John Edward Masefield was born in Herefordshire, England. His idyllic childhood was shattered by the premature death of his mother in 1885 and father in 1891. Thereafter, Masefield and his siblings were entrusted to the guardianship of a domineering aunt. Though exhibiting literary pretensions and no little talent, his new guardian determined that he enrol in the Merchant Marine.

Masefield’s maiden voyage to Chile in 1894, aged only 15, proved disastrous. His constitution had always been weak: too weak, indeed, to suffer a  32-day storm off Cape Horn that he had to endure. Depleted in strength, he became gravely ill soon after arrival and was deemed unfit to continue duty. He was returned to England via the Panama isthmus. Masefield’s aunt, however, insisted that he continue in the service. Against his wishes, he sailed for New York in the spring of 1895. It was his final voyage as, on arrival, Masefield resigned.

He did not return to England until 1897: this American adventure was revelatory as, while there, he committed himself to a literary vocation. On returning to London he met and formed an enduring friendship with W. B. Yeats, and began the prolific literary output that would characterise the rest of his life.

Masefield’s sea poetry, Salt Water Ballads (1902) and Dauber (1913),  achieved moderate success, but it was The Everlasting Mercy (1911) that gained him wider recognition. This narrative poem was greatly influence by William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise (1870). In its self-consciously earthy rhetoric and consideration of the common man, The Everlasting Mercy was a significant foundation stone of the nascent Georgian movement.

Masefield’s ‘war poetry’, though characterised by extreme brevity, is exemplary. In ‘The Island of Skyros’, Masefield constructs a haunting elegy to Brooke through a subtle interweaving of landscape with memory. The more widely-anthologised ‘August 1914’  was considered by Ivor Gurney to be ‘the best of the war poems’. Though firmly rooted in the broader English tradition of Gray’s Elegy, ‘August 1914’ challenges the rational view of the pastoral as a mode that only figures either ‘escape’ or ‘retreat’. Masefield’s ‘soldier’ is not a ‘swimmer into cleanness leaping’,

But knew the misery of the soaking trench,
The freezing in the rigging, the despair
In the revolting second of the wrench
When blind soul is flung upon the air …

(From AUGUST 1914)

Too old to enlist for the war, Masefield instead joined the Red Cross as an orderly. He was posted to France early in 1915. His  traumatic experience there explains the brevity of his poetic output as, whilst in France, he confided that ‘I could not write, thinking of what goes on in those long, filthy trains, full of mad-eyed whimpering men’.

After returning from the field hospitals of the Argonne, Masefield, like many other writers, was recruited to the services of the Department of Information by C. F. G. Masterman. In the service of this department he travelled to America on a lecture tour in the winter of 1915-16 and, on his return, was requested to write ‘histories’ of the battle for Gallipoli, and later, The Somme. The resulting texts – Gallipoli (1916), The Old Front Line (1917) and The Battle of the Somme (1919) – are curious. The Old Front  Line is constructed around the conceit that, due to allied ‘successes’ the ‘old front line’ is now removed from the theatre of the war and is already regenerating. Masefield’s peripatetic is fundamentally propagandist but compellingly lyrical, foreshadowing the war’s memorialisation with a contemporary resonance:

All wars end; even this war will some day end, and the ruins will be rebuilt and the field full of death will grow food, and all this frontier of trouble will be forgotten… In a few years’ time, when this war is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will find his marks gone. Centre Way, Peel Trench, Munster Alley, and these other paths to glory will be deep under the corn, and gleaners will sing at Dead Mule Corner.

Though a peripheral figure within the canon of First World War poetry, Masefield’s influence on the Georgian movement should not be underestimated. Furthermore, his prose contribution to the First World War canon, though rendered problematic by it’s wholly propagandist nature, is worthy of recognition. John Masefield was made Poet Laureate in 1930. Though variable in quality, Masefield’s life-long literary output was undoubtedly prodigious – some 50 volumes of poetry alone. His last volume, In Glad Thanksgiving, was published only months before he died in 1967, aged 88.

Suggested reading:

John Masefield. Gallipoli. London: HeinAemann, 1916.
John Masefield. The Old Front Line. London: Heinemann, 1917.
John Masefield. Collected Poems. London: Heinemann, 1923.
Constance Babington Smith. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford: OUP, 1978.

Robert J. Yates, February 2005



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