Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Masefield (1878–1967)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)
TO be versatile and prolific generally is to be unimportant. Especially in literature, Jack-of-all-trades is, as a rule, master of none. An exception brilliantly proving this rule is John Masefield.  1
  Homer (scholars tell us) was not one man but a company of poets, writing through more than one century. Shakespeare (we are encouraged to believe) was not a theatrical manager who liked occasionally to build a play to show his dramatists how it should be done, but a syndicate of philosophers, poets, playwrights, scientists, and politicians. Three hundred years from now literary detectives will busy themselves with discovering the names of the sailor, the farmer, the Hellenist, the Orientalist, the sociologist, the realist, the romanticist, the dramatist, the ballad maker, the sonneteer, the novelist, the short story writer, who called their conspiracy John Masefield. They will attribute some of the Salt-Water Ballads to Kipling, some to Henry Newbolt, some to C. Fox Smith. They will attribute ‘The Sweeps of Ninety-Eight’ to Dr. Douglas Hyde. They will attribute ‘The Faithful’ to Sturge Moore. They will attribute ‘The Tragedy of Nan’ to D. H. Lawrence, part of ‘A Mainsail Haul’ to Charles Whibley, part of it to Algernon Blackwood, and part of it to Robert Louis Stevenson. And some of his ballads they will attribute to Wilfrid Gibson and some of his lyrics to William Butler Yeats. This will be a stupid thing for them to do, but, nevertheless, they will do it.  2
  One reason why the conduct of these hypothetical scholars is particularly irritating is that John Masefield is a writer of strong individuality. He has a distinct and easily recognizable style; his theme may be a battle of wits between Tiger Roche and the rebel hunters of 1798, or the tragedy of Nan Hardwick and the mutton parsties and the malicious Pargetters, or the great intrigues of royal Spain, or the ambitions of Pompey, or the soul of man in its relation to the mercy of God—whatever his theme may be, his style is the same. The writer’s eyes may be fixed upon the mysteries of his own heart, or they may be searching the boundless heavens; he is, nevertheless, always a realist. They may be curiously studying the most ordinary details of modern life; he is, nevertheless, always an idealist. So the intellectual, perhaps it might be said the spiritual, attitude of John Masefield is unvarying. And in this is to be found the reason for the intense individuality of the writer as seen in his works, for the feeling, common to all his readers, of being in direct communication with him. And the style of the sequence of sonnets in the Shakespearean manner is much the same as that of the stories about pirates and the drama of ancient Japan. The nervous expressive diction, the direct Elizabethan colloquialism, these things are Masefield; the form may vary, but not in its characteristics, the language.  3
  A writer’s attitude toward life and toward the things beyond life is his own; it is not to be accounted for by heredity or environment. But a writer’s style must necessarily be influenced by what he reads and by the talk of those with whom he spends the formative periods of his life. Even the careless reader of John Masefield’s books will notice occasionally in them, especially in the lyrics, a strong Celtic flavor. Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘Roadways’ and ‘Cardigan Bay’ and ‘Trade Winds’ and ‘The Harper’s Song’ surely belong to the same family as Eva Gore Booth’s ‘The Little Waves of Breffny’ and William Butler Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Furthermore, Masefield has that belief in the beauty of tragedy, tragedy in itself without regard to its moral significance, which is characteristic of many of the Irish writers of our generation. In the preface to ‘The Tragedy of Nan’ he writes:
          “Tragedy at its best is a vision of the heart of life. The heart of life can only be laid bare in the agony and exultation of dreadful acts. The vision of agony, or spiritual contest, pushed beyond the limits of the dying personality, is exalting and cleansing. It is only by such visions that a multitude can be brought to the passionate knowledge of things exulting and eternal…. Our playwrights have all the powers except that power of exaltation which comes from a delighted brooding on excessive, terrible things. That power is seldom granted to men; twice or thrice to a race perhaps, not oftener. But it seems to me certain that every effort, however humble, towards the achieving of that power helps the genius of a race to obtain it, though the obtaining may be fifty years after the strivers are dead.”
  Now in our time only one other writer has expressed this idea with equal force. And that writer is Mr. William Butler Yeats. He has written in an essay: “Tragic art, passionate art,… the confounder of understanding, moves us by setting us to reverie, by alluring us almost to the intensity of trance.” So we find the Irish and the English writer guided by one impulse and by one conviction. And the result is that considering this, and considering also the Celtic idiom which seemingly comes so naturally from the lips of Mr. Masefield, Englishman though he be, in his lyrics, in his poetic dramas, and in many of the stories in ‘A Mainsail Haul,’ we are tempted to believe that the Irish literary movement has stretched a shadowy arm across the channel and laid its potent spell upon a man of Saxon blood. And to this theory Masefield’s close friendship with William Butler Yeats lends color.  5
  But there are flaws in this theory. One of them is that Masefield was writing in this manner before he met Yeats, before, indeed, the Irish literary movement had attracted much attention outside of its home. Another flaw is that this idea of the nobility, one might almost say, of the loveliness of tragedy, while it is in our time more Irish than English, was held by the English dramatists and poets of centuries ago—Marlowe, for instance, and Webster and Shakespeare himself. The very earliest English poets selected tragic themes as a matter of course. Which of the great old ballads is without at least one bloody murder? Furthermore, the modern Irish-English idiom is to a great extent the idiom of England some centuries ago. There are rhymes in Shakespeare and even in Pope which show that what we consider Irish mispronunciations of English are simply English pronunciations that have been carried through the ages unchanged—the “ay” sound for “ea” is an example of that. “Our gracious Anne, whom the three realms obey, does sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.” Chaucerian scholars say that the Wife of Bath talked what we would call Irish dialect. Now, John Masefield’s literary idols belong not to his own generation or that immediately preceding it but to the early days of English letters. His favorite poem, he has told me, is Chaucer’s ‘Ballad of Good Counsel.’ This reading has affected his style and it has affected also his thought, to the strengthening of the first and the deepening of the second.  6
  There has been much said and written about Masefield’s romantic youth—about his experiences before the mast and behind the bar. There was a tendency during his tour of the United States in the early spring of 1916 to regard him as very much a self-made man, to marvel at the miracle of genius which turned a bartender-sailor into a great poet. But the fact of the matter is that Masefield is essentially of the literary type, a man who might readily have supported himself by school-teaching, journalism, or some other unromantic trade, but deliberately selected colorful and exciting occupations. No one can talk to him and retain the idea that Masefield is a “sailor-poet” or a “bartender-poet.” He is an educated English gentleman, very thoroughly a man of letters, who has had the good fortune to add to his treasury of experience by travels in strange places and among strange people.  7
  Masefield’s first important romantic experience, however, was undergone at a time when the poet was so young that it can scarcely have been the result of his own volition. Born at Ledbury, in the west of England, he was indentured to a captain in the English merchant marine at the age of fourteen years. A fourteen-year-old boy on shipboard generally learns to hate passionately and consistently the sea and all that is associated with it. And it would not be strictly true to say that Masefield gained from this early adventure a love of the sea. Rather he then came under the spell of the sea, a spell from which he has never escaped. He has not that sentimental affection for the sea which inspires the life-on-the-ocean-waves’ verse written by landsmen who know Neptune only by week-end visits in the summer time. He has been in the power of the sea more than it is altogether safe for so sensitive a spirit to be. He seems haunted by the sea; in those of his writings which in theme are least related to the sea the reader finds that again and again the figures and comparisons are drawn from the poet’s memory of days when above and beyond him were nothing but water and sky. Not even Algernon Charles Swinburne was so much influenced by the sea as Masefield has been.  8
  It is true that Masefield has given more beautiful expression to love for the sea than any other poet of our time—‘Sea-Fever’ alone would establish him as the sea’s true lover. But also Masefield has expressed with terrible force the cruelty of the sea, its brutal and terrifying energy, its soul-shattering melancholy. And nowhere in English literature is it possible to find more vivid pictures of the bitter hardship of a seaman’s life than in the Salt Water Poems and Ballads. Masefield is not elective nor selective in his attitude toward the sea; his feeling toward the sea seems almost an obsession. The sea is not subject to his genius; it speaks through him.  9
  Masefield’s life on shipboard did more than put him in the power of the sea, it began his interest in the lives and thoughts of simple hard-working people. And this interest has never left him. It is true that he occasionally gives us something like ‘The Faithful’ or ‘Philip, the King’ or ‘The Tragedy of Pompey the Great.’ But his heart is in poems like ‘Dauber’ and ‘The Everlasting Mercy’ and in stories like ‘A Deal of Cards,’ in which he writes of unsophisticated people who feel strongly and do not conceal their emotions.  10
  It was, perhaps, because of a real sense of the value and interest of life among simple people that Masefield made the selection he did of work to support himself during his first visit to the United States. In Connecticut he was a farm laborer, in Yonkers he was a hand in a carpet-factory and in New York City he was a sort of helper to the bartender in the old Colonial hotel on Sixth Avenue near Jefferson Market Court. This hotel is still in the possession of the family who employed Masefield and their recollections of him are highly entertaining. The writer once asked the eldest son of the family if Masefield had written anything during the days of his employment there. He had not, it seemed, and he was associated in the minds of the family with the art of poetry for one reason only—that being that he used to sing to the fretful baby, holding it in his lap as he sat in a rocking-chair in the kitchen, waiting for his employer’s wife to serve his dinner.  11
  When Masefield went back to England he went to work as a clerk in a London office. He was writing now, putting on paper the pictures that had been etched in his brain and in his heart during his wander years. Now he perceived the deep and abiding beauty and the deep and abiding tragedy (to Masefield they are the same) of his experiences. How this knowledge came to him he has told in twelve intensely sincere lines. E. A. Robinson has said that poetry is a language which tells, by means of a more or less emotional reaction, that which cannot be stated in prose. And therefore it is better to let Masefield tell this in poetry than to attempt to paraphrase it. He wrote, by way of preface to ‘A Mainsail Haul’:

  “I yarned with ancient shipmen beside the galley range
And some were fond of women, but all were fond of change;
They sang their quavering chanties, all in a fo’c’s’le drone,
And I was finally suited, if I had only known.
I rested in an ale-house that had a sanded floor,
Where seamen sat a-drinking and chalking up the score;
They yarned of ships and mermaids, of topsail sheets and slings,
But I was discontented; I looked for better things.
I heard a drunken fiddler in Billy Lee’s saloon,
I brooked an empty belly with thinking of the tune;
I swung the doors disgusted as drunkards rose to dance,
And now I know the music was life and life’s romance.”
  Masefield’s work soon attracted the attention of William Butler Yeats, John Galsworthy, Sturge Moore, and other English men of letters, and largely through their efforts was brought to the attention of the public. American readers first became aware of him through the publication of two long poems—‘The Everlasting Mercy’ and ‘The Widow in the Bye Street.’ To say that these were long narrative poems dealing with intensely tragic and dramatic events in the life of the British poor is not to describe them adequately. They were a poetry new to our generation. They showed an intimate knowledge of the lives of the poor, especially of the criminal poor, not to be found in the amiable poems of Mr. W. W. Gibson and similar socialistic dilletantes. They were not socialistic in message; rather they were individualistic. Saul Kane was not a drunkard because of economic pressure; Jimmy’s siren lived an evil life merely because she was evil, not as a result of the injustice of man-made laws or anything else of the sort. So precedents were violated and Masefield scored a success of sensation. The savage colloquialisms of the poems, their violent emotionalism, their melodrama—these things brought them to the attention of a large number of people not ordinarily interested in the work of new poets, and thus an audience was prepared for the poet’s later and more important work.  13
  There can be no doubt that the work published later was more important. There were crudities in these two narrative poems which seemed to be put there deliberately, in order to startle and shock the reader. Masefield followed these poems with other poems in the same manner done with much greater technical skill and with a more convincing sincerity. ‘Dauber’ and ‘Biography’ and the ‘Daffodill Fields’ are more likely to be read by the next generation than are ‘The Widow in the Bye Street’ and ‘The Everlasting Mercy,’ in spite of the fact that the last mentioned poem was awarded the Edward de Polignac prize of $500 by the Royal Society of Literature.  14
  It is hard to tell just what form Masefield will finally select for the expression of his genius. He has written ballads, lyrics, plays, novels, short-stories, even histories, and all these forms he has molded to his own use. At the time of writing he is in France actively engaged in Red Cross work, and has begun to send to the magazines stories of the things that he has seen which entitle him to be called a great reporter. The quest for beauty has been and is his ruling passion—he is splendidly explicit on this subject in the magnificent sequence of Shakespearean sonnets printed in ‘Good Friday and Other Poems.’ He has searched for this beauty on the boundless sea, in noisy barrooms, in English meadows, in the streets of New York. He is seeking it now, we may believe, in the tragedy and heroism of the battlefield. And always, his sonnets tell us, it is evasive and very distant, because its real dwelling place is his own soul.  15

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