CHAPTER III. JOHN MASEFIELD
John Masefield—new wine in old bottles—back to Chaucer—the
self-conscious adventurer—early education and
experiences—Dauber—Mr. Masefleld's remarks on
Wordsworth—Wordsworth's famous Preface and its application to
the poetry of Mr. Masefield—The Everlasting
Mercy—The Widow in the Bye Street and its
Chaucerian manner—his masterpiece—The Daffodil
Fields—similarities to Wordsworth—the part played by the
flowers—comparison of The Daffodil Fields with
Enoch Arden—the war poem, August 1914—the
lyrics—the sonnets—the novels—his object in writing—his
contribution to the advance of poetry.
Poets are the Great Exceptions. Poets are for ever performing the impossible. “No man putteth new wine into old bottles ... new wine must be put into new bottles.” But putting new wine into old bottles has been the steady professional occupation of John Masefield. While many of our contemporary vers librists and other experimentalists have been on the hunt for new bottles, sometimes, perhaps, more interested in the bottle than in the wine, John Masefield has been constantly pouring his heady drink into receptacles five hundred years old. In subject-matter and in language he is not in the least “traditional,” not at all Victorian; he is wholly modern, new, contemporary. Yet while he draws his themes and his heroes from his own experience, his inspiration as a poet comes directly from Chaucer, who died in 1400. He is, indeed, the Chaucer of today; the most closely akin to Chaucer—not only in temperament, but in literary manner—of all the writers of the twentieth century. The beautiful metrical form that Chaucer invented—rime royal—ideally adapted for narrative poetry, as shown in Troilus and Criseyde, is the metre chosen by John Masefield for The Widow in the Bye Street and for Dauber; the only divergence in The Daffodil Fields consisting in the lengthening of the seventh line of the stanza, for which he had plenty of precedents. Mr. Masefield owes more to Chaucer than to any other poet.
Various are the roads to poetic achievement. Browning became a great poet at the age of twenty, with practically no experience of life outside of books. He had never travelled, he had never “seen the world,” but was brought up in a library; and was so deeply read in the Greek poets and dramatists that a sunrise on the Aegean Sea was more real to him than a London fog. He never saw Greece with his natural eyes. In the last year of his life, being asked by an American if he had been much in Athens, he replied contritely, “Thou stick'st a dagger in me.” He belied Goethe's famous dictum.
John Masefield was born at Ledbury, in western England, in 1874. He ran away from home, shipped as cabin boy on a sailing vessel, spent some years before the mast, tramped on foot through various countries, turned up in New York, worked in the old Columbia Hotel in Greenwich Avenue, and had plenty of opportunity to study human nature in the bar-room. Then he entered a carpet factory in the Bronx. But he was the last man in the world to become a carpet knight. He bought a copy of Chaucer's poems, stayed up till dawn reading it, and for the first time was sure of his future occupation.
John Masefield is the real man-of-war-bird imagined by Walt Whitman. He is the bird self-conscious, the wild bird plus the soul of the poet.
To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane,
Thou ship of air that never furl'st thy sails,
Days, even weeks untired and onward, through spaces, realms gyrating,
At dusk that look'st on Senegal, at morn America,
That sport'st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud,
In them, in thy experiences, had'st thou my soul,
What joys! what joys were thine!
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. They do indeed; they see them as the bird sees them, with no spiritual vision, with no self-consciousness, with no power to refer or to interpret. It is sad that so many of those who have marvellous experiences have nothing else; while those who are sensitive and imaginative live circumscribed. What does the middle watch mean to an average seaman? But occasionally the sailor is a Joseph Conrad or a John Masefield. Then the visions of splendour and the glorious voices of nature are seen and heard not only by the eye and the ear, but by the spirit.
Although Chaucer took Mr. Masefield out of the carpet factory even as Spenser released Keats it would be a mistake to suppose (as many do) that the Ledbury boy was an uncouth vagabond, who, without reading, without education, and without training, suddenly became a poet. He had a good school education before going to sea; and from earliest childhood he longed to write. Even as a little boy he felt the impulse to put his dreams on paper; he read everything he could lay his hands on, and during all the years of bodily toil, afloat and ashore, he had the mind and the aspiration of a man of letters. Never, I suppose, was there a greater contrast between an individual's outer and inner life. He mingled with rough, brutal, decivilized creatures; his ears were assaulted by obscene language, spoken as to an equal; he saw the ugliest side of humanity, and the blackest phases of savagery. Yet through it all, sharing these experiences with no trace of condescension, his soul was like a lily.
He descended into hell again and again, coming out with his inmost spirit unblurred and shining, even as the rough diver brings from the depths the perfect pearl. For every poem that he has written reveals two things: a knowledge of the harshness of life, with a nature of extraordinary purity, delicacy, and grace. To find a parallel to this, we must recall the figure of Dostoevski in the Siberian prison.
Many men of natural good taste and good breeding have succumbed to a coarse environment. What saved our poet, and made his experiences actually minister to his spiritual flame, rather than burn him up? It was perhaps that final miracle of humanity, acute self-consciousness, stronger in some men than in others, strongest of all in the creative artist. Even at the age of twenty, Browning felt it more than he felt anything else, and his words would apply to John Masefield, and explain in some measure his thirst for sensation and his control of it.
I am made up of an intensest life,
Of a most clear idea of consciousness
Of self, distinct from all its qualities,
From all affections, passions, feelings, powers;
And thus far it exists, if tracked, in all:
But linked, in me, to self-supremacy,
Existing as a centre to all things,
Most potent to create and rule and call
Upon all things to minister to it;
And to a principle of restlessness
Which would be all, have, see, know, taste, feel, all—
This is myself.
Although the poem Dauber is a true story—for there was such a man, who suffered both horrible fear within and brutal ridicule without, who finally conquered both, and who, in the first sweets of victory, as he was about to enter upon his true career, lost his life by falling from the yardarm—cannot help thinking that Mr. Masefield put a good deal of himself into this strange hero. The adoration of beauty, which is the lodestar of the poet, lifted Dauber into a different world from the life of the ship. He had an ungovernable desire to paint the constantly changing phases of beauty in the action of the vessel and in the wonders of the sea and sky. In this passion his shy, sensitive nature was stronger than all the brute strength enjoyed by his shipmates; they could destroy his paintings, they could hurt his body, they could torture his heart. But they could not prevent him from following his ideal. Dauber died, and his pictures are lost. But in the poem describing his aims and his sufferings, Mr. Masefield has accomplished with his pen what Dauber failed to do with his brush; the beauty of the ship, the beauty of dawn and of midnight, the majesty of the storm are revealed to us in a series of unforgettable pictures. And one of Edison's ambitions is here realized. At the same moment we see the frightful white-capped ocean mountains, and we hear the roar of the gale.
Water and sky were devils' brews which boiled,
Boiled, shrieked, and glowered; but the ship was saved.
Snugged safely down, though fourteen sails were split.
Out of the dark a fiercer fury raved.
The grey-backs died and mounted, each crest lit
With a white toppling gleam that hissed from it
And slid, or leaped, or ran with whirls of cloud,
Mad with inhuman life that shrieked aloud.
Mr. Masefield is a better poet than critic. In the New York Tribune for 23 January 1916, he spoke with modesty and candour of his own work and his own aims, and no one can read what he said without an increased admiration for him. But it is difficult to forgive him for talking as he did about Wordsworth, who “wrote six poems and then fell asleep.” And among the six are not Tintern Abbey or the Intimations of Immortality. Meditative poetry is not Mr. Masefield's strongest claim to fame, and we do not go to poets for illuminating literary criticism. Swinburne was so violent in his “appreciations” that his essays in criticism are adjectival volcanoes. Every man with him was God or Devil. It is rare that a creative poet has the power of interpretation of literature possessed by William Watson. Mr. Masefield does not denounce Wordsworth, as Swinburne denounced Byron; he is simply blind to the finest qualities of the Lake poet. Yet, although he carries Wordsworth's famous theory of poetry to an extreme that would have shocked the author of it—if Mr. Masefield does not like Tintern Abbey, we can only imagine Wordsworth's horror at The Everlasting Mercy—the philosophy of poetry underlying both The Everlasting Mercy, The Widow in the Bye Street, and other works is essentially that of William Wordsworth. Keeping The Everlasting Mercy steadily in mind, it is interesting, instructive, and even amusing to read an extract from Wordsworth's famous Preface of 1800. “The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature; chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
When Wordsworth wrote these dicta, he followed them up with some explicit reservations, and made many more implicit ones. Mr. Masefield, in the true manner of the twentieth century, makes none at all. Taking the language of Wordsworth exactly as it stands in the passage quoted above, it applies with precision to the method employed by Mr. Masefield in the poems that have given him widest recognition. And in carrying this theory of poetry to its farthest extreme in The Everlasting Mercy, not only did its author break with tradition, the tradition of nineteenth-century poetry, as Wordsworth broke with that of the eighteenth, he succeeded in shocking some of his contemporaries, who refused to grant him a place among English poets. It was in the English Review for October, 1911, that The Everlasting Mercy first appeared. It made a sensation. In 1912 the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature awarded him the Edmond de Polignac prize of five hundred dollars. This aroused the wrath of the orthodox poet Stephen Phillips, who publicly protested, not with any animosity toward the recipient, but with the conviction that true standards of literature were endangered.
It is unfortunate for an artist or critic to belong to any “school" whatsoever. Belonging to a school circumscribes a man's sympathies. It shuts him away from outside sources of enjoyment, and makes him incapable of appreciating many new works of art, because he has prejudged them even before they were written. Poetry is greater than any definition of it. There is no doubt that Marpessa is a real poem; and there is no doubt that the same description is true of The Everlasting Mercy.
In The Everlasting Mercy, the prize-fight, given in detail, by rounds, is followed by an orgy of drunkenness rising to a scale almost Homeric. The man, crazy with alcohol, runs amuck, and things begin to happen. The village is turned upside down. Two powerful contrasts are dramatically introduced, one as an interlude between violent phases of the debauch, the other as a conclusion. The first is the contrast between the insane buffoon and the calm splendour of the night.
I opened window wide and leaned
Out of that pigstye of the fiend
And felt a cool wind go like grace
About the sleeping market-place.
The clock struck three, and sweetly, slowly,
The bells chimed Holy, Holy, Holy;
And in a second's pause there fell
The cold note of the chapel bell,
And then a cock crew, flapping wings,
And summat made me think of things.
How long those ticking clocks had gone
From church and chapel, on and on,
Ticking the time out, ticking slow
To men and girls who'd come and go.
These thoughts suddenly become intolerable. A second fit of madness, wilder than the first, drives the man about the town like a tornado. Finally and impressively comes the contrast between the drunkard's horrible mirth and the sudden calm in his mind when the tall pale Quakeress hypnotizes him with conviction of sin. She drives out the devils from his breast with quiet authority, and the peace of God enters into his soul.
From the first word of the poem to the last the man's own attitude toward fighting, drink, and religion is logically sustained. It is perfect drama, with never a false note. The hero is one of the “twice-born men,” and the work may fairly be taken as one more footnote to the varieties of religious experience.
I have been told on good authority that of all his writings Mr. Masefield prefers Nan, The Widow in the Bye Street, and The Everlasting Mercy. I think he is right. In these productions he has no real competitors. They are his most original, most vivid, most powerful pieces. He is at his best when he has a story to tell, and can tell it freely in his own unhampered way, a combination of drama and narrative. InThe Everlasting Mercy, written in octosyllabics, the metre of Christmas Eve, he is unflinchingly realistic, as Browning was in describing the chapel. The Athenaeum thought Browning ought not to write about the mysteries of the Christian faith in doggerel. But Christmas Eve is not doggerel. It is simply the application of the rules of realism to a discussion of religion. It may lack the dignity of the Essay on Man, but it is more interesting because it is more definite, more concrete, more real. In The Everlasting Mercy we have beautiful passages of description, sharply exciting narration, while the dramatic element is furnished by conversation—and what conversation! It differs from ordinary poetry as the sermons of an evangelist differ from the sermons of Bishops. Mr. Masefield is a natural-born dramatist. He is never content to describe his characters; he makes them talk, and talk their own language, and you will never go far in his longer poems without seeing the characters rise from the page, spring into life, and immediately you hear their voices raised in angry altercation. It is as though he felt the reality of his men and women so keenly that he cannot keep them down. They refuse to remain quiet. They insist on taking the poem into their own hands, and running away with it.
When we are reading The Widow in the Bye Street we realize that Mr. Masefield has studied with some profit the art of narrative verse as displayed by Chaucer. The story begins directly, and many necessary facts are revealed in the first stanza, in a manner so simple that for the moment we forget that this apparent simplicity is artistic excellence. The Nun's Priest's Tale is a model of attack.
A poure wydwe, somdel stope in age,
Was whilom dwellynge in a narwe cottage,
Beside a grove, stondynge in a dale.
This wydwe, of which I telle yow my tale,
Syn thilke day that she was last a wyf,
In pacience ladde a ful symple lyf,
For litel was hir catel and hir rente.
Now if I could have only one of Mr. Masefield's books, I would take The Widow in the Bye Street. Its opening lines have the much-in-little so characteristic of Chaucer.
Down Bye Street, in a little Shropshire town,
There lived a widow with her only son:
She had no wealth nor title to renown,
Nor any joyous hours, never one.
She rose from ragged mattress before sun
And stitched all day until her eyes were red,
And had to stitch, because her man was dead.
This is one of the best narrative poems in modern literature. It rises from calm to the fiercest and most tumultuous passions that usurp the throne of reason. Love, jealousy, hate, revenge, murder, succeed in cumulative force. Then the calm of unmitigated and hopeless woe returns, and we leave the widow in a solitude peopled only with memories. It is melodrama elevated into poetry. The mastery of the artist is shown in the skill with which he avoids the quagmire of sentimentality. We can easily imagine what form this story would take under the treatment of many popular writers. But although constantly approaching the verge, Mr. Masefield never falls in. He has known so much sentimentality, not merely in books and plays, but in human beings, that he understands how to avoid it. Furthermore, he is steadied by seeing so plainly the weaknesses of his characters, just as a great nervous specialist gains in poise by observing his patients. And perhaps our author feels the sorrows of the widow too deeply to talk about them with any conventional affectation.
I should like to find some one who, without much familiarity with the fixed stars in English literature, had read The Daffodil Fields, and then ask him to guess who wrote the following stanzas:
A gentle answer did the old Man make,
In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew;
And him with further words I thus bespake,
“What occupation do you there pursue?
This is a lonesome place for one like you.”
Ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise
Broke from the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes.
“This will break Michael's heart,” he said at length.
“Poor Michael,” she replied; “they wasted hours.
He loved his father so. God give him strength.
This is a cruel thing this life of ours.”
The windy woodland glimmered with shut flowers,
White wood anemones that the wind blew down.
The valley opened wide beyond the starry town.
And I think he would reply with some confidence, “John Masefield.” He would he right concerning the second stanza; but the first is, as every one ought to know and does not, from Resolution and Independence, by William Wordsworth. It is significant that this is one of the six poems excepted by Mr. Masefield from the mass of Wordsworthian mediocrity. It is, of course, a great poem, although when it was published (1807, written in 1802), it seemed by conventional standards no poem at all. Shortly after its appearance, some one read it aloud to an intelligent woman; she sobbed unrestrainedly; then, recovering herself, said shamefacedly, “After all, it isn't poetry.” The reason, I suppose, why she thought it could not be poetry was because it was so much nearer life than “art.” The simplicity of the scene; the naturalness of the dialogue; the homeliness of the old leech-gatherer; these all seemed to be outside the realm of the heroic, the elevated, the sublime,—the particular business of poetry, as she mistakenly thought. The reason why John Masefield admires this poem is because of its vitality, its naturalness, its easy dialogue—main characteristics of his own work. In writing The Daffodil Fields, he consciously or unconsciously selected the same metre, introduced plenty of conversation, as he loves to do in all his narrative poetry, and set his tragedy on a rural stage.
It is important here to repeat the last few phrases already quoted from Wordsworth's famous Preface: “The manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.” If Mr. Masefield had written this preface for The Daffodil Fields, he could not have more accurately expressed both the artistic aim of his poem and its natural atmosphere. “The passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.” In this work, each one of the seven sections ends with the daffodils; so that no matter how base and truculent are the revealed passions of man, the final impression at the close of each stage is the unchanging loveliness of the delicate golden flowers. Indeed, the daffodils not only fill the whole poem with their fluttering beauty, they play the part of the old Greek chorus. At the end of each act in this steadily growing tragedy, they comment in their own incomparable way on the sorrows of man.
So the night passed; the noisy wind went down;
The half-burnt moon her starry trackway rode.
Then the first Are was lighted in the town,
And the first carter stacked his early load.
Upon the farm's drawn blinds the morning glowed;
And down the valley, with little clucks and rills,
The dancing waters danced by dancing daffodils.
But if, consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Masefield in the composition of The Daffodil Fields followed the metre and the manner of Wordsworth in Resolution and Independence, in the story itself he challenges Tennyson's Enoch Arden. Whether he meant to challenge it, I do not know; but the comparison is unescapable. Tennyson did not invent the story, and any poet has the right to use the material in his own fashion. Knowing Mr. Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy and The Widow in the Bye Street, it would have been safe to prophesy in advance that his own Enoch would not show the self-restraint practised by the Tennysonian hero. Reserve and restraint were the trump cards of the Typical Victorian, just as the annihilation of all reserve is a characteristic of the twentieth-century artist. In the Idylls of the King, the parting of Guinevere and Arthur was what interested Tennyson; the poets of today would of course centre attention on the parting of Guinevere and Lancelot, and like so many “advances,” they would in truth be only going back to old Malory.
“Neither in the design nor in the telling did, or could, Enoch Arden come near the artistic truth of The Daffodil Fields,” says Professor Quiller-Couch, of Cambridge. I am not entirely sure of the truth of this very positive statement. Each is a rural poem; the characters are simple; the poetic accompaniment supplied by the daffodils in one poem is supplied in the other by the sea. And yet, despite this latter fact, if one reads Enoch Arden immediately after The Daffodil Fields, it seems to be without salt. It lacks flavour, and is almost tasteless compared with the biting condiments of the other poem, prepared as it was for the sharper demands of twentieth-century palates. We like, as Browning thought Macready would like “stabbing, drabbing, et autres gentillesses,” and Mr. Masefield knows how to supply them. Yet I am not sure that the self-denial of Enoch and the timid patience of Philip do not both indicate a certain strength absent in Mr. Masefield's wildly exciting tale. Of course Tennyson's trio are all “good” people, and he meant to make them so. In the other work Michael is a selfish scoundrel, Lion is a murderer, and Mary an adulteress; and we are meant to sympathize with all three, as Mr. Galsworthy wishes us to sympathize with those who follow their instincts rather than their consciences. One poem celebrates the strength of character, the other the strength of passion. But there can be no doubt that Enoch (and perhaps Philip) loved Annie more than either Michael or Lion loved Mary—which is perhaps creditable; for Mary is more attractive.
One should remember also that in these two poems—so interesting to compare in so many different ways—Tennyson tried to elevate a homely theme into “poetry”; whereas Mr. Masefield finds the truest poetry in the bare facts of life and feeling. Tennyson is at his best outside of drama, wherever he has an opportunity to adorn and embellish; Mr. Masefield is at his best in the fierce conflict of human wills. ThusEnoch Arden is not one of Tennyson's best poems, and the best parts of it are the purely descriptive passages; whereas in The Daffodil Fields Mr. Masefield has a subject made to his hand, and can let himself go with impressive power. In the introduction of conversation into a poem—a special gift with Mr. Masefield—Tennyson is usually weak, which ought to have taught him never to venture into drama. Nothing is worse in Enoch Arden than passages like these:
“Annie, this voyage by the grace of God
Will bring fair weather yet to all of us.
Keep a clean hearth and a clear fire for me,
For I'll be back, my girl, before you know it.”
Then lightly rocking baby's cradle, “and he,
This pretty, puny, weakly little one,—
Nay—for I love him all the better for it—
God bless him, he shall sit upon my knees
And I will tell him tales of foreign parts,
And make him merry, when I come home again.
Come, Annie, come, cheer up before I go.”
One of the reasons why twentieth-century readers are so impatient with Enoch Arden, is because Tennyson refused to satisfy the all but universal love of a fight. The conditions for a terrific “mix-up" were all there, and just when the spectator is looking for an explosion of wrath and blood, the poet turns away into the more heroic but less thrilling scene of self-conquest. Mr. Masefield may be trusted never to disappoint his readers in such fashion. It might be urged that whereas Tennyson gave a picture of man as he ought to be, Mr. Masefield painted him as he really is.
But The Daffodil Fields is not melodrama. It is a poem of extraordinary beauty. Every time I read it I see in it some “stray beauty-beam” that I missed before. It would be impossible to translate it into prose; it would lose half its interest, and all of its charm. It would be easier to translate Tennyson's Dora into prose than The Daffodil Fields. In fact, I have often thought that if the story of Dora were told in concise prose, in the manner of Guy de Maupassant, it would distinctly gain in force.
No poet, with any claim to the name, can be accurately labelled by an adjective or a phrase. You may think you know his “manner,” and he suddenly develops a different one; this you call his “later” manner, and he disconcerts you by harking back to the “earlier,” or trying something, that if you must have labels, you are forced to call his “latest,” knowing now that it is subject to change without notice. Mr. Masefield published The Everlasting Mercy in 1911; The Widow in the Bye Street in 1912; Dauber in 1912; The Daffodil Fields in 1913. We had him classified. He was a writer of sustained narrative, unscrupulous in the use of language, bursting with vitality, sacrificing anything and everything that stood in the way of his effect. This was “red blood” verse raised to poetry by sheer inspiration, backed by remarkable skill in the use of rime. We looked for more of the same thing from him, knowing that in this particular field he had no rival.
Then came the war. As every soldier drew his sword, every poet drew his pen. And of all the poems published in the early days of the struggle, none equalled in high excellence August 1914, by John Masefield. And its tone was precisely the opposite of what his most famous efforts had led us to expect. It was not a lurid picture of wholesale murder, nor a bottle of vitriol thrown in the face of the Kaiser. After the thunder and the lightning, came the still small voice. It is a poem in the metre and manner of Gray, with the same silver tones of twilit peace—heartrending by contrast with the Continental scene.
How still this quiet cornfield is to-night;
By an intenser glow the evening falls,
Bringing, not darkness, but a deeper light;
Among the stocks a partridge covey calls.
The windows glitter on the distant hill;
Beyond the hedge the sheep-bells in the fold
Stumble on sudden music and are still;
The forlorn pinewoods droop above the wold.
An endless quiet valley reaches out
Past the blue hills into the evening sky;
Over the stubble, cawing, goes a rout
Of rooks from harvest, flagging as they fly.
So beautiful it is I never saw
So great a beauty on these English fields
Touched, by the twilight's coming, into awe,
Ripe to the soul and rich with summer's yields.
The fields are inhabited with the ghosts of ploughmen of old who gave themselves for England, even as the faithful farmers now leave scenes inexpressibly dear. For the aim of our poet is to magnify the lives of the humble and the obscure, whether on land or sea. In the beautiful Consecration that he prefixed to Salt-Water Ballads, he expressly turns his back on Commanders, on Rulers, on Princes and Prelates, in order to sing of the stokers and chantymen, yes, even of the dust and scum of the earth. They work, and others get the praise. They are inarticulate, but have found a spokesman and a champion in the poet. His sea-poems in this respect resemble Conrad's sea-novels. This is perhaps one of the chief functions of the man of letters, whether he be poet, novelist or dramatist—never to let us forget the anonymous army of toilers. For, as Clyde Fitch used to say, the great things do not happen to the great writers; the great things happen to the little people they describe.
Although Mr. Masefield's reputation depends mainly on his narrative poems, he has earned a high place among lyrical poets. These poems, at least many of them, are as purely subjective as The Everlasting Mercy was purely objective. Rarely does a poem unfurl with more loveliness than this:
I have seen dawn and sunset on moors and windy hills
Coming in solemn beauty like slow old tunes of Spain;
I have seen the lady April bringing the daffodils,
Bringing the springing grass and the soft warm April rain.
In Tewkesbury Road and in Sea Fever the poet expresses the urge of his own heart. In Biography he quite properly adopts a style exactly the opposite of the biographical dictionary. Dates and events are excluded. But the various moments when life was most intense in actual experience, sights of mountains on sea and land, long walks and talks with an intimate friend, the frantically fierce endeavour in the racing cutter, quiet scenes of beauty in the peaceful countryside. “The days that make us happy make us wise.”
As Mr. Masefield's narratives take us back to Chaucer, so his Sonnets (1916) take us back to the great Elizabethan sequences. Whether or not Shakespeare unlocked his heart in his sonnets is impossible to determine. Wordsworth thought he did, Browning thought quite otherwise. But these sonnets of our poet are undoubtedly subjective; no one without the necessary information would guess them to come from the author of The Everlasting Mercy. They reveal what has always been—through moving accidents by flood and field—the master passion of his mind and heart, the worship of Beauty. The entire series illustrates a tribute to Beauty expressed in the first one—“Delight in her made trouble in my mind.” This mental disturbance is here the spur to composition. They are experiments in relative, meditative, speculative poetry; and while they contain some memorable lines, and heighten one's respect for the dignity and sincerity of their author's temperament, they are surely not so successful as his other work. They are not clearly articulate. Instead of the perfect expression of perfect thoughts—a gift enjoyed only by Shakespeare—they reveal the extreme difficulty of metrically voicing his “trouble.” It is in a way like the music of the Liebestod. He is struggling to say what is in his mind, he approaches it, falls away comes near again, only to be finally baffled.
In 1918 Mr. Masefield returned to battle, murder and sudden death in the romantic poem Rosas. This is an exciting tale told in over a hundred stanzas, and it is safe to say that any one who reads the first six lines will read to the end without moving in his chair. Although this is the latest in publication of our poet's works, it sounds as if it were written years ago, before he had attained the mastery so evident in The Widow in the Bye Street. It will add little to the author's reputation.
I do not think Mr. Masefield has received sufficient credit for his prose fiction. In 1905 he published A Mainsail Haul, which contained a number of short stories and sketches, many of which had appeared in the Manchester Guardian. It is interesting to recall his connection with that famous journal. These are the results partly of his experiences, partly of his reading. It is plain that he has turned over hundreds of old volumes of buccaneer lore. And humour is as abundant here as it is absent from his best novels, Captain Margaret and Multitude and Solitude. These two books, recently republished in America, met with a chilling reception from the critics. For my part, I not only enjoyed reading them, I think every student of Mr. Masefield's poetry might read them with profitable pleasure. They are romances that only a poet could have written. It would be easier to turn them into verse than it would be to turn his verse-narratives into prose, and less would be lost in the transfer. In Multitude and Solitude, the author has given us more of the results of his own thinking than can be found in most of the poems. Whole pages are filled with the pith of meditative thought. In Captain Margaret, we have a remarkable combination of the love of romance and the romance of love.
In response to a question asked him by the Tribune interviewer, as to the guiding motive in his writing, Mr. Masefield replied: “I desire to interpret life both by reflecting it as it appears and by portraying its outcome. Great art must contain these two attributes. Examine any of the dramas of Shakespeare, and you will find that their action is the result of a destruction of balance in the beginning. It is like a cartful of apples which is overturned. All the apples are spilled in the street. But you will notice that Shakespeare piles them up again in his incomparable manner, many bruised, broken, and maybe a few lost.” This is certainly an interesting way of putting the doctrine of analysis and synthesis as applied to art.
What has Mr. Masefield done then for the advance of poetry? One of his notable services is to have made it so interesting that thousands look forward to a new poem from him as readers look for a new story by a great novelist. He has helped to take away poetry from its conventional “elevation” and bring it everywhere poignantly in contact with throbbing life. Thus he is emphatically apart from so-called traditional poets who brilliantly follow the Tennysonian tradition, and give us another kind of enjoyment. But although Mr. Masefield is a twentieth century poet, it would be a mistake to suppose that he has originatedthe doctrine that the poet should speak in a natural voice about natural things, and not cultivate a “diction.” Browning spent his whole life fighting for that doctrine, and went to his grave covered with honourable scars. Wordsworth successfully rebelled against the conventional garments of the Muse. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Browning are the poets who took human nature as they found it; who thought life itself was more interesting than any theory about it; who made language appropriate to the time, the place, and the man, regardless of the opinion of those who thought the Muse ought to wear a uniform. The aim of our best twentieth century poets is not really to write something new and strange, it is to get back to those poets who lived up to their conviction that the business of poetry is to chronicle the stages of all life. This is not the only kind of poetry, but it is the kind high in favour during these present years. The fountain-head of poetry is human nature, and our poets are trying to get back to it, just as many of the so-called advances in religious thought are really attempts to get back to the Founder of Christianity, before the theologians built their stockade around Him. Mr. Masefield is a mighty force in the renewal of poetry; in the art of dramatic narrative he goes back to the sincerity and catholicity of Chaucer. For his language, he has carried Wordsworth's idea of “naturalness” to its extreme limits. For his material, he finds nothing common or unclean. But all his virility, candour, and sympathy, backed by all his astonishing range of experience, would not have made him a poet, had he not possessed imagination, and the power to express his vision of life, the power, as he puts it, of getting the apples back into the cart.