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Jerry Dowlen on... John Masefield
Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives
If anyone says “John Masefield”, or asks “What is your
favourite poem about the sea?” I bet that the most likely response will be a
recital out loud of this very well-known piece of poetry:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky …
That opening line of his famous poem ‘Sea Fever’ is veritably
the signature tune of John Masefield (1878 – 1967). He was Britain’s poet
laureate throughout the latter part of his life. In addition to his poetic
fame, he is credited with having written two classics of children’s fiction: The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935).
Born in Herefordshire, the young Masefield soon chose for
himself to be a rover, experiencing the vagrant gypsy life. After some naval
training, he embarked on sea voyages, ending up in Chile and New York. Addicted
to reading and writing, he became smitten by poetry while odd-jobbing in
mainland New York in 1895.
Love of poetry and seafaring merged to produce his stirring poem
Sea Fever: it is arguably Britain’s
maritime national anthem?!
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 sails shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey 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 spry 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
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.
It had been expected in 1930 that the vacant post of poet
laureate would go to Rudyard Kipling whose patriotic military poems are part of
Britain’s national heritage. But perhaps there was something prescient in John
Masefield becoming the new royal poet: a man who would write noble verse of
Britain’s island heritage and mastery of the high seas. In 1940 the miracle of
Dunkirk would see Britain’s “little navy” execute a daring rescue of our
stranded troops. It was a manoeuvre that would turn the tide at a critical
early stage of the Second World War.
John Masefield knew intimately the genre of small-scale passenger
vessels, steamers, fishing boats and lifeboats that carried out that dramatic
evacuation in May and June 1940. In the third and final verse of Cargoes, another famous, much-loved and
enduringly popular maritime poem, John Masefield caught perfectly the essence
of our nation of beloved “small ships”:
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
The Midnight Folk
is a pearl of children’s literature: the more so for my Heinemann edition
(1992) containing magical illustrations by the incomparable Quentin Blake the
latter-day children’s laureate.
The book’s title is apt, for the treasure-hunt by young Kay
Harker transports the reader into a realm of cosmic folk-lore and adventure. It
is prose, yes: but surely a sparkling, poetic form of prose that soars above
the skies and dips below oceans and lagoons; embracing colourful and lovable
characters such as Blinky the Owl and (my favourite name of all) the foxy Mr
I won’t betray the secret of the missing treasure and Kay’s
quest to find it; but I will suggest to you that young Master Harker ends up
with a more important prize than any jewel from the Santa Barbara coast. He
gains the young and beautiful Caroline Louisa as his new governess: a super swap for his harsh-minded former
governess appointed by Sir Theopompous, his unsympathetic guardian.
Eight years after the success of The Midnight Folk, the follow-up book The Box of Delights gave us young Kay Harker, now away at
boarding-school, reunited with old enemy Abner Brown and travelling through
time to find King Arthur and even ancient Troy. You’ll note that John Masefield
used the word “trick” in the final line of Sea
Fever: it is a master-conjurer of an author, I warrant, that can write two
such marvellous and timeless classics of fiction that are, absolutely, a “delight”!
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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