18 April 2009


The ancients – or, at any rate, their medieval codifiers – had very clear ideas on how a critical study should be arranged:

Servius' commentary on the Aeneid begins by saying that in interpreting an author the following points are to be considered: 1. author's life; 2. title of the work; 3. poetic genre; 4. author's intention; 5. number of books; 6. order of the books; 7. explanation. (Curtius, 1953, p.221)

No's 1, 2, 5 and 6 are easy enough. I may not have treated them in precisely that order, but Masefield's life is considered in relation to his novels in Chapter Three – and also, in a more orderly form, in the Chronology (in detail up to 1914, and more cursorily thereafter). The titles of the various novels are given in the text, the Chronology, and the Bibliography; and, if we take No's 5 and 6 in a punning sense (the 'books' referred to are, of course, poetic books – or folios, or cantos – not books in the sense of bound volumes), I may mention that there are seven of them, and only The Street of To-Day is treated out or its strict chronological sequence.

No. 3 should also be easy – but proves in practice not to be. Beyond saying they are novels, it is a little difficult to assign the books to their precise genres. Captain Margaret is, according to Masefield, 'a Romance’; but in what sense did he mean it? The word 'Romantic' covers a multitude of meanings (C. S. Lewis isolates seven separate senses of the word in the preface to The Pilgrim's Regress – but is forced, finally, to ask himself:

what has any of [these] ... to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves? (Lewis, 1978, p.15)

In any case, our criticism is no longer neo-Classical. We have no precise and self-defining categories from which to choose. In fact, to answer No.3 – the question of genre ­we have also to consider No.4: the author's intention for his work. And since this, again, is not a question with a self-evident answer, we must perforce go on to No.7, and an 'explanation' of the whole!

And now the work which we have already done in Chapter One becomes useful. Why not simply analyze the position we have reached with Masefield's novels in the terms already employed to expound the Edwardian novel as a whole? Specifically, in terms of the three elements Realism, Romanticism and Didacticism.

The strong impulse towards realism observable in the works of John Masefield appears, perhaps, most clearly in the controversial Everlasting Mercy (as Max Beerbohm put it: “A swearword in a rustic slum / A simple swearword is to some, / To Masefield something more."[1] It is also apparent in the novels, however – in the accurate (almost over­obtrusive) nautical detail in Captain Margaret; in the picture of the grime and depression of city living in Multitude and Solitude and its sequel The Street of To-Day; and in the attempt to temper the fire of romantic adventure with the "reality" of misery, cold, and danger in the boys' books.

Realism, of course, seldom comes alone – the decision to present things "as they are'; can be prompted by a number of different motives. In Captain Margaret realistic detail, where it occurs, seems inspired mainly by a desire to inform – to teach his audience about specific points of history, geography, and seafaring. In Multitude and Solitude, and even more in The Street of To-Day, "realism" implies the presentation of the "seamier" side of life ­with a view towards reforming it. A Book of Discoveries is, perhaps, the most purely didactic of the boys' books - but the others, too, show a strong desire to educate; above all, to avoid the traditional children's fare of euphemism and lies.

If we agree to label simply as romance the complex tangle of aesthetic motives and artistic techniques which goes to make up the atmosphere or mood of a book, then we must see this as the most crucial factor in Masefield’s writing. The definition becomes so loose as to virtually lose all meaning at this point, however. As C. S. Lewis remarked above, there is an unnameable something which defies our attempts to pin it down. Perhaps a few more specific examples will enable us to determine more precisely what we mean by the term – or, rather, what precisely it is that the term has been coined to cover.

Take, for instance, the decision to have Captain Margaret's assault on the Spanish town fail ignominiously. This might be called realism – since it is undoubtedly improbable that such a coalition of buccaneering cutthroats and "gentlemen adventurers" could hold together for long. It is also – and more specifically – romantic, however: a tragedy of lost hopes and stifled ambitions. But Margaret does not simply fail because 'a man tends to lose ... tenacity and efficiency for life as soon as he becomes sufficiently fine and subtle to be really worth having in the world' (Masefield, 1927, p.229)); rather because it is an attribute of true nobility and spirituality to fail: 'The meaning shows in the defeated thing' (Masefield, 1941, p.372). Thus Olivia's words to Margaret at the end of the book:

The only glory is failure. All artists fail. But one sees what they saw. You see that in their failure. (Masefield, 1974, p.405)

(Grandeur of soul and artistic creativity are naturally associated).

Masefield's "romanticism" can thus be seen to be based on an elaborate, if imprecisely detailed, theory of existence. Indeed, rather than speaking of his "realism" or "romanticism", one should speak of Masefield's tendencies towards "naturalism" or "supernaturalism". Unlike most novelists – Edwardian ones, at any rate – he does not choose adventures which will provide as many exciting incidents and dilemmas for his characters as possible, but instead those which are best calculated to show a higher, invisible reality behind things as they appear to us.

Even Masefield's idealization of women is intended to be understood on a spiritual rather than an earthly level. He is not so much saying that he thinks women ought to be like goddesses, as illuminating a truth about all women. Each of them is, potentially, a goddess – if only we (and she) could see it:

I have talked with people sometimes whose bodies seemed to be corpses. And all the time they were wonderful, possessed of devils and angels. (Masefield, 1974, p.105)

0r, in Blakean terms (one always seems to come back to Blake when talking of Masefield): 'For every thing that lives is Holy' (Keynes, 1948, p.193).

It is important to relate Masefield's novels to the work of his contemporaries in order to clarify this distinction. Masefield is spiritually, as well as realistically, didactic – adventure or romance or love always have a mystical dimension with him. The real divide in his works lies between sceptical realism – the scenes of squalor that infest Charles Harding's portion of Lost Endeavour, for example – and naive and mystical wonder: the attitude of an "unfallen" child. The supernaturalism of Masefield' s novels is simply an expression of this otherwise incommunicable wonder (as, one suspects, was the case with William Blake – or even Thomas Traherne; though both of these intellectualized their experience far more than Masefield).

And so, in Captain Margaret, we have the twin elements of body and soul – represented, respectively, by Stukeley and Olivia - held together in an uneasy marriage. Both of them attract Margaret – but one in an "unworthy", literally perverse way – the other as an ennobling, uplifting influence. Masefield's intention is to make us, too, look up to his heroine; and he makes Stukeley as loathsome as possible in order to discredit the inevitable alternative. It is the soul striving to exist without a body that is truly monstrous, however – and the grotesque Stukeley becomes attractive to us in an almost Baudelairean way:

Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n'ai trouvé debout
Qu’un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image ...
– Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler man cœur et mon corps sans dégoût!

(Baudelaire, 1961, p.100)

[In your island, Venus, I found nothing upright
Save one symbolic gibbet with my image
On it – Lord God, give me the strength and courage
To see my heart and body in the light,

without disgust ... ]

The book reads, in fact, almost like a version of Swift's famous poem 'Cassinus and Peter' written from the opposite side: 'Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits' (Swift, 1967, p.531), has become 'She was the idea of woman; she should have been spared the lot of women' (Masefield, 1974, p.71). The ideas are similar, but the tones of voice are immeasurably at variance.

Nor is the adjustment much easier in Masefie1d's other two novels for "grown-ups" – Multitude and Solitude and The Street of To-Day. The heroine of the first of these, Ottalie Fawcett, has more rignt to be "spiritual" than Olivia; since she is, in fact, a spirit – it is the "naturalism" in the novel which is really at fault (particularly the attempt to make 'sleeping sickness' into an effective metaphor for both the ills of society and the dissatisfactions of a single sensitive individual). The Street of To-Day is better in this respect – Masefield tries resolutely to confine himself to the workaday; but the unfortunate consequence is that he bores both himself and us. It is only in the long, lyrical sections of nature-description (Chapters X and XII, set in the countryside) that his imaginative faculties really come alive; and also in the (almost totally irrelevant) Hardy­esque rhapsody about the man John Dent.

Only in the boys' books do the two sides of Masefield’s nature achieve any real harmony. The Theo-Charles dichotomy in Lost Endeavour is, of course, the most successful and ingenious af these arrangements – but Mr. Hampden and the two buys Mac and Robin, and the mystery and awe with which each of them approaches the English countryside, are not without their attraction. Martin Hyde attempts to combine the credulous and sceptical in the reactions of one character, the former represented by the young Martin, the latter by the mature Dan. However, the picture becomes too cluttered in these circumstances really to make sense. Jim Davis is superficially similar – but in this case it is the whole of the adventure story which is naturalistic, while Jim's early childhood impressions and beliefs are described with the kind of numinous intensity which would blossom, later, into the enchantingly perceptive Midnight Folk (1927).

Despite his having reacted to many of the same stimuli, Masefield is not a typical Edwardian novelist. His literary roots may be traced in numerous directions, but the one characteristic that all of his books – of whatever genre – share, is their idiosyncrasy and individuality. This is partially because Masefield was a truly metaphysical writer – a natural mystic both in his life and the expression of that life, his books – but also because he was an autodidact. Masefield’s lack of a public-school or university education made him humble himself unnecessarily, all his life, before those who did not possess a tithe of his creative ability.

This lack of formal education did have other consequences, however. For all his learning, Masefield as a scholar always lacked balance. He could not subsume new information into an already substantially formed intellectual edifice, but was forced, instead, to consume much energy in constructing his own models of the universe. This has resulted in an unusually intense but also unusually formless and inchoate body of writing.

Once the reasons for it have been recognized and described, however, this shortcoming should not be allowed to cripple Masefield’s reputation. It is, after all, the function or critics to supply intellectual form to works seemingly without it – and there is no reason why Masefield should be permanently disparaged for want of a sufficiently ingenious critical theory to palliate his faults of structure. Someone, in short, to play 'Mr. Hampden' to his 'Mac and Robin':

the boys exclaimed. 'Are there Britons still?' 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. Surely there might be some still.

‘No,’ said Mr. Hampden. (Masefield, 1910, pp.104-5)

[Virgil: The Aeneid (c.1400)]

1. As quoted by Robert Graves in his essay "Chaucer's Man" (Lamont, 1972, p.105).

Works Cited:

  • Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Verse. Ed. Francis Scarfe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  • Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. 1948. Trans. Willard R. Trask. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.

  • Lamont, Corliss, ed. Remembering John Masefield. London: Kaye & Ward Ltd., 1972.

  • Lewis, C. S. The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism. 1933. Fount Paperbacks. London: Collins, 1978.

  • Masefield, John. Captain Margaret. 1908. Ed. Hugh Greene. Bow Street Library. London: The Bodley Head, 1974.

  • Masefield, John. Multitude and Solitude. 1909. London: Jonathan Cape, 1927.

  • Masefield, John. A Book of Discoveries. London: Wells Gardner,
    Dalton & Co. 1910.

  • Masefield, John. Collected Poems. 1923. 3rd ed. London: Heinemann, 1941.

  • Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1927. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1948.

  • Swift, Jonathan. Poetical Works. Ed. Herbert Davis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

[John Masefield: In Glad Thanksgiving (1967)]

No comments:

Post a Comment