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by John Masefield
Quinquireme of Nineveh from sunny 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,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Batting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays.
The year 1902 (in which above poem was composed) represented something of a turning-point for John Masefield: it was the same year that his first book, Salt-Water Ballads - which would make his name - was published.
Born in Ledbury, the second son of a Hertfordshire solicitor, Masefield was orphaned in 1891 and sent (at the age of thirteen) to join H.M.S.Conway, a training-ship moored on the Mersey, as a sea-cadet. Here he was to serve his maritime-apprenticeship for a career in the Merchant navy, an idea which had come originally from his new guardian, his aunt Kate. Unfortunately, as he discovered after embarkation on the four-masted barque Gilcruix for the 'Nitrate-run' into Chile, he was to prove an irremediable victim to violent sea-sickness, a condition exacerbated by a four-week passage around the notorious Cape Horn. Under pressure from his aunt, Masefield signed-up for a second voyage, this time for the Far East, but after crossing the Atlantic to New York he abandoned the venture altogether and found work first in a bar and then in a carpet factory. These early experiences were to instil within him a fellow-feeling for the underdog. It is, perhaps, surprizing that a writer who so loved the sea -and has come to be so closely associated with it - should have spent so little time upon it as an active sailor.
Passing to years 1898 to 1901 (after his return to England) in the employ of the 'Capital and Counties Bank', as a clerk in the Kings street, Covent Garden branch, 'Jack' Masefield would get his 'lucky break' through being invited to an evening meal at W.B.Yeats' Bloomsbury rooms in the November of 1900. A great admirer of the Irishman's work, the younger man was adopted into 'The Master's' circle, making useful literary contact with the likes of lady Augusta Gregory and the scholar-poet of the British Museum, Laurence Binyon. It was the latter who 'pulled strings' to find Masefield more congenial work, firstly in helping to prepare the footnotes to a new edition of John Keats' works and secondly as 'Exhibition Secretary' (throughout 1902) to Wolverhampton's new Art Gallery. It was also at one of Binyon's dinner parties that he would meet his future wife (of 57 years) Constance Crommelin, one of the dedicatees of Salt-Water Ballads. During this same period Masefield continued to rent lodgings at number 15, Coram street (an easy walk from Yeats' house). His poetry had begun to appear in publications such as The Outlook, the Tatler and the Speaker (which also printed two of his book reviews and a series of semi-autobiographical articles, 'A Measure of Shifting Sand').
'Cargoes' was not included in Salt-Water Ballads - a title suggested by Kipling's (1892) Barrack Room Ballads - which brought its author a measure of financial security, selling-out its first edition of 500 within six months. The verses would wait eight years before their inclusion in Masefield's third book of poetry, Ballads and Poems (1910). The poet's grasp of geography has been questioned many times: Nineveh (the ancient capital of Assyria on the east bank of the Tigris) was situated 200 miles inland. To an enquirer, a Mr Fawkes, the writer suggested (in 1930) that 'It has often puzzled myself that a quinquireme owned in Nineveh should be rowing to Palestine, but perhaps before the Flood fully subsided such things were possible'. A 'Quinquireme' was a large galley dating from around the fourth century B.C. 'Ophir' was a mythical land of gold referred to in the book of Genesis and that of Kings. 'Moidores' were Portuguese golden coins dating from the mid-seventeenth century.
In 1911 Masefield's long, narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy (about the religious conversion of a blaspheming poacher) secured him a wider reputation which, together with his war-work during the First World War, culminated in his recommendation for the post of poet laureate in April, 1930. Boars Hill (near Oxford), where the Masefields had been living since 1919, thus rather monopolised the laureateship - as the previous incumbent, Robert Bridges, had also made his home there. When he heard of the news, the Cambridge poet, scholar - and another potential candidate - A.E.Houseman wrote, good-humouredly, to Masefield 'In sporting circles here they are asking the question: if Boars Hill get it three times, do they keep it?'
The new laureate would continue to publish prolifically (if unevenly) into his eighties. He would die, full of honours, in his ninetieth year - the second-longest serving laureate (after Tennyson).
Errington, P. [Ed.], Sea-Fever: Selected Poems of John Masefield, Carcanet (2005)
Russel, N., Poets by Appointment: Britain's Laureates, Blandford Press (1981)
Babington Smith, C., John Masefield, A life, Hamish Hamilton (1978)
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