John Masefield: Poet of the Sea
Born in 1878 in Ledbury, Herefordshire, England, John Masefield was perhaps a born-storyteller. His childhood was one of loss and grief and further loss, disruption and destiny, a destiny that he followed in a rather round-about way. His love for the sea began with his boarding the HMS Conway in 1891, at the exquisitely tender age of thirteen. He was running away from school, the King’s School in Warwick, to be specific, and never before was a truant student so indelibly impressed with his flight from the classroom.
Aboard the HMS Conway, young John listened to tales about the sea, soaking in all of that sea lore, and falling in love with the sea in a way that ensured he would never fall out of love with it. Truth to tell, he wasn’t exactly cut out for sea-life. In 1894, he boarded the ship Gilcruix, bound for Chile. On this voyage, he came to know, intimately, the appalling sensations of sea sickness. Masefield nonetheless bore the nausea and the vertigo well enough to capture forever the visual and sensual moments that become the stuff of poetry:
flying fish, porpoises, the winds at the sails, soaring birds of many a feather, a rainbow of the nocturne, the steady rolling movements of the sea that had made him retching-ly sick, but which then became the steady clock by which he counted his days and nights.
Masefield returned to the dry land of England, but, that next year, 1895, at not quite twenty years of age, he returned to the sea once more. This time, he boarded a windjammer destined for New York City. The glorious beauty of the sea inexorably attracted this man, but it was that restless pining to overcome the dire but romantic hopelessness of it all — the life of a sailor — that led this man not toward, but away from the life on the high seas. Once he landed in New York, he jumped ship and ventured into the countryside surrounding New York City, a bounteous landscape that, in the late 1800s, must have also held potent appeal for this vagabond.
He tried his hand, or hands, at those odd jobs that become the proving ground for any person who dreams of becoming a writer. In between the hours of menial labour, he did not become a drifter as much as he permitted the wanderer in him to take full flight, and fuller expression. Masefield emotionally was still setting sail on a big ship, albeit on terra ferma.
During the Christmas season of 1895, his first year in New York, in America, he read a poem in a “news periodical”, a printed journal that is nowadays an artefact of the past. That poem, “The Piper of Art”, by Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott, set Masefield back onto his course toward the sea, the sea of poetry. In that great expanse of imagery, John Masefield would become the poet that he was born to be.
His longer narrative poems are, for me, not the gold nuggets of his poetic genius. They become bogged down with the dreary and dreadful social commentary that presently inundates just about all of life, written and otherwise, in the modern world. The eternal struggle of the gifted visionary and his spiritual quest against the darkness of materialism . . . more than amply suffocates any beauty in the verse of “Dauber”, written in 1913.
The early part of the 20th century, including, above all else, the horrors of the Great War, offered fodder for many kinds of protest writing; but, in my opinion, poetry is not the proper domain for such belly-aching. For poetry to be poetry, it must appeal to the senses, and common sense is among them. Where Masefield is at his best is in his poetry of the sea, this first love that would be his eternal love.
In 1930, Masefield was named the new Poet Laureate of England, the previous bard, Robert Bridges, having died. Masefield thereafter wrote poetry of a more austere nature, to more fittingly suit the august duties of this title, one that he took very seriously. He was modest in his renown, perhaps understanding that his life, that of a poet and story-teller, was not for the purpose of accruing wealth and accumulating fame, but of serving the Muse who had first led him to the sea.
He died on 12 May 1967, thereby ending his tenure in the lofty post of Poet Laureate of England. He was cremated and his ashes placed in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
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;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.