This selection of John Masefield’s verse, published on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth, points to a major phenomenon, or perhaps problem, in the history of poetry in our time. Poets like Masefield have been enormously popular; they have a large popular readership, wide circulation, and great honor in their own day. Once dead, however, they seem to slip below the literary horizon, seemingly unworthy of further notice except by those nostalgic for the attitudes and concerns of another day. That is to say, Masefield’s work seems to give voice to moods, feelings, interests, and concerns shared by many, many people at one moment in history, which the perspective of time renders ephemeral, superficial, or transitory. He offers us a sense of what it felt like to see the world through certain eyes; lacking the universality of vision offered by Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Auden, he appeals now primarily as a chronicler of a lost time, to be read by those seeking nostalgically for the simplicities of another day.
Masefield’s literary lineage includes Robert Bridges and A. E. Housman, whose evocations of rural England appealed to a growing urban English population by giving them a sense of simplicity about life that could be used as an escape from the burgeoning complexities of city life in an increasingly modern world. In America, Robert Frost is the most familiar poet of this mood and scene; for him, as for many of these poets, life’s complexities come down to two roads diverging in the wood, or miles to go before one sleeps. Further back, the Masefield tradition claims Kipling, and perhaps Dickens and Tennyson, whose evocations of the journey, whether to strange lands, to the city from the country, or through the complexities of life in a confused spiritual time, achieved a popularity with a mass audience certainly unfamiliar to the modern serious writer of poetry or fiction. For more recent poets, the kind of mass approval that came to Dickens or Tennyson has gone to minor poets, those who do not attack the complexities of life in our time directly but who give outlet to our anxieties by taking us away from them, by offering us a pastoral world of rural England or ships at sea.
The pastoral is always escapist literature; serious pastoral, however, has always been aware of its artificiality, its temporary nature. Writers of renaissance pastoral could use the genre as the basis for creating a sense of perspective on the real world of their lives, for sorting out issues that really confronted them. For Romantic poets, the pastoral landscape was an opening into the complexities of one’s inner life, the richness of one’s imaginative creativity. For more recent poets, such as Masefield, the pastoral world retains its role as an alternative world to that which we live in every day, but one must finally question the role such poetry plays in the lives of those who read it. What kinds of aspirations does Masefield’s most famous line give voice to? He writes, “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” in “Sea-Fever”; one suspects that the typical reader gets a momentary lift from all this, but would never actually give up his nine-to-five routine for a fling at the actualities of sea-faring life. The ironic realities of Prufrock strike too close to the bone for such a reader; Masefield packages adventure and makes it safe.
This is not to say that Masefield’s poetry, although escapist poetry, is bad poetry. Quite the contrary; Masefield’s skill in meter and form, and his talent for narrative, are undeniably able and effective. His language is authentic; in fact, his long poem Dauber comes equipped with a nautical glossary, so heavy and concentrated is the language of the sea and tall ships to be found in this poem. Masefield makes good use of ballad meter and form; although most of the poems in this volume are put in a nautical...
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