To many, John Masefield is simply known as the poet who wrote about the sea. Some also know him as one of the Poet Laureates. It is certain however that one is not appointed Poet Laureate by simply writing verse about ships, salt water, and wind.
It would be far better, if it is needed to describe Masefield in very few words, to call him the poet who wrote of beauty and experience.
It is interesting to note that although among the ‘general public’, Masefield’s poems of sea and ships are well known, the poet himself in fact spent only a very small part of his life aboard ship. Further, it may surprise many to discover that sea life did not suit Masefield and on his second voyage, he deserted ship to find work as a land-lubber in New York City.
Masefield was born in the town of Ledbury, surrounded by beautiful countryside in the region of Herefordshire, England, on June 1, 1878. This picturesque area, located near the border of Wales, was described by Masefield as his ‘Paradise’. As a young boy, Masefield was able to roam his nearby countryside, delighting in watching the ships moving up and down the local canal; wandering alone through the meadows and woods; and taking an interest in and observing the beauty of the natural flora and fauna of the area.
Although the natural surroundings were beautiful to Masefield, he encountered several tragedies early in his life. At the age of 6, his mother passed away shortly after giving birth to John’s youngest sister, Norah. Fourteen months later, both of his then living Grandparents passed away, and in 1890, his father suffered a mental breakdown, the family was required to hospitalize him. A year later, he also passed away.
The responsibility for the upbringing of the orphaned Masefield children was taken on by an Aunt and Uncle who had no experience of children or the necessary finances to continue the expensive schooling John had enjoyed. Further, to the irritation of John who by this age had become very fond of reading, his aunt scorned books and had John’s Grandfather’s library removed from the home. At the age of 13, John’s Aunt insisted he be sent to the sea-cadet ship, the HMS Conway, for training for a life at sea
John spent several years aboard this training ship and although he initially had no desire to go there, he found that he could spend much of his time reading and writing, as well as receiving instruction in nautical subjects such as navigation, astronomy, and geography. It was aboard the Conway that Masefield’s love for story-telling grew. While on the ship, in the company of his instructors, many of whom had years of experience at sea, he listened to the many yarns verbally passed on about sea lore. He continued to read books with a passion, and at this early age felt that he was to become a writer and story teller himself.
While enrolled at the Sailing Cadet school, Masefield attended a class instructed by “Wally” Blair, who, with his skill at spinning tales and relating stories of the sea, kindled and encouraged further Masefield’s desire for story telling. In fact, many of Blair’s stories were included in ‘Mainsail Haul’, a collection of prose written by Masefield and published in 1905
In 1894, at the age of 16, Masefield boarded the Gilcruix, as an apprentice. The four masted ship’s destination was Chile, which entailed a voyage around Cape Horn. Interestingly, one of Masefield’s duties aboard the Gilcruix was to make daily entries into the ship’s journal
Masefield’s first voyage brought to him the experience of sea sickness and a taste of the renowned fierce weather sailors generally encounter ‘rounding the Horn.’ He recorded his experiences of sickness and the conditions aboard the ship while sailing through the extreme weather ( he later vividly described the fury of a storm while rounding Cape Horn in a later poem, ‘Dauber’), however it was obvious from his journal entries that he delighted in viewing flying fish, porpoises, and birds unknown to him, and was awed by the beauty of nature, including a rare sighting of a nocturnal rainbow on his voyage
Upon reaching Chile, Masefield suffered from sunstroke and was hospitalized. He eventually returned home to England as a passenger aboard a steam ship, rather than as a crew member.
In 1895, Masefield reluctantly returned to sea, at the urging of his Aunt, on another windjammer destined for New York City. However, the urge to become a writer and the hopelessness of life as a sailor in achieving that goal overtook him, and in New York, Masefield deserted his ship. As a 17 year old in a strange country, unable to secure employment, he traveled through the country side, taking whatever job he could find including farm labour. Often, he was forced to sleep outdoors, under the stars, without much to eat
Masefield lived as a vagrant for several months, before returning to New York City, where he was able to find work as an assistant to a bar keeper. His wages were $10.00 per month plus room and board, and his hours of work were from 9:00AM to 2:00AM. Although this was grueling, his desire for writing did not ease, and Masefield continued to make time for reading whatever he could find, and writing poetry. Although his employment only lasted 2 months, Masefield did enjoy a close friendship with his bar keeping boss and family, and later in his life on a return journey to America, Masefield made a point of returning to visit with him.
For the next 2 years, Masefield was employed in a carpet factory. During this time, long hours were expected of all employees and conditions were far from ideal, certainly not for a young man intent on becoming a writer of stories and poetry. Masefield’s determination was great enough, however, for his dreams to survive, and he continued to spend much of his time reading and writing. He would purchase up to 20 books per week, and devoured both modern and classical literature. His interests at this time were diverse and his reading included works by Trilby, Dumas, Thomas Browne, Hazlitt, Dickens, Kipling, and R.L. Stevenson. Chaucer was also to become very important to Masefield during this time, as well as poetry by Keats and Shelley. Towards the end of this period of his life, the spark of desire to write and become a poet was kindled into a fire, and he yearned to return to England with the hope of being able to achieve his goals
Returning to England in 1897, Masefield found employment as a bank clerk. However his wages were low and he was often found to be in ill health. He suffered from bouts of depression, longing for the countryside but required to live in the city. Art became a passion for Masefield and he often saw himself as a critic, and spent many hours in museums, while continuing to write. By the time he was 21, his poem, Nicias Morituras was accepted for publication. This poem was later revised and appeared in his collection, ‘Salt Water Ballads’ as ‘The Turn of the Tide.
It was at this time that Masefield discovered the poetry of William Butler Yeats. He became so enamoured with the works of Yeats that he determined to meet the great Irish poet and made efforts to do so, which resulted in an invitation to Yeats’ home in London. Yeats and Masefield went on to become great friends for the rest of their lives, corresponding and visiting frequently. Yeats encouraged Masefield’s literary dreams and became a mentor to him. There is no doubt that this friendship had some bearing on the future success of Masefield, as he soon became an important part of Yeat’s inner circle of close friends which included older and experienced poets, literaries and publishers – figures that Masefield would often call upon for advice
By the age of 24, Masefield’s poems were being published frequently in various periodicals and his first collected works, ‘Salt-Water Ballads’ was published and enjoyed immediate success. “Sea Fever”, one of, if not the widest known poem of Masefield’s, appeared in this book
When Masefield was 23, he met the woman who was to become his wife. Constance Crommelin, a descendant of the Huguenots who had fled France to Northern Ireland because of Roman Catholic persecution, was 35 years old at the meeting. Educated in classics and English Literature, and a teacher of mathematics, Constance was a perfect match for Masefield despite the huge difference in age. Although it must have been difficult for Constance to leave her social status and elegant lifestyle for a life of relative poverty, she brought with her a belief in her husband which encouraged him throughout the rest of his life. Masefield displayed his own adoration of Constance, and during periods of separation by necessity, the quantities of letters he wrote her, both before and after their marriage, indicate the love and respect he had for her. It would seem that Constance brought into Masefield’s life those qualities he required to guarantee his future success. Constance also was a great woman in her own right, and although she was much older than her husband, Masefield enriched her life and was an encouragement to her as well. The couple had 2 children, a son and a daughter.
During the first few years of marriage, the Masefields had very little income and depended mostly upon the monies that Constance had brought into the marriage. Therefore, Masefield spent most of his time reviewing books for several periodicals, and often had lists of up to 80 books at a time to submit reviews for. Masefield drove himself at his work, practicing his craft, still sure of his goals. Eventually, he was offered a position with the ‘Manchester Guardian’ working night shift. In spite of the demands placed upon him, he continued to produce his own works including continuing with the book reviews, and even began to write plays over the next several years. Although by critical standards his plays were not rated highly, they were well attended by the public. His literary efforts were finally rewarded with the publishing of two novels, ‘Captain Margaret’ in 1908 and ‘Multitude and Solitude’ in 1909, then in 1911, after a long drought of poem writing, Masefield composed what is, by many critics, considered his finest poem, ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.
Up to this time, Masefield had been driving himself to write book reviews, novels and plays while continuing his journalistic work, and his poetic abilities seemed to have died. Just prior to writing “The Everlasting Mercy,’ Masefield had been depressed, and on a spring day in 1911, after a long snowy winter, he set out for a walk into the woods. He apparently discovered some primroses, and whle admiring their beauty, Masefield reported that he heard a voice saying, “The spring is beginning.” There was no one else anywhere nearby, and Masefield believed the voice to be of supernatural origin.
Several weeks later, again enjoying the natural beauty of the woodlands around him and taking delight in the springing forth of life in the new season, Masefield, while on a walk, stepped over a fence. As he did so, he reported that “Instantly the poem appeared to me in its complete form, with every detail distinct; the opening lines pured out upon the page as fast as I could write them down.” This poem, ‘The Everlasting Mercy,’ was published in the English Review in October of 1911, and in the words of Frank Swinnerton, a critic at the time of poem’s release, wrote in his book, ‘The Georgian Literary Scene’ regarding The Everlasting Mercy, “It was read, declaimed, interrupted and discussed with a sort of inflamed fever of controversy such as, in the case of poetry, I cannot in memory match.”
“The Everlasting Mercy” was the first of Masefield’s narrative poems, all of which proved him to be more than just poet, but also an accomplished story teller. Within the next year, Masefield produced 2 more narrative poems, ‘The Widow in the Bye Street’ and ‘Dauber’, also both of which received critical acclaim. It is noteworthy that although Masefield went through several years of melancholy and was deeply disturbed by his apparent lack of creativity, he never gave up, continuing to push himself onwards to his goals, until he finally met with success in his first 3 narrative poems, and this man with no formal university education was being described as a genius.
As a result of the writing of these three poems, Masefield became even more widely known amongst the general public and was praised by critics. One critic apparently described the poet’s work in a way that could possibly, in a nutshell, characterize Masefield’s life apart from his poetry by praising his “rugged strength” and his “deep eye for beauty.” In 1912, the annual Edmund de Polignac prize, with £100.00 included, awarded to an author of a pure work of fiction, was bestowed upon Masefield. In 1913, he was invited to attend British Prime Minister Asquith’s daughter’s birthday party, which included such guests as G. B. Shaw, Rupert Brooke, Gosse, and Augustine Birrel.
Although still relatively young, Masefield remained humble during this period of public adoration, although in a letter to Yeats, he humourosly described some of the gifts and requests he had received from his admirers.
In 1914, World War I began, and Masefield was no different than any other European, displaying consternation and concern about the safety of his country and family. He did write several ‘war poems’ indicating his own patriotism, yet at the same time his despisal of human suffering was deeply felt and are clearly seen in his letters to his wife. He enlisted with the Red Cross and spent a good part of the first year of the war in France as an orderly assisting in the care of the wounded casualties. He was shocked by the both the conditions of the field hospitals and the brutal suffering of the injured and took it upon himself to attempt to raise funds privately to finance improvements in the medical war fields of France. He returned home however, before he was able to ensure these improvements. In 1916, because of his excellent work in France, he was requested to lead an expedition of a motor boat ambulance service at Gallipoli, and Masefield was able to return to his friends who had earlier pledged financial support for the French medical operation, and raised enough funds to finance the project. Unfortunately for Masefield, by the time he had arrived, the allied troops had been defeated in the area, and there was no long term requirement for his operation.
After returning home, Masefield was invited to the United States on a lecture tour. Although the tour’s initial purpose was for Masefield to lecture on English Literature, especially on Chaucer and Shakespeare as he was becoming known as an expert on these, a secondary purpose for Masefield was to collect information on the mood and views of the Americans regarding the war in Europe. He spent approximately 3 months in the U.S., travelling throughout the east and mid west, lecturing, and meeting with various American people. For the most part, he was received very well, and Masefield desired to find ways to strengthen U.S. – British relations. When he returned back to England, he submitted a report to the British Foreign Office, and suggested that he be allowed to write a book about the failure of the allied efforts in the Dardanelles, which possibly could be used in the US in order to counter what he thought was German propoganda there. As a result, Masefield wrote ‘Gallipoli’, aided with permission to view many of the military documents and diaries, although most were still censored by military authorities. This work was a huge success and there is no doubt that the style Masefield used to write it went along way in encouraging the British people, and lifting them somewhat from the huge disappointment they had felt as a result of the Allied losses in the Dardanelles.
Masefield spent the next half of the war travelling between England and France, and was in fact sent on an assignment to observe and write about the American medical relief forces on the continent, in an effort to emotionally sway American support for the war effort. Although privately, Masefield felt that the American presence in France was pitiful for the most part, he did write an article which was published in the May 1917 issue of Harper’s Monthly, providing a heroic account of work with the American ambulance services.
Because of the success of his wartime writings, Masefield received a request to meet with the head of British Military Intelligence in France and was requested to write a full account of the Battle of the Somme. By this time, Masefield was very much missing Constance, and sought her advice. Constance’s response to him was indicative of the continuing care and love the couple had for each other, and although Constance did wish for time to be spent with John, she believed in his capabilities, and advised him that he should accept the request in order to help the Allies win the war.
Although Masefield had grand ideas for his book on the Somme, when he returned to England to write the book, he was denied access to the official records, and therefore, what was to be his preface to the book was in fact published as The Old Front Line, mostly a description of the geography of the Somme area where the battle was fought.
In 1918, Masefield again returned to America on his second lecture tour, organized by British officials with a view of using Masefield to further Britain’s interests there. By this time, the US had strongly and unequivocally thrown their support behind the European Allies, and in fact had sent troops to fight with Britain. Masefield spent a good deal of his time in the US speaking and lecturing to the American soldiers who were awaiting the call to be sent to Europe. These speaking engagements were very successful for Masefield, and on one occasion, a battalion of all Black soldiers danced and sang for Masefield after his talk to them.
For Masefield, this tour was significant in that it was during this time that he matured as a public speaker and realized his ability to touch the emotions of his audience with his style of speaking. He learned to speak publicly with his own heart, rather than from dry scripted prepared speeches, and this trip gave him much skill in speaking impromptu to large groups. Towards the end of his trip in America, both Yale and Harvard Universities conferred honorary Doctorates of Letters, important recognition by American Academia of the talents of the British Masefield.
Masefield entered the decade of the 1920’s as a now accomplished and respected writer and author. His family was finally able to settle in a somewhat rural setting, not far from Oxford, on property where he was able to enjoy his woodlands and country atmosphere and again delight in wild birds, and the natural beauty of the outdoors. Masefield took up a hobby of beekeeping, looked after a herd of goats as well as keeping poultry. One of his favourite places to write was in his study set out in the middle of a gorse bush. From here, his produced a variety of works including plays, novels, lectures and speeches, children’s books, but of course, he felt his true calling was in poetry, and his efforts in this regard were the most important to him. Masefield continued to meet with success, and in fact the 1923 edition of “Collected Poems” sold approximately 80,000 copies, a huge amount certainly for a book of poetry! As well, during this time, his speaking engagements called him as far away as the Middle East, and again to the United States.
Another threesome of narrative poems was produced by Masefield early in this decade. The first was Reynard The Fox, a poem that has been critically compared with works of Chaucer in its objective. Certainly, Masefield used the name, “Reynard,” a name Chaucer had also used for a fox in one of his poems. Critics often attempt to intellectualize literary works, attempting to identify possible themes of national, spiritual, or human conditions. This of course is often important in distilling from literary works some meaning or understanding of the poetry and the poet, however, it also at times seems to remove the simple element of enjoyment of the work for the sake of pleasure in the reading. There very well may be some ‘higher theme’ in Masefield’s works, including Reynard The Fox, however, it is well to remember that Masefield was a story teller, and he had a special ability to tell stories poetically. The story itself is where the reader will likely find the most enjoyment and pleasure in reading.
Reynard The Fox was followed by Right Royal and King Cole, again poems of beauty and movement with the relationship of humanity and nature emphasized. Reynard The Fox is probably the best known of these three poems, however, all met with generally positive critical acclaim.
During the early 1920’s, Masefield received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Oxford University, and other English and Scottish Universities also bestowed honorary degrees upon him. His close proximity to Oxford afforded him the opportunity to meet and befriend several of the University officials. In 1923, Masefield organized the Oxford Recitations, a contest held annually whose purpose was “to discover good speakers of verse and to encourage ‘the beautiful speaking of poetry.’” Masefield strongly believed that poetry should be spoken with voice and that medium of communicating verse was more important than printed poetry.
The Recitations were successful in many ways, including the impressive numbers of contest applicants. It was also successful in promoting natural speech in poetical recitations, and there were larger numbers of people learning how to listen to poetry. Masefield began to question however, whether the Recitations should continue as a contest, and began to believe that the competitive nature should be lessened, and the event should become more of a festival. In 1929, Masefield broke with the contest concept which also resulted in his breaking his association in this regard with Oxford University, and the Recitations came to an end.
Einstein once said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and in many ways, it is imagination, dreams and goals that inspire a person more than just raw knowledge. There is no doubt that Masefield was as knowledgeable, if not more than many others in his field, yet, this knowledge was gained not through mere study, but through a mind that was not only imaginative and observant, but also driven to act.
It is hard to imagine Masefield having time for theatre during the 1920s considering the quantity of his works produced, his speaking engagements, and his desire to assist others in understanding literature. Yet somehow, he spent much time writing and producing theatre, and in 1922, The Hill Players theatrical group was formed, after Masefield had produced and directed about a dozen plays in the preceding 18 months. All sorts of theatre, including Shakespeare, Euripides, works by Yeats, Binyon and even several of Masefield’s own creations were performed.
Masefield did write a very large number of dramatical pieces, many of them were produced by other theatre groups. Most of his dramas were based on themes of Christianity, and in 1928, his “The Coming of Christ” was the first play to be performed in an English Cathedral (This play was in fact performed in Canterbury Cathedral) since the middle ages. Although a great deal of Masefield’s works did seem to have a spiritual theme, it is doubtful that he himself accepted orthodox Christian doctrine as taught by the Church of England, the denomination he grew up in as a boy.
The Office of Poet Laureate officially was instituted in the early part of the 17th century. The duties of one appointed to the official King’s court poet were to compose verse in honor of the King’s birthday and then on other state occasions. The payment for this was to be 200 Pounds per year, along with a Butt of Sack. Chaucer, Skelton, and Spenser have been called poet laureates, however it is more correct to use the title Versificator Regis, which was an occasional post prior to Ben Jonson’s appointment as the first official Poet Laureate in 1619. There was an ancient custom of presenting a laurel wreath to university graduates of rhetoric and poetry, hence the name of the office. The office was held by such notables as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Robert Southey.
In 1930, due to the death of Robert Bridges, a need for a new appointment to the office arose. Many at the time felt Rudyard Kipling was an obvious choice, others saw the office belonging to Yeats. Masefield himself did not think he was worthy of the appointment, however, upon the recommendation of the British Prime Minister, King George V appointed Masefield, who remained in the office until his death in 1967. The only other person to remain in the office of Laureate for a longer period was Tennyson.
Although the requirements of the Poet Laureate had changed since it’s original inception, and those in the office were no longer required to write verse, but only as they were inspired, Masefield took his appointment seriously and he produced a surprisingly large quantity of verse. Poems that had been composed in his official capacity were sent to The Times newspaper. The humility of Masefield, even after receiving so much attention during his life, was demonstrated by the fact that he apparently always included a stamped envelope with each submission so that his composition could be returned to him if for some reason it were found unacceptable for publication.
After his appointment, Masefield continued to receive many honors, the most prestigious being the Order of Merit by King George V. He was the recipient of many more honorary degrees from Universities throughout the United Kingdom, and in 1937 he was elected President of the Society of Authors.
Masefield did not ‘rest on his laurels’ however! He continued to press forward in encouraging the continuance of quality English literature and poetry, and began a yearly tradition of the Royal Medals for Poetry to be awarded annually for a first or second published edition of poetry or a poet under the age of 35. The Awards Committee is of course chaired by the Poet Laureate. Masefield encouraged all poets as often as he could, and even responded to children who sent him their little rhymes for his critique and comments.
Masefield continued in his life, striving not only to write novels, poetry and drama, but taking seriously his efforts to further both literary and dramatic arts in Britain, as well as in other parts of the world.
His speaking engagements were calling him further away, and often on much longer tours, yet he still produced a veritable amount of work, both on his own and in collaboration with others. He felt it a priority to encourage others who sought encouragement from him, and was gracious in his responses and criticisms.
It was not until about the age of 70 years, that Masefield slowed his pace, and only that because of sickness, and a problem with cataracts. But even then, he continued to learn new things, and took a greater interest in classical music, and spent much time with his wife, with whom he was able to share so much of his thoughts.
In 1960, Constance passed away at the age of 93, after a long illness. Masefield was constantly at Constance’s side, and although her death was heart rending to him, he had spent a very tiring year watching the woman whom he adored, pass away. His life became more lonely and acted reclusive to those who did not know him. However, new honors and were being bestowed on Masefield, including being one of the first to receive the “Companion of Literature, instituted by the Royal Society of Literature; the William Foyle Poetry Prize; and the he received an award from the National Book League for writers over 65. He continued his duties faithfully as Poet Laureate, and even his other literary works did continue. His last published book, In Glad Thanksgiving, was published when Masefield was 88 years old.
On May 12, 1967, John Masefield passed away, after having suffered through a spread of gangrene up his leg as a result of a minor injury sometime earlier. He was cremated as were his wishes to be, and his ashes were placed in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. Later, the following verse was discovered, written by Masefield, addressed to his ‘Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns’:
Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.
Poet, novelist, dramatist and journalist, John Masefield’s literary career was rich and varied, and although his reputation waned in later years, he is again being recognized for his wide range, encompassing ballads, nature poetry and mythological narrative, and for his attempt to make poetry a popular art.
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