John Masefield Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111207652-Masefield.jpg John Masefield in 1935 Published by Salem Press, Inc.

John Masefield is noted for his lyric and narrative poetry, and because of poems such as “Sea Fever” and “Cargoes,” he will continue to be read. For more than sixty years, however, he was prolific in many other genres as well. Between 1902 and 1966, Masefield wrote more than forty volumes of poetry or verse plays and more than twenty novels, in addition to short stories, essays, reviews, biographies, historical works, addresses, and prefaces, totaling about fifty books in all. Masefield’s first book of verse was Salt-Water Ballads (1902), and his narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy (1911) caused a sensation with its realistic diction. Masefield wrote eight other book-length narrative poems, the most important being The Window in the Bye Street (1912), The Daffodil Fields (1913), Reynard the Fox: Or, The Ghost Heath Run (1919), Right Royal (1920), and King Cole (1921). His sea poems and ballads are about the life of the common sailor, and his narrative verse describes the lot of the rural folk of the Malvern Hills in his native Herefordshire.

Masefield’s fiction is varied and uneven; his most popular and successful novels were his books about the sea and strange lands, written in the vein of Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson—tales such as Captain Margaret (1908), The Bird of Dawning (1933), and Victorious Troy (1935). Although not a great critic, Masefield was a thoroughly professional man of letters who turned out well-focused articles and reviews by the hundreds, as well as book-length studies. In the field of history, Masefield gave accounts of World War I debacles in Gallipoli (1916) and The Battle of the Somme (1919). He told the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk in The Nine Days’ Wonder (1941). In addition, Masefield wrote about maritime history in Sea Life in Nelson’s Time (1905), On the Spanish Main (1906), and The Conway from Her Foundation to the Present Day (1933). Masefield’s autobiographical works include In the Mill (1941), New Chum (1944), So Long to Learn (1952), and Grace Before Ploughing (1966).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Masefield’s plays have lost much of their appeal for stage audiences, but some of his dramatic work, such as that written about the common people, has a vitality to recommend it, particularly his most successful play, The Tragedy of Nan, which reveals Masefield’s ability to tell a vivid story in dramatic terms. It is not likely that any of his plays will become standard reading in drama courses, nor are any likely to be revived for production, yet Masefield should be commended for trying to infuse the English commercial theater in the early twentieth century with dramatic works of serious artistic intent. In the years after World War I, Masefield largely abandoned this ambition. The postwar plays were the products of an avocation rather than a true vocation. Though some of these plays were staged by local amateur dramatic clubs, Masefield wrote them primarily for his own edification and for the entertainment of his family and friends.

Although Masefield was writing plays after George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov had established the dimensions of early modern drama, his dramatic values have the conventionalities of Victorian theater. Despite their conventional manner, his plays never appealed to a wide popular audience, nor, for the most part, did they satisfy the critics. Masefield’s endeavors as a playwright did, however, enhance his reputation in Georgian literary circles, and his mastering of the dramatic conventions enabled him to write novels with well-constructed plots and carefully focused characterizations.

Whatever the merits of his drama, it is for his achievements as a poet that Masefield will be remembered. His tenure as England’s poet laureate, from 1930 until his death in 1967, was one of the longer ones.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Masefield (MAYS-feeld) wrote books of poems and verse plays, prose plays, novels, and other prose works, including histories.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Masefield’s poetry appealed to a very wide audience. His first book of verse, Salt-Water Ballads, sold out in six months, and his narrative poems were very popular. The Everlasting Mercy was a sensation in his day. Some of his lyric poems, including “Sea Fever,” have become standards of English poetry. He received many honorary degrees from institutions including Oxford and Cambridge. In 1930, he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he was president of the Society of Authors in 1937. In 1961, he was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature, and also in that year he won the William Foyle Poetry Prize. In 1964, the National Book League gave him a prize for writers older than sixty-five.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Babington-Smith, Constance. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1978. This full biography was prepared with the active cooperation of Masefield’s family and friends. The circumstances of individual plays are discussed but little critical evaluation is attempted. Includes a select list of books by Masefield and an index.

Binding, Paul. An Endless Quiet Valley: A Reappraisal of John Masefield. Woonton, Almeley, Herefordshire, England: Logaston, 1998. Binding provides a critical analysis of Masefield’s works, examining them within their historical framework. Includes index.

Drew, Fraser. John Masefield’s England: A Study of the National Themes in His Work. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973. As the title suggests, this work looks at the specific qualities of Masefield’s “Englishness” through the corpus of his work. Includes bibliography and index.

Dwyer, June. John Masefield. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. This volume covers the whole corpus of Masefield’s work. Includes a bibliography and an index.

McDonald, Jan. The New Drama, 1900-1914. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1986. A chapter on Masefield’s The Campden Wonder and The Tragedy of Nan sets Masefield within the context of the Court Theatre and Harley Granville-Barker but sees him as somewhat atypical of the other “new dramatists.” The chapter argues that these two early plays show evidence of a power and originality of style that could have befitted English drama had Masefield developed them. Includes bibliography and index.

Spark, Muriel. John Masefield. Rev. ed. London: Hutchinson, 1992. A biography and critical study of selected works. Includes bibliographic references.

Sternlicht, Sanford. John Masefield. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This volume covers both life and works in a clear, well-focused way. Contains bibliography and index.