englishness of Masefield's work is the heart of it. If the prose and poetry that are characteristically and openly English are separated from the rest of his work, little of major importance remains. The greater body of Masefield's work, and the finest part of it, is that in which he dedicates himself to the portrayal and the interpretation of English landscape and life. In this England of Masefield, John Bull sometimes makes an appearance, but always he is countered by St. George. And the spirit of St. George shines brightest in those longer poems and tales which are most likely to live—The Everlasting Mercy, Dauber, "August, 1914," Gallipoli, Reynard the Fox, King Cole, and the Midsummer Night stories.

There is no inconsistency in Masefield's apparent shift from a consecration to the common man to a consecration to England. His England is the England of the common man; and the beauties of that England of the future for which he calls repeatedly in his later work are dedicated to the refreshment and the recreation of the common man in England and throughout the world. The new English theater for which he hopes in one of his later essays is but one of the agents Masefield invokes for the moving of "the world with the glory of the English spirit that is now the one thing left to us." (pp. 230-31)

Fraser Drew, in his John Masefield's England: A Study of the National Themes in His Work (© 1973 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.

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John Masefield Poetry: British Analysis