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Masefield, John

Category: Poet

John Edward Masefield, OM ( 1878 – 1967) was an English poet and writer, and Poet Laureate  from 1930 until his death in 1967.   The Times newspaper said of him: ... “his poetry could touch to beauty the plain speech of everyday life”.

Masefield’s first book was Salt-Water Ballads then came a few plays, then novels - Captain Margaret (1908) and Multitude and Solitude (1909),  the 1923 edition of "Collected Poems" sold around 80,000 copies. More poems followed, for example,  Reynard The Fox,  Right Royal and King Cole. From 1924 till the Second World War, he published twelve novels, which vary from stories of the sea (The Bird of Dawning, Victorious Troy) to social novels about modern England (The Hawbucks, The Square Peg), and from tales of an imaginary land in Central America (Sard Harker, Odtaa) to fantasies for children (The Midnight Folk, The Box of Delights).

We tend to think of Masefield as a sort of 'safe' poet, but at the time of its publication the poem Everlasting mercy was branded by  Lord Alfred Douglas as ‘nine tenths sheer filth’, the poem was denounced from the pulpit, but it was read in public houses and J.M. Barrie described the work as ‘incomparably the finest literature’.

What never seems to emerge in the descriptions of Masefield is just what a spiritual man he was.  For example. The Romanes Lecture is a prestigious free public lecture given annually at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.  The lecture series was founded by George Romanes, and has been running since 1892. Over the years, many notable figures from the Arts and Sciences have been invited to speak. The lecture can be on any subject in science, art or literature, approved by the Vice-Chancellor of the University. 

And what do we find in 1924?  John Masefield — Shakespeare & spiritual life.

Not all of Masefield's work has a 'spiritual content', much of it is just very good occasionally inspired writing, but particularly in his poetry something greater seeps in. For example

 

FLESH, I have knocked at many a dusty door,
Gone down full many a midnight lane,
Probed in old walls and felt along the floor,
Pressed in blind hope the lighted window-pane,
But useless all, though sometimes when the moon
Was full in heaven and the sea was full,
Along my body's alleys came a tune
Played in the tavern by the Beautiful.
Then for an instant I have felt at point
To find and seize her, whosoe'er she be,
Whether some saint whose glory doth anoint
Those whom she loves, or but a part of me,
Or something that the things not understood
Make for their uses out of flesh and blood

 

And his novel Sard Harker is something quite special.  It has been described as 'romantic mysticism'.  'Visions' of one sort or another play a central role in the plot, along with the futures men and women create for themselves. 

Sadly, Masefield pulled away from the magical or spiritual world  to concentrate on the sea, on relationships, and on human adventure. This makes  novels such as the Taking of the Gry', 'the Bird of Dawning' and others the poorer,  without the brooding philosophical intensity.

What was it that raised him to these heights?

His parents died when he was very young and he was brought up by an aunt.  After an unhappy education at the King's School in Warwick, where he was a boarder between 1888 and 1891, he left to board the HMS Conway, both to train for a life at sea, and to 'break his addiction to reading', of which his aunt disapproved.

 

Gaining the position of a senior petty officer, Masefield left the Conway in 1894 and was apprenticed to a four-masted barque (the Gilcruix) sailing from Cardiff to Iquique in Chile via Cape Horn. He was violently ill and upon arrival, sunstroke combined with a nervous breakdown resulted in him being invalided out. He was classified as a Distressed British Seaman and, after time in hospital, returned to England. The aunt taunted her nephew and arrangements were made for the young man to join another ship in New York. Masefield had other plans and upon arrival in America, he deserted ship vowing ‘to be a writer, come what might’.

At seventeen, Masefield embarked on a life of vagrancy in America during a time of widespread depression. One job was as a bar-hand in New York, but he eventually secured better employment at a carpet factory in Yonkers. It provided a modest wage and time to relax after the working day. Masefield spent his time reading and at eighteen years of age bought a volume of Chaucer. His admission to a new world of poetry was sudden and complete, on 6 September 1896, when he first read The Parliament of the Birds. Keats and Shelley followed, as did Masefield’s renewed attempts at writing himself. Thinking that journalism might allow him to write for a living, Masefield returned to England in July 1897. Still only nineteen, he commenced work in London as a bank clerk.

Now you would think that in this long list of adventure, illness, hardships and suffering we have more than enough reasons accumulated for Masefield's inspiration and writing success – loneliness, unhappiness, deprivation, nervous breakdowns – all good input for a budding poet!!

But the probable driver to Masefield's real inspiration was the ill health he suffered principally from malaria.  Having said this,  it would be wrong to put quite such a simplistic interpretation on his writing success.  Much of his success can also be put down to a peculiar mix of happiness and depression.

Masefield with Constance

When Masefield was 23, he met his future wife, Constance Crommelin, who was 35. His poems often feature his mother and there was, one suspects, something of the feeling that an older woman is a sort of compensation, for not ever really having a mother.  The couple had two children (Judith, born in 1904 a year after the marriage, and Lewis, in 1910). It was a happy marriage on the whole and a very long lasting one.   He did have a 'relationship' with the actress and feminist thinker Elizabeth Robins and Masefield spoke for the suffrage of women in 1910.  He clearly liked women and his poems express great empathy for their lot in those days.  It was not until 1960, that Constance died at 93, after a long illness. Although her death was heartrending for him, they had been married 58 years and he was 82.  

He also lived in idyllic rural surroundings for most of his later life  and  took up beekeeping, goat-herding and poultry-keeping – a true safe house.

But he did seem to suffer black dog days of depression, or at least feeling very low.  Despite Masefield’s fervent creative efforts, he later described the beginning of the 1900s, for example,  as ‘a very real blackness of despair’ and noted ‘my work was not what I had hoped’. It was only in 1911, with the publication of The Everlasting Mercy, that Masefield felt he had achieved some success.

 

He also suffered later in life.  In 1942 , the war directly struck the family when Masefield’s only son was killed in the North African desert. 1949 brought serious illness, and the 1950s saw little work from Masefield: one notable exception was So Long To Learn: Chapters of an Autobiography published in 1952. So from this we can see that grief was not a driver for Masefield, grief rendered him creatively impotent.

In late 1966, Masefield developed gangrene in his ankle. This spread to his leg, and he died of the infection on 12 May 1967. According to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. 

O Beauty, let me know again
The green earth cold, the April rain, the quiet waters figuring sky,
The one star risen.
So shall I pass into the feast
Not touched by King, Merchant, or Priest;
Know the red spirit of the beast,
Be the green grain;
Escape from prison

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