Friday 15 December 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "Sea-Fever: Selected Poems" by John Masefield, ed. Philip Errington


Born in Ledbury, Herefordshire in 1878, the scope and diversity of John Masefield’s life experience at home, at sea and abroad is nothing short of diverse. This resulted in a rich seam of lifelong inspiration that fed his early aim to be a writer "come what might."  

Speaking about the poem "The Piper of Arll" written in 1895 by Duncan Campbell Scott, Masefield is reputed to have written to Scott some years later saying: "I had never (till that time) cared very much for poetry, but your poem impressed me deeply, and set me on fire. Since then poetry has been the one deep influence in my life, and to my love of poetry I owe all my friends, and the position I now hold."

Prolific writer he did become, not just as a poet - holding Laureateship from 1930 until 1967 - but also as a novelist whose work included two classic children’s novels: The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.

From "Salt Water Ballads" (1899 -1911), comes "Sea Fever," whose opening is arguably one the most quoted and instantly recognisable lines of 20th century English poetry: "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky." The easily digested quatrain structure of just three verses contains a wealth of accessible imagery that speaks eloquently to the romance, mystery and calling of the sea. This is further enhanced with alliteration and rhyme that lend a melody and cadence redolent of the waves themselves: 

           ... and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking
          and a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking

           … and all I ask if a windy day with the white clouds flying
           and the flung spray and the blown spume and the sea-gulls crying

           … to the gull’s way and whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife

Having sailed in 1894 he experienced illness that cut short his life at sea, and returning home for a period, left again for America. Failing to report for duty on a subsequent ship posting in New York resulted in a spell of vagrancy and he finally returned to England in 1897 having his first published poem in 1899. 

Despite the adversities, Masefield repeatedly re-visited his experience of the sea and travel. His combined sensory appreciation of other lands resulted in a muse that was rich in texture. This is evident in another well-known work, "Cargoes" (1903), with its multi-sensory, image-rich depictions of the ships, their passages and cargo in stanzas 1 and 2:

          … ivory, 
          And apes and peacocks, 
          Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine

          … diamonds
          Emeralds, amethysts,
          Topazes, and cinnamon and gold moidores

This is compared with an English counterpart in the third and final stanza:

          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, ironware and cheap tin trays

Selected Poems is an especially enjoyable body of work. It articulates colour and exoticism combined with contrast. This provides an expressive and profound response to not just the conservative "green and pleasant land," but importantly, highlights the grey and grinding industrial oppression on the senses.

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib. She returned to writing after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House). She has also been a reader at "Purely Poetry" - Open Mic Night, Belfast. Her poem "Ritual" has recently been accepted for publication by literary journal The Honest Ulsterman

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