Nowadays it is difficult to credit his fame. The Everlasting Mercy was declared “nine-tenths sheer filth” by that paragon of piety Lord Alfred Douglas. The 1923 edition of Collected Poems sold eighty thousand copies. It is equally difficult to make any serious critical defense. Even Yeats, who was among his closest literary allies, advised him to sing in music halls. He wrote far too much. He did not, as John Betjeman tactfully pointed out, “specialize in brevity.” Nowadays, whenever his name comes to us, it comes to us with a faintly ludicrous patina. He is the seaman poet who suffered chronic seasickness; whose bestseller Gallipoli hailed that squalid massacre as a glorious victory; who died of gangrene brought on by a split toe.
I have liked John Masefield’s poetry for over twenty years. My maternal grandfather, a self-taught detective sergeant from a landlocked county of South Ulster, loved to recite the swaying opening stanza of “Sea-Fever.” I learned “Tewkesbury Road” by heart at secondary school. What class of genius, I wondered, could compose “the grey light drift of the dust”? Until recently, admitting to liking Masefield’s poetry was like confessing sympathy with some far right-wing militia or saying you listen to the Carpenters. Then Manchester’s Carcanet Press brought out a Selected earlier this year. The unexpectedly enthusiastic reviews that have greeted its publication suggest a dormant following.
Masefield’s first book, Salt-Water Ballads, appeared in 1903. By 1913, with fifty-four years still on the clock, his significant poetry had been published. To this day he gets itemized as the original of the Georgian species, even though his first three books were, technically speaking, Edwardian. Those early lyrics possess nothing of the tweedy hothouse pastoral of their age. They are breezy, visceral, caught placelessly between two yearnings like “anchors hungry for English ground.” They impose the see-saw of shanties onto drier literary meters. They have stories, direct speech. They are littered with words—fo’c’s’le, goneys, skysail, spunyarn—that you suspect had not appeared in poetry up until then and have not since.
Masefield’s best poems escape the autopilot optimism of those of his contemporaries. His vision is so clear and realistic that his palette risks appearing monochrome: “the grey dawn breaking,” “the cool grey rush of the dusk.” His lines can be so accentual as to sound vaguely jazzy. Even the anthology anthems, “Sea-Fever” and “Cargoes,” hit willful bum notes. They harbor tongue twisters, at once cherished and unsayable, like “the flung spume and the blown spray and the seagulls crying” or the “Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir” that Muldoon ventriloquizes via MacNeice in “7 Middagh Street.” “Cargoes,” among popular favorites in English poetry, has to be one of the most pessimistic:
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Muriel Spark, in her book-length study, argues that Masefield’s gift was for narrative. However untenable that claim seems now, “The Everlasting Mercy” and “Dauber” deserve at least partial survival on the grounds of importance if not sustained quality. The former’s realism broke real ground and influenced a generation. Sassoon happened upon the style of his war poetry by lampooning it. Graves described how its “fresh wind ... exhilarated us youngsters.” While its narrative is off-puttingly moral, the early fight sequence remains vivid and gritty. The latter, a semi-autobiographical tale of the eponymous painter-cum-cabin boy, contains some of the truest, most beautiful images of the sea and seafaring:
the swift ship
Tore on out of the tropics, straining her sheets,
Whitening her trackway into a milky strip,
Dim with green bubbles and twisted water-meets,
Her clacking tackle tugged at pins and cleats,
Her great sails bellied stiff, her great masts leaned:
They watched how the sea struck and burst and greened.
Masefield matured into mediocrity. He became an authority on Chaucerian meter, and his own work drifted slowly into the canon’s Bermuda Triangle. Not a solitary line appears in Paul Keegan’s otherwise magisterial New Penguin Book of English Verse. “I am like the dodo,” the man mused, “no longer known as a bird at all.” Only a twit would argue the case of Masefield’s greatness. Better, I suggest, to see him occupying a position within British poetry similar to that of Edward Arlington Robinson here: a minor poet whose career became an important stepping stone between the Victorian and the modern (both Auden and Larkin acknowledged a debt), and who wrote a few gems of his own that remain unworthy of neglect.