24 April 2009


To those who recognize the name at all (and nowadays this tends to imply people over the age of thirty), John Masefield is still known almost exclusively as a poet. This despite the twenty-three novels he published over a period of forty years – at least one of which, Sard Harker (1924), was a best-seller in its time. Some of his children's books, too, are still in print and selling well after half a century (the recent (1984) production of The Box of Delights for B.B.C. television is apparently the most ambitious and expensive ever undertaken by the Children's Department).

Why, then, this neglect? Perhaps it is his failure to develop significantly in style over so long a period which is principally to blame (though that reproach could be levelled against his poetry as well). After all, when his first novel, Captain Margaret, appeared in 1908, Henry James and Thomas Hardy (as a poet, at any rate) were still publishing. When the last, Badon Parchments, came out in 1947 (in England only: not in America), Norman Mailer was putting the finishing touches to The Naked and the Dead, and Saul Bellow was already writing his second novel. Half the contents of our libraries have their origin between these two dates.

But Masefield – at a cursory inspection (the only kind of inspection his novels have hitherto received) – seems to have sailed impervious through the midst of all these artistic upheavals and revolutions. Having found a formula, he clung to it religiously – and most of the novels, early or late, are in some sense adventure stories. Very few of them contain anything that would not have been topical before 1914. Only at a cursory inspection, though – even W. H. Hamilton, writing in the 1920's, noted that: 'Imaginative agonies, at all events, must have been his who wrote The Street of To-day' (1925, p.38); and the turbulence exhibited by so many of the novels, both early and late, gives the lie to such complacent assessments of Masefield as John Betjeman's:

His life … seems to have been one long psalm of thanksgiving. His goodness shone out from him. (Betjeman, 1978, p.ix)

The later novels, perhaps even more than the earlier, (there is a long gap between 1911 and 1923 during which he wrote none), show Masefield passing through a dizzying galaxy of moods – from rabid and indiscriminate reaction (in The Square Peg, 1937), to majestic celebration of the sea and the age of sail (The Bird of Dawning, 1933).

The earlier novels, it is true, are more closely linked to the social and intellectual currents of their time – which makes them, perhaps, more fruitful sources for the researcher – but they are also more conventional in form and style. Part of the interest of this thesis will lie in charting Masefield's gradual emancipation from novelistic commonplaces – divisions into 'chapters' and 'parts', for instance – and his development of a characteristic idiom and tone (culminating in the gloriously idiosyncratic Lost Endeavour, 1910). The story, of course, must remain incomplete without a detailed discussion of the novels after 1923 – which are, in a sense, to be regarded as the "mature" expressions of Masefield's art – but most of the themes which would preoccupy him later are already present, if only in embryo, in the seven novels I have chosen to discuss.

Nevertheless, a brief listing of the later novels will perhaps be found useful – if only for reference – and I have therefore decided to give some account of each of them, in their various natural groupings (fuller publication details will be found in the Bibliography).

His first novel after a ten years' silence, The Taking of Helen (1923), seems to have taken on many of the characteristics of the narrative poems which he had been writing in the intervening period since 1911. Actually, it is more a novella than a 'novel', although it is described as such in the bibliographies of both Geoffrey Handley-Taylor (1960, p.53); and Charles H. Simmons (1930, p.95). After its first separate publication in a limited edition, it was included in a subsequent volume of essays entitled, in Britain, Recent Prose, and, in America, The Taking of Helen and Other Prose Selections (1924). The affinity with Masefield's narrative poems which it displays is shown not only by coincidences of form and size, but by the actual passages in verse which link the various sections (and, in fact, Masefield retold the story – that of Paris's abduction of Helen from Menelaus - in verse on more than one occasion.[1]) It was a distinctly equivocal and cautious return to the field of the novel.

The same could not be said of his next two novels, however. Sard Harker (1924) and Odtaa (1926) are set in a sort of "mythical" South America – the result of long brooding on its jungles, mountains and endless dusty plains – and represent Masefield's attempt to compose a truly "metaphysical" adventure story (like a Rider Haggard romance with an added dimension of spiritual implication). Perhaps the closest analogy is with Charles Williams' so-called 'supernatural thrillers' (Williams, 1947), which make a similar effort to transform the 1930s detective story. It is difficult to judge such books by ordinary standards; but suffice it to say that, at their best, these two books come as close as anyone ever has to representing the simultaneous inexorability and unexpectedness of nightmare.

Masefield's next novel, The Midnight Folk (1927), is an acknowledged children's classic (though T. H. White once proposed giving a lecture on 'Luck in Literature (i.e. my own pure luck, like winning the pools, when Sylvia [Townsend] Warner and The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights are practically unknown, and Hopkins had to die before publication)' (Garnett, 1968, p.296). Certainly the book and its sequel The Box of Delights (1935) are not so well known as they should be – but it is with rather mixed feelings that one greets the appearance of an unnecessarily abridged edition of the latter book, based on the recent television series (Masefield, 1984). They both deal with the adventures – often magical – of the young boy Kay Harker, and are almost a compendium of Masefield's favourite themes and fantasies (being able to fly, becoming an animal, meeting a mermaid, and seeing the siege of Troy). Masefield was very fond of cats, and they figure largely in the first of these two books. As Judith Masefield tells us:

His favourite cat was called Naboth, and he wrote about him in his book for children, The Midnight Folk, which he liked the best, incidentally, of any of his books. (Lamont, 1972, p.12)

The Hawbucks (1929) is an ambitious but rather formless attempt to sum up the spirit of the rural England of Masefield's childhood. The older values of stewardship and care for the land are displayed by the hero, George Childrey; while his brother, Nick, 'a red-lipped, somewhat loose-mouthed man' (Masefield, 1929, p.1) represents the "new-fangled" town. The 'hawbucks' of the title are the young men competing for the hand of the local belle, Carrie Harridew – and it is Nick who is (somewhat implausibly) finally successful in this contest. George, however, wins her somewhat mystical and "fey" half-sister in marriage – so virtue is not entirely untriumphant. Generally speaking, The Hawbucks is a much less successful novel that its immediate predecessors – it is clear that Masefield was attempting to provide a sort of prose analogue to his Reynard the Fox, 1919 (in fact, many of the characters in the poem reappear in the novel), but prose proved a less successful medium than verse for this purpose. In any case, Masefield delayed longer than his usual two years before publishing another novel – perhaps discouraged by his lack of success in this one.

It was in his next novel, The Bird of Dawning (1933), that Masefield first decided to treat his old love, the sea, in full detail. He had done it before in poetry – in Dauber (1913) – but it had perhaps taken him this long to assimilate the somewhat overwhelming experience of being a sailor on a sailing-ship. The book has always been acknowledged to be one of Masefield's finest – and he continued to exploit this rich vein in two further "nautical" novels: The Taking of the Gry (1934 – set in a port in Sard Harker's South America); and Victorious Troy (1935) – a "hurricane" novel to compare with the classics of the genre: Conrad's Typhoon and Richard Hughes' In Hazard. The spirit and atmosphere of life at sea is, one suspects, better conveyed in prose than in verse (by Masefield, at any rate) – and these books, especially the first, have done a good deal to earn him his reputation as a "writer of the sea".

Eggs and Baker (1936) and The Square Peg (1937) – two novels dealing with different generations of the same family – show Masefield's interest in the "state of England" still persisting a quarter of a century after he wrote The Street of To-Day (for a discussion of which see Chapter Four). The first is concerned with injustice in rural England in the nineteenth century, and is faintly Dickensian in tone – particularly in the courtroom scenes (the book is subtitled The Days of Trial). The second, however, is a much more curious production, and seems to represent a purging of the spleen Masefield had been collecting against fox-hunters, philistines, and blockheads in general over a period of decades. Parts of it must be meant ironically – unfortunately, by no means all – and its hero, Frampton Mansell, a present-day armaments manufacturer, is among the most frightening characters Masefield ever drew. Both of the books are interesting, and would repay further study, but neither can be said to be a great success as a novel.

Muriel Spark considers Dead Ned (1938), Masefield's next novel, 'his best prose work' (1953, p.182). Certainly this book and its sequel Live and Kicking Ned (1939) must be acknowledged to be among the very best of his adventure stories – possibly superior even to Sard Harker. The first of the books is set in eighteenth century London (Masefield handles the tone and idiom with consummate ease), and tells of the trial and unjust execution for murder of the young doctor Ned Mansell. His 'corpse' however is cut down and revived. – to tell the tale (which explains the title: Dead Ned: The Autobiography of a Corpse). The second book carries the story to Africa, where Ned flees after his recovery (he is still legally liable to death by the laws of England). There he finds a Rider Haggard-like "lost city"; but Masefield's description of his attempts to awaken the moribund town council to a threatened invasion from outside seems to have definite topical undertones – an allegory of Britain's unpreparedness for war with Germany in 1939. Live and Kicking Ned is a little uneven and disjointed, but still contains some of the best writing Masefield ever did. Dead Ned, however, is a complete triumph – it has an extraordinary, haunting atmosphere which cannot easily be described.

Masefield's last three novels reflect his growing interest in the history and civilization of Byzantium (perhaps, after the death of Yeats, he felt he was at last free to take up the topic). The first of them, Basilissa (1940), is the story of the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian. This is certainly not the Theodora of Procopius's Secret History, however – Masefield sees her as the manager of a troop of dancing-girls, rather than a prostitute famed for her exceptional depravity; and generally romanticizes the story in a rather "gentlemanly" way (he seems to have seen Theodora as a kind of analogue to Edward VIII's Mrs. Simpson, for whom he felt a great deal of sympathy.[2] The next one, Conquer (1941), deals with another incident from Justinian's reign – the 'Nika Rebellion' - and again is applicable to conditions in wartime England. Finally, in 1947, came Badon Parchments – a tale of Arthurian Britain, but conveyed in the form of a series of dispatches from Byzantine envoys at the famous battle (Arthur had already made a brief appearance in Basilissa, as a guest of the Emperor). It is a curiously pallid and lifeless novel – particularly considering Masefield's lifelong obsession with the Arthurian legend. Certainly it is far inferior to his verse treatment of the stories in Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse (1928).

In fact, all three of these novels show signs of fatigue. Novel-writing is hard work – and it is understandable that Masefield in his old age should wish to reserve his energies for poetry, his first love. He seems, in any case, to have been "summing up" his career in the late 1940's – with a last novel, on a subject dear to his heart (which he must have been intending to write about for years past); a last play (A Play of St. George, 1948); and what must have seemed at the time a last collection of verse – On the Hill, 1949 (in fact he was to live to publish three more new collections of poems – one of them, In Glad Thanksgiving, in the last year of his life); not to mention a book of criticism about the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti entitled Thanks Before Going (1946).

It remains to specify some of the typographical and bibliographical conventions I have adopted:

I use double inverted commas to represent a word accentuated by myself, and single for a quotation from another author. I have not always supplied references for repetitions of quotations already in the text, or well-known phrases from standard works.

All books in the Bibliography or Notes are published in London, unless otherwise specified.[3]

The Bibliography does not include all books mentioned, but only those which have been quoted from or consulted for details or which have otherwise influenced the text.

[John Masefield: Conquer (1941)]

1. The Taking of Helen is the story of Prince Nireus, 'son of the King of Symé Island' (Masefield, 1924, p.1), who is a friend of Paris and helps him to elope with Helen, even though he is in love with her himself. In the same year, 1923, Masefield published a verse play about Queen Jezebel – entitled A King's Daughter – which contains a series of contextually rather irrelevant choruses about Nireus and Helen (subsequently published separately as 'The Tale of Nireus' in Poems (Masefield, 1946, pp. 593-605). This poem deals not only with the events described in the novel, but also with Nireus and Helen's subsequent adventures. A Tale of Troy (1932), a series of 12 linked poems about the Trojan war, starts off with a poem entitled 'The Taking of Helen', which treats the story of the abduction in highly compressed form.

2. This is shown in a number of the letters printed in Corliss Lamont’s selection of letters to his mother Constance (1979). Notably on p.227:

Do you remember the marvellous mosaic at Ravenna, of the Empress Theodora? Why should she [Mrs. Wallis Simpson] not rise to her destiny as Theodora did and become our most famous Queen?

On p.232 he speaks favourably of the way both the King and Mrs. Simpson have behaved during the crisis:

I liked and love the way the King, my master, whom may God preserve, stood up for the woman he loved. He is such a man as has not been promised to our throne for 300 years, when the young Prince Henry died ... In this woman, whom we call Theodora, he found one with whom he could live and work ... She is a lovely woman; she would have made a royal queen; she would have perfected him, and given to our throne a sense and simplicity well suited to the time … Queen Theodora might have been the greatest Queen to the greatest King we have ever had.

3. In this online reprint I have changed these conventions to suit a more contemporary style of inline citations.

[John Masefield: Badon Parchments (1947)]

Works Cited:

  • Betjeman, John, ed. John Masefield: Selected Poems. London: Heinemann, 1978.

  • Garnett, David, ed. The White/Garnett Letters. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.

  • Hamilton, W. H. John Masefield, A Popular Study. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925.

  • Handley-Taylor, Geoffrey, ed. John Masefield, O.M., A Bibliography. London: Cranbrook Tower Press 1960.

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

  • Lamont, Corliss & Lansing, ed. Letters of John Masefield to Florence Lamont. London & New York: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1979.

  • Masefield, John. A King's Daughter. London: Heinemann, 1923.

  • Masefield, John. Recent Prose. London: Heinemann 1924.

  • Masefield, John. The Box of Delights. 1935. Abridged by Patricia Crampton. Illustrated by Faith Jaques. 1984. A Fontana Lion. London & Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co., 1984.

  • Masefield, John. Poems. London: Heinemann 1946.

  • Masefield, John. The Hawbucks. London: Heinemann, 1929.

  • Simmons, Charles H.. A Bibliography of John Masefield. New York: Columbia U.P. 1930.

  • Spark, Muriel. John Masefield. London: Peter Nevill, 1953.

  • Williams, Charles. All Hallows' Eve. 1945. London: Faber, 1947.

[John Masefield: On the Spanish Main (1906)]

No comments:

Post a Comment