27 April 2009


John Masefield

1908 – 1911


John Mackenzie Ross

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in English

University of Auckland


The major event in Masefield scholarship in the twenty-five-odd years since this Masters thesis was composed is undoubtedly the appearance of Philip W. Errington's massive John Masefield: The "Great Auk" of English Literature. A Bibliography (London: The British Library / New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004). This 900-page tome looks set to become the Bible of Masefield studies; it clears up a number of questions and problems, bibliographical and otherwise, and focuses attention back where it should be: on the complexity of Masefield's work, rather than his fading reputation as a rhymester and old sea dog.

Masefield has to be seen as a figure of great cultural interest, if only because he published so much, in so many different fields, and enjoyed such a variety of responses at different times in his long career. His separate reputations as poet, dramatist, novelist, and popular historian have tended to be seen in isolation from one another, but (put together, as they should be) they continue to shine a revealing light on the ups-and-downs of literary life in the twentieth century.

Besides that, though, he's well worth reading in his own right. His writing is uneven but (at its best) unmatchable. The strongest among his novels (Lost Endeavour, Sard Harker, The Box of Delights, The Bird of Dawning, and Dead Ned, to name just a few), alongside the cream of his narrative verse, together with the various fascinating collections of letters which have come out since his death, combine into a body of work which has to be seen as at least equal to that of many far more highly rated contemporaries.

Errington's work (in particular), as well as the ongoing work of his fellow-enthusiasts in the John Masefield Society, gives every promise of keeping interest in him alive well into the twenty-first century.

- Dr Jack Ross, Massey Albany, November 2009

[John Masefield: A Mainsail Haul (1905)]

26 April 2009


John Masefield is still known principally as a poet, despite the twenty-three novels he wrote between 1908 and 1947. The contention of this thesis, however, is that the novels are at least as important as the verse in judging his overall artistic achievement.

The text deals only with the seven novels Masefield published between 1908 and 1911, and this allows greater attention to be paid to his general literary context - though the later novels, from 1923 on, are listed briefly in the introduction.

Chapter One considers Edwardian fiction as a whole, and isolates three basic impulses – realism, romanticism, and didacticism – through the discussion of a few selected novels of different genres. This introductory chapter is followed by another comparing Masefield's poetry with his prose, which concludes that while the verse better satisfies the requirements of its form, the prose is more imaginatively rich. Both are therefore necessary for any fair assessment of his writing.

The third chapter discusses Captain Margaret, Masefield's first novel, and sees certain aspects of the "love triangle" portrayed in it as being explicable only in terms of Masefield's own private emotional life. The book is finally characterized as a Psychomachia, or allegory of the author's repressions and desires.

Chapter Four looks at Masefield's two novels of contemporary life: Multitude and Solitude and The Street of To-Day. Both tend to dramatize the various options lying before him at a crisis in his career, rather than dealing "objectively" with society – but this avoidance of easy generalizations seems, in some ways, to imply a more honest approach than that of the traditional "novel of ideas".

Masefield's four boys' books are the subject of Chapter Five, and are all seen to represent different approaches to the problem of balancing the credulous and sceptical sides of his nature. Lost Endeavour, which embodies these principles in two different characters, is perhaps the most successful of them.

The conclusion discusses Masefield in the same terms as the other Edwardian novelists treated in Chapter One. However, the dichotomy in his works is more between the "natural" and "supernatural" than the realistic and romantic. Children's books are perhaps the ideal medium for conveying this emotional mysticism – since "grown-up" novels require powers of organization which Masefield lacked. His literary affinities are seen to lie more with Blake and Traherne than with his novel-writing contemporaries.

25 April 2009


English reading people in the world - 300,000,000
People who read me - 3
People who write criticisms of me - 4

– John Masefield: Letters to Reyna (1983, p.197).


I should like to acknowledge the assistance of Professor D. I. B. Smith (who deserves all of the credit and none of the blame!). Also of my brother K. M. Ross, who read this work in manuscript and proof, and made many valuable suggestions. Also of my mother, and the rest of my family, who advised me on points of detail. Also of my typist, Hilary Elvidge, who managed to decipher my somewhat deceptive handwriting. Also – and finally – of the Interloan Department of Auckland University Library, without whom this thesis would not have been possible at all.

Table of Contents



  • CHAPTER 1: The Novel in 1908

    1. The Edwardian Context
    2. Selected Examples

  • CHAPTER 2: Masefield – Verse vs. Prose

  • CHAPTER 3: Captain Margaret

    1. The Novel
    2. Masefield
    3. Conclusion

  • CHAPTER 4: Two Novels of Contemporary Life

    1. Multitude and Solitude
    2. The Street of To-day

  • CHAPTER 5: Boys' Books

    1. Martin Hyde
    2. A Book of Discoveries
    3. Lost Endeavour
    4. Jim Davis



    1. Major Works of John Masefield
    2. Selected Works about Masefield
    3. Other Material Consulted

[John Masefield: Sea Life in Nelson's Time (1905 {1984})]

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)]

23 April 2009

Chapter 1:

[John Masefield (1948)]

The Novel in 1908

(i) The Edwardian Context

Strictly speaking, the Edwardian age should be held to have begun in January 1901, when Queen Victoria died; and to have ended with the death of King Edward the Seventh, on the 6th of May, 1910. In terms of literature, however, when the writers who came to prominence or 'added to their reputations' (Larkin, 1974, p.v) during this time are being discussed, one is surely justified in setting slightly wider boundaries. The end of this larger period is fairly clearly demarcated by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914; and, while the beginning could be set at almost any point during the 1890's, 1897 – when Hardy's last published novel, The Well-Beloved, appeared – seems to mark, at any rate, a possible end for the former Victorian era.

What, then, were the general characteristics of the literature of this greater Edwardian period? Almost any immediate single statement would have to be subject to qualification, but it does seem distinguished from that which had gone before by, at least, a greater cosmopolitanism – a more ready recognition of the world outside the narrow field of English letters. Foreign influences, for almost the first time, became central rather than peripheral to English literature. Constance Garnett's translations of the great Russians - Turgenev (1894-99), Dostoyevsky (1912-20), and Chekhov (1916-23) (Heilbrun, 1961, pp.207-8) - were as essential to comprehension of the age as the novels of Arnold Bennett or H. G. Wells.

One could almost rank these foreign influences in order, thus:

The Irish, or Celtic school. It was certainly nothing new for Ireland to have a decisive effect on English literature (as the names of Swift, Berkeley, Sheridan, and Thomas Moore should testify), but perhaps it was never so great as at this time. George Bernard Shaw (Three Plays for Puritans (1901), Man and Superman (1903)), and John Synge (The Playboy of the Western World (1907)), were reforming the theatre (in their very different ways); the dominance of W. B. Yeats in poetry was becoming more and more indisputable (In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)) as he showed himself less and less a mere relic of the nineties; and there were numerous secondary figures all loosely grouped around him – AE, Lady Gregory, T. Sturge Moore, and James Stephens. Nor was this "Celtic Twilight" the extent of Irish influence. The fall of Oscar Wilde (imprisoned 1895, died 1900) was still fresh in everybody's memory, and supplied a clear directive indicating where the new literature would not easily be allowed to go.

"Decadence", and "Art for Art's sake" were out. It was too robust an age – too consciously robust – to spare much sympathy for perversion, or aberrations of other kinds – witness the neglect of that remarkable figure: Catholic, homosexual, paranoiac; Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo (Hadrian the Seventh (1904), The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1909) - though not published until 1934). The young James Joyce, impatient with the claustophobic nationalism of Ireland, left for Paris in 1902, though he did not publish his first book, Chamber Music, until 1907. Dubliners appeared, belatedly, in 1914, at the same time as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was being serialized in the Egoist, the Imagist periodical. Nor can one ignore George Moore, who, together with Henry James, had done most during the last decades of the Victorian era to introduce the rigorous standards of the French novel into English. Though he had now turned to assisting the Irish cause and the Abbey Theatre, he was to be responsible for one of the most characteristic products of the age, his three volume autobiography, Hail and Farewell: Ave (1911), Salve (1912), and Vale (1914).

Which brings us to:

The French influence. On the one hand we have a writer actually born in France and educated in England, Hilaire Belloc, who later returned to do his military service in the pre-war French artillery (The Path to Rome (1902), The Servile State (1912)); on the other, the near-universal influence of French canons of taste on the contemporary novel. John Synge and Masefield, as they walked together through the streets of London, talked of French authors (Masefield, 1924, p.189). Ford Madox Hueffer and Joseph Conrad quoted long passages from Flaubert's Trois Contes at each other (Ford, 1924, pp.31 & 208). Turgenev (another Francophile) in French translation – as well as Flaubert, the Gourmonts, Maupassant – were the major influences on Henry James.

Mention of Hilaire Belloc reminds us of another feature of the age – the renewed news-worthiness of Roman Catholicism. G. K. Chesterton (The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Orthodoxy (1908)), and his friend Belloc, the "Chesterbelloc", were merely the most vocal of its adherents. Priests, or the reaction against them (Joyce's Holy Office (1904)), were, understandably, prominent in the new Irish writing ('The holiness of monks, and after / Porter-drinkers' randy laughter' (Yeats, 1977, p.400): Yeats; not to mention his 'Ballad of Father Gilligan'). There were also other figures such as Corvo and, more importantly, Francis Thompson (1859-1907), a former tramp and the author of 'The Hound of Heaven' (1890) (Meynell, 1941, p.356), asserting its paramountcy.

Tramps, too: the Edwardian age was open to all layers of "honest experience”, and former tramps were not disqualified from entering the lists of literature. W. H. Davies published his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp in 1908 (he had once actually encountered Francis Thompson in a Lambeth doss-house, but had not had the courage to speak to him (Davies, 1951, p.xxv)0. Masefield also had been "on the tramp" in America, and was disapproved of in consequence by Yeats's old housekeeper (according to Lady Gregory): 'Her back stiffened and her nose went up higher as she caught fragments of the reminiscences of one she no doubt considered to be no better than a tramp' (Smith, 1978, p.61). Yeats and his friends, however, saw this simply as good potential literary material, and advised Masefield to write an early autobiography on the strength of it.

The whole class structure of literature was coming under attack – especially the statute that said a gentleman could write about the lower classes, but the lower classes could not write about gentlemen (the one which Hardy had contravened with his first, unpublished novel, The Poor Man and The Lady). D. H. Lawrence, a miner's son, was writing about miners and their wives – but also about his views on the rest of society, and his own agonizing internal class struggle (Sons and Lovers (1913), The Prussian Officer (1914)). Galsworthy, outraged by his own ostracism from bourgeois society, was denouncing the middle classes (The Man of Property (1906) – Strife, the first play to present the case of a striking trade union sympathetically, in 1909).

Victorian low-life had had its Mayhew and its Dickens, but their work was now being extended by a number of commentators on the "lower depths". Arthur Morrison (Tales of Mean Streets (1894), A Child of the Jago (1896), Hole in the Wall (1902)) was perhaps the most celebrated of these; but one should not forget Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth (1897); or Jack London, whose book The People of the Abyss (1902) was to exert a strong influence on Orwell's researches a quarter of a century later.

Jack London should serve to remind us of another strong foreign contingent: The Americans. To begin with, the Imagists: Ezra Pound, who arrived in Europe in 1908, and promptly published A Lume Spento in Italy; H.D., who followed him in 1911 (and married Richard Aldington, the editor of the Egoist, in 1913); Wyndham Lewis, born in America but brought up in England, who edited Blast during 1914-15. Another protégé of Pound's (for a time, at any rate) was Robert Frost, whose first two books, A Boy's Will 1913, and North of Boston 1914, were published in England, and who was largely responsible for persuading Edward Thomas to start writing poetry. Besides, of course, the omnipresent Henry James, whose move to Lamb House, Rye, in 1898 marked the beginning of a new phase in his work (The Golden Bowl 1904, The American Scene 1906).

The most remarkable case of all is that of Joseph Conrad, a tri-lingual Polish seaman who became not a curiosity but a central pillar of the English novel (even according to the somewhat selective line of descent prescribed by F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition). No other single fact could make so clear just how un-claustrophobic was the Edwardian literary atmosphere. Stuffy, yes – guarded, in a number of directions (especially those where Oscar Wilde's baleful precedent loomed), but open to experiment and fresh influences. W. H. Hudson (Green Mansions (1904)), and R. B. Cunninghame Graham (13 Stories (1900)), represented South America for the English; J. M. Barrie and John Buchan the Scottish. Samuel Butler, our honorary New Zealander, revisited Erewhon in 1901, though his real contribution to the new age was that classic analysis of Victorian hypocrisy, The Way of All Flesh (finally published, posthumously, in 1903); which was followed by Gosse's Father and Son in 1907. (Lytton Strachey published his first book, Landmarks in French Literature, in 1912; but Eminent Victorians, and with it the full flood of reaction against Victorianism, did not appear until 1918).

Then there was the growing literature of colonialism ­reporting the actual life in Britain's far-flung Empire. Kipling had been writing of India since the 1880's (Barrack-Room Ballads appearing in 1892), but Kim itself did not come out until 1901; after which he turned to the exploration of his own country and its past (Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), Rewards and Fairies (1910)). Kipling was undoubtedly a far more popular poet than Yeats at the time (for that matter, than the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin) ­though the two appealed to different classes of reader; and the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to him in 1907 showed just how influential he was in establishing Britain's image overseas. 'What do they know of England, who only England know?' (Orwell, 1977, 2: 224) could perhaps be seen as the central dictum of the age – especially if one takes into account the negative, "little Englander" reactions to it, as well as the proud endorsements. Kipling probably meant it only of the Empire, but if we extend it to include France, the rest of Europe, and America, it goes a long way towards summing up the Edwardian spirit – the desire to see one's own country in a new way, through new eyes.

(ii) Selected Examples

Having given a thumbnail sketch of the broader movements in Edwardian literature, it remains to explain how they relate to our subject, John Masefield, before going on to examine some of them in greater detail.

Yeats was perhaps the strongest influence on Masefield poetically, and Yeats's circle provided him with most of his literary friends (he could, in fact, almost be said to have been an "acolyte" in the Irish school). One of the things he had in common with them was a strong devotion to French canons of taste: (when defining the novelist in a later essay on playwriting, he naturally chose an illustration from Stendhal: 'a looking glass sauntering down the street' (Masefield, 1924, p.117) – though with Masefieldian elements added (that 'sauntering)).

So much for the French and the Irish. As for Conrad, though very different as writers, they at least shared a common subject, the sea – and it is instructive to compare their very different methods of dealing with it (even in Captain Margaret, the earliest of his novels, Masefield's concentration on the minutiae and technicalities of seafaring is greater than Conrad's, who was always more concerned with the effects of his settings on the characters in the foreground).

Like Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, though in a much more idealized way, Masefield was concerned with the plight of the working-man - hence his famous poem, 'A Consecration':

Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers
Riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years, –
Rather the scorned – the rejected – the men hemmed in with the spears (Masefield, 1941, p.3).

He also shared with them a passionate concern for the amelioration of society (as I will discuss in Chapter Four).

Although he decisively repudiated the influence, his Salt-­Water Ballads (1902) must have seemed at the time, at any rate, a direct echo, in a different context, of Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, with which they have many stylistic features in common (though Masefield says that 'one might just as well say that Kipling got his manner from Burns as that I got mine from Kipling' (Smith, 1978, p.72)). In contrast to Yeats, the emerging Modernists seem to have affected him little; but the South America of Conrad, Hudson, and Graham was to provide settings for many of his works (he had passed through it on his way back from Chile in 1894; at the same time visiting the Caribbean and the Spanish Main.[1]

In order to systematize all of these influences – as well as diagnosing the trends in the novel, specifically, at the time when Masefield first began to write in that form – it seems best to discuss a few isolated examples, rather than giving a more generalized survey of each of the major figures in the field. This is in the hope of discerning in the process what is characteristic of each of these works individually, and what typical of the age as a whole.

The term "Realism" – in its many differing senses – is central to the comprehension of the Edwardian period. It was equally important to those accepting it as an ideal, and those rejecting it as an incubus. Of the former, everyone, from the followers of Zola (if one may so describe George Moore) to the Modernists, believed himself to be embodying it more effectively than his rivals and predecessors. It was the great criterion dividing one school from another.

The first novel I have chosen to discuss is Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, a classic of realism, since its observations are sober sociological fact, and were accepted as such by later commentators on the East End (such as Jack London in The People of the Abyss). The most interesting thing about this novel, as a novel, is its resolute dependence on Dickensian tricks of style. The usual tone of the writing is inflated and bombastic, as we can see here at the very beginning of the book:

It was past the mid of a summer night in the Old Jago. The narrow street was all the blacker for the lurid sky; for there was a fire in a farther part of Shoreditch, and the welkin was an infernal coppery glare. (Morrison, 1946, p.9)

Morrison seems to have gathered a large amount of material – on slum life, the gradual processes of degradation, and the fate of the children born under such conditions – which he has then attempted to shape into a novel. Since Dickens (and, to a lesser extent, George Gissing), were his only real predecessors in this area, he naturally aped the former's style and technical tricks. The novel begins episodically, like Pickwick – though, to do Morrison justice, slum life does seem to naturally present itself to him in scenes and short vignettes (vignettes such as those he captured, with considerably less straining after stylistic effect, in Tales of Mean Streets). Towards the end, however, he has managed to link it all into a melodramatic "plot" – complete with murder (resembling that in Oliver Twist - or, for that matter, Martin Chuzzlewit), and trial (like Fagin's – even down to the trivialities around which the prisoner's thoughts obsessively turn: 'The judge stopped a witness to speak of a draught from a window. Josh Perrott watched the shutting of the window – they did it with a cord. He had not noticed a draught himself. But pigeons were flying outside the panes and resting on the chimney-stacks' (p.181)). The execution, with the relatives clustered anxiously around the prison-door, rather reminds one of Tess, but the resemblance could easily be coincidental – Dickens, too, has treated of hangings.

Thus Morrison's technique and his material can be seen to be rather at variance. His equipment as a novel-writer seems to be mainly observation and imitation of his masters, the great Victorians; but his subject-matter is that of an anthropologist. Strangely enough, this basic attitude of honest reportage is not greatly obscured by the mock-heroic pomposity of his language. It is almost as if the requirements in style and plot typical of the late nineteenth-century novel are felt by him as conventions no more obtrusive, and no more avoidable, than having to put a capital letter at the beginning of a line of verse. His attention is free to occupy itself elsewhere – with the true nature of the conditions he is describing. Thus, though his description of a fight among a group of slum­women rather resembles in style the famous fight in the churchyard in Tom Jones, we are left in Morrison's case with the sense of an actual, everyday occurrence somewhat stiltedly narrated, rather than the stylistic tour-de-force of Fielding. We may regret that Morrison was not a good enough writer to forge a new style for himself; but, on the other hand, his lack of "individual vision" prevents him from ruthlessly shaping and trimming his matter to fit his particular view of things (a charge from which it would not be easy fully to absolve Dickens).

Some prejudice is, of course, still observable – the poor being roughly classified as "deserving" and "undeserving"; but he treats conventional attempts at philanthropy with scorn as mere face-saving hypocrisy (one gets the impression that he rather approves of Dicky's theft of the bishop's watch, at the opening of the new wing of the 'East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute' (p.18)). There is, however, a "right way" to react to these conditions – to apply "muscular Christianity" to the sufferings of the underprivileged; and that is the way exemplified by Father Sturt, who refuses to judge or preach, but tries, nevertheless, to help all he can ­without ever losing sight of the nature of his parishioners:

'An' 'ow jer find jerself, sir?' he asked, with pantomime cordiality. 'Hof'ly shockin' these 'ere lower classes, ain't they? Er – yus; disgustin', weally. Er – might I – er – prepose – er – a little refreshment? Ellow me.'

The parson, grimly impassive, heard him through, took the pot, and instantly jerking it upward, shot the beer, a single splash, into Kiddo's face. 'There are things I must teach you, I see, my man,' he said (Morrison, 1946, p.64).

Father Sturt is sympathetic and willing to help, but he knows he can get nowhere without the respect of those he serves.

To Morrison, then, these are indeed 'the people of the abyss' – the lost, the oppressed. They cannot be seen simply as human beings in their own right. One central message – reform – is clear in all he writes. Naturally enough, mind you – for. who could look on such conditions without feeling moral indignation? Nevertheless, the fact that he has a didactic aim rather than a desire to "see life steadily and see it whole", affects decisively the way in which he presents what he sees. There are some things about the Jago which simply cannot be revealed – incest, baby-bashing, and the grosser lapses of hygiene (Dicky is represented as loving his ailing little sister – but he might as easily have hated her). Jack London goes further than Morrison, but even he writes 'It is rather hard to tell a tithe of what I saw. Much of it is untellable' (1962, p.166). This is partially because such things just did not get into print in those days; but also because neither Morrison nor London can afford to turn indignation into disgust by pointing out some of the true features of a slum – the mental and spiritual, as well as the physical degradation. In short, the "undeserving" aspects. As it is, Morrison goes quite far enough to shock most of his readers – any more might easily have tipped the scale.

It is interesting to examine Maugham's Liza of Lambeth in this context. Maugham's slums are, of course, on a less degraded level than the Jago – but, even so, he concentrates on the personal tragedy of Liza far more than on the collective horror of her surroundings. She is his subject in a way that Dicky never is Morrison's. Maugham's novel is "realist" in that it presents a picture of slum life without obvious romanticization, and with every appearance of authenticity – based on his observations as a young obstetric clerk (Maugham, 1950, pp.vii-viii) – but he has no particular message to preach. Morrison tells us more of the slums ­- is a more reliable witness – because he has a didactic purpose, and therefore cannot afford to falsify his information. But this purpose also dictates to him exactly how much of the truth he can afford to reveal without alienating his audience. Nor is his picture entirely undistorted by his own derivative novelistic techniques. Maugham is less reliable because less comprehensive – he is using the slums simply as background – but is, as far as one can tell, accurate within his own limits. His one selective principle is whatever serves his purposes as an artist – which distorts his picture in precisely the opposite way from Morrison's. His writing is, however, much less stylized – and his story is allowed to unfold naturally and without authorial moralizing (something which he had learnt from the French – especially Maupassant).

Novels of the slums are rather at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it would probably be fair to say that the twin elements of either "artistic selectivity" or "didacticism", exemplified by Maugham and Morrison, are central to any Edwardian novel readily definable as "realist". Both of these two authors are reticent at times – and about much the same things. Both of them do this in order to avoid shocking the public – which makes their works appear superficially similar. But in fact they are working from totally different premises – Morrison from the necessity of dramatizing social injustices; and Maugham from the necessity of having a well-defined background to balance the reactions and attitudes of his characters.

I have now, however, chosen to examine another sort of novel: the Bildungsroman, or novel of a young man's education in the world, of which the prototype is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. The genre is rather flippantly summed up by Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow:

Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future. (Huxley, 1949, p.26)

(The first version of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), one of the classics of the form, was entitled The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey (Maugham, 1968, p.5) – in much the same vein). Other Edwardian examples include Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger (1910), Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Butler's The Way of All Flesh. The one I have chosen to discuss, however, is Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street.

Mackenzie's novel was originally intended as part of a Roman fleuve, to be collectively entitled The Theatre of Youth, but which was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I (vol. I of Sinister Street appeared in September 1913, but vol. II not until November 1914, after the war had begun). One reason, indeed, for abandoning the projected series was this rigid boundary. to the epoch it was designed to describe ('The First World War as a deus ex machina would soon have become intolerable to myself and to my readers' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.12)).

The title of Sinister Street refers to the hero, Michael's, illegitimacy ("bend sinister") – although this fact is not greatly enlarged upon in the text. Nevertheless, this is one of the several factors which gave it such a "questionable" reputation at the time. (George Orwell and Cyril Connolly were punished for having a copy of it in their possession at their prep. school in the 20's (Orwell, 1978, 4: 479) and this "notoriety" extended even into the 1950's, as is revealed by a passage from Geoffrey Trease's The Gates of Bannerdale, a children's book published in 1956:

On my sixteenth birthday Mr. Morchard had presented me with Sinister Street, by Compton Mackenzie.

"Strong meat in places, Bill," he had murmured with an apologetic cough, "but I think you're ready for it.

"Heavens, yes!" Penny had hooted. "I read it last year – and I'm younger than Bill. By the calendar," she added with a challenging flash of her dark eyes. (Trease, 1965, p.7))

This was, however, rather out of date by then, and Compton Mackenzie himself, introducing a new edition of the novel in 1949, admitted that 'It will not surprise me to find young people of today, heirs of two mundane wars, impatient of an adolescence than which their own adolescence is riper by a generation, because they will be feeling comparatively so much older and comparatively so much wiser' (1969, p.12).

A modern reader would, naturally, be rather hard put to it to find any cause for offence, but we must try to translate ourselves back into the position of those first readers (even Henry James congratulated Mackenzie for 'emancipating the English novel', (Mackenzie, 1969, p.l1)). The hero's illegitimacy had caused much of the fuss about the first volume, which worried Mackenzie because, as he said: 'I was sure that the second volume would be considered much stronger meat than anything in the first volume, and it seemed vital to beat them in the fight over that first volume' (1969, p.10). His worry was occasioned, presumably, by Michael's unfortunate love affair with Lily Haden, which dominates volume II. She is a "common", though extremely beautiful, girl whom he met when they were both children, and who finally betrays him with another man. Lily is really little better than a tart – and a rather successful one, at that; which prevents Mackenzie from taking refuge in the excuse that he is only presenting her as a warning to others.

Mackenzie was, in fact, describing the type of obsessive love affair which Proust so brilliantly anatomized in 'Un Amour de Swann'. ('For the journey back to Capri in that fateful October Edmund Gosse gave me a copy of Marcel Proust's Du Côté de Chez Swann which had just been published. "I seem to discern an expression of the same spirit in your Sinister Street," he said, "though I am not suggesting any positive resemblance between the two books.'" (Mackenzie, 1969, p.11)). Mackenzie, like Proust (who was, however, drawing on a long tradition in the French novel of objectivity in such matters), is trying to represent honestly the emotions involved in such an affair ­- irrational though they may be at times – and he cannot allow traditional moral judgements to hamper his accuracy. Not that the picture is not conventional enough – Michael is besotted and foolish, Lily "beautiful but bad"; however the shocking thing is that the affair does not seem to be profoundly damaging to either. To Michael, who, as an illegitimate son, should not be so unequivocally in the hero's role in any case – or who should at least be showing a little more guilt and shame about his status - it is a ­mere sowing of wild oats (Book Four of the novel is entitled 'Romantic Education', to contrast with the 'Classic Education' – Book Two – undergone at his public­ school). Its main consequence is simply to teach him a lot more about himself and about the world. Insofar as Mackenzie was setting out a guide for conduct at all, he could be said to be positively recommending such an adventure! Nor does the author disguise his fascination with the character of Lily (her similarly "gay" friend, Sylvia Scarlett, was later to have a whole book, in the same series, devoted to her: The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, 1918-19).

Sinister Street upset conventional expectations because of the subjects it dared to discuss – there was nothing particularly innovative about the views which Mackenzie held on these subjects. Today they would seem almost stuffily conventional. Nor would his book have given rise to much comment in France, where such matters were novelistic commonplaces. In short, we would tend to criticize the book for its lack of objectivity about sex (and for Mackenzie's obvious preference for the priggish Michael rather than the "unworthy" – in fact, exploited Lily); they, for daring to deal with such "unhealthy" matters at all.

Actually, one of the most interesting things about the whole controversy is just how irrelevant it was – managing to miss the whole point of the book. Its very real popularity ('until Sinister Street ... was allowed to go out of print just before the Second World War, it was still selling at its original price at least 1,000 copies a year' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.12)) was perhaps stirred up initially by the desire to read something "shocking", but it was sustained by the book's unclouded, idyllic romanticism – by its picture of that fabled "golden age" before the First World War. Mackenzie assures us that:

Sinister Street is so exactly dated that it remains alive, and although the public-school and university therein depicted may seem unimaginable to the Jacobeans and the St Mary's men of today, contemporary schoolboys and undergraduates can feel sure that at the beginning of this century life at a big London day school and life at a fashionable Oxford college were just as I have depicted them. (1969, p.12)

Nevertheless, one fears that some doubt must remain on this point. One might accept that there is no obvious falsification, but the very chapter titles imply a certain attitude of nostalgia for this vanished world : Book Three – about Oxford – is called (of course), 'Dreaming Spires', and there is no reason to suspect Mackenzie of meaning it ironically! It begins with 'The First Day', 'The First Week', 'The First Term' – the hero's gradual immersion in a new and exciting life; and ends with the agonies of his slow withdrawal: 'The Last Term', 'The Last Week', 'The Last Day'. Oxford, most romantic of English universities, is here seen in its Saturnian age – before the Fall, the First World War – and Mackenzie's triumph is to present this academic Arcadia convincingly and with verisimilitude. The faintest suggestion that it is a fantasy – that life neither is nor ever has been like that – would have destroyed the whole effect, and so a careful atmosphere of plausibility is built up around Michael's various successes – both social and academic. His apparently effortless first – we are told that 'He sat up all night, and went down tight-eyed and pale-faced to the final encounter' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.587), but this hardly seems enough to counterbalance three years of easy, leisured life – is a case in point; as is the Dons' obvious reluctance to have him finally leave them. It is all undoubtedly possible – such things happen. But it is not representative – they do not happen to many of us. Naturally we prefer to read of triumphs rather than failures – if we can believe in them; and Mackenzie's merit lies in never disturbing this will to believe.

If Philip Larkin's Jill occupies one extreme of the portrayal of life at a university – even worse than the reality – then, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited represents the opposite pole. Sinister Street is certainly closer to Waugh (indeed the similarities between the two books – both recalling the glories of a departed past in the middle of a world war – are very striking). Nevertheless, Mackenzie is not Waugh – for one thing, he is far less of a reactionary. He writes of things as they seem to bim, and not, as is largely the case with Waugh, to "épater" the proletarian (rather than the bourgeois). (Perhaps this is to do an injustice to Haugh, though – we must remember that his book was written in war-time, in an atmosphere of 'soya beans and Basic English' (Waugh, 1982, p.9); whereas Mackenzie was writing before his war, in the full flush of the Edwardian summer, with an eye undistorted by hindsight). Mackenzie's, then, is certainly a selective picture – but not really a falsified one. The mood may be exaggeratedly idyllic, but the details are, we are informed on good authority, quite authentic ('far and away the most telling description even written of an English university': Raymond Mortimer).[2]

For all that, "Realism" in this novel equates with outspokenness, and "Romanticism" with nostalgia. Since realism dates faster, the manifestations of it in Sinister Street appear, at best, trite – at worst, questionable (the implicit condemnation of Lily's, rather than Michael's, sexual irregularities, for example). The romanticism is not "pure", either, but depends on the assertion that the golden age it depicts once actually existed – in a particular place, at a particular time. The Oxford scenes are the ones which everyone remembers – but the rest of the book is imbued with similar feelings of escape – escape from quotidian reality, from, it might seem in retrospect, the approaching shadow of war.

This is the other side of the coin from the impulses observable in Arthur Morrison and his followers. They wished to portray the brutal facts underlying the smooth and imperturbable façade of Edwardian society – prostitution, drunkenness, unemployment, ignorance, and grime. But such fervour breeds an equal and opposite reaction – the desire to dwell only on what is pleasant, to give readers what they want – to "entertain", to be cheerful. The opposite of Morrison's Cassandra is P. G. Wodehouse. There was a third aspect as well, however, which prevented the "unengaged" writer from falling immediately into the arms of Jeeves and the Earl of Emsworth – the belief that one's writings should be, as Horace put it: 'dulce et utile' – useful as well as pleasing. This desire to educate, to uplift – in effect, to entertain for a purpose – is noticeable in almost all Edwardian novelists in one form or another.

Almost by definition a novelist has to entertain his readers ('That book is good in vain, which the reader throws away' (Johnson, 1912, 1:334)) – which is why Arthur Morrison puts on the trappings of Dickens instead of setting out his findings in a tract. However, a writer who sees things in a sufficiently complex light may lose the propagandist's desire to subordinate his matter to a particular point of view. Joseph Conrad, for example, could not be said to have any obvious point to make (except, perhaps – in an equivocal way – about the horrors of colonialism and certain other aspects of the world we live in). Most Edwardians tended to follow Morrison's lead rather than Conrad's. True children of their age, they retained enough belief in human perfectibility to agitate unceasingly for change – assuming it must be for the better. (The First World War was, we must remember, the great disillusioning blow to a whole century of optimism – up till then, the accepted view had been that "every day, in every way, the world is getting better and better"). The Utopias and Anti-Utopias of H. G. Wells – the essential seriousness of Bernard Shaw – the generalized sympathy of Arnold Bennett ­even Henry James' revulsion at the corruption of innocence – all were part of this desire to leave one's reader a little better off for what he had read.

Compton Mackenzie was certainly no propagandist (indeed in later life pure escape – Whisky Galore, the 'Ben Nevis' books – became his forte), but even he reminds us, at the end of Michael Fane's long progress, that it has all been for a purpose – to make his hero into a better man and citizen:

'All that I have done and experienced so far,' Michael thought, 'would not scratch this stone. I have been concerned for the happiness of other people without gratitude for the privilege of service. I have been given knowledge and I fancied I was given disillusion. If now I offer myself to God very humbly, I give myself to the service of man ...' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.828)

In summary, then, we appear to have isolated three trends in the Edwardian novel: "Realism" – showing things as they really are (in all the various different ways such a prescription can be taken). "Romanticism" – or Escape - ­the desire to ignore, for once, the "seamy side", and to sail off into a less harrowing realm of self-indulgent pleasure. And, finally, "Edification" – or Utility, or Uplift – the desire to leave your readers better in some way for having read your book. It is now appropriate to examine yet another type of novel – the novel of escape (in its various forms, "pure" and impure) – in order to see if it confirms, or modifies, our conclusions.

The Riddle of the Sands (1907), by Erskine Childers, seems to me a very good example of this genre, particularly considering its later reputation as "the novel which first warned us of the menace of Germany". There is an element in it, that is to say, of defiant paradox – implying that the really important business of life may just happen to be messing about in boats on the North Sea Coast of Germany, and incidentally helping to save the Empire, rather than in one's boring everyday occupation.

The protagonist, Carruthers, is left almost alone in London in the dead season of September, when everyone else is on holiday. Being a man of enterprise, he attempts to penetrate some of the "secrets of the metropolis" described in books such as Stevenson's New Arabian Nights; but this desire " … was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour's immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall ... where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout' (Childers, 1955, p.16). We can certainly believe this aspect of Carruthers' adventures – initial deflation of "romantic" expectations is a commonplace of the real novel of escape, and Childers is careful to keep up the same appearance of verisimilitude throughout (the yacht, belonging to his friend Davies, from which they conduct their adventures, turns out to be a small, cramped, working boat, rather than the pleasure craft Carruthers was anticipating); but all this is simply to encourage us to credit some of the more extravagant portions of the plot. A fantasy, as I have argued above, à propos of Sinister Street, must be simultaneously believable and attractive to really satisfy.

Nor is it difficult to see roughly the same impulses at work in the initial rapturous welcome of the 1914 war by writers such as Rupert Brooke – even the enemy, Germany, is the same, while the 'world grown old and cold and weary' (Keynes, 1974, p.19) is precisely Carruthers' London – a life that has gone stale. Both Brooke and Childers desire escape from the 'half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary', and both have convinced themselves that what they are exchanging it for ­adventure, action, the open air – is both "cleaner" and more desirable, but also forced on them by honour – in effect, that it is their duty to go. One should not push this parallel too far – after all, a private adventure, however momentous, is not really analogous to a European war; but neither should we ignore the influence of swashbuckling adventure stories such as this on the actions and attitudes of those who sprang to the colours in 1914 (the book, after all, was written with the express intention of awaking England to its peril, as a 'record of Secret Service Recently Achieved'[3] – not just to entertain).

"Escape", then, it would appear, must at least pretend to have a useful purpose to justify its pursuit of fantasy. Even writers such as Wodehouse and J. M. Barrie (in his "whimsical" vein) must be seen to be pursuing the unattainable ideal of aesthetic perfection to justify their frivolity. And writers such as Childers, on a more mundane level, must pretend to be realistic in their descriptions and responsible in their intentions, however absurd their message really is. Childers' case is, of course, complicated by the fact that his warnings actually did turn out to be of some value – but, in the context or the novel itself, this simply shows a didactic subterfuge to cover up self-indulgent fantasy which was so successful that it fooled its own author; not to mention the rest of the world!

Perhaps, though, it would be better to examine a purer "novel or escape" if we are to give the form its due - Prester John (1910), the first in John Buchan's long series of adventure stories. The hero, David Crawfurd, a young Scotsman, tells the tale of how he foiled the plot of a negro messiah, the Rev. John Laputa, to set himself up as Emperor over Africa – a new 'Prester John'. The pretence of Crawfurd's narrative being simply a supplement to the official history of the campaign is, however, carefully kept up throughout (Buchan's concession to realism). Nor is the element of didacticism (one hesitates to call it "edification") forgotten – the imperial ideal, the notion of the "white man's burden" is expressed here so vehemently, with so little hesitation, that one rather suspects Buchan of preparing a counterblast to the more introspective and self-questioning adventure stories which were so typical of this era. One expects racial and national prejudice as a matter of course – the villain, Henriques, is described as having 'a face the colour of French mustard – a sort of dirty green – and blood-shot, beady eyes with the whites all yellowed with fever … and a curious, furtive way of walking and looking about him' (Buchan, 1960, pp.27-28). But when one is told that the description is insufficient: 'Tut, my man, most of the subjects of his Majesty the King of Portugal would answer to that description' (p.35), one feels that Buchan is exceeding the normal limits even of his age.

As for the negroes, they seem to be scarcely regarded as human – even their 'Emperor' Laputa, who 'had none of the squat and preposterous negro lineaments' (p.29), is 'also a Kaffir. He can see the first stage of a thing, and maybe the second, but no more. That is the native mind' (p.82). Buchan also throws in "subtle" hints to the reformers, notably in the scene where Crawfurd tries to convince Laputa that he is too stupid to pose a threat to the revolt:

I blush today to think of the stuff I talked. First I made him sit on a chair opposite me, a thing no white man in the country would have done. Then I told him affectionately that I liked natives, that they were fine fellows and better men than the dirty whites round about. I explained that I was fresh from England, and believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters. (Buchan, 1960, p.90)

That is, in fact, the most pernicious aspect of this seemingly harmless piece of entertainment. The "message" which Buchan devises for his fantasy of African adventure actually bears on the real world. There actually was an Empire full of "Kaffirs" and foreigners – and it is unfair to devise a fantasy, bolster it up with plausible detail, and use it to denounce the filthy practices and habits of real people. It is irrelevant whether or not Buchan believed in what he was saying (though one suspects, from his vehemence, that he did – his narrator, at the end of the book, seeing the desert blossom like a rose, confides 'I knew then the meaning of the white man's duty' (p.202) (as Virgil put it, 'to exalt the humble, trample down the proud)). The fact remains: one cannot give a serious message through a deliberately distorting mirror – that is why "realism" is regarded as a virtue in art. Only the frivolous can afford to dispense with it; for without it, one cannot trust either the information one is receiving, or the conclusions that are drawn from this information. Buchan ignores this fact – and his story is only "harmless escape" as long as all its readers tacitly concur in ignoring any "serious" pronouncements on things in general contained therein.

One of the more interesting aspects of Buchan's adventure story (and reactionary tract) is his hero's admiration and respect for Laputa. Several times he warns the black leader not to trust the Judas in the rebel camp, Henriques – but he is also, at one stage, almost tempted to join the revolt:

By rights, I suppose, my blood should have been boiling at this treason. I am ashamed to confess that it did nothing of the sort … I had a mad desire to be of Laputa's party. Or rather, I longed for a leader who should master me and make my soul his own, as this man mastered his followers. (Buchan, 1960, p.112)

Crawfurd retreats from this experience feeling 'Last night I had looked into the heart of darkness, and the sight had terrified me' (p.116). It is difficult to know whether this echo of the title of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is intentional or not – but one suspects that it very likely is. Buchan, of course, is writing in the guise of a "simple Scottish Empire-builder", which gives him carte blanche to attribute any pernicious opinions to the narrator, and not to the author (notice that it is worship for power which draws Crawfurd to Laputa – 'I have already said that I might have made a good subaltern soldier, and the proof is that I longed for such a general' (p.112); Buchan too had his heroes – including T. E. Lawrence). The reference, then (ignoring its supposed attributability to Crawfurd), seems to be a reactionary gibe against Conrad's serious attempt to portray the implications of colonialism. Buchan obviously feels that all this is very unhealthy and "brainy" – an attitude revealed again in Mr Standfast, where he denounces, with laboured satire, a "modern" novel entitled Leprous Souls. Crawfurd, at any rate, pulls himself from the brink of an abyss of intellectual complexity with the reflection that:

Fortunately for mankind the brain in a life of action turns more to the matter in hand than to conjuring up the chances of the future. (Buchan, 1960, p.100)

Our original picture, then, of three basic drives in the novel: Realism – its opposite, Romanticism (or "escape") ­and Edification (or didacticism), needs to be redefined to some extent. Among the different motives for "realism" are:
  1. the aesthetic intention of showing things as they are (Joyce's Dubliners), &
  2. the didactic intention of correcting abuses (A Child of the Jago).

"Escape", too, can be aesthetically motivated – using the cover of art to justify frivolity (E. F. Benson); or didactic, and therefore to some extent misleading – at times fairly harmlessly (Childers), when there is no real distortion of facts (simply a "rattling good yarn" woven around them); but also quite perniciously – when an exceptionally entertaining adventure story (Prester John), is used to put across some very dubious moral attitudes.

This framework, too, may prove inadequate to sustain the complexities of our material – but it at least provides us with a starting-point, and a paradigm, against which to measure Masefield in the chapters to come.

2. Quoted on the front cover of the Penguin edition (Mackenzie, 1969).

3. Sub-title on title page of Childers (1955).

[John Masefield: Collected Poems (1931)]

Works Cited:

  • Buchan, John. Prester John. 1910. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

  • Childers, Erskine. The Riddle of the Sands. 1907. Mariners Library. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955.

  • Davies, W. H. The Collected Poems. Introduction by Osbert Sitwell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

  • Ford, Ford Madox. Joseph Conrad, A Personal Remembrance. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1924.

  • Heilbrun, Carolyn G. The Garnett Family: The History of a Literary Family. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961.

  • Huxley, Aldous. Crome Yellow. 1921. London: Chatto & Windus, 1949.

  • Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. World's Classics. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912.

  • Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke. London: Faber, 1974.

  • Larkin, Philip, ed. The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

  • London, Jack. The People of the Abyss. 1902. London: Arco Publications, 1962.

  • Mackenzie, Compton. Sinister Street. 1913-14. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

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

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

  • Maugham, W. Somerset. Liza of Lambeth. 1897. London: Heinemann, 1950.

  • Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage. 1915. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

  • Meynell, Wilfrid, ed. The Poems of Francis Thompson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941.

  • Morrison, Arthur. A Child of the Jago. 1896. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946.

  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975-78.

  • Smith, Constance Babington. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

  • Trease, Geoffrey. The Gates of Bannerdale. 1956. London: Heinemann, 1965.

  • Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  • Yeats, W. B. Collected Poems. London: Macmillan, 1977.

[John Masefield: A Book of Both Sorts (1947)]

22 April 2009

Chapter 2:

[John Masefield]

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)[1]

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" [1909] ... 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.[2]

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'[3], 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
end? (p.62)

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.

[John Masefield: A Mainsail Haul (1905 {1918})]

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.

[John Masefield: A Tarpaulin Muster (1907 {1920})]

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.

[John Masefield: The English Review (1911)

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).

[John Masefield: The Everlasting Mercy (1911)]

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)

[John Masefield: The Tragedy of Nan (1909 {1922})]

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:

PHILIP [alone].

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)

[John Masefield: The Tragedy of Nan (1909 {1922})]

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'[4], 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)

[John Masefield: The Daffodil Fields (1913)]

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).

[John Masefield: The English Review (1913)]

Works Cited:

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  • Burnshaw, Stanley, ed. The Poem Itself. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

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  • Smith, Constance Babington. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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  • Thomas, Gilbert. John Masefield. London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1932.

  • Yeats, W. B. Collected Poems. London: Macmillan, 1977.

[John Masefield: Captain Margaret (1908)]