Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tuesday Poem: Sea Fever by John Masefield

I learnt this poem off by heart as a teenager. Loved the sounds, the rhythm, the romance of it. Learnt Cargoes off by heart too for the same reasons. Unlike Byron and other poets I revered in those days, I knew nothing about Masefield except that he was English and my English mother liked his poems and kept them in the loo (with a whole lot of other poets, I have to say.)  
With my chapbook out and about in the world, I was invited recently to speak to a local poetry group. I could turn up at 11 and do my reading or I could go at 10 - driven by Marjory and Barbara -and discuss Masefield. How could I resist? I went at 10 gripping my copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury which I won for coming second in Form 4C, Wellington Girls' College. 

The meeting was at Joan's lovely home in Petone facing - yes - the sea. There were nine of us. We heard from Richard via Wikipedia about Masefield's life, and then waited our turn to read a poem or two. Wonderfully, no-one else read Sea Fever or Cargoes, so I did. 
We agreed Masefield - who was England's Poet Laureate from 1930 to his death in 1967 -  wrote poems that felt modern to us, and that this came from the crispness of the language, the freshness of his observations and the beliefs expressed, which included reincarnation and sort of proto-feminism (Barbara read an incredible poem on his feelings about his mother - and all women - giving birth). 

We talked about how what seemed anti-romantic: the 'dirty British coaster' in Cargoes, could now be thought of as romantic viz. the 'Tyne coal', the 'iron-ware', and were treated to Richard reading an extract from the long poem Reynard the Fox which has been compared critically to Chaucer and which I'd never heard of before.  

The language: who can beat 'the wind's like a whetted knife' ? And those gorgeous rhythms which are just delicious to hear read aloud. 

Richard told us all about how Masefield's parents had died when he was young so he was sent off to boarding school. Then this from Wikipedia:
After an unhappy education at the King's School inWarwick (now known as Warwick School), where he was a boarder between 1888 and 1891, he left to board the HMS Conway, both to train for a life at sea, and to break his addiction to reading, of which his aunt thought little. He spent several years aboard this ship and found that he could spend much of his time reading and writing. It was aboard the Conway that Masefield's love for story-telling grew. While on the ship, he listened to the stories told about sea lore. He continued to read, and felt that he was to become a writer and story teller himself.
Don't you love it! 'To break his addiction to reading'!! Of course he fell in love with the sea and wrote about it so compellingly, so beautifully, and spun the sea yarns into gold. Here's Cargoes.

Cargoes by John Masefield

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant 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,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

From SALT-WATER POEMS AND BALLADS, edited by John Masefield, published by The Macmillan Co., New York, US, © 1944, p. 124; first published in SALT-WATER POEMS, © 1902.

Now do go to Tuesday Poem for an astonishing Kath and Kim 'poem' posted by the provocative Zireaux. Yes, Kath and Kim. 


Melissa Green said...

Mary, Mary, Mary, what a wonderful post! Your devotion to Masefield is both moving and delightful--the poets one loves in one's youth don't always stand up to our middle years. I knew little of Masefield, but am now scrambling around for my Palgrave's. Loved the thought of you reading and discussing Masefield, loved reading his biography--to break an addiction to reading! That could only have been an Edwardian idea of a cure--and the thought that one was needed! Lovely, lovely, thrilling post--and that poem! Swoon-worthy! Thank you, Mary dear, once again. xo

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you Melissa! I can believe Masefield strikes a chord with you. The more I read about him and read his poems, the more wonderful I believe him to be. I will seek out the poem about his mother - it brought tears to my eyes.

My Palgrave's in fact only had one Masefield poem in it - I think it was Cargoes. I borrowed Sea Fever from Barbara who'd photocopied it. Oddly her copy misses out the word 'go' in the first line of every stanza - saying instead 'I must down to the seas again...' - and I see on the internet that some poetry sites have it and some don't.... A mystery. I love the youtube reading of it. Oh it gets the heart stirring!

Lovely to hear from you this Tuesday morning. X

Keith Westwater said...

Doesn't going back to your old favourites give you a real lift. I only know one or two sailors but they know Masefield. Thanks Mary.

Janis said...

These are my two favourite Masefield poems - lovely to see them here. I've always been fond of that "dirty British coaster" and its "salt-caked smoke stack".

Helen McKinlay said...

Yes and yes to this poem. Such wonderful rhythm and sounds. One of those poems where you really don't need to know what the meaning of words and wherabouts of places to love it. Thanks for this one.

lillyanne said...

Oh I love these poems. I still know them off by heart and can recite them both (Which I always fondly imagine will be a useful skill were I ever to be kidnapped and locked away somewhere without books or entertainment: I have a fine store of poetry in my head.) But you - well I anyway - tend to forget that the poets we loved and learned in that fashion at school were actually damn good poets. I posted something by Robert Bridges the other week, I'd come across it by accident, and I had completely forgotten that he was a terrific poet. So there...