Masefield – Verse vs. Prose
In The Everlasting Mercy (1911), Masefield's first long narrative poem, there is a point where one of the subsidiary characters – (the parson) – is allowed to put his own case, after having been abused by the belligerent drunkard Saul Kane. He says, among other things:
We're neither saints nor Philip Sidneys,
But mortal men with mortal kidneys. (Masefield, 1941, p.112))
A number of points could be made about these lines, but let us note for the moment the almost Hudibrastic quality of the rhyme – which, rather than making the sentiment it expresses ridiculous, actually seems to lend it a certain unpretentious vigour. The words mean what they say: "We probably won't be giving up cups of water on our deathbeds, but let us try, even so, to do the best we can"; however 'mortal men with mortal kidneys' also links up with water with drink – (Saul Kane is drunk, as usual); and thus enables the parson to surreptitiously undermine his opponent. On one level, then, he is saying that we are not saints but mortal men – on another, in effect: "Never mind about water, you've been drinking too much" – which is not calculated to be very good for the kidneys.
In 'A Cooking Egg', published in his Poems, 1920, T. S. Eliot includes the lines:
I shall not want Honour in Heaven
For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney
And have talk with Coriolanus
And other heroes of that kidney. (Eliot, 1975, p.44)
It is possible that Masefield and Eliot had a common source for this rhyme, or that Eliot borrowed it from Masefield, but, in any case, the immediate difference in tone is most striking. Eliot's lines are intended to be read with a particularly complex irony – as another example of the inflated dreams of the entrapped suburbanite. The truth of life, Eliot is saying, is the 'Views of Oxford Colleges ... on the table, with the knitting', or the 'Weeping, weeping multitudes' who 'Droop in a hundred A.B.C's' (1975, pp.44-45). It is a life made horrible by its very banality. But fantasies of 'Heaven' are no less banal – 'Lucretia Borgia will be my bride' – the famous names have become mere items in a catalogue: without personality, without meaning – an incitement to absurd delusion. The juxtaposition of Sir Philip Sidney and Coriolanus – both heroes famous for their self-abnegation, both dimly perceived through a haze of literary allusions – serves also to belittle them both. Sidney – or Lucretia Borgia – might still be impressive on their own. Coriolanus, in the play at any rate, has a certain ferocious dignity. But here, in association with 'other heroes of that kidney' – and the doggerel rhyme, the intentional cliche, has much to do with the effect – they are words on a page; printed ghosts: neither 'spirit of health or goblin damn'd' [Hamlet 1.iv.l.40] (Craig, 1939).
I have discussed these two sets of lines at such length because they serve to highlight the gap between the poetry of Masefield and that of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the other Modernists. Masefield's poetry is vigorous and fluent – arid does a "maker's" job in a workmanlike fashion – but it simply is not 'language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree' (Pound, 1974, p.23). Masefield, in fact, was a minor bête noire of Ezra Pound's – who felt angry at the sight of other, better (to his mind) poets having to give way before 'Masefield's diarrhoea' (Paige, 1951, p.195). Nevertheless, his hostility was mixed with a slight puzzlement – could it be that Masefield was in some sense good? He wrote in a letter in 1912:
Masefield was acclaimed. Nobody dared to say one word the other way. The people who cared were puzzled. Here was something strange – one liked his plays, or his sea-ballads, or something .... One lady said, 'It's glorified Sims,' Several people liked' the end.' Et ego suggested that he would probably be the Tennyson of this generation. One man said: 'He will appeal to lots of people who don't like poetry but who like to think they like poetry.' (Paige, 1951, p.47)
(By 'Sims' the lady presumably meant William Gilmore Simms (1806-70), prolific American writer of romantic verse and prose (Harvey, 1975, p.756); by 'the end', I imagine the end of The Everlasting Mercy is meant).
'The Tennyson of this generation' implies something a good deal less than total disparagement, even allowing for Pound's opinion of that poet – but no real rapprochement was possible between such very different definitions of the function of poetry as those of Masefield and Pound. He may have inherited it from Ford Madox Hueffer, but Pound was the most eloquent spokesman for the dogma that 'Poetry must be as well written as prose ... There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions .,. no hindside-before-ness, no straddled adjectives (as 'addled mosses dank'), no Tennysonian-ness of speech; nothing – nothing that you couldn't, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say' (Paige, 1951, p.91). Thus Eliot (assuming him to assent to the precise terms of Pound's definition), would have to be able to imagine himself, or someone, saying – in an ironic, fantastical mood: 'I shall not want Honour in Heaven ...'
But would any parson ever really say 'We're neither saints nor Philip Sidneys … '? Masefield, in fact, has bolstered up an idea with a vivid (if slightly vulgar) phrase rather than dramatizing a credible piece of idiomatic English.
And so, Pound complains:
He has avoided all the difficulties of the immeasurably difficult art of good prose by using a slap-dash, flabby verse which has been accepted in New Zealand. (Pound, 1974, p.385)
Masefield, then, according to Pound, is not part of the 'movement' which has been making 'an effort ... during the last few years ... to proceed from the prose short story to the short story in verse' (Pound, 1974, p.385). Nevertheless, through the natural perversity of mankind, an editor was still more prone to print 'a weak pseudo-Masefieldian poem about a hired man ... one written in a stilted pseudo-literary language, with all sorts of floridities and worn-out ornaments' (Pound, 1974, p.384), than Robert Frost's 'Death of the Hired Man'.
However Masefield too represented a kind of 'new poetry' – for, as Frank Swinnerton puts it, 'quite by himself, before Edward Marsh schemed with his fellow-enthusiasts to produce an anthology, he made new poetry a rage' (1969, p.209) – he was, in fact, 'the first Georgian Poet'. Georgianism as a poetic movement has now been rather discredited, and we would, as a consequence, tend to think that Pound was "right" about Masefield. Certainly the future lay with a very different sort of poetry. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the poetic method outlined by Pound and Eliot produced greater and more subtle poetry than Masefield and his companions ever did. For all that, though, the Georgians do represent almost a "counter-culture" in twentieth century poetry one so widespread and pervasive that it cannot be ignored. The poetry of the First World War is, of course (except for T. E. Hulme), extreme Georgian poetry (even Wilfred Owen's – 'I am held peer by the Georgians' (Lewis, 1977, p.172)); and perhaps it is only the incorrect view of Rupert Brooke as the archetypal Georgian which has prevented this fact from being acknowledged. If we look at what poets like Masefield, Edward Thomas, James Elroy Flecker, and Walter de la Mare have in common, it will, I imagine, become obvious that to assess them as a group is far more fruitful than to isolate those considered more “respectable” and declare them “not Georgians”.
This is an important point to establish – for if "Georgian" is regarded as a pejorative rather than a descriptive term, then it will remain impossible to judge a poet like Masefield effectively. If, in short, the same standards are to be applied to Masefield as to H. D. or T. E. Hulme, then he will inevitably seem flabby and prolix. However if we look on him as 'the last, or almost the last, major narrative poet using English' (Berry, 1967, p.2), then, as Newman White puts it, 'it is hard to see how the future can reject him as one of the foremost English poets of the first half of the twentieth century without at the same time rejecting the whole tradition of English poetry' (Sternlicht, 1977, p.143). Within his own tradition – that of narrative poetry, which requires 'a sweep sufficient to charge the elements with as much density as can be grasped at a single hearing' (Berry, 1967, p.18) Masefield is a major poet. And there is no reason not to acknowledge this, while simultaneously admitting the superiority of Modernist standards in poetry. After all, we no longer have the excuse of a continuing controversy to prevent us from examining the "opponents" of Eliot, Pound, Auden, and Yeats on their own ground.
[Wyndham Lewis: T. S. Eliot (1938)]
Comme les comédies qui sont en prose ne sont pas moins des poèmes dramatiques que les comédies qui sont en vers, pourquoi les histoires fabuleuses que l'on raconte en prose ne seraient-elles pas des poèmes aussi bien que celles que l'on raconte en vers? ... Les vers ne sont qu'un ornement de la poésie, très grand à la vérité, mais ils ne sont point de son essence (Perrault, 1981, pp.xxvi-vii).
[Since plays in prose have as much right to be called dramatic poems as plays in verse, why should not fanciful tales told in prose be just as much poems as those which are told in verse? Verses are only an ornament to poetry – a most important one, to be sure – but they do not constitute its essence.]
So says Perrault, the author of the Contes, and his remarks perhaps provide as good a starting-place as any for our discussion of the contrast between Masefield's verse and prose. Which of them, indeed, is the more "poetic", if we accept the rather fin de siècle idea that "les vers ne sont pas de l'essence" of poetry? In his remarks already quoted above, Ezra Pound tells us that the onus should be on poetry to become as accurate and unaffected as prose – to achieve some of the subtlety and distinction of Stendhal or Maupassant. Others, W. B. Yeats for instance, seem to take the opposite view – that a prose compounded of extravagant metaphors, thereby resembling poetry, can actually be considered poetry (witness his famous printing of Walter Pater's description of the Mona Lisa as "poetry" in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse). This controversy should be borne in mind as we examine Masefield's numerous pre-war productions in both forms.
[Wyndham Lewis: Ezra Pound (1939)]
Masefield's first book of poems, published in 1902, was entitled (at his publisher's suggestion) Salt-Water Ballads. 'Written mainly in six exciting weeks,' it consisted, according to Masefield, 'chiefly of ballads expressing a longing for fresh air' (Masefield, 1967, p.viii). Most of the poems deal with sea-life, and draw on Masefield's own memories of his voyage around Cape Horn to Chile as an apprentice on a sailing-ship. The language in which it is written is most interesting – a sort of stylized colloquial argot:
Jake was a dirty Dago lad, an' he gave the skipper chin,
An' the skipper up an' took him a crack with an iron belaying-pin (Maseifield, 1941, p.21).
This also links up with his valiant attempts to introduce verisimilitude into the descriptions of life aboard ship. Masefield had himself served on a ship, had heard sailors talk – and he was prepared to describe the details of their daily round; even though, in the event, the language he used combined "literary" phrases with the pure vernacular (doctored with apostrophes and curlicues to give an effect of cohesion):
I'll never fare to sea again a-temptin' Davy Jones,
A-hearkening to the cruel sharks a-hungerin' for my bones (p.13).
This is obviously not an accurate transcript of seaman's conversation. Why, for example, is the 'g' left on 'hearkening' and taken off 'hungerin"? The prefix 'a-' frequently used by Masefield before the present participle _ seems also prompted more by considerations of metre and euphony, than by any suggestion that it represents a compound still actually to be heard.
It is more the atmosphere of ship-board life that Masefield is after, however, than the strict details – and his best tool for recreating this atmosphere is seaman's slang:
Loafin' around in Sailor Town, a-bluin' o' my advance,
I met a derelict donkeyman who led me a merry dance,
Till he landed me 'n' bleached me fair in the bar of a rum-saloon,
'N' there he spun me a juice of a yarn to this-yer brand of tune. (p.11)
Nor does a little judicious "heightening" of the language conflict with his intentions. In order to make almost any material into "poetry" a little writing-up is required how much more, then, for descriptions of "lower-class life" at sea!
Masefield's real achievement in this book lies in his ability to combine an accurate reflection of general tone and atmosphere, with a seeming verisimilitude in particulars (rather than in giving us a clear picture of the life of a sailor a hundred years ago). Nevertheless, he takes his pedagogical role seriously enough to provide us with a glossary of nautical terms and phrases at the back of the book:
- Bloody. – An intensive derived from the substantive "blood", a name applied to the Bucks, Scowrers, and Mohocks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ...
- Bollard. – ... A phallic or "sparklet"-shaped ornament of the dockside, of assistance to mariners in warping into or out of dock ...
- Bull of Barney. – A beast mentioned in an unquotable sea-proverb. (p.45)
This antiquarianism is seldom intrusive, though, and usually serves merely to give the impression of an author who knows what he is talking about. Still, perhaps the best moments in this early collection come when Masefield ignores quotidian reality and lets his imagination guide him, as in the poem 'Cape Horn Gospel':
'I'm a-weary of them there mermaids,'
Says old Bill's ghost to me;
'It ain't no place for a Christian
Below there – under sea.
For it's all blown sand and shipwrecks,
And old bones eaten bare,
And them cold fishy females
With long green weeds for hair.' (p.20)
Nor can this be regarded entirely as a flight of fancy, when one considers that Masefield is as much concerned with giving an accurate impression of sailors' yarns and folklore, as with delineating their everyday life. Indeed, it is this impression he gives of knowing everything there is to know about both which makes his readers prepared to accept a good deal that would otherwise ring false.
Salt-Water Ballads, then, would seem to owe as much to the example of other "balladeers", such as Dibdin or Bret Harte, as it does to direct contact with the sea and its mysteries. Masefield was a sailor, and must have known what they were like, but one suspects that few of them can have much resembled the 'old Bills' and 'Jakes' of his ballads. It is rather instructive, in this context, to examine his own remarks on the book:
Poet I'm not, and never shall be, but one or two of my rhymes have technical merits. Genius I'm not, but I'm pretty sure that I've kept my talents unrusted under pretty tough circumstances, and, by God's gilt-edged clouds, I'll have another smack at the shams and humbugs of this wicked world before I've done. (Smith, 1978, p.72)
The 'Poet I'm not' may be taken as false modesty – but phrases like 'by God's gilt-edged clouds' sound desperately "hearty" in a literary sort of way. Masefield is playing the "honest seaman" telling home-truths to shock the pampered aesthetes, whereas in fact he is as literary as any of them.
It is well known that Masefield – at the time, at any rate – hated the sea: 'The docks, and sailor town, and all the damning and heaving' (Smith, 1978, p.32) ('in comments that he wrote in the margins of the galley proofs of Ashley Gibson's article, "Mr John Masefield"  ... Masefield explicitly denies ever having wished to go to sea at any time and dismisses sea life as something he had loathed unspeakably' (Drew, 1973, p.162)). He only, in fact, became reconciled to it when he saw how it could assist him in his real objective – becoming a writer. Even then, he actually wrote about it far less than people tend to assume – only one of his major narrative poems, and only eight of his 23 novels are substantially concerned with the sea.
Constance Babington Smith quotes another three claims about the book from one of Masefield's letters:
I've copied no-one, and no capable critic with any knowledge of modern verse can deny that I have a literary personality uncoloured by extraneous influences ...
Speaking quite impartially I think the book deserves the recognition of a maritime people. It is something new said newly ...
There is such a deal of cant, shoddy, humbug, drivel etc. going around, it is quite likely the book'll get killed before Christmas, but I feel that, in any case, I've said a straight word sure to be recognized as such by some few in the Lord's good time. (1978, p.72)
“I’ve copied no-one ....” This is quite a considerable boast, and, as he himself admits, he can certainly be seen to have copied Yeats:
As to my debt to Yeats I am only too proud to admit it, but in one poem only ['The West Wind'] is there the slightest sign of imitation of his manner, and concerning that poem I talked with Yeats, and only put it into the book on his earnest recommendation. (Smith, 1978, p.72)
The influence certainly stretches beyond that one poem, and, indeed, the first line of what is still perhaps his best-known lyric, 'Sea-Fever': 'I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky', echoes, without a doubt, Yeats's 'Innisfree': 'I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree' (1977, p.44); (though Muriel Spark also quotes two suspiciously similar lines from Arthur Symons:
Give me a long white road, and the grey white path of the sea,
And the wind's will and the bird's will, and the heart-ache still in me.
– 'Wanderer's Song' (1898) (Spark, 1953, p.74)).
I mentioned in Chapter One that Masefield repudiated the influence of Kipling: 'I have never been influenced in any way by Rudyard Kipling's verse (which I hate, and which I haven't read for three or four years). Our methods are quite distinct' (Smith, 1978, p.72); but, as Gilbert Thomas puts it, 'Kipling, if he himself filled them with very different vintage, at least made the bottles into which Masefield's best inspiration was later to be poured' (Thomas, 1932, p.52). He provided, at any rate, a precedent for the use of a literary vernacular, and also inspired the title Salt-Water Ballads (which was not, as I have mentioned above, of Masefield's own choosing). Besides these two influences there is also that of the whole tradition of American lower-class balladry and popular song, as well as (more explicitly) that of the sea shanty – 'Many chanties are of great beauty and extreme antiquity' (Masefield, 1941, p.45), as he informs us in his 'glossary'.
'Speaking quite impartially I think the book deserves the recognition of a maritime people ... '. Having established his "literary" credentials as an original, Masefield now claims that his matter, too, is new – and is accurate enough to be of interest to his old shipmates as a true description of their (and his) world. Once again, one doubts that 'them cold fishy females / With long green weeds for hair' will be much more familiar to sailors than landsmen; though perhaps they might feel a sympathetic twinge when they read of Jake being battered with a belaying-pin! (In fairness to Masefield, however, one should mention that 'May Lamberton Becker reports that a sailor gave her a copy of A Mainsail Haul, saying "It's the real thing'" (Drew, 1973, p.165)).
'There is such a deal of cant, shoddy, humbug, drivel etc … '. The 'etc.' makes this seem a rather half-hearted repetition of the artist's traditional complaint against society: "Because of its truth and beauty, my work will probably go unnoticed". If it does go unnoticed, this will be a proof of its truth and beauty. If, however, it proves to be a success, then this is because 'some few' managed to recognize its merits 'in the Lord's good time'. There is perhaps some truth in the complaint, but there is also a good deal of posing. As it happens the book was neither a failure nor a huge success: in the words of his publisher, Grant Richards, it attracted 'immediate if not considerable attention' (Smith, 1978, p.73).
In the next year, 1903, Masefield published a second book of poems: Ballads. It has a rather complicated publishing history – reappearing, with considerable additions (and the omission of three of the original poems), in 1910; and again, in a form consisting of selections from both the 1903 and 1910 versions, in 1911. It will, however, be most convenient to confine ourselves here to the poems included in the 1903 edition.
The development had already begun in the latter poems of Salt-Water Ballads, but from now on he was to write no more poems in nautical "dialect" – that tone conveyed by missing out the letters of words and sprinkling the verse with bizarre technical expressions. No glossary was required for this new collection – instead, Masefield had started to experiment in the field of the conventional lyric; and was now prepared to speak in his own voice, rather than automatically adopting a "sailorman" or "jolly Jack Tar" mask.
Oh yesterday, I t'ink it was, while cruisin' down the street,
I met with Bill. – "Hullo," he says, "let's give the girls a treat" (Masefield, 1941, p.18)
has changed to:
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine. (p.54)
(Though Gilbert Thomas detects in this poem, too, 'something ... of Kipling's drier, scientific realism' (1932, p.54)). Or, perhaps less creditably, to:
Dusky it grows. The moon!
The dews descend.
Love, can this beauty in our hearts
Without having access to Masefield's earlier unpublished verse it is difficult to chart the precise stages of his poetic development, but one can feel fairly sure that he began with close imitation of his masters – especially Swinburne, Rossetti, and William Morris. This is revealed by an intensely romantic early sonnet, printed by Constance Babington Smith, which ends:
And all through noise of waters whose moist lips
Kissed the ribbed sand. Or wind whose gentle breath
Wakened Aeolian harps along the shore.
Yet from these chords my weary soul drew store
Of God, and though Sun, Moon and Stars eclipse
This harmony shall light me down to death. (1978, p.45)
Though quite a creditable pastiche of "nineties"-style verse, the lack of value of this sort of watered-down Swinburnianism was recognized by friends who complained 'He writes very young', and advised him to 'Get down from that high horse of yours' (Smith, 1978, p.45). This was while he was still in America.
Later, in England, he reacted violently against this initial romanticism – and, at first, went to the opposite extreme with vernacular ballads:
Now, Bill, ain't it prime to be a-sailin',
Slippin' easy, splashin' up the sea
Dossin snug aneath the weather-railin’,
Quiddin' bonded Jacky out a-lee? (p.29)
Even this, however, represents more of a revolution in the language than in the form of his verse – Masefield is still using the basic quatrains and ballad metre of his earlier poems.
And soon, mainly under the influence of Yeats, he managed to evolve a much more fluent and individual idiom – one which recalled all of the various influences on him, but which was still peculiar to himself. One can observe this process, at first in pieces of obvious Yeats-imitation, such as 'The Ballad of Sir Bors':
Would I could win some quiet and rest, and a little ease,
In the cool grey hush of the dusk, in the dim green place of the trees,
Where the birds are singing, singing, singing, crying aloud
The song of the red, red rose that blossoms beyond the seas. (p.51)
(An echo of 'To the Rose upon the Rood of Time' which begins: 'Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!' (Yeats, 1977, p.35)). And later in more original and characteristic lyrics, such as 'Captain Stratton's Fancy', 'Cargoes', and 'Spanish Waters'. It is true that many of the most famous poems in the Ballads collection would only be added in the second edition – 'Twilight', 'A Creed','Fragments', 'C.L.M.' – but already in the 1903 version Masefield had attained maturity, and written lyrics of a standard he would never surpass.
A comparable development to the evolution of Masefield's verse can be traced in his prose over the next couple of years. His first prose work, a collection of sea-sketches and stories called A Mainsail Haul, was published in 1905. It was compiled mainly from the miscellaneous short articles which Masefield had been writing for a variety of periodicals for some years past, and shows the extent to which he was constricted by his "seaman" reputation in his choice of subjects. This may also explain why it echoes so closely the techniques already employed, in verse, in Salt-Water Ballads – which had a similar origin.
In fact the extent of the resemblance is quite uncanny (which is why I quoted, above, a tribute to this book as bearing on the verisimilitude of Salt-Water Ballads). There is the same stylized vernacular, the same dependence on sailors' "yarns", the same (in this case slightly obtrusive) antiquarianism – roughly half of the book consisting of detailed biographies of famous (or not-sofamous) pirates, with frequent quotations from obscure sources and citations of lists of authorities. What is more, at least one of the poems in Salt-Water Ballads, 'Port of Many Ships', is to be found in prose form, with the same title, in this book of "short stories".
The prose version begins with a description of how the 'great sea-snake' (Masefield, 1918, p.9) will rise up from his 'sea cave, all roofed with coral' on judgement day, and lead all the ships in the world to 'an anchorage in Kingdom Come'.
It will be a great calm piece of water, with land close aboard, where all the ships of the world will lie at anchor, tier upon tier, with the hands gathered forward, singing. They'll have no watches to stand, no ropes to coil, no mates to knock their heads in. Nothing will be to do except singing and beating on the bell. (Masefield, 1918, p.12)
The poetic version is shorter, a mere description of this anchorage:
"It's a sunny pleasant anchorage, is Kingdom Come,
Where crews is always layin' aft for double-tots o’ rum,
'N' there's dancin' 'n' fiddlin' of ev'ry kind o' sort,
It's a fine place for sailor-men is that there port.
‘N’ I wish –
I wish as I was there. (Masefield, 1941, p.19)
As a journalist, Masefield must have realized that a single idea could provide two sets of "copy". (Of the stories in A Mainsail Haul, 'The best', according to Masefield, were ' ... told to me by an old sailor of the name of Wallace Blair' (Handley-Taylor, 1960, p.27), and this must apply to Salt-Water Ballads, too – especially as one of the poems there is entitled 'One of Wally's Yarns').
Considering the results of these two different methods, then, the prose would seem at first sight to have the better of the comparison. There are fewer abbreviations and apostrophes, more natural speech-rhythms – less, in short, of the Kiplingesque "lower-class language". More happens in the prose, too – there is movement, action, imagination – and a quite remarkable flight of ideas. But it is only fair to say that elsewhere in the book Masefield is capable of writing sentences like: 'and out he pulls a chart with a red crost on it, like in them Deadwood Dicky books' (1918, p.4), which is as stylized "low" language as any in Salt-Water Ballads. Generally speaking, though, Masefield's reflection of the vernacular is less trammelled and far more natural in the early prose stories than in the poems:
'Yes, ghosts,' says the parson. 'And by ghosts I mean sperrits. And by sperrits I mean white things. And by white things I mean things as turn your hair white. And there's red devils there, and blue devils there, and a great gold queen a-waiting for a man to kiss her.' (1918, p.53)
One could certainly claim that this was more genuinely "poetic" than most of Masefield's ballads. Note the beautifully balanced speech-rhythms going from 'ghosts', to 'sperrits', to 'white things', to 'things as turn your hair white'. It is not precisely parallelism, as in the Hebrew Old Testament – but something less restrictive: a sort of phrasal patterning which is very satisfying to the ear.
The comparison should not be allowed to go all one way, however. Masefield's short prose pieces suffer from a certain capriciousness, and tend to rely on the vigour of the language employed to disguise their lack of narrative movement. 'Port of Many Ships', as a story, is simply a progressive series of descriptions – there is no purpose to it except as an exercise of the "fancy". This is not to condemn the stories – in fact many of them are very charming – but they fail to do much more than report "poetic" scenes and incidents in prose. There is none of that 'immeasurably difficult art of good prose' with which Pound was concerned.
The poems, on the other hand, fulfil the expectations aroused by their form with far greater fidelity. 'Port of Many Ships', as a poem, is a pleasant vignette – and the refrain:''N' I wish – / I wish as I was there' provides it with as much point as can be expected of such a piece.
They are, as Masefield says, poems of longing – and this refrain expresses it very pithily. Similarly, the poem from which I quoted earlier, 'Cape Horn Gospel', succeeds because of the evocative power of its description of a drowned man under the sea:
And I've often wondered since, Jan,
How his old ghost stands to fare
Long 0' them cold fishy females
With long green weeds for hair. (Masefield, 1941, p.21)
We can perhaps best summarize, then, by saying that in these two early books – Masefield's first books, respectively, of prose and verse – the poems are certainly preferable in terms of form. That is to say, they more satisfactorily perform the function expected of them expressing a single image or emotion with all the concentration required of poetry (at the time, at any rate). The prose, however, is more successful in terms of language. Its phrases are more vigorous and felicitous, and its imaginative detail more striking. It still suffers, though, from a certain arbitrariness.
Some of these objections are rather more effectively countered by Masefield's second book of stories, A Tarpaulin Muster, published in 1907. The stories are now no longer generalized seaman's yarns, but tales written from his own experience (just as the lyrics of Ballads had begun to speak in the poet's own voice, rather than in the sailors' argot of Salt-Water Ballads). They begin with phrases like: 'When I was working in a New York saloon I saw something of the city police' (Masefield, 1920, p.201), or 'Ten years ago I was "in the half-deck" of a four-masted barque' (p.194).
Masefield, then, had learnt something of the art of stylistic register by the time of this second book. He writes in ordinary language when it is appropriate to do so – when speaking of his own observations, or talking generally; and only employs a more stylized vernacular when he is quoting someone else's speech. Just as in Ballads, this lends him a greater flexibility and range, and succeeds in giving the stories in A Tarpaulin Muster far more importance as stories. Indeed one of those in this collection, 'Anty Bligh', has often been reprinted in anthologies of ghost stories – a genre whose devotees are particularly impatient with tales where nothing "happens".
The most interesting of these early stories, though, in terms of later developments, is 'Edward Herries' – the story of a poet, the 'Herries' of the title, who sallies out to gain experience of life in order to make himself worthy of the woman he loves. It is a dreadful, lachrymose, overwritten story: "'I'm a lame crock, indeed," he said, "I blush when I pass two men at a street corner'" (Masefield, 1920, p.19); but it is also the first example of real fictional projection on Masefield's part.
It is difficult to decide whether Herries is more objectionable when he is feeling sorry for himself, or being exultant: '''Now, my beloved, my beauty, my share of God upon earth, your knight goes out into the sun'" (p.28). Certainly, in terms of merit, the story is far below even the simple sketches of A Mainsail Haul – but at least it has a plot and a character (of sorts). When Herries returns from his travels he finds himself too coarse for his ultra-refined lady, and has to stumble off again into the darkness. Herries may be fairly rudimentary, but he stands at the head of a long line of Masefield "suffering-martyr" heroes – from Captain Margaret to Pompey the Great – and thus marks a first step forward into the world of the novels; and out of the comparative dead-end of the folktale or sea anecdote.
'Edward Herries' is everyone's idea of a typical "poet's short story" – full of fulsome rhetoric and overblown emotions – but in plot it rather resembles some of Hardy's novels and stories. For one thing, it is in two parts the second beginning 'It was in autumn, five years later, that he came home again' (Masefield, 1920, p.31) – which recalls the "revenant" theme – the returned traveller finding out that he has come too late – which is so prominent in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge (the returning husbands, in both cases); and, indeed, in The Return of the Native itself. Masefield did not know Hardy well, 'only as a devoted disciple, who could not mean anything to the Master, yet longed to cut the throats of anyone who doubted the Master's mastery' (Masefield, 1983, p.456), but his influence – more in terms of mood than in specific resemblances of language and style – is strong throughout all of Masefield's fiction. (Perhaps the most pleasing link between them, though, was the model ship which Masefield made for Hardy:
in talk once TH said that as a little boy he had longed for a model & had never had one; so I asked if I might try to make him one; so I tried to make "The Triumph, the new-rigged ship", of the old song he quotes somewhere (in a poem). It looked quite gay when new, but I was a wretched hand at tools at the best. I blush to see it now, but I think TH was pleased: & that is much to remember. (Maseefield, 1983, p.114))
So, while Masefield, under the influence of Yeats, had reached maturity as a lyric poet – his prose, though helped along by Hardy's example, was still at a rather rudimentary stage. Discussion of further works in both forms will therefore be necessary before any really fruitful comparison can be made.
[John Masefield: A Tarpaulin Muster (1907)]
Besides these two books of short stories, Masefield had already, by 1907, written two extensive 'historical essays' – Sea Life in Nelson's Time (1905); and On the Spanish Main (1906), which is sub-titled 'Some English Forays on the Isthmus of Darien. With a description of the Buccaneers and a short account of old-time ships and sailors'. Both are written in a competent, straightforward prose without frills.
The Nelson book has recently (1971) been republished, with notes to bring it up to date, and is apparently still an important source of information on the period. But On the Spanish Main is of more interest for our purposes, particularly as it deals with many of the same subjects as Masefield's early novels. At least one major episode (Drake's raid on Porto Bello) was to reappear, substantially unchanged, in Captain Margaret (1908); and the mood of this early description, below, of the horrors of the South American jungle is echoed in innumerable passages in his later work, from Lost Endeavour (1910) to Live and Kicking Ned (1939):
They then set forward through the forest, over their ankles in swampy mud, up to their knees sometimes in rotting leaves, clambering over giant tree trunks, wading through stagnant brooks, staggering and slipping and swearing, faint with famine; a very desperate gang of cutthroats. So they marched, the things called garapatadas, or wood-ticks, of which some six sorts flourish there, dropped down upon them in scores, to add their burning bites to the venom of the mosquitoes. In a moist atmosphere of at least 90°, with heavy arms to carry, that march must have been terrible. Even the buccaneers, men hardened to the climate, could not endure it: they straggled back to the boats, and re-embarked. (Masefield, 1922a, p.144)
Masefield has drawn his story from contemporary accounts, and expanded it both with his knowledge of the terrain and the period, and his own 'vigorous fancy' (Graves, 1947, p.v). Phrases like 'that march must have been terrible' tell us when Masefield is embellishing an originally spare narrative but he is also careful to preserve any particularly picturesque phrases from the original account: ‘”His voice caused infinite joy to all the Pirates," who made sure that the fastness would be well provisioned, and that at last they might "afford something to the ferment of their stomachs, which now was grown so sharp that it did gnaw their very bowels"' (1922a, p.145). This gives a rather peculiar flavour to the narrative – as it is, on the one hand, very readable (Masefield was always good at writing clear, uncomplicated prose); and yet, on the other, rather antiquarian in atmosphere – what with the frequent quotations from (largely unnamed) authorities, and the little tit-bits of information which Masefield cannot resist including. ('A moist atmosphere of at least 90°' cannot be from a contemporary account; and neither, one suspects, is the information about 'garapatadas, or woodticks, of which some six sorts flourish there').
Would it be going too far to describe Masefield as labouring to make his book both 'dulce et utile' – using his skill as a writer for the one, and his large stores of specialized knowledge for the other? Certainly, it is a formula which would appear in many of his later novels with their carefully accounted-for "period" setting, brought to life by one of Masefield's customarily exciting stories.
Having discussed this example of Masefield's narrative prose, it would now seem appropriate to consider his long narrative poems – of which the first, The Everlasting Mercy, was published in 1911.
This poem had an almost unprecedented success. As Frank Swinnerton puts it 'he did something which at that time no other young poet could do – he made the general public read what he had written ... it was read, declaimed, interrupted, and discussed with a sort of inflamed fever of controversy such as, in a case of poetry, I cannot in memory match' (Swinnerton, 1969, p.209). Austin Harrison claims: 'Probably no poem ever created such a stir since Byron's Don Juan' (Simmons, 1930, p.34). Masefield, too, thought highly of it – it was 'In this year,' he tells us, that 'I first found what I could do' (1967, p.viii).
The Everlasting Mercy itself is an exceptionally vigorous and compelling narrative, told in a potent doggerel measure – the Hudibrastic couplet – which helps to sustain the drive of the story. The climax is well placed and well prepared-for, and the intense idealism observable in the poem is appropriate to the choice of subject (the conversion of the drunken poacher Saul Kane to a belief in the 'everlasting mercy' of Christ: 'The holy bread, the food unpriced, / Thy everlasting mercy, Christ' (Masefield, 1941, p.127)).
Like Sinister Street, The Everlasting Mercy attracted attention at first because of its outspokenness. It was not simply the fact that Masefield used the 'intensive' bloody (he had already done that in Salt-Water Ballads), but the number of times he did it. 'I think it contained eighty repetitions of the word "bloody" and ran to eighty pages of print' (Simmons, 1930, p.34), says the editor of the English Review, Austin Harrison. Mr. Frank Sidgwick corrects him, however, saying: '(The facts are that the poem occupied forty-four pages of the "English Review," and as written by the author contained the said word not eighty but eleven times.) Mr. Harrison further claims that ... "these eighty bloodies had saved the Review" which was struggling with adversity. But, as many readers will remember with amusement, and as can be readily ascertained by reference to the October, 1911, issue, the "English Review" did not print the offending word, preferring to leave eleven blank spaces to be filled in according to the taste and fancy of the reader. In preparing for press our less reticent edition, I had the painful duty of inserting the missing word in those eleven blank spaces' (Simmons, 1930, p.35). Of the most famous, and offensive, lines:
I’ll bloody him a bloody fix,
I’ll bloody burn his bloody ricks. (Masefield, 1941, p.100)
Eric Partridge says 'Mr. Masefield was wrong to use bloody thus before burn: such a character would have said "bloody well burn'" (Partridge, 1970, p.81).
Leaving aside these niceties of invective, however – the poem's continuing reputation was based, not on the word bloody, but on the sheer drive and energy of its short couplets. As Robert Graves puts it:
Those pungent, urgent, violent lines, with their careless breaches of long-standing taboos, exhilarated us youngsters (Lamont, 1972, p.105).
The poem is told in the first person, in a reasonably unobtrusive mixture of colloquial and standard English (managing to avoid the stylistic excesses of Salt-Water Ballads).
A few lines should suffice to show its general tenor:
But 'Spector Drew was sleeping sweet,
His head upon a charges sheet,
Under the gas-jet flaring full,
Snorting and snoring like a bull,
His bull cheeks puffed, his bull lips blowing,
His ugly yellow front teeth showing. (Masefield, 1941, p.95)
The advantages of verse to Masefield as a medium for storytelling are very apparent in this, his first long poem.
The vivid descriptive touches – 'bull cheeks', 'bull lips', 'ugly yellow front teeth' – are subordinated to his overall effect by the pull of the short couplet form (something which was never really to happen in his long prose works, which tend to lack structure, and to dissolve into a series of individual vignettes and scenes – impinging upon, rather than directly contributing to, the whole).
Verse also had disadvantages for him, however. As the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature puts it: 'he is said by some to have lacked the necessary technique for ... formal poems' (Mulgan, 1963, p.334). Bathos, and sheer badness, are always ready to rear their heads in a long Masefield poem, especially when writing them had become more of a routine – when he had reached his third, his fourth – his sixth. Lines like: 'She touched the lust of those who served her turn, / And chief among her men was Shepherd Ern' (1941, p.137) abound. It is true that on occasion the same tone of voice could yield quite effective results:
She sighed, to hint that pleasure's grave was dug,
And smiled within to see him such a mug. (1941, p.144)
However, it is difficult to avoid having one's teeth set on edge by arbitrary-sounding rhymes like:
Lest she, whose beauty made his heart's blood cruddle,
Should be another man's to kiss and cuddle. (1941, p.141)
No doubt Masefield could justify his use of the word 'cruddle' (a clear case of metathesis from 'curdle'), cite examples of its use, and show its accuracy in context – but all that remains extraneous to the poem, where we actually meet it. Where it stands, as the key word in a rhyming couplet at the end of a stanza of Rhyme Royal, it sounds, perhaps unjustly, like a word made up on the spur of the moment to get out of a hole.
Indeed, this sort of awkward rhyme is perhaps the most obtrusive single blemish on Masefield's work in verse:
"Why not a man like him?" she said. "What next?"
By this they'd reached her cottage in the dim,
Among the daisies that the cold had kexed. (1941, p.166)
He was fairly intransigent on the matter, however. A friend who questioned the use of the word 'drave' in the following lines:
O Passer-by, remember these two Friends,
Who loved this Church of Christ, and greatly gave
To build anew the wreck the bombings drave. (Lamont, 1972, p.55)
received the reply:
The word "drave" is one of the good old strong "pasts," altering the vowel, that were much in use here, when and where I was a boy. I like to use it, & keep it in use, just as we still keep "gave," about which there is now just a tiny tendency: a sort of recognizable weakness that Government ought to check. (Lamont, 1972, p.54)
In other words, he considered it to be his duty to use old words and dialect expressions' – obsolescent forms – in order to keep them in use. Any irregularity or incongruity in the poem was of minor importance by comparison. In this case, certainly, the antiquarian had overpowered the artist. (It rather reminds one of Robert Bridges' remark about the archaisms in Ezra Pound's Personae: 'We'll get 'em all back; we'll get 'em all back' (Paige, , 1951, p.247)). We can understand Masefield's motives, but, nevertheless – along with untidy rhymes like: 'High Street/ … lie sweet/ ... widow in the Bye Street' (1941, p.133) (in The Widow in the Bye Street, 1912) – it tends to leave his verse constantly in danger of degenerating into doggerel. And, as Muriel Spark discerns:
Nor can it be said, in these cases where in the course of a single work, the very bad and the very good stand side by side, that the good compensates for the bad. They are both so alien to each other, so drawn as it were from different reserves of consciousness, that the relationship of compensation is inapplicable. (Spark, 1953, p.19)
In summary, then – from the comparison of Salt-Water Ballads and A Mainsail Haul, Masefield's first books of prose and verse, we have learnt that his prose is more fluent and flexible in expression, but his poetry more satisfactorily subordinated to an overall intention.
From the further comparison of Ballads (1903) with A Tarpaulin Muster, it has been possible to conclude that Masefield matured faster as a poet than as a writer of prose fiction – and that it is therefore not very helpful to set his more finished early lyrics against stumbling prentice-pieces like 'Edward Herries'.
Finally, from the separate discussions of his extended narrative prose, in On the Spanish Main, and at least two of his long narrative poems (The Everlasting Mercy and The Widow in the Bye Street), we have learnt of his, at times uneasy, balancing of the twin roles of antiquary and artist. In the prose this seems fairly well under control; but in poetry it tended to encourage him in his fatal delusion that extrinsic explanations are sufficient to justify bizarre and obtrusive tricks of language. Masefield's poetry is therefore stylistically uneven, and can slip easily into doggerel in the course of a single stanza.
One charge against his prose which I have not yet dealt with is Frank Swinnerton's, that 'it took him a good many years to conquer a too staccato and highly self-conscious brevity of sentence' (84). This is said à propos of Captain Margaret, and is not really applicable to any of the extracts so far quoted; so I have chosen a passage from one of Masefield's early plays, The Tragedy of Nan (1909), to illustrate this tendency at its worst:
There was a strong man, a kind man. He was forty-nine years old. He was the best thatcher in the three counties. He was the sweetest singer. I've known teams goin' to the field stop to 'ear my dad sing. And the red coats come. And a liar swore. And that strong man was killed. Sudden. That voice of his'n was choked out with a cord. And there was liars, and thieves, and drunken women, and dirty gentlemen. They all stood in the cold to see that man choked. They stop up all night, playing cards, so as they should 'ear 'is singin' stopped. For it goes round the voice the cord do. And they draw a nightcap down so as 'e shan't see 'is girl a-crying. (Masefield, 1922b, p.65)
This is certainly staccato enough for anybody, but we must remember that it is the girl, Nan, who is speaking – at a moment of high emotion – and that the full-stops merely represent speech pauses. She is an uneducated girl (the dialect in which she speaks is, according to Wilson Knight (Handley-Taylor, 1950, p.31), Gloucester – although it seems a fairly typical stage "lower-class" English); and she therefore cannot be expected to speak in compound sentences. 'And the red coats come. And a liar swore' could be just as easily written 'And the red coats come, and a liar swore'. The only reason why commas are used to divide phrases in some places, and full-stops in others, is in order to show the actress playing the role (originally Lillah McCarthy) where to place her emphases. It may be, as Swinnerton says, 'self-conscious' – but it is also, in this context at any rate, effective. Only Masefield's dramatic prose is really susceptible to this criticism, in any case (the 'dialect' and pseudo-Syngean "poetic speech": 'That voice of his'n was choked out by a cord', is, to my mind, a much more sensible blemish).
Having said something of his dramatic prose – which seems in some ways as stylized and "questionable" as anything in the poems (though in the case of 'Nan' it is more the emotion than the actual language which is questionable) it is only fair to look at some of his dramatic verse.
This is because one cannot really judge a narrative poet – whose success depends on 'the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves' (87) – from isolated quotations (generally designed to reveal particular infelicities). And let me say at once that the verse play Philip the King (1914 – about the Spanish Armada) does seem to me to represent a higher standard of verse than the narrative poems immediately preceding it. This is partially because of the technical interest aroused by the constant alternation of metres for each new scene but also because Masefield's poetry intended for oral delivery tends to be clearer and, one must admit, more "heightened" than his poetry intended simply to be read. A single quotation will have to suffice:
De Leyva, friend, Whom I shall never see, never again,
This misery that I feel is over Spain.
O God, beloved God, in pity send
That blessed rose among the thorns – an end:
Give a bruised spirit peace.[He kneels. A muffled march of the drums.]
(Masefield, 1941, p.361)
I have deliberately postponed until now the question of whether it is the verse or the prose which is the more "poetic". The truth is – neither could satisfy the most rigorous definitions: Frost's poetry is 'that which gets lost ... in translation' (Burnshaw, 1964, p.xi), Eliot's 'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood', Pound's 'language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree'. This is, in fact, the biggest problem with Masefield – both his prose and verse have persistent virtues; and persistent vices – both are "poetic"; neither great poetry. If, one feels, he could have combined the discipline of his verse with the fluency and originality of his prose, he might have created a masterpiece. As it is, we are left with a series of flawed works – some exhibiting a talent so great that it would be scant exaggeration to call it genius – others predominantly failures.
Which one prefers is a matter of choice – the controlled drive of the narrative poems, or the vivid action sequences of the novels. But the fact remains: neither would have been possible without the other; and neither can be truly assessed in isolation from its counterpart. As Muriel Spark says:
The abundance of Mr. Masefield's work is something that must be reckoned with, not in a spirit of quantitative judgement, but with the thought in mind that the abundance, in such variety as Mr. Masefield has given, is by itself a telling thing. (1953, p.13)
1. Alternative etymologies have been proposed for 'bloody': 'by'r Lady', for instance; but Masefield uses the one accepted by most commentators. See Partridge (1956, p.66); also the essay in his book Words, Words, Words! (1970, pp.79-90).
2. The poem is Dauber (1913); the eight novels: Captain Margaret (1908), Martin Hyde (1910), Lost Endeavour (1910), Jim Davis (1911), The Bird of Dawning (1933), The Taking of the Gry (1934), Victorious Troy (1935), and Dead Ned (1938).
3. First printed as 'I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky', in The Speaker, London (Feb 15, 1902). Then as 'I must down to the sea again' in The Living Age, Boston (March 22, 1902). Then (once more), as 'I must go down to the sea again ... ' in Salt-Water Ballads. London: Grant Richards, November 19, 1902. (Information from Simmons, 1930, pp.3-4). It was then revised to 'I must down to the seas again ... ' in Collected Poems. London: Heinemann, 1923. Then again to 'I must go down to the sea again ...' in Poems. London: Heinemann, 1946, which must be presumed to be the definitive version.
4. Quoted on back endpapers of the Penguin edition of T. S. Eliot's Selected Prose (1953).
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