The year 1926 is a memorable year for me because it was then that I began work as a teacher of English in a scenic inner Michigan village. It was appropriately named Lakeview because of its location on Tamarack Lake where the tamaracks, spruce, and pines assemble along the shoreline with birches, maples, and clumps of staghorn sumac. An island rises like a jewel in the lake, and the waters pick up the colors of the shore, season by season.
From my first teaching paycheck I sent two dollars off to the Macmillan Company in New York for a copy of John Masefield's Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, which brought together poems from earlier collections. It was beautifully bound--a three-master under full sail on the cover, framed in gilt on deep blue cloth--and inside were numerous illustrations in color and black and white. And at the end of the book there was a spicy glossary from Masefield's own pen and inkpot.
A college professor had called Masefield's writings to my attention, and now I was lucky enough to possess a Masefield volume! And besides I now could read the choice poems and yarns to my appreciative classes.
More than a half-century later the year 1978 is a special Masefield year for it is the centenary of his birth. John Masefield was born on June 1, 1878 in the village of Ledbury in Herefordshire on the Welsh border. Ledbury is beautifully situated with the lovely Malvern Hills off to the east and the cathedral cities of Hereford and Gloucester not far distant. To the east also is Tewkesbury which is immortalized in one of Masefield's charming poems, "Tewkesbury Road."
Masefield has recorded his earliest memories in Wanderings (Between One and Six Years), a small book of verses published in 1943. He recalls first impressions of things and people, not only some of the wonderful delights of childhood, but also some of its terrors:A certain tree its darkness heaved
Not far away, a straggly fir.
It seemed the devil's minister.
Near it, a house, in evening light,
Looked like a mouth inclined to bite.
Young Masefield's father was a village lawyer and little is known of the boy's family life, but he attended King's School in Warwick and by age thirteen was sent as a "new chum" to be trained aboard H.M.S. Conway, a retired man-of-war stationed in the Mersey River near Liverpool. This chapter in the lad's life is told in New Chum, 1944. Consisting of 186 pages and 85,000 words--all in one chapter--it is as spirited as a hornpipe and flavored with the pungent scent of the sea. As in other kinds of schools of that day, the "new chums" endured a good deal of hazing and contemptuous language--"Stow yourselves forward, somewhere out of smell."
Aboard the Conway for two years the boy took lessons in seamanship, learning how to live and work at sea even though the Conway was moored in the Mersey. Lessons, always practical in nature, ranged from learning the knots, bends, hitches, and splices to going aloft for the most difficult tasks amid sails and rigging. Here too he began reading sea stories and other literature. He bought a copy of Treasure Island from a tough senior who needed money, and for sixpence he purchased a copy of Huck Finn. On the Conway he made lifelong friends, and he had experiences which turn up in his other writings. In a visit with other "new chums" Masefield, who was asked about his parents, told them that he had no father or mother, which is the first we learn of his being an orphan.
At Liverpool he got to know great sailing ships from around the world, ships many of which he saw later in the docks of New York. His first glimpse of the Wanderer, as described in New Chum, had a profound effect upon him:
At that instant, the fog in the lower Sloyne went, and the river there brightened. The Wanderer came out of the greyness into sunlight as a thing of such beauty as the world can seldom show. She was in the act of preparing to dock with tugs, sidling, so that I saw her slowly come forward and turn away.... I had seen nothing like her in all my life, and knew, then, that something bad happened in the world not quite ours.
The Wanderer is the subject of one of his best poems, and he also wrote The Wanderer of Liverpool, a detailed history of the ship. The beauty of the great sailing ships that Masefield had seen in his youth haunted him throughout his long life. Much of his work seems an attempt to record or evoke, as in his poem "Ships," their glory:As once, long since, when all the docks were filled
With that sea-beauty man has ceased to build.
At fifteen Masefield was apprenticed aboard a windjammer that sailed across the Atlantic and around the Horn to San Francisco. Then he took a leisurely course about the United States, and we see references in his writings to Texas, the Black Hills, and other places. For a time he led a vagabond life, but eventually ended up in New York with various kinds of unskilled work. A carpet factory in Yonkers finally gave him employment. This job is described in In the Mill, published in 1941. This chapter in his autobiographical writings, covering his eighteenth and nineteenth years, contains a fascinating account of how the young man first developed a longing to become a writer. He tells of his discovery of Dana, Melville, Addison and Steele, Chaucer, Keats, and Shelley. He finally gets both sick and homesick and returns to England in July 1897.
He began writing verses and articles for various literary journals. Using the facilities of the British Museum he delved deeply into the great English writers and the literature of the sea. This period of his literary career is covered in So Long to Learn, published in 1952, which takes its title from the Chaucerian line in The Parlement of Foules:The 'lyfe so short, the craft so long to Ierne,
Th' assay so hard, so sharp the conquering.
He also tells us more about life on the Conway, his love of seagoing ships, New York ("the queen of all romantic cities"), his concern for natural beauty--"leaf and life"--and most important of all, his introduction to an always widening range of authors, English and American.
The year 1902 is important in the Masefield chronology for it was then that Salt-Water Ballads appeared, his first book, published when he was twenty-four. Grant Richards, the publisher, had seen and admired one of his poems that had been published in the Nation, and he invited Masefield to draw together a collection of poems for him to consider. Approximately three hundred copies were bound from a printing of five hundred and the remaining sheets were lost in a fire. Both "Sea-Fever" and "Cargoes" are in this book, two poems memorized and loved around the world.
The next year, 1903, he married Constance De La Cherois-Crommelin of Northern Ireland, who was his wife until her death in 1960. Together they edited two anthologies: Lyrists of the Restoration from Sir Edward Sherburne to William Congreve, 1905, and Essays, Moral and Polite, 1660-1714, 1906.
In 1911 Masefield achieved fame with the publication of The Everlasting Mercy, his first long narrative poem, and the form in which most critics believe that Masefield did his best work. In this poem, Saul Kane, a drunken roughneck, tells the story of his conversion. It caused a sensation that year when it was published in The English Review, in October, partly because of its coarse language and the depiction in poetry of low-life scenes. In The English Review the word "bloody" was indicated by a blank space, but the words were printed in the book which was published officially on November 2, 1911.
The year 1912 saw the publication of other long narrative poems of remarkable power by Masefield, including "Dauber," published in The Story of a Round-House. It is the tragic story of a young artist who goes to sea and is killed aboard ship during a storm. Perhaps in this poem we can read Masefield's own love and fear of the sea, as well as his ambition as a literary artist to put it all in words. The young sailor-painter says to a shipmate:"It's not been done, the sea, not yet been done,
From the inside, by one who really knows.
"I cannot get it yet, not yet;'' he said,
"That leap and light and sudden change to green,
And all the glittering from the sunset's red,
And the milky colours where the bursts have been,
And then the clipper striding like a queen
Over it all, all beauty to the crown,
I see it all, I cannot put it down."
There is a treasure trove of nautical lore and information in Masefield's poetry, fiction, and other prose works. Often, he provides technical bits of information on ships and the sea, which probably are unfathomable to most readers; and he is a master at grand description, such as the following passage from The Bird of Dawning, 1933, as sixteen survivors in a long-boat from a sunken clipper confront a huge wave:
Now out of the darkness of the storm ahead, such a sea was lifting as they had never seen. The first sight of it was to them as though a low range of hills was moving bodily forward; then the effect changed in their minds to that of a line of crags. It was dark, toothy at the top with fangs, like the body of night below, and moving with a life of its own from somewhere. All there had at once the dreadful feeling that it was alive. How high it was they could not guess, but higher certainly than any wave that any of them had ever seen. It was not like a wave; it was like the Judgment Day advancing, wolfing up all the sea into its power and licking out the sky with its tongue.
Masefield became recognized as the poet and storyteller of the English countryside as well as the acknowledged writer of ships and the sea. Regarding his narrative poem, Reynard the Fox, 1919, the story of a fox hunt, Amy Lowell wrote in Poetry and Poets: "If Reynard the Fox is not Mr. Masefield's best work, it ranks but little below it. For sheer excitement and suspense, the poem is without its equal in English poetry, so far as I know, unless one can possibly compare it to 'The Ancient Mariner,' with which it has not another point of contact."
Masefield is the author of some seventy or more books, a witness to his remarkable creativity. In his more than sixty years of writing he tested his talents over a wide spectrum of literary forms: poetry, fiction, drama, essays, criticism, history, etc. During the last thirty-seven years of his life Masefield served as Poet Laureate, named to the post by George V in 1930, following the death of Robert Bridges. The honored title had been held in earlier times by such men as Dryden, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. As Poet Laureate he participated in many literary and other cultural activities.
He had a daughter, Judith, who illustrated some of his books, and a son, Lewis, who was killed in the war in 1942 when he was thirty-two. In the preface to his son's posthumously published novel, The Passions Left Behind, 1947, Masefield wrote: "He was the most delightful, the wisest, and the best man whom I have known well." In 1966, a year before his death, Masefield's last autobiographical work was published, Grace Before Ploughing. If moves from Ledbury, Hereford, Gloucester, and the Malvern Hills across a wide canvas of Masefield memories. It is full of flowers and the fragrant English countryside. Never backward in giving thanks, Masefield says grace before "ploughing,'' and we can read into that word the gift of work and love and life itself. Masefield died at Abingdon in Berkshire in May 1967. Had he lived a few more days he would have entered his ninetieth year.
His death marked the end of a career unusual in many respects. His vigorous verse had a new realism and a sensitive understanding of human nature. He had a feeling for the tragedies of human experience which continue to affect readers today. He loved both sea, and countryside. As we read him now we do it with an enduring measure of appreciation. But as the years move along we seem to remember him more than ever for his poetry with its vibrant rhythms and its unforgettable characters.
Much time has elapsed since I bought my copy of Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, a book now showing signs of wear. If I could have one last hour with that old class studying English writers--there were forty-eight in the class--much of that hour would be devoted to John Masefield seen now in a new and wider perspective. We would discuss briefly the autobiographical writings, New Chum, and the others, detailed and so very human. Time would be given to a reading aloud of "Sea-Fever," "Cargoes," and the three beautiful stanzas of "Tewkesbury' Road." And we might end the hour, with appropriate thanksgiving to the poet, reading the concluding lines from Masefield's "Biography":Best trust the happy moments. What they gave
Makes man less fearful of the certain grave,
And gives his work compassion and new eyes,
The days that make us happy make us wise.
Albert F. Butler
The Bluebells, and Other Verse. 1961.
The Country Scene. 1937.
The Everlasting Mercy. 1911.
King Cole. 1921.
A Letter from Pontus, and Other Verse. 1936.
Old Raiger, and Other Verse. 1964.
Reynard the Fox. 1921.
Right Royal. 1922.
Selected Poems. 1941.
The Widow in the Bye Street. 1912.
Eggs and Baker. 1936.
Jim Davis. 1924.
Lost Endeavor. 1910.
Martin Hyde. 1910.
The Midnight Folk. 1927.
The Midnight Folk. 1932.
Sard Harker. 1924.
The Taking of the Gry. 1934.
End and Beginning. 1933.
The Faithful. 1915.
Good Friday. 1916.
The Locked Chest. 1916.
Melloney Holtspur. 1922.
A Play of St. George. 1948.
The Taking of Helen. 1923.
The Trial of Jesus. 1925.
The Bird of Dawning. 1933.
The Conway. 1933.
The Conway. Rev. ed. 1953.
A Mainsail Haul. 1905.
New Chum. 1944.
On the Spanish Main. 1900.
A Sailor's Garland. 1906.
Salt-Water Ballads. 1902.
Salt-Water Poems and Ballads. 1916.
Sea Life in Nelson's Time. 1905.
A Tarpaulin Muster. 1907.
Victorious Troy. 1935.
The Wanderer of Liverpool. 1930.
ON BOOKS AND AUTHORS
Essays, Moral and Polite, 1660-1714. (ed.) 1906.
I Want! I Want! 1944.
John M. Synge. 1915.
John Ruskin. 1920.
Lyrists of the Restoration. (ed.) 1905.
A Macbeth Production. 1945.
On the Unveiling of the Keats-Shelley Memorial. 
Shakespeare and Spiritual Life. 1924.
Some Memories of W. B. Yeats. 1940.
Thanks before Going. 1946.
Tristan and Isolt. 1927.
William Shakespeare. 1924.
The Battle of the Somme. 1919.
An Elizabethan Theatre in London. 1954.
A Generation Risen. 1943.
In Praise of Nurses. 
In the Mill. 1941.
The Nine Days Wonder. 1941.
The Old Front Line. 1917.
The Old Front Line. 1918.
Tribute to Ballet in Poems. 1938.