Monday, 1 June 2015

John Masefield's Wild Times

When I was a boy, the Poet Laureate was still John Masefield, as had been the case ever since he succeeded Robert Bridges back in 1930 (he held the post longer than anyone since Tennyson). Masefield (born on this day in 1878) was, I think, little read by the Fifties and Sixties (he died in 1967, a survivor from another age), but Sea Fever was in every poetry anthology, and I remember singing (to use the term loosely) with the school choir a setting of his equally popular Cargoes  - 'Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine...' If I ever gave Masefield a thought, I would have assumed that he led a life of more or less exemplary dullness - but this was, in fact, far from the case. His early years, at least, were remarkably eventful and adventurous.
 After an unhappy childhood -  both parents lost early, farmed out to an aunt, wretched schooldays - he was sent to the training ship HMS Conway, with the twin aim of equipping him for life at sea and breaking what his aunt saw as a dangerous addiction to reading. The effect was to spark young Masefield's love of the sea, nautical lore and storytelling - and to confirm him in his addiction to books, which he now had a great deal more time to indulge. Masefield's maiden sea voyage was to Chile, then after his return he took to the sea again, aboard a windjammer bound for New York - where he promptly jumped ship and lived for several months as a vagrant, taking odd jobs where he could find them. After returning to the city, he worked in a carpet factory in Yonkers, where, despite the long hours and hard toil, he fed his reading addiction with as many as 20 books a week.
 Soon after his return to England, he met his future wife, settled down and embarked on an extremely busy and prolific career as poet, novelist, propagandist, lecturer and indefatigable all-round writer, accumulating honours as he sailed on into old age. I don't suppose much will survive of him but those few anthology pieces - and perhaps his children's books The Midnight Folk and The Box Of Delights? Well, it is enough.


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.


  1. Sea Fever was one of two poems that my father randomly insisted I memorise as a boy. The other was Ozymandias. Still got them both.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Good for you Brit - it could have been a lot worse...

  4. Prob is that Sea Fever contains tongue-twisters, especially "And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying."

    Easily comes out as something like "And the sprung flay and the flown splume"

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