Monday, 6 October 2008

Poetry - Masefield today

Replica of HMS Endeavour on the River Tees.

I loved John Masefield's poetry when I was growing up and still do today. Here are one or two of my favourites. I just love his use of words and the way the poems flow. I remember "Cargoes" from school days, though our teacher wasn't brave enough to try and explain the first line to us! I was grown up before I knew that Nineveh was a place :


    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.

    Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
    Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
    With a cargo of diamonds,
    Emeralds, amythysts,
    Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

    Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
    Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
    With a cargo of Tyne coal,
    Road-rails, pig-lead,
    Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Here's another of my favourite Masefield poems, which sums up my longing to go back home to the West Country, land of my ancestors . . .


IT'S a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds' cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April's in the west wind, and daffodils.

It's a fine land, the west land, for hearts as tired as mine,
Apple orchards blossom there, and the air's like wine.
There is cool green grass there, where men may lie at rest,
And the thrushes are in song there, fluting from the nest.

"Will ye not come home brother? ye have been long away,
It's April, and blossom time, and white is the may;
And bright is the sun brother, and warm is the rain,--
Will ye not come home, brother, home to us again?

"The young corn is green, brother, where the rabbits run.
It's blue sky, and white clouds, and warm rain and sun.
It's song to a man's soul, brother, fire to a man's brain,
To hear the wild bees and see the merry spring again.

"Larks are singing in the west, brother, above the green wheat,
So will ye not come home, brother, and rest your tired feet?
I've a balm for bruised hearts, brother, sleep for aching eyes,"
Says the warm wind, the west wind, full of birds' cries.

It's the white road westwards is the road I must tread
To the green grass, the cool grass, and rest for heart and head,
To the violets, and the warm hearts, and the thrushes' song,
In the fine land, the west land, the land where I belong.
I have a g.g.great grandfather and g.g.great uncle who were at the Battle of Trafalgar, one on HMS Victory and the other on Belleraphon (and he may even have been still serving as a sailor on board when Belleraphon took Napoleon to his exile on Alba.) I think of them whenever I read this:


    I MUST go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
    And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
    And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
    And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

    I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
    Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
    And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
    And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

    I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
    To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
    And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
    And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Masefield was born very much a land-lubber, in land-locked Ledbury, in Herefordshire, in 1878. He loved it here and called it his Paradise. His parents died whilst he was still a young child, and one of his aunts took the young family in. Aged 13, he was sent away to sea aboard the sea-cadet shop "HMS Conway". Originally not at all impressed by his aunt's decision, Masefield soon found that he had time to read and, more importantly, write during his leisure hours at sea. He rounded the Horn on an old schooner, bound for Chile, was hospitalized there after getting sunstroke, and finally abandoned the sea altogether to become a writer, having jumped ship in New York around 1895. His life as a writer was about to take shape, though initially his months spent tramping America in search of menial work may have sent him in another direction entirely.

I hope these have given you as much pleasure as they have me.

1 comment:

H said...

I really enjoyed JM's book 'The Box of Delights'. Thank-you for posting some of his poetry :-)