Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poems by John Masefield

Welcome to the shiny new Vintage Novels! And now, back to your regularly scheduled book reviews:

John Masefield
In this post, I geek out about poetry.

I'd never heard of John Masefield until I stumbled across his rich, haunting ballad Sir Bors, which I will quote here in full:
Would I could win some quiet and rest, and a little ease,
In the cool grey hush of the dusk, in the dim green place of the trees,
Where the birds are singing, singing, singing, crying aloud
The song of the red, red rose that blossoms beyond the seas.

Would I could see it, the rose, when the light begins to fail,
And a lone white star in the West is glimmering on the mail;
The red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ,
In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.

The dusk comes gathering grey, and the darkness dims the West,
The oxen low to the byre, and all bells ring to rest;
But I ride over the moors, for the dusk still bides and waits,
That brims my soul with the glow of the rose that ends the Quest.

My horse is spavined and ribbed, and his bones come through his hide,
My sword is rotten with rust, but I shake the reins and ride,
For the bright white birds of God that nest in the rose have called,
And never a township now is a town where I can bide.

It will happen at last, at dusk, as my horse limps down the fell,
A star will glow like a note God strikes on a silver bell,
And the bright white birds of God will carry my soul to Christ,
And the sight of the Rose, the Rose, will pay for the years of hell.
Since then I have dipped into some more of Masefield's poetry, and managed to buy a volume of his collected poems. The cover of the old hardback I found informed me that Masefield was a Poet Laureate; I went to Wikipedia for more information.

John Masefield (1878-1967) was a contemporary of Kipling, Chesterton, Buchan, Lewis, Tolkien, and other favourite authors of mine. Starting his life as a sailor, he eventually made a name for himself as a poet and novelist and was appointed Poet Laureate to the United Kingdom--a post previously held by luminaries like Alfred Tennyson--from 1930 until his death. His most famous poems have a tang of the sea in them: "Sea-Fever" and "Cargoes", which I found collected in some of our assorted poetry books when I began to look up his works. He wrote a few plays based off Scripture, including one called "The Coming of Christ" for which Gustav Holst, a composer I enjoy playing, provided incidental music.

I have no idea why I'd never heard of him before.

Masefield's poetry is his claim to fame, and while I still haven't read much of it, I feel confident to make some observations.

As far as content goes, I am a little disappointed. Chesterton and Kipling, slightly before Masefield, had more original ideas; James McAuley, a little after (possibly the best Australian poet ever and the never-to-be-forgotten perpetrator of the Ern Malley hoax) bristles with contrarian defiance (try reading his Letter to John Dryden sometime and see if that doesn't clear out your sinuses). By contrast Masefield is a little ho-hum. His poem "Cargoes" gains all its power from a dramatic comparison of the romance of the past with the prosaic ugliness of the present. There is nothing wrong with the poem; but Chesterton would have done something with the comparison, perhaps getting us to acknowledge the fundamental and beautiful usefulness of the "dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack."

Then there are the theological problems. Masefield is familiar with Christian imagery, but I'd be surprised if he actually was a Christian. The thing is missing that satisfies me in Christian authors. I have never been able to pin it down exactly, partly because some non-Christian authors have occasionally been able to reproduce it (Rudyard Kipling may be an excellent example, though he is such a good one that I remain agnostic about the final state of his soul). Maybe the best thing I can say is that one's soul is restless, and the right kind of story will satisfy it in a way nothing else can. Masefield's poetry does not satisfy. The closest thing I have to a favourite among his poems is "Seekers"--
Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blessed abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.

Nor for us are content, and quiet, and peace of mind,
For we go seeking a city that we shall never find.

There is no solace on earth for us--for such as we--
Who search for a hidden city that we shall never see.

Only the road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.

We seek the City of God, and the haunt where beauty dwells,
And we find the noisy mart and the sound of burial bells.

Never the golden city, where radiant people meet,
But the dolorous town where mourners are going about the street.

We travel the dusty road till the light of the day is dim,
And sunset shows us spires away on the world's rim.

We travel from dawn to dusk, till the day is past and by,
Seeking the Holy City beyond the rim of the sky.

Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blest abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.
It's gorgeous. But it's just slightly wrong. Those of us who hunt the City find it. Masefield's poetry is all about seeking, and never finding, certainly never in this world (look at the poem "Sir Bors" above). Who ever seeks a thing so mortally unfindable?

Masefield seems keenly interested in matters of religion and spirituality. But it's all slightly off. "A Creed" is not even close:
I held that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise
Another mother gives him birth.
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the roads again.
Chesterton did better. His "The Skeleton" tangles with mortality in the same way as this poem, but with far greater profundity (and a much higher degree of orthodoxy):
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No; I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King's jest,
It was hid so carefully. 
All this said, there's a reason I'm glad I've discovered Masefield. He may not have been a very profound thinker, and he may have muffed Theology 101, but could the man write poetry! His verse has some of the wonderful crash and glitter you find in a Chesterton poem, but a little more responsibly handled--Chesterton is all fireworks, all the time, which is delightful in him, but Masefield has a more varied style. There is a kind of deliberation to his work: in him you see a superb craftsman working doggedly, by his own strict rules, and producing through this stern discipline a world of delight. The words are carefully picked, with subtle and delightful shades of alliteration and assonance chiming through the rolling words. "A mad salt sea-wind blowing/The salt spray in my eyes." "Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,/Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong." "With sacks of purple amethysts, the spoils of buccaneering, /Skins of musky yellow wine, and silks in bales." This is simply brilliant craftsmanship, the kind any writer should study carefully.

The really unique thing about Masefield, though, and the thing that keeps me coming back to him, is what he does with rhythm. Underlining the rich word-choice and the interplay of alliteration and assonance, it is again slow and deliberate and wonderfully complex. Here is a stanza from "A King's Daughter", about the aged Helen of Troy:
"I will go to some lone island where I am not made a story,
Where my beauty made no widow, nor no orphan wanting bread;
Where no human sorrow suffers the disaster of my glory,
And my eyes may lose the vision of the hauntings of the dead.
"Day and night the dead men haunt me, whom the madness of my caring
Brought from home and wives and children to be bones upon the plain;
All the panther-like for beauty, all the lion-like for daring,
And they lie upon the bindweed now, uncovered by the rain."
 With three unaccented syllables to every accented syllable, this verse has an unusually slow pace that fits the longer lines to perfection, and the character of the speaker. Here's another few stanzas from "The Taking of Morgause", in which the main character is a naughty little girl:
"There," (Morgause thought) "they are about to go,
And I, alone, of all the castle, know...

I shall return and tell them: 'Look at me...
I saw the pirates whom you did not see.

They could not see me hidden in the flowers,
But there I snuggled, watching them for hours.

I was as near as you are to the King,
I heard him tell his boatswain what to sing.

He never saw me, but he came so near,
I could have touched him with a hunting-spear.'"
I haven't even tried to analyse this metre, and I don't have the expertise to try, but it seems to have all sorts of fun things going on. One added dimension I can spot is that the length of the words--short or long--seems to play into the rhythm as well as the accented and non-accented syllables.

Masefield uses a very similar metre in "Badon Hill", which recasts the ancient battle of Arthur as a Viking cattle-raid.
Arthur and Lancelot the son of Ban
Took burning touchwood in an iron pan;

They slid into the water among reed,
No pirate saw their coming, none gave heed.

They pushed their gear before them on a raft,
The ripples spread in little gleams that laughed.

The weathered Dragon-ship rose overhead
Like a house pale, sun-blistered, painted red.

Arthur and Lancelot together smeared
Tar to the leadings whence her hawsers veered,

Then heaping twigs and pine-cones, they gave touch,
And blew, until the little flames took clutch.
The suspense drips off the page throughout this poem, and the slow tense metre that never goes quite how you expect it to is a big part of the magic.

John Masefield's poetry is not my favourite--I have volumes of Christina Rossetti, GK Chesterton, and Edmund Spenser, and an anthology of the metaphysical poets to fall back on when I am in the mood to read really satisfying stuff. But stylistically, the man had amazing talent, and his poetry has been a real pleasure to explore.

Find selections of John Masefield's poetry on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Wikisource.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is beautiful, thanks for sharing a little bit of your world!
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