he hopes, will teach his hand to paint the living truth when he shows the landlubber how billows break and a ships goes up the wave. From the fore-topgallant yard, the dedicated dauber tumbles too soon to his death. But such prices the gods exact of those who mimic the Creator's art.
The point is that with Masefield literature ceases to be hypnotic, a dreamily recreative "escape from life." It becomes a probe to the quick of the spirit, stabbing us "broad awake." It becomes an exultant hymning and glorification of life, even while it rushes on catastrophe. I do not know whether he became a sailor in order to learn to sing, or whether he sang because he had been a sailor. But that fine poem about his great joys, "Biography," is proof enough that the prime sources of his passion were not "literary." He loves the taste of his own days, bitter and sweet, and his physical immersion in experience: swimming, racing, the first glimpse of strange mountains; but heavy labor, too, in quarry and mill, roads tramped in the rain, the rough talk of peasant and sailor, the long road westward through the springing wheat, the comradeship of hard-palmed men following the sea.
Whose feet with mine wore many a bolt head bright
Treading the decks beneath the riding light.
The last line of this poem has been rather often quoted: "The days that make us happy make us wise." There is a good bit of Masefield in it. It is happiness, peace, and beauty which give a man new eyes and put "compassion" into his work. Yes, but reverse the saying and you have the other half of the poet's wisdom: "The days that make us wise make us happy."
In this world, a wise man learns to derive a great part of his happiness from discovering how much misery he can endure, how tough the human heart is, the blows it can take and still fight on, the wounds it can receive and still recover. I doubt whether any living poet save Thomas Hardy has meditated so deeply and so fruitfully on disastrous things as John Masefield.
Among the tragic narratives I have a partiality for The widow in the Bye Street, which many of the commentators rate below its deserts. It is notable for dramatic characterization. The title suggests that the interest centers in the mother, a figure treated with overwhelming pathos, though at the same time with an impartial disclosure of the jealous self-preservative elements in her affection for her son. A case might be made out for the central interest of Anna, who abides with singular