John Masefield/John Masefield
Secure in a high place in the ranks of English writers, John Masefield has attained that enviable position through various means. He is distinguished not alone as a poet, but also as dramatist, historian, novelist, and writer of short stories. But it is as a poet, and particularly as a narrative poet, that he gained his first and perhaps most lasting fame.
John Masefield was born in Ledbury, Herefordshire, on June 1, 1878. Both his father and mother died while he was still a young boy, and with the other Masefield children he went to live at the home of an aunt in Ledbury. Here he grew up, attending the local school. While still a young boy he evinced a strong proclivity for adventure. Tramping the countryside and roaming the woods appealed to him more than studying indoors. In an endeavor to curb his venturesome spirit he was indentured, when fourteen years of age, to a merchant ship. Then began the experiences that so vividly burned themselves into the memory of the restless, sensitive youth. For several years he sailed the sea to many parts of the world, visiting strange lands, always storing up impressions that later were to help him on his way to fame.
The desire to write had always been with him. When ten years old he had read Sir Walter Scott's poems and Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry, and at fourteen was deep in Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. These became his favorite poems, and he wrote some imitations of them. During his time at sea he had little opportunity to read or write, so he left the service when not yet seventeen years old, and in April, 1895, landed in New York, with five dollars, his clothes, and a deep yearning for a literary career. Soon he was domiciled in a garret in Greenwich Village, subsisting on the fare provided through his meagre earnings in any odd jobs he could secure. Among these were work in a bakery, a livery stable, along the water-front, and the widely celebrated term of a few months in a saloon near Jefferson Market.
A chance acquaintance with the owner of a carpet factory in Yonkers, New York, led to a position there, and the next two years were happy ones, as they gave security from want and time for reading. A book shop in the town was a favored haunt of his, and every Friday, which was pay day, he bought new books. In speaking of this period he has said, "I did not begin to read poetry with passion and system until 1896. I was living then in Yonkers, New York (at 8 Maple Street). Chaucer was the poet, and the Parliament of Fowls the poem of my conversion. I read the Parliament all through one Sunday afternoon, with the feeling that I had been kept out of my inheritance and had suddenly entered upon it, and had found it a new world of wonder and delight. I had never realized, until then, what poetry could be. After that Sunday afternoon I read many poets (Chaucer, Keats, Shelley, Milton, and Shakespeare, more than others) and wrote many imitations of them. About a year later, when I was living in London, I wrote two or three of the verses now printed in Salt Water Ballads."
Masefield's intimate association with sailors and longshoremen had given him a deep insight into their lives, and it was as their laureate that he began his career of letters. Salt Water Ballads opens with a "A Consecration," in which he announces himself as champion of "the dust and the scum of the earth."
"Theirs be the music, the colour, the glory, the gold,
Mine be a handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould
Of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold
Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales be told."
Some of the poems in this book are now known the world over especially—"Cargoes" and the oft-quoted "Sea-Fever."
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."
A summer in Devonshire with William Butler Yeats gave him encouragement and inspiration. Soon he was publishing verse and plays that brought him into favor. In 1903 he married Constance de la Cherois-Crommelin.His first book of prose, A Mainsail Haul, appeared in 1905. This, is a collection of dramatic tales of ships and sailors and strange superstitions. "Roistering, reckless rogues swagger in picturesque procession across the pages of John Masefield's A Mainsail Haul.
In the same year was published his Sea Life in Nelsons Time, an historical account of the rigorous days in the British Navy during the latter years of Nelson's career. Fascinating illustrations picturing the ships of the period add to the value of the book. This was followed by On the Spanish Main or Some English Forays on the Isthmus of Darien, which tells of stirring exploits of British seamen under Drake. For some years these books were not available in the United States, but recently a supply was imported, and the books were warmly welcomed by the reviewers and the collectors of Masefield's writings. He spent many months of intensive research in British maritime history before writing these books.
Captain Margaret (1908), Masefield's first novel, found wide favor. The poetical quality which distinguishes his prose gives a sustained magnificence throughout this book. The story tells of Charles Margaret, a gallant English gentleman and poet, owner of the sloop Broken Heart so named from his disappointment in love and the thrilling adventures encountered after sheltering his lost love and her criminal husband on board his boat.
In 1909 came Multitude and Solitude, another novel of rich and beautiful prose. "London was about to take its hour of quiet. Only the poets, the scholars, and the idlers were awake now. In a little while the May dawn would begin. Even now it was tingeing the cherry blossoms of Aleppo. The roses of Sarvistan were spilling in the heat, the blades of green corn by Troy gleamed above the river as the wind shook them." And again "Pink cranes stood in the shallows. Slowly one of them rose aloft, heartily flagging. Another arose, then another, till they made a pinkish ribbon against the forest." From London to Africa we follow the hero in his search for a cure for sleeping sickness. Weird experiences are encountered. Masefield's description in this book of a tropical storm has been acclaimed as one of the most thrilling in all literature.
Several tales of adventure followed, among them Lost Endeavor (1909), which recounts romantic deeds in far-away lands, of the sea and buccaneers along the Spanish Main.
At this time he was also experimenting with the drama, and in 1909 The Tragedy of Nan, a poignant, powerful play in three acts, was published. Many critics have agreed that this is a masterpiece. It is an intense portrayal of tragic events in the life of simple country folk, and has been successfully performed in England. In his preface to the play Masefield says: "Tragedy at its best is a vision of the heart of life. The heart of life can only be laid bare in the agony and exultation of dreadful acts. The vision of agony or spiritual contest pushed beyond the limits of the dying personality is exalting and cleansing. It is only by such vision that a multitude can be brought to the passionate knowledge of things exulting and eternal." The Campden Wonder and Mrs. Harrison, sombre tragedies of a gruesome nature; The Sweeps of Ninety Eight, a little rebel comedy; and The Locked Chest, favorite one-act plays for amateur productions, were written and performed at this time.
In 1910 The Tragedy of Pompei the Great appeared. Tense in situation and impressive in its poetry, it conveys Masefield's genius in the handling of the dramatic form. "He is no statutesque Pompey, spouting prose lines masquerading as poetry; Masefield has given us Pompey the man," wrote a reviewer.
But it was in 1911 that John Masefield startled England and occasioned intense excitement and hot discussion over his now world-famous poem, The Everlasting Mercy. Telling of this event, W. H. Hamilton, in his critical study of John Masefield, writes: "I shall never forget the torrid day in 1911 when I languidly picked up a blue-covered copy of the English Review in a smoker-room, sank with it into a basket-chair, lit my pipe, leisurely opened the magazine, and got one of the shocks and surprises of my life. . . . The 'room was sudden with horror.' At first we gasped 'Oh! What blasphemy! What indecency! Phew!' Then, dazed and unbelieving, one read the poem again—and again—and again. It began to dawn on us ... that here was one more of the world's great, sudden original poems and one of the greatest religious poems ever born." Vivid and powerful, written in virile, at times lurid, language, The Everlasting Mercy tells the story of Saul Kane, drunkard and poacher, his spiritual revolt and final conversion. Recalling the inception of the poem, Masefield said: "The Everlasting Mercy began to form images in my mind early in the morning of a fine day in May, 1911. I had risen very early and had gone out into the morning with a friend who had to ride to catch a train some miles away. On our way down a lane in the freshness and brightness of the dew we saw coming towards us, up a slope in a field close to us, a plough team of noble horses followed by the advancing breaking wave of red clay thrust aside by the share. The ploughman was like Piers Plowman or Chaucer's ploughman, a staid, elderly, honest, and most kindly man whom we had long known and respected. The beauty and nobility of this sight moved me profoundly all day long." That night he began the poem. It marked a rebellion from the contemporary spiritless poetry, and it won for Masefield the Edmond de Polignac prize of five hundred pounds and world-wide recognition. It was his first book to be published in America.
Closely following The Everlasting Mercy came The Widow in the Bye Street, written in much the same iconoclastic manner. It tells a tragic tale of Widow Gurney, whose son, Jimmy, is hanged for murder, causing her to lose her reason. Of these two remarkable poems Masefield tells us: "In The Everlasting Mercy a violent man is made happy; in The Widow in the Bye Street a good woman is made unhappy. In neither case does the event fall by merit or demerit, but by the workings of Fate, which come into human affairs with the effect of justice done, for reasons not apparent to us."In 1913 he again aroused the enthusiasm and acclaim of the critics. This time with Dauber—that magnificent "spiritual vision of life." "'Dauber' is a great poem. Great because of its pictures of the storm, the sea-night, the ship entering the calm bay at day-dawn. But great also as a book of revelation; as a book of intense, terrible, pitiful heroic vision; as a sensitive record of the sea, full of the bright face of danger, the endurance
of ships, the endurance of men." The poem tells of a painter whose heart's desire is to portray the sea as it really is.
From the inside by one who really knows
I'd give up all if I could be the one."
A fall from the masthead kills him before he fulfills his mission. Masefield tells us that the poem is based on fact, and "Thinking of him after many years, he seems to me to be typical of the artist, who in every age will obey the laws of his being and speak his message, in spite of every disadvantage, and in contempt of death." This poem, his famous "Biography," and other favorite verses were published in the United States in the volume The Story of a Round House.
The Daffodil Fields, his next long narrative poem, recounts a story of the tragic love of two men for the same woman. There are pages of particularly beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. "It always seems to me a most moving thing that natural beauty, the running water, the coming of the flowers of the spring, and the singing of birds should go on year after year with so little apparent change and with so little apparent passion while men change and do themselves such wrong in the same scene and subject to the same season," Masefield says, in speaking of the poem which so beautifully portrays the contrast of man's turbulent spirit with the serene beauty of nature.
Philip the King and Other Poems came in 1914. The bringing of the news of the ruin of the Armada to King Philip II of Spain is the theme of the short play, Philip the King. "It is one of the noblest expressions of refined patriotism in our literature, and along with 'The Wanderer,' 'Ships,' 'Biography,' it stands at the head of all the verse literature of the glory of ships." "August, 1914," that most memorable of war poems, is included in this volume.
In 1915 The Faithful, a three-act tragedy, appeared. It is based on episodes in Japanese history at the beginning of the eighteenth century, which have been brought together into a legend known as the forty-seven Ronin. Masefield keeps closely to the simple and dramatic situations of the original story. It is permeated with a heroic, Greek-like quality, and numerous critics consider it the best of Masefield's plays.
Good Friday, a dramatic poem telling of the Passion of Jesus, is characterized by dignity and simple beauty. The volume containing this play includes also a number of his best loved sonnets. This one-act play has been presented annually for the past three years on Palm Sunday by members of the Union Congregational Church in Boston. It was published in 1916.
The same year gave to the world the imperishable Gallipoli, that poignantly sad and so vividly realistic saga of the Dardanelles campaign—"Not as a tragedy nor as a mistake, but as a great human effort, which came, more than once, very
near to triumph, achieved the impossible many times, and failed in the end, as many great deeds of arms have failed from something which had nothing to do with arms nor with the men who bore them." The thirteenth edition of the book was published in 1925, which surely is an indication of the precious quality of this eloquent tribute to the 38,000 Englishmen who lie buried in Gallipoli. "Gallipoli is a book to strike the critical faculty numb and hush the heart of the hearer. For an age—aye, forever on the earth, so far as we can dream it—it will be read and gloried in afresh, and heads will be bowed and tears of strong men shed at every telling. It is as yet too sacred for applause," wrote W. H. Hamilton.
In The Old Front Line (1917) he gives us a graphic account of the front as it was when the Battle of the Somme began. Through his active service with the Red Cross, Masefield came into direct contact with the realism of war, and his descriptions are vivid and gripping. The early days of the War can be relived through this book. As in Gallipoli, there are innumerable interesting illustrations.
In the spring of 1918 John Masefield came to America as an emissary for his country, and two speeches delivered at that time are contained in The War and the Future—one with that title and the other "St. George and the Dragon." Many anecdotes enliven the vivid descriptions of the war. In each he pleads for special cooperation between England and America.
Lollingdown Downs (1918), a title given because most of the poems contained in it were written at that place, includes the famous series of lyrics and sonnets that many consider Masefield's profoundest work.
With the close of the War, a new Masefield appeared. The year 1919 saw the publication of Reynard the Fox, that flashing record of a hunt which stirs the blood of every reader, whether he has ever ridden to the hounds or not. Here is England, her people, and her dearest sport, sung in swinging, almost perfect verse. "I wrote Reynard the Fox partly because the events of a fox hunt have been for some centuries the deepest pleasure in English country life, and partly because the fox hunt brings together on terms of equality all sorts and conditions of the English people. Hunting makes more people happy than anything I know." The quarto edition, with its colored plates and many line drawings, is a proud book in many collections.
Right Royal, a poem about a steeplechase, followed during the next year. It concerns the subtle relation between horse and rider which, in moments of excitement, in the race, the hunt, or even the panic, makes them curiously one. "Will he win?" The reader queries anxiously, as the poem keeps him fascinated from the beginning to the end.
Half a neck, he was leading, for an instant he led—
From line to line the reader follows breathlessly. There is also a special edition of this book, containing innumerable line drawings and several colored plates, which is a favorite with collectors.
Enslaved and Other Poems, published in 1920, contains some of Masefield's most admired verse. Enslaved tells a romantic tale beginning—
I went into the garden most glad to be alive
The thrushes and the black birds were singing in the thorn
The April flowers were singing for the joy of being born
Then a swift turn to tragic events; the courageous lover willingly joining the galley slaves of the Algerian pirates to be near his captured beloved one; his thrilling rescue of her from the Khalif's harem; and their return to England
We blessed the hawthorne blossom that welcomed us ashore
O beautiful in this living that passes like the foam
It is to go with sorrow and come with beauty home.
"The Hounds of Hell," that weird story of the saint who fought the powers of darkness; "Cap on Head," another strange folk-tale of diabolical meddlings in human affairs; some more of his beautiful sonnets and short poems, among them the lovely "On Growing Old," are included in this volume.
My dog and I are old, too old for roving
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving . . .
Its fire and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have Wisdom, Beauty, Wisdom and Passion,
Bread to the soul where the summers parch
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.
In 1921 came King Cole, a delightful story of circus life in a poem of quiet beauty and singular charm. Masefield has the legendary King Cole return as a spiritual force to help a struggling circus folk. "In my poem I made him help a travelling circus, because I feel that the duty of Kingship is to encourage all the arts which add joy to life. In the circus, it seems to me that one finds all the elements of the noble arts, based, as they must be, on physical development, a lively sense of life, and a kindling, compelling quality of personality. Circus artists are true artists. They live apart in hardship and anxiety in order to do the artist's task, which is to awaken a sense of life in their fellows."
The Dream and Other Poems (1922) contains the poet's beautiful tribute to his friend, the late Charles Daniel, for many years Provost of Worcester College, Oxford. The title poem, Masefield tells us, is based on an actual dream.
Again Masefield returned to the field of drama, and during the next few years several plays, marked with his peculiar power of beautiful interpretation, were published. Esther and Berenice—two of these plays—are based on Racine's immortal tragedies. "Here in the interpretation through the medium of an alien tongue of the music and ideals of one poet by another, we have that transformation which is the object but too often the despair of translation. The result is two great plays," said the New York Times.
Another poetic drama based on a biblical theme is A Kings Daughter, which tells the story of Jezebel, Queen of Samaria. It is written in blank verse of unusual effectiveness and vigor. The play was successfully performed by the Boar Hill Players at Oxford.
Melloney Holtspur or the Pangs of Love is a four-act drama built on the romantic plot "the sins of the father are visited on the children." A mystical intermingling of the ghosts of one generation with their living descendants makes the play one of absorbing interest.
In 1924 was published The Taking of Helen, a story of Helen's flight with Paris, but uses Nireus, a friend of Paris who also is in love with Helen, as the central figure. It is written in prose of particular beauty. An essay on "Play Writing," in which he discusses dramatic composition, with special reference to the Greek play and the English play; some passages from his letters and his essay on "Fox Hunting" are included in the volume.
A Sailors Garland, a most pleasing anthology of sea verse, which contains poems from Chaucer to the poets of today, was edited by Masefield. Many famous chanteys are included. Although published some time ago in England, the book was imported but recently.
The Trial of Jesus (1925) is a three-act drama in which Masefield depicts the trial and condemnation of Jesus, opening in the garden of Gethsemane with the betrayal by Judas and closing with a description of Christ's death. "The sincerity of purpose, solemnity of tone, and majesty of movement manifest in his writing is well in keeping with the subject he has chosen. The choruses which begin the play and end each act are well calculated to raise the audience spiritually and place them in the proper mood for an acceptance of the divine origin and superhuman powers of Christ."
In 1925 came Masefield's first novel in fourteen years.
A thrilling, romantic tale entitled Sard Harker. Of this book the New York Times said: "It is written with verve and salt. It has the relish for rough life and the gusts of Smollet. Life has been poured into the pages of this book in beautiful prose, in which Masefield has caught up the clash of human passion and the loveliness and fierce beauty of nature."
The year 1926 brought another novel, an equally stirring story entitled ODTAA. "In his prose romances John Masefield has developed such a genre as never was on land or sea. Obscure fears one by one take form with the vividness, the swiftness, the continuity of a nightmare, the unseen fear in the forest, felt by horse and by rider, the fear of dead men coming back, of being locked up when fire is approaching, of being caught—all these fears shot through with the familiar dread of not getting to a place on time.... So real in fact do the characters, the scenes, the republic itself become that they seem to bear witness against the author's own signed statement: 'The persons and events described in this story are imaginary',"—wrote the reviewer in the Chicago Daily News.
Whatever the future years may give us from the pen of John Masefield, lasting fame has already been won. Eloquent evidence of this lies in the tributes which hailed the new collected edition of his Poems and Plays, in four volumes, published late in 1925. Some of these reviews are appended in this booklet.
Since his marriage in 1903, Masefield has lived in England. His home is now at Boar's Hill, Oxford. He has one son, and one daughter—Judith, who drew the illustrations for King Cole and The Dream. A few years ago he built in his garden a little theatre which seats an audience of about one hundred. Here the Boar Hill Players stage their productions. The theatre is dedicated to poetic drama, the furthering of which is one of Masefield's special interests. Some of his own plays, among them The Trial of Jesus, have been performed there.
Describing the poet, Mr. Gerald Cumberland wrote of him in 1918: "John Masefield has an invincible picturesqueness—picturesqueness that stamps him at once as different from his fellows. He is tall, straight, and blue-eyed, with a complexion as clear as a child's. His eyes are amazingly shy ... his manner is shy. You feel his sensitiveness and you admire the dignity that is at once its outcome and protection.
"There are many legends about Masefield—he is the kind of figure that gives rise to legends and, as he is studiously reticent, some of the legends have persisted and have for many persons become true."
But the facts of his life are surely sufficiently picturesque and his poem "Biography" he tells us what he would have us remember.
Men do not heed the rungs by which men climb
Those glittering steps, those milestones upon Time,
Those tombstones of dead selves, those hours of birth,
Those moments of the soul in years of earth
They mark the height achieved, the main result,
The power of freedom in the perished cult,
The power of boredom in the dead man's deeds,
Not the bright moments of the sprinkled seeds.