[John Masefield cartoon]
John Masefield’s South America:
Anatomy of a ’Rattling Good Yarn’
Give the ingredients of a rattling good yarn, with reference to either Redgauntlet, The Four Feathers, The Thirty-Nine Steps, or Sard Harker. (Burgess, 1988, p.162)
Anthony Burgess, in his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), claims that this was one of the questions in the examination for the Customs and Excise service which he sat shortly after leaving school. Already more at home with Hopkins and Joyce than Sir Walter Scott, A. E. W. Mason, John Buchan, or John Masefield, he failed the test.
A recent Times Literary Supplement review of a similarly ‘high culture’ production, William Golding’s Fire Down Below (1989), includes a parenthesis about another of Masefield’s novels, The Bird of Dawning (1933):
although like others of Masefield’s novels it contains one passage as good as anything in English literature, the encounter of an open boat with a great wave - the story as a whole maintains no depth of excitement under the excitement of event. (Medcalf, 1989, p.267)
These two comments combine to give a fairly accurate picture of the received opinion on Masefield’s fiction: that it has no depth of implication under the ‘excitement of event’, and that its virtues - readability, pace, suspense - are essentially those of the ‘rattling good yarn’ or adventure story. Even if one were to acknowledge this to be true, it might still be argued that his novels were worthy of consideration as an unselfconscious mirror of the prejudices and presuppositions of his era. The very preference for such superficial ‘yarns’ over the work of Lawrence and Joyce is a datum in itself.
It would, however, be premature to make any such assumption before testing this view of Masefield against the evidence of one of his texts. In this essay I will be employing Sard Harker (1924) for this purpose - one of the novels mentioned above by Burgess, and the first of a trilogy of novels set in ‘Santa Barbara’, an imaginary country on the Sugar Coast of South America. I shall therefore combine a consideration of Masefield’s fictional strategies with a charting of the romantic view of South America implied by these three works - in order, Sard Harker, Odtaa (1926), and The Taking of the Gry (1934). I will begin by cataloguing some surface ‘South American’ features of the novel, and will then look at their function in context (whether it be narrative, thematic, topographical, or a combination of the three). This is in order to stress the different interpretations which can arise from considering Sard Harker’s setting as an exotic backdrop essentially interchangeable with the Sudan of The Four Feathers and ‘Merrie England’ of Redgauntlet (presumably Burgess and Medcalf’s view), or, alternatively, as a landscape which held a profound personal and thematic significance for Masefield himself.
Sard took the sheet of coarse yellowish paper printed in blunt old type which had once printed praise of Maximilian. He read from it as follows:
‘Feast of Pugilism.
At three o’clock punctually.
Grand Display of the Antique Athletic.
Contests with the gloves for the decisions.
The Light-Weights, the Middle-Weights,
The World Famous Heavy-Weights.
At three o’clock punctually.
At three o’clock punctually.
Six contests of the three rounds for the Champions
of Las Palomas
For the Belt of the Victor.
To be followed by a Contest Supreme.
Twenty Rounds. Twenty Rounds.
Twenty Three-Minute Rounds'
(Masefield, 1924, p.33).
This boxing match is not irrelevant to the plot of Sard Harker, as Sard (the eponymous hero) overhears an important conversation there, but the whole poster would not have to be reproduced simply for that reason. It demonstrates very well, though, one of the most obvious surface characteristics of Masefield’s text – its obsession with oddities of speech and diction.
The villains whose plotting is overheard by Sard, for example, speak in a strange argot composed of slang and fragments of verse:
Yah, you dirty Carib,
Knocky, knocky neethy
On your big front teethy.
That’s what’s coming to you in one dollar’s worth. the royal order of the K.O., or else a boot you’ll feel for as long as you can sit. (Masefield, 1924, p.43)
Other phrases in a similar vein include: ‘This is God’s country: it isn’t going to be any black man’s not while little ‘Arry Wiskey is on the tapis’; ‘he’ll have about as much show as a cat in hell without claws. When it’s peace, he has a show, but when it’s war, he’s got to go’; and ‘you may listen and you may glisten, but you’ll go where the nightshade twineth if you put the cross on little ‘Arry Wiskey’ (pp.41-42).
One does indeed get from all this the impression of a rather cryptic overheard conversation – a series of propositions à propos of nothing readily understandable – but there is also a rich prodigality about ‘Mr Wiskey’s’ verbal fantasias. The rhetorical devices employed by him include inversion (‘a boot you’ll feel for as long as you can sit’); internal rhyme (‘you may listen and you may glisten’, ‘he has a show ... he’s got to go’); deliberate archaisms, both in a punning sense (‘on the tapis’ for ‘above ground’), and for redundant poetic effect (‘you’ll go where the nightshade twineth’
); and elaborated metaphors (‘he’ll have as much show as a cat in hell without claws’ replaces the simple ‘as much chance as a cat in hell’).
When a number of these techniques are combined in one short phrase – such as ‘you may listen and you may glisten, but you’ll go where the nightshade twineth if you put the cross on little ‘Arry Wiskey’ – they do indeed seem to rise ‘to a kind of song’ (p.41), as Sard himself puts it. A strong sense of the rhythm of speech is supplied by the rhetorical triplet ‘you may ... and you may ... but you’ll go’; and ‘the nightshade twineth’, in context, justifies the pun on ‘cross’ immediately following – both making the (personified) Mr Wiskey ‘cross’, and putting a cross on someone’s grave (where it can be entwined by nightshade). The basic strategy, however, consists of substituting a periphrasis for each stage in a straightforward syntactical structure: ‘you may do what you like, but you’ll regret it if you anger me’. ‘Me’ becomes the third person ‘little ‘Arry Wiskey’; ‘regret’ is translated into an elaborate metaphor for death; and ‘do what you like’ becomes a play on words referring to earlier snatches of conversation about the palm-oil used by negroes to make their skin glisten, and the possibility that some of the other spectators at the boxing match (Sard, for instance) might understand what is being said (‘listen’). Mr Wiskey and his companions are in fact planning the abduction of a woman from her house on the edge of town.
I have devoted so much space to this verbal analysis in order to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of this thieves’ jargon. In the context of the novel it is presumably designed to communicate the atmosphere of half-understood, somehow threatening snatches of conversation, but its tropes are also aesthetically self-sufficient – displaying their wealth of linguistic invention for its own sake. This is the constant tension running through all the verbal pyrotechnics of Sard Harker. On the one hand they give a powerful sense of the alienness of the environment the hero is seeking to explore, but on the other hand they seem simply to record Masefield’s own love of puns, pastiche, and conflicting registers of speech (a taste which can be clearly discerned in his letters and other writings not intended for publication).
The boxing poster which I quoted from above illustrates the same tension in a slightly different way. The hyperbole and verbal flights of fancy here are attempts to echo the characteristic rhythms of Spanish as they appear to an English speaker. A ‘Feast of Pugilism’, for example, instead of a boxing match; the redundancy of ‘Contests with the gloves for the decisions’; and the constant repetitions of ‘At three o’clock, punctually’, which engender suspense by their very clumsiness. It is not just Spanish which Masefield hopes to evoke, however (which distinguishes him from Hemingway’s poetic version of Hispanic syntax in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)), but a particular kind of Spanish – in ‘an old type which had once printed praise of Maximilian’ (a fairly effective distancing gesture), in a provincial Caribbean coastal town, for a contest of no merit between two unknown boxers. This ‘Grand Display of the Antique Athletic’ is overblown even by Spanish standards, as Masefield suggests in the quasi-Eliotic repetition of the portentous drumroll, ‘Twenty Rounds. Twenty Rounds./ Twenty Three-Minute Rounds’.
Again, then, the sober intention of suggesting the style of Spanish, insofar as that is possible in an English novel, is subverted by Masefield’s own linguistic exuberance. A speech, for him, can never simply serve a structural role – it must be composed and then elaborated upon for its own sake (one good example is in his essay on Chaucer, where the simple idea of illustrating different types of verse narration leads him to compose a series of Homeric, Dantesque, Wordsworthian, and dramatic versions of ‘the cat sat on the mat’). This spirit – not just of mimicry, but of exaggeration and parody – is what gives his texts their primary quality of verbal excess. Whether it can be described as a virtue or a vice depends on its effect in each specific context – but in order to determine that, we will have to consider some further features of Masefield’s novel.
[Christophe Chat-Verre: Candomblé]
II. PECULIARITIES OF CHARACTER
They were no longer of this world, nor conscious of it: they went dancing back to the kitchen, with hallelujahs. A jar or pot boiled over as they entered, with an overwhelming wash of splutter and crackle. A flood of smoke shot up from the mess with a smell of burnt dinner. Ramón seized the offending pot and cast it on the floor, singing:
‘Never mind the little things, happy Ramón,
The little things of this world, happy Ramón,
For you have seen the joyous, happy Ramón,
Lady in the blue skirt, happy Ramón.
But, oh, the Lord, the saucepan burn my fingers!’ (p.92)
Tio Ramón and Tia Eusebia, the old black servants of Margaret and Hilary Kingsborough, have just seen a vision of the Virgin Mary ‘near the forest edge’ (p.91), and are trying to tell their employers about it. The two gringos ‘watched the dance from the kitchen door. They had heard that miraculous visitations were quite frequent along the coast and that when they came they filled the life of those visited for two days’ (p.92).
This religious fervour, which makes the old couple unfit for anything else until it has burned out, is useful to the narrative – in that it allows the villains introduced earlier to abduct Margaret Kingsborough with maximum ease – but it seems, again, a little surplus to requirements. It gives Masefield a chance to let himself go with some really rousing and lunatic ‘spirituals’, such as:
‘There shines the Lord.’
‘O, the little glittering feet!’
‘I see the long white beard of Father Abraham.’
‘Oh, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost.’
But it seems otherwise a fairly blatant piece of racial stereotyping.
If we go on a bit, though, we find a white ‘young woman, just beginning to grow fat’ (p.137), who is characterized in just as extreme a fashion.
‘Assuredly,’ she said. ‘It is true, then, as they say, that the English are as ice. “Assuredly.” You said it with a peck, as from a beak. “Assuredly.” If I were to take a dagger and thrust it into my heart so that I fell dead, you would say “Assuredly she has driven the point too far. Assuredly she is no longer alive.”’ (p.140)
This woman, whose name is ‘Clara of the Salt-Pans’ but who prefers to be known as ‘Rose of the South’, is – with her ‘exceedingly good-natured’ mouth – as much of a parody of the passionate Latin female as the two servants are of black religious enthusiasts. A mere exchange of cultural for racial stereotyping, one is tempted to conclude – and yet, on examination, the business about ‘Assuredly’ seems more effective as parody of the English than of their Hispanic neighbours. Is Masefield playing with the stereotype rather than simply endorsing it? If we examine more of the ‘types’ encountered by Sard in his progress across South America – Smugglers: ‘there were cries of “Narker!” “Put it on him, George!” “I set he was a spy, py Gott!” “Hay que matarle!” etc.’ (p.148); Bandits: ‘“Here I am, old Pappa Peppy, and I’m as drunk as I want to be. Come on out, Martin, Tomás, Ramón, Espinello, for I tell you I’m not Pappa Peppy, but an avenging angel of the Day of Doom ...” And at this he let fly with two revolvers at the doors of the huts’ (p.236); and Sailors ashore: ‘We’re not making any row, you young pup; go and lap milk in a tea-joint ... I’ve torn a man’s trousers off for less; dammy, the sea’s that refined nowadays it’s chronic’ (p.270) – we find that the satire is at least evenly spread, if not subtle.
What one is finally driven to acknowledge is that Masefield uses his linguistic creativity as a means of distinguishing these various characters, otherwise liable to be blurred into a single confused picture of ‘lower-class’ insobriety and violence. The stereotype, then, works as a tool for composition rather than as the vehicle of a racist ideology. In order for Masefield to chart the peculiarities of his new land, he must have some means of classifying the diverse individuals and peoples he finds there. The one he has chosen (perhaps the only effective one for his purposes), is to exaggerate their habits and appearance, and reflect this exaggeration in the quiddity and exuberance of their speech.
The two servants whom we started with, therefore, rather than reflecting Masefield’s own prejudices, can be used to show the efficacy of this method. Religious fervour – from the Virgin of Guadelupe, to the ancient Jaguar cults of the Andes, to the frightening rituals of Candomblé (Brazilian voodoo) – is one of our principal associations, as Westerners, with South America, and it could hardly be more neatly critiqued than in this small vignette. Take one of the main features of the scene – the fact that the two Kingsboroughs are looking on in wonder at this display, and comforting themselves with the reflection that it will all be over within ‘two days’:
‘So they have seen the Virgin,’ Margaret said. ‘They will need us no more tonight.’ (p.92)
The gap between theory and practice in the Kingsboroughs’ view of their religion is made apparent here – they see no way in which this alleged vision could impinge upon them, and assume it as a matter of course to be a temporary aberration. This might not seem an unreasonable line to take, under the circumstances – but it is a little more difficult to sustain when one already tacitly assents, as they do, to the whole medley of miracles of the Catholic Church. Masefield points the moral even more obviously by making the abductors of Margaret Kingsborough (or ‘Juanita de la Torre’ – the Anglo-Saxon veneer conceals the fact that she is, in fact, Sard’s Spanish-speaking childhood sweetheart (p.314)) the servants of a devil-worshipper, one who seems actually to possess supernatural powers. Sard, too, is aided in his quest by visions and prophetic dreams.
The way in which the old couple is presented – entirely from the outside (with no insight into their thought processes except that provided by their own speech and the reactions of the two observers) – is therefore more complex in implication than the ‘surface’ phenomenon which it at first appears to be. The same is true of the other classes of people portrayed in the novel. We have, always, the evidence of their own register of language and (usually) one of the main characters’ – Sard, Margarita, Hilary’s – reactions to them; but the clash between the two, between the stereotype and its realization, leaves an ironic gap which precludes too hasty or doctrinaire an interpretation.
Half a mile up the cañon he stopped, for in front of him the walls of the cañon drew together, and there at each side of the chasm the rock had been hewn into a semblance of columns, a hundred feet high. Drawing a little nearer, he saw that the heads of the columns were carven with the heads of monsters which were crushing human skulls between their teeth; blood seemed to be flowing from their mouths; blood spattered the columns; as he drew near, he could hear it dripping on the rocks below. The noise of the great bird, or whatever it was, had been silent for some time; now he heard it much nearer and with a new note, not of joy nor of sorrow, but of laughter that had no feeling in it. Sard stopped; he felt his hair stand on end, while his heart seemed to come up into his throat and thump there till it was as dry as bone. (p.213)
We have looked at the somewhat disproportionate verbal display of Masefield’s characters’ speech, and seen that it embodies a tension between the demands of narrative context and its author’s own taste in hyperbole. We have gone on to see that same exaggeration at least partly justified as a means of defining individual character in an alien society. Now, however, it is time to consider the most ‘surface’ (in Medcalf’s sense – without depth) characteristic of all – Masefield’s treatment of the South American landscape.
Immediately we are met with a paradox. Masefield’s characters are all surface glitter: tricks of speech which leave the inner self inviolate; his landscapes, on the other hand, could hardly be more anthropomorphic and subjective. Take the one described above. It is true that it is a striking scene – more striking, perhaps, because Masefield delays an explanation of the columns spattered with blood. It is, though, a relentlessly ‘Sard’s eye’ view – even the delay corresponds to his own hesitation in formulating an explanation:
‘They’re only those streams,’ he said, ‘with iron ore or with red pigment in them, and they’ve led them in channels to those figures’ mouths. That’s all it is.’ (p.213)
When we go through the rest of the passage we find a similar concentration on the stance of the central character at each point. ‘He stopped’ because – ‘in front of him the walls ... drew together’. It is true that it was the walls that halted him, but their drawing together was syntactically predicated on his stopping. Further on, ‘Drawing a little nearer, he saw ...’ – and thus we, too, are allowed to see – the ‘heads of monsters ... crushing human skulls’. Then, ‘as he drew near, he could hear ...’ – sound is added to our vision as Sard comes near enough to hear the blood dripping down. One sound recalls another, and Sard suddenly begins to hear again the ‘strange, metallic cry’ which preoccupied him a page before:
Sard’s mind offered many suggestions, one after the other. Now it was like some great bell, but it was not a bell. Now it was like some ringing true blow struck by a gigantic tuning-fork, or like the blow of an axe upon a gong, or like the drilling of some gigantic woodpecker into a musical wood. He could not think what it was. (pp.211-12)
‘He could not think what it was’ – and therefore ‘it’ remains unformulated until he can think what it is. For the moment, it resembles ‘laughter that had no feeling in it’. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in this landscape, objects do in fact exist only to the extent that they can be formulated by an observer. ‘That’s all it is’, is Sard’s conclusion to his explanation of the streams of blood, but the passage continues: ‘It was all that it was, but in the dusk of the cañon and of the day, to one very weak and weary as well as feverish, it was enough’ (p.213).
Similarly, when he discovers that ‘the noise of the great bird’ is actually ‘the wind striking sharp angles in the rocks at the chasm top’, he sums up:
‘Those Indians spoke the truth,’ he thought, ‘when they said that the gods speak in music from dusk to dawn.’ (p.214)
This explanation is meant no more figuratively than the earlier ones about a bell or a woodpecker – the landscape is perceived by Sard in an animistic way, either as helping or hindering his passage, but it is perceived by us as a literal ‘objective correlative’ of Sard’s mental landscape. ‘His heart seemed to come up into his throat and thump there till it was as dry as bone’ is Sard’s echo of the dryness and the ‘ringing true blows’ of the bird’s voice. The whole cañon with its speaking gods, furthermore, arises in response to Sard’s thought, ‘“Here ... I may come upon some unknown beast or bird or race of men or giants, for there may be anything in a place like this”’ (p.213).
This sense of ‘double exposure’ about the landscapes in Sard Harker – the fact that they can only be perceived from Sard’s point of view, and yet are simultaneously dictated to us by the narrator as aspects of Sard’s state of mind – is nowhere clearer than in the famous passage in which he attempts to make his way across a swamp. For ten pages of the novel, he is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with what is little more than an overflowing ditch. The disproportionate length of this passage, given its lack of importance to the plot, has caused it to be regarded (like the ‘great wave’ passage in The Bird of Dawning), both as a showcase of Masefield’s rhetorical skills and an example of his failure to master the architectonics of the novel-form. To me, however, the textual intractability of Masefield’s description of the struggle with the swamp is designed to echo – in all respects – its role in Sard’s journey.
It is, at first, intended as a short-cut:
He judged that the sea beach would be about half a mile from him and that he would save at least three-quarters of a mile by going by the beach. (p.117)
The fact that Sard is attempting to rejoin his ship before it sails, having tried (unsuccessfully) to warn the Kingsboroughs of their peril, imparts an added tension to this monstrously misjudged device for saving time. The reader too is anxious to know what has become of Margaret, and is therefore equally frustrated by the lack of success of this manoeuvre. The disproportionate difficulty Sard finds in negotiating his short-cut therefore matches the disproportionate length at which it is narrated (both character and reader being slow to perceive that, far from being a detour, this is one of the most important parts of his struggle).
As Sard comes closer and closer to being drowned, his only desire is to regain his ship (he does not know that Margaret has already been kidnapped). He is saved, however, by a ‘spray of xicale flowers [which] came floundering down from above, into his face’ (p.128) – the flower being linked with Margaret, who lives in a villa called ‘Los Xicales’. The reader too does not realise that by being deflected a hundred times, by being frustrated on every side and led on a mad dash through the heart of the continent, Sard will manage to be in time to save his love, and that the supernatural aid of dreams and flowers is more significant in this drama than quotidian details of ships and sailing-times. Sard’s lack of knowledge, then, is echoed by the lack of knowledge of the reader – and the arid, threatening nature of the landscapes which he encounters, landscapes which seem created only to serve as an obstacle to him, can be explained by the fact that they are precisely that. They are narrative obstacles to too hasty a resolution – and their beauty and terror (the beauty and terror of South America itself), is a reflection of the Stevensonian doctrine that the journey is as important as the destination: that the success of a Romance of this kind depends as much on the intrinsic interest of its parts as on the ingenuity of its conclusion.
It is perhaps not exaggerating the case too much to say that Masefield presents language objectively and landscape subjectively because he has more faith in the former than the latter. Sard’s world is shaped by his own thought processes – and by the language in which they are couched – both from Sard’s point of view (the order in which they appear), and ours (the ways in which tangible things – the swamp, the cañon, the flowers – are made to echo the state of his soul). The landscapes in the book, then, operate on three levels: as anthropomorphic obstacles to Sard; as narrative frustrations to the reader; and as hints at an overall perception of landscape as language (not I think too post-modern a sentiment to attribute to Masefield, under the circumstances).
[Villa Secca (Chile) (2004)]
IV. SMALL TOWN PARANOIA
Sard felt that they knew that he was there, and that they were looking for him. Then he felt that though they were men, they wanted some of the senses of men; they were like some race of men born blind, who felt for their enemies by some sense which men no longer have ... They seemed to feel the ground and lift samples of it, then they muttered remarks about the samples ... Sard could hear their mutterings and a discussion going on among them. Evidently they had come upon his trail and were puzzled about it.
For a few moments the thought of dealing with a race of giants was unnerving. He saw how such a race could live in that land in the great caves of the limestone, coming out only at night into the wilder places of the hills, taking their prey and going back before dawn. Then he thought,’They cannot be men, they must be bears. But if they are bears it won’t be any better. They can only be grizzly bears who attack any man on sight.’ (p.203)
On one level, this quotation illustrates what was said in the last section – the way in which Sard’s perceptions govern his environment. The bears become bears, for all intents and purposes, at the moment when he names them as such. What I intend it to represent at this stage of the argument is, however, somewhat different. It shows the ever-present sense of threat and alienation which dogs the progress of the entire story.
This overriding atmosphere – and all the features listed so far contribute to it in some way: the brittle strangeness of Masefield’s mimicked speech patterns; the arbitrary, illogical fury of the strangers Sard encounters; and (above all), the literal ‘hostility’ of the landscape – is perhaps most clearly exemplified in the episode where Sard, having arrived in the mining town of ‘Tlotoatin’ by train, is arrested for no reason at all.
‘We desire no proof, since we need none. You were on the line, that suffices; without papers, which clinches it. You are arrested.’
... If he had resisted, perhaps if he had said another word, they would have shot him and pitched him down a disused working. Sard knew that the silver escorts were apt to shoot to save trouble. (p.170)
As Sard is led away, he hears the crowd (mostly ‘mestizos or Indios’) beginning to pass sentence on the ‘bandit’:
‘Ha, dirty thief, to the gallows!’
‘Ho, Englishman, it is not so easy to rob our silver: we are not your Africans from whom you may rob gold.’
‘Englishman, the garota: cluck-cluck!’
‘They say he killed seven before being taken.’
‘He? An Englishman? They were asleep, covered in their blankets. He stabbed them sleeping.’
‘Hear you, he killed seven, sleeping.’ (p.171)
So, from a stranger just arrived in town, Sard has become (in the eyes of the populace), a murderer and a thief in just a few minutes. He does finally manage to escape from their jail, but not before having had it brought home to him that in a town as remote as this, reality is what the inhabitants choose to call it. They can do exactly what they want – execute him, rob him (whether it be in the guise of a fine or a bribe), or let him go – and there is no-one to whom he can appeal. He has, in short, become a criminal (‘“I’m suspect without a hat,” he thought, “and I am also guilty of train-trespass and prison-breaking”’ (p.187)). Who is to say that these are not capital offences in Tlotoatin?
The cell was lit by the omission of one block of adobe just under the eaves at the back. Sard could just see out of this hole by standing on tiptoe. He saw a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand; rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks. Beyond the sandy strip and distant about 120 yards was the railway, with its platform, water tank, fuel heap, and the legend
Beyond this was the desert reaching to infinity (pp.174-75).
‘Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away’ (Shelley, n.d., p.589). Masefield has succeeded in evoking the most potent fear of the Romantic age. Associated with the cult of wildness, of solitude, of space, comes the terror of formlessness and meaninglessness. It is not that Sard has no purpose in crossing this desert (though he does not yet realise that it is to save Margaret that this series of ‘coincidental’ detours has been arranged) – but the purpose is so attenuated that it may, at any moment, dry up and leave him alone in the middle of a wilderness, or (worse still) in the hands of the citizens of Tlotoatin.
The basic, existential fear which Masefield is hinting at in these passages is conveyed by a skilful interweaving of a number of the features we have already discussed. Take, for example, the chorus of taunts quoted above – the techniques used include, again, inversion: ‘Hear you, he killed seven, sleeping’; ‘Spanish’ word-order: ‘we are not your Africans from whom you may rob gold’; onomatopoeia: ‘Englishman, the garota: cluck-cluck!’; all of which culminate in a sort of syllogistic syntax, one assertion providing grounds for the next – ‘He? An Englishman? They were asleep, covered in their blankets. He stabbed them sleeping’. It is the groundlessness of these remarks that makes them so unsettling – the fact that they are entirely self-generating. One man says that the Englishman has killed seven; the next says that they must have been asleep to be so easily defeated; and the next proclaims this as the official reason for the arrest. It is hard to think of a more overt way in which the ‘surface’ nature of Masefield’s rhetorical tropes could justify itself – it is a mode of speech which creates meanings out of nothing, and which is frightening because it acknowledges no other basis for meaning.
I could go on to analyse the similar use of character in this context – the instinctive suspicion and low cunning of the prison guards, always on the lookout for a trick – and the masterly employment of features of description such as the rats ‘humping about’ among the refuse – but this would be to elaborate the point which has already been made. It is the surface glitter, the lack of any ‘depth of implication’ (noted as the principal objections to Masefield’s fiction at the beginning of this essay)) that make it possible for him to substantiate this threatening, alienating view of life in South America.
From the basic stereotypes associated with the region – feigning, flowery speech; stubborn but ‘picturesque’ peasants; frightening emptiness combined with scenic grandeur – Masefield has made a narrative structure whose implications go beyond mere evocation of the supposed spirit of ‘South America’ (as it is perceived in popular mythology). The continent has become, for him, the quintessential ‘landscape of the mind’ – inscrutable in virtually all its aspects, and therefore demanding more or less arbitrary interpretation every minute. Such dislocation of a solid basis of meaning must inevitably be a frightening thing both for its creator and his readers – hence (among other things), Masefield’s parable of the bears, where the sudden realisation that it is not a race of giants that he has to deal with is followed by Sard’s wary proviso: ‘But if they are bears it won’t be any better’.
[John Masefield (Wirral)]
V. TENOR AND VEHICLE
We have, therefore, gone some way towards answering the question with which we started – whether Burgess’ and Medcalf’s strictures on Masefield were really justified – but this still leaves us to decide what, if it is not a ‘rattling good yarn’ concerned solely with the ‘excitement of event’, Sard Harker actually is. I have already suggested that it employs a number of conventionalized features of South America in order to problematize our view not just of that continent, but of the nature of all such imaginary landscapes. I now propose to extend that insight and – employing, in a slightly modified sense, I. A. Richard’s terms ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’ (defined succinctly by David Lodge as words ‘coined ... to distinguish the two elements in a metaphor or simile. In “ships ploughed the sea”, “Ships’ movement” is the tenor and “plough” the vehicle’ (Lodge, 1979, p.75)) – to look now for the book’s ‘tenor’, its significance in Masefield’s own creative life, as a counterbalance and completion of the technical ‘vehicle’ outlined in the last four sections.
A novel might be said to operate, for the purposes of our argument, as an unusually extended metaphor – and the factors which animate this metaphor (as opposed to the metonymic view it provides of our own human world), may not always be immediately accessible without reference to other writings and verbal expressions of its author. For example, one small detail from an already quoted section of Sard Harker seems to me to contain the key to reconstructing the growth of Masefield’s feelings about South America. I refer to the sentence in his description of ‘Tlotoatin’:
He saw a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand; rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks. (p.174)
In April 1894, John Masefield sailed from Cardiff as junior apprentice aboard the Gilcruix, a four-masted barque with a cargo of coal-dust for Chile. He was sixteen years old, and this was his first (and last) voyage as a merchant seaman. The thirteen week passage, including thirty-two days of bad weather going around Cape Horn, seems to have been fairly miserable – especially being ‘never warm nor dry, nor full nor rested’ (Smith, 1978, p.27) – a feeling reflected in his narrative poem Dauber (1912). In any case, when they arrived at Iquique, the main nitrate port of Chile, he fell ill, ‘smitten by sunstroke’ – although ‘it seems that he also suffered some kind of nervous breakdown’ (Smith, 1978, p.29). He was classified as a Distressed British Seaman, or ‘D.B.S’, and sent to the British Hospital in Valparaiso, having been discharged from his ship.
It is this hospital which provides the frame for one of his early short stories, ‘The Yarn of Lanky Job’, which includes a most revealing passage:
The place we chose for our yarns was among lilies, under a thorn tree which bore a fragrant white blossom not unlike a tiny rose. When we were seated in our chairs we could see the city far below us, and that perfect bay with the ships and Aconcagua snowy in the distance. A few yards away, beyond a low green hedge where the quick green lizards darted, was a barren patch, a sort of rat warren, populous with rats as big as rabbits. I was getting well of a sunstroke and my nerves were shaken, and the sight of these beasts scattering to their burrows was very horrible to me ... My comrade watched me shudder as a rat crept through the hedge in search of food. (Smith, 1978, pp.29-30)
The story itself would be of little concern were it not for the fact that it is obviously inspired by these rats and their ‘rat warren’. It tells of a sailor who falls into the sea and is picked up by a ‘big ship, black as pitch, with heavy red sails’, which turns out to be the ‘rat flag-ship, whose boats row every sea, picking up the rats as they leave ships going to sink’ (Masefield, 1918, pp.33-35). There are one or two nice details, such as the decks being ‘ropy with their tails’ (p.34), but for the most part it is a straightforward sea-yarn – typical of Masefield at this stage in his career. In combination with the description of the hospital and the bay, however, it becomes rather an interesting piece of work.
On the one hand we have the careful setting of the scene – among lilies, with the ‘fragrance’ of thorn blossoms providing a little haven: an impression seconded by the magnificent view of the ‘perfect bay’ and its snow-capped volcano. This whiteness (snow, lilies, blossoms) is contrasted, through the medium of a ‘low green hedge where the quick green lizards darted’, with the dusty brown hues of the ‘barren patch’ full of rats. This three-fold colouring is matched by the combination – suggested by the syntactical structuring of the passage – of the beautiful landscape (‘that perfect bay with the ships’); the horror of the rats (‘a sort of rat warren, populous with rats as big as rabbits’); and Masefield’s own feelings of sickness and debility (‘I was getting well of a sunstroke and my nerves were shaken’). To elaborate the point a little further, one might say that the ‘sterility’ of white (the hospital) is filtered through the ‘quick green’ of everyday life to produce, in this state of illness, a pathological view of the ‘barrenness’ and horror of natural processes.
I do not insist upon every detail of this reading, but I would maintain that, taken together with the story, we have here a clear example of Masefield’s use of an image or correlative to express, and thereby exorcise, an impression or a feeling. To return to the sentence from Sard Harker quoted above, the odd syntax of the expression ‘rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks’, together with the use of the expressive (and ambiguous) word ‘humping’, make doubly sure that readers will pause at this point. To be sure, there seems no immediate reason, beyond the fact that they both concern rats, to connect this passage with the one from ‘The Yarn of Lanky Job’ – but when it is looked at more closely, the link seems much more plausible.
What, for example, is the setting for Sard’s observation of the rats? He is in prison, looking out of a gap in the wall at ‘a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand’. Beyond this there is the railway, a sign saying ‘Tlotoatin’, and then ‘the desert reaching to infinity’. In other words, we have a three-fold structure: the observer, Sard, in jail; sand pitted by people and rats; then railway, sign, and desert. I have already discussed this passage in terms of the romantic terror of formlessness, but it seems that there may be more to it than simply a Pascalian expression of fear at the idea of infinity. In short, then, I would propose that the phrase about the ‘people wanting sand’ is intended to associate them with the futilely ‘humping’ rats – that however good their reasons may be for collecting sand (for building, perhaps? or baths?), Masefield means them to appear like scurrying rodents, imbued with malevolence and little else. The railway, of course, is the way out – but it is blocked by the ‘legend’ of the town’s name (a name brilliantly chosen to give a sense of total desuetude – an Indian tongue-twister like ‘Tenochtitlán’ or ‘Toltec’, without even the dubious ‘Europeanness’ of coastal towns such as Las Palomas or Santa Barbara). The key to the puzzle is, however, Sard himself. Like Masefield convalescing in his Chilean hospital, Sard’s ‘nerves are shaken’. He has been poisoned by a stingray, half-drowned in a swamp, run for miles, and fought with smugglers and guards, before being thrown into prison at the end of an uncomfortable train ride. He can be forgiven for taking a slightly jaundiced view of things. The equation of rats with people, therefore, is his – just as the seeming ‘infinity’ of the desert is his response to the twin prospects of staying in this accursed town or attempting, somehow, to escape. Both seem to mean certain death.
I do not, in saying that this is Sard’s view, mean to imply that we are intended, as readers, to censure him for his narrow-mindedness. The intention is, rather, to give us an entirely subjective angle on South America – one which, in Ford Madox Ford’s words, will combine absolute ‘accuracy as to impressions’ (Stang, 1987, p.92) with indifference to (alleged) facts.
What Masefield means to give us in Sard Harker is his South America, not a generalized travelogue complete with every feature from the films. More, it is his intention to portray for us – as accurately as he can – the particular range of human sensations associated by him with South America: in this case, illness, the futility of life in such surroundings, and the inexplicable horor of certain sights (rats, fragments of ancient carving, a sign marked ‘Tlotoatin’). It is not a comforting perspective on South America – or on existence – which is why Masefield is careful in the novel to put it in the context of Sard’s eventually successful journey. It is, in fact, a nightmarish view (it is no accident that the ‘logic of dreams’ governs Sard’s progress not only in a metaphorical sense, but in a structural one – the whole quest is heralded by a prophetic dream, and visions and prophecies guide him throughout), and it seems a fair enough conjecture to suggest that it had its origins in his initial associations with the region: as a boy of sixteen, ill with sunstroke and a nervous breakdown, at what seemed an absolute impasse in his life.
To an unusual extent, then, Masefield the writer is bound up with the fate of his characters. Sard is obviously, to some extent, an ideal self dealing with the rigours that Masefield himself was unable to face. The horrors are therefore exaggerated to giant size (the swamp, the bears, ‘Tlotoatin’) – but the prize of romantic success (‘your Excellency will have to ask my wife’ (p.332)), is correspondingly lessened. None of Masefield’s heroines are particularly convincingly imagined, and the double natured Margaret/Juanita – though undoubtedly interesting both as a symbol and as a narrative lure – is no exception. Her twin facets – English and Spanish, pursuer and pursued (she, too, has been looking for Sard, whom she knows as ‘Chisholm’, his real Christian name, rather than ‘Harker’) – provide a justification for the book’s incredibly roundabout structure, but do not succeed in making us apprehend the conventional pairing at the end as anything but an anticlimax.
Masefield must have taken the failure to heart, since this particular deficiency is rectified in his next novel Odtaa (an acronym for ‘One Damned Thing After Another’), where the heroine, Carlotta, is already betrothed to the god-like Manuel before the book’s hero, Highworth Ridden, arrives on the scene. The horrors and confusions of a South American journey are therefore untainted by the insipidity of a ‘love interest’ in any but the most hagiographic sense (Carlotta is adored by the entire nation as a virtual goddess). The quest, what is more, is this time conducted in vain. Carlotta is murdered by the Dictator Lopez, and ‘Hi’ is left with the rather scant consolation that, while ‘Life’s battle is a conquest for the strong; / The meaning shows in the defeated thing.' (Masefield, 1941, p.372)
Our discussion of Masefield’s allegedly superficial and ‘surface’ yarn could therefore lead us now in various directions. The account of his earliest associations with South America, the ‘tenor’ of Sard Harker, should ideally be supplemented with some hypothesis relevant to his life-long inability to portray a sexual relationship between a man and a woman in any but the most childish terms. Our examination of the various consituent elements of his narrative might be extended to include the ‘obsession-compulsion’ with it which drove him to repeat virtually all its significant features (albeit marginally ‘improved’), in another novel within two years.
Either of these lines of argument would, however, lead us outside the scope of this article; so I shall conclude with the hope that what I have said has been sufficient to establish the fact that even in Masefield’s works of ‘paralittérature’ we can detect an extremely complex interplay of style, setting, and narrative machinery. Over-reading? Perhaps, but the burden of proof of the unimportance of Masefield’s literary and linguistic tropes remains with Messrs Burgess and Medcalf.
[John Masefield: Victorious Troy (1935)]
1. Mark Twain’s use of a similar phrase: ‘gone where the woodbine twineth’ (Rogers, 1967, p.393) in his unpublished spoof ‘Simon Wheeler, Detective’ (1877-c.1898), confirms that Masefield’s central technique is the refinement and elaboration of existing colloquialisms, rather than verbal invention per se.
2. Take, for example, the following passages from Masefield’s Letters to Reyna (1983) – a series of letters written to a young lady violinist. They range from parodies of Chaucer (p.118):
My yongè brightè fresshè mayden dere
That fiddleth so that joy it is to here.
Swete gentil-hart Reyna, yow I mene
(As thesè wysè Spaniards clepen Quene)
to literary anecdotes (p.175): ‘Two young American ladies came to see [Victor Hugo] one day, & VH said to his interpreter, “What say these Ladies?” ... The Ladies said that “they were just tickled to death to meet him”. VH still somewhat puzzled, asked again, “What say these ladies?” The interpreter said, “Master, they say, that they salute the Eagle of the World.” After that, probably, all went well ...’; to mere persiflage (p.178): ‘I fear you must often have shuddered, seeing a packet from me, & thought: “O, yet another 20 pounder: farewell my bow hand, welcome neuritis and the end.”
3. They range from an imitation of the Divine Comedy:
Within that seventh circle of red hell
There came what seem’d a squeak, and looking near,
Lo, a black-visaged Cat, exceeding fell,
Who on the shadow of a rat made cheer.
which concludes with the sage reflection: ‘This is the end of too much love of cheese; to ‘The dramatic way. Curtain rising discovers Rat. Enter Cat.’
Pounce. Ow! Curtain. (Masefield, 1931, pp.8-12).
4. I do not mean to imply that there is anything unusual about this method of third-person narration filtered through the consciousness of a single main character – rather, it is how it affects our apprehension of the landscapes Masefield describes that I wish to explore.
5. This contention is backed up by the fact that a similar passage, differing only in that it concerns the last surviving ancient Britons instead of a ‘race of giants’, can be found in Masefield’s early novel A Book of Discoveries:
They had a moment’s wild hope that, by staying up late, they might conceivably, somewhere, see a few woaded creatures, slinking from dens on the hills to rob a hen-roost, and slinking back, silent as the grave, furtive, going in Indian file, dodging from tree to tree out of the moonlight, leaving no footmarks, stealthier than animals, dreading the sun. (Masefield, 1910, pp.104-5).
6. Interestingly, this passage was omitted when the story was reprinted in book form in A Mainsail Haul (1905).
- Burgess, Anthony. Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.
- Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature. London, 1979.
- Masefield, John. The Bird of Dawning. London: Heinemann, 1933.
- Masefield, John. A Book of Discoveries. London: Heinemann, 1910.
- Masefield, John. Chaucer: the Leslie Stephen Lecture Delivered at Cambridge, 1 March 1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931.
- Masefield, John. Collected Poems. 3rd edition. London: Heinemann, 1941.
- Masefield. John. 'Dauber.' In The Story of a Round-House and Other Poems. New York: the Macmillan Company, 1912.
- Masefield, John. Letters to Reyna. Ed. William Buchan. London: Macmillan, 1983.
- Masefield, John. A Mainsail Haul. 1905. London: Grant Richards, 1918.
- Masefield, John. Odtaa: A Novel. London: Heinemann, 1926.
- Masefield, John. Sard Harker: A Novel. London: Heinemann, 1924.
- Masefield, John. The Taking of the Gry. London: Heinemann, 1934.
- Medcalf, Stephen, 'Review of Fire Down Below, by William Golding'. TLS, 448 (17 March 1989): 267-68.
- Rogers, Franklin R., ed. Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
- Ross, John Mackenzie. 'An Elusive Identity: Versions of South America in English Literature from Aphra Behn to the Present Day'. [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. University of Edinburgh, 1990.
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe, & John Keats. Complete Poetical Works. Modern Library. New York, n.d.
- Smith, Constance Babington. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford. 1978.
- Stang, Sondra J., ed. The Ford Madox Ford Reader. London, 1987.
[Philip W. Errington, ed.: Sea Fever (2005)]