Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why John Masefield?

It's always been a bit difficult to explain (let alone justify) my choice of topics for a Masters thesis. "The Early Novels of John Masefield, 1908-1911" -- it sounds like one of those candidates for world's dullest books (Worms and Their Ways, by a "grub"; or Lesser-Known Aspects of Pre-Kantian Metaphysics, by J. M. Snotwood, MA, D Phil, &c. &c.) ...

I remember running into Terry Sturm in the corridors of the Auckland English Department shortly after I'd received permission to undertake this daring piece of original research - "So you're the Masefield man!" he boomed. When I admitted to Sebastian Black that I owned copies (mostly first editions - not that many of them actually went into second editions) of all 23 of Masefield's novels, he remarked that not many people could make that boast ("Perhaps nobody in the world," he added, with a sepulchral chuckle).

So why John Masefield? I guess the real reason is that I grew up on him. The first of his books I really read was The Midnight Folk (1927), a madly-eccentric children's book about pirates, hidden treasure, country houses, talking animals, fox-hunting - oh, and witches. Its hero, Kay Harker, went on to star in a later book for slightly older children, The Box of Delights (1935), which added the delights of time travel and Ramon Lull's philosophy to the heady mixture. There's a particularly good scene where Kay joins a circle of stone-age Britons keeping off wolves with their spears. Wolves are indeed one of the dominant motifs in the book - it's actually subtitled "When the Wolves were Running". What is it really about? I'm still not sure, but it had the effect of waking me up to the heady attractions of folklore, mythology and the past.

As time went by I started to read his poetry (he was, after all, the British Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967, so that was really his speciality). Old-fashioned, yes, but dedicated to story-telling above all. Before the First World War he was considered one of England's most controversial and hard-hitting poets, mostly because of the runaway success of his 1911 poem The Everlasting Mercy, which first introduced the poetry-reading public to the delights of truly extravagant bad language:

[John Masefield: The English Review (1911)

You closhy put!
You bloody liar! etc. etc.

"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read" (Hilaire Belloc).

As time went by, I started to accumulate more and more books by Masefield, and became more and more attuned to the paradox of an author whom so many people had vaguely heard of, so celebrated and widely-read in his day (judging by the relative ease with which one could collect his work from second-hand bookshops), and yet whom nobody now seemed to rate or even feel curious about.

And yet he was good! Or so he seemed to me. Perhaps not good in a conventional, card-carrying sense (by now I'd picked up all the standard Modernist shibboleths about the sinfulness of adjectives and the intrinsic unreliability of narrators), but so intensely idiosyncratic and strange that his work really couldn't be said to to resemble anything else I'd ever read or even heard about.

I was looking through an anthology on the writing of the sea one day when I stumbled on an extraordinary passage from one of Masefield's novels (Sard Harker (1924))which described the hero first fighting his way through an almost animate swamp, then reaching the beach only to promptly stand on a stingray's tail. It was nearly ten pages long, and so bizarrely circumstantial that I almost felt my own foot curl up in sympathy. Pain, frustration, futility - these were Masefield's principal novelistic stock-in-trade. He would devote fifty pages of a book to the attempt to find someone's address at the drop of a hat. It seemed to be axiomatic with him that committees were set up to frustrate enquiry, that all officials were stupidly obstructive, if not actively malevolent, and that if anything could go wrong, it would - only far worse than you'd anticipated.

Actually his world sounded rather like a heightened version of the tormented wasteland that I myself inhabited (at the time), so you needn't think I took to him because I like sweeping descriptions of ships at sea ...

[John Masefield: Sea-fever: Selected Poems. ed. Phlip W. Errington (2005)]

Masefield hated the sea. That's one point that's pretty much beyond dispute. It's true he wrote "Sea-fever" (the one Masefield poem everyone can quote from):

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 ...

He was compulsorily apprenticed in the Merchant Navy as a very young boy after the death of both his parents, and his painful experiences on the training ship Conway (as recorded in his 1944 autobiographical volume New Chum) were only surpassed by the sheer horror of going round Cape Horn as a sailor before the mast (as recounted in the 1913 narrative poem Dauber).

He fell ill in Chile (luckily for him) - it was probably a nervous breakdown - and was invalided home. Although he didn't officially leave the Merchant Navy until after he'd travelled to New York to join the next ship he'd been assigned to, the attractions of the city were far too much for him, and he never made another voyage except as a passenger. Masefield, then, was no Joseph Conrad - his first book might have been called Salt-Water Ballads (1902), and he might have continued to mine his early life on the bounding wave as material for the rest of his life (in classic novels such as The Bird of Dawning (1933) or Victorious Troy (1935)), but that's all it was to him - material. He was actualy far happier writing about the English countryside or the wilds of South America (the latter particularly - that time in the hosital in Valparaiso clearly left its mark).

Masefield's first book came out in 1902, and his last, In Glad Thanksgiving in 1967. Over that immensely-long career he published poems, plays, novels, war reportage, and literary criticism with pretty consistent success. When one genre ran dry, he shifted his energies to another. His first two plays The Campden Wonder and The Tragedy of Nan enjoyed immense acclaim when Granville-Barker put them on in 1908. Subsequent dramas failed to repeat the precedent, however, so he shifted his energies to fiction: first grown-up "problem novels" in the style of the day, then (somewhat more successfully, as they were more congenial to him) boys' books. The unheard-of acclaim garnered by the first publication of The Everlasting Mercy in The English Review in 1911 diverted him into writing narrative poems. The War, when it came, saw him working as an ambulance orderly in France, then a writer of patriotic "histories" (including the still-celebrated Gallipoli (1916)).

And so it went on. He came back to novels in the 1920s, when the public's interest in long narrative poems was starting to flag. The last novel he published came out in 1947, after which he stopped writing much except poetry (and letters - the five or six volumes of these which have appeared since his death contain some of his liveliest and most engaging writing).

It's easy to patronise Masefield for his lack of self-conscious intellectualism. He's no no proto-Modernist, no unsung precursor of Joyce or Pound. And yet he was taken pretty seriously by his contemporaries: Hardy, Conrad and Yeats. They read him and saw him as one of themselves. At the very least his career seems to offer an interesting parable in the pitfalls of literary celebrity.

I set out to write about all of his novels, but found the task too vast for a standard-length thesis. By the time one had summarised their plots, there would have hardly have been room for any analysis. Instead my supervisor, Prof D. I. B. Smith agreed to my proposal simply to look at his pre-war career, by turning it into a kind of case-study of a young writer on the make in the Edwardian era. So that's the thesis I wrote. It's awfully long. Two or three times the length one would get away with today, I suspect. But things weren't so strict in 1985.

I suppose then (to paraphrase my friend Scott Hamilton) that Masefield offered me a kind of keyhole on the literary conditions of the early to mid-twentieth century which I could hardly have got by looking at a more conventionally celebrated writer.

I still like his work, though I haven't read any for quite some time. The Box of Delights is well worth a look, though - unless it's one of those books that you have to have read when you were a kid for it still to exert any charm later on.

[John Masefield: Selected Poems. Ed. John Betjeman (1978)]


Martin Edmond said...

Didn't Masefield also edit William Dampier's books? Did you ever look into that aspect, Jack? I think it was fairly early on in his career, maybe in the 20th C noughties.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, it was in 1906: an edition in 2 vols. He also edited editions of Hakluyt (in 8 vols, 1907), the Travels of Marco Polo (1908) and Anson's Voyages (1911) for Everyman's Library early on in his career. Frighteningly industrious would be one way of putting it - at that stage in his career, at any rate.

Tim Jones said...

I know very little of Masefield (apart from his poetic milestone/millstone), but your description of his career, at least the early part, reminded me of an author I like very much who was his near contemporary: William Hope Hodgson, best known for "The Night Land" and the particularly good "The House on the Borderland" - like better Lovecraft.

I looked online to see if there were any obvious connections or parallels between them, but got little further than a list of "Quelques auteurs de l'imaginaire pour la Grande-Bretagne" in which both featured, together with one "BALLARD (né en Chine)".

Have you read any Hodgson, Jack?

Dr Jack Ross said...

I have read some Hodgson, actually. I agree with you about The House on the Borderland - one of those early twentieth century fantasy / horror cult classics which keep on being reprinted but never seem to quite receive their due (Chamber's The King in Yellow or Arthur Machen's Novel of the Black Seal would be other cases in point). Carnacki the Ghost-finder is another interesting one of Hodgson's books, I think - a little like Algernon Blackwood's John Silence (or Sheridan Le Fanu's Through a Glass Darkly, for that matter): the story of a psychic physician who goes around diagnosing and curing occult disturbances of various kinds.

Masefield's more mainstream than that, no the one hand, but much stranger, on the other. It's quite hard to see exactly what genre he thinks he's inhabiting at times. Do give the Box of Delights a go at some stage. It's definitely an acquired taste, but really quite charming and rich, I think.

D M H Goldsbrough said...


Dr Jack Ross said...

Hello to you, too, Mr D M H Goldsbrough. I have to say I rather like the first line of your ode to R. A. K. Mason:

"Grandma used to like to fuck all the poets" ...

Don't go changing.

Richard said...

You have a wide range reading...

Jack I read or had him read to us when we were at school I loved his famous poem an his one about the ships finishing with the "Dirty British coaster..."

I also have collection of his poems called "Guatama the Enlighted One"
and other verse..actually it is not too bad.What I liked was "Shopping in Oxford"

I have one book (novel by Masefield) for sale myself on abebooks - I haven't read it.

BTW I checked out D M H Goldsbourgh and I liked his poems - I made a comment on his BLog to that effect.

Richard said...

This is the book - it's not a novel "

The Nine Days Wonder - The Operation Dynamo
Masefield, John
Bookseller: Aspect Books
(Auckland, AKLD, New Zealand)
Bookseller Rating: 5-star rating
Price: US$ 12.44
(NZ$ 17.92)
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Quantity Available: 1 Shipping Within New Zealand:
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Book Description: London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1941, 1941. Hard Back. Book Condition: Very Good. First Edition. 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Blue Cloth Gold Gilt Titles. Good+/No Jacket. First Edition. 8vo - over 7?" - 9?" tall. A summary of the heroic lifting of the First French Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. B&W photographs. The book is slightly bumped on the corners and spine ends and there is minor foxing. There is an ex ownership inscription on the front end paper. Tight and clean text. Overall with faults Very Good. 70 pages. Bookseller Inventory # 200000001205

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, there's a later, expanded version of The Nine Days Wonder entitled The Twenty-Five Days which was published posthumously. It gives the full account Masefield wrote in 1940 of the Dunkirk evacuation (in fairly high-flown style). A lot of it had to be censored in order to avoid giving away information to the enemy, hence the shrinking of 25 to 9 Days ....

Tim Jones said...

John Masefield, or at least this discussion of his work, keeps reminding me of other writers. Military censorship during WWII wasn't confined to nonfiction - in what became known as "The Cleve Cartmill Affair", a US science fiction author and his circle, including Heinlein and Asimov, came under suspicion of betraying military secrets to the enemy via the pages of John W Campbell's "Astounding" - see and

And now, back to your regularly scheduled Masefield...

Tim Jones said...

Trying to add the missing links, without HTML formatting this time: