Friday, October 7, 2011
Number 279: John Masefield "Sea Fever"
I must 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,
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.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
-- John Masefield
Hap Notes: First off, when I was a kid I memorized this poem as "I must GO down to the seas again...." but this is wrong. The full verses above are exactly as printed in the book where the poem first appeared in 1916, Salt Water Poems and Ballads. You can see the book for yourself (with its charming illustrations) here: openlibrary.org/books/OL6591137M/Salt-water_poems_and_ballads and it's well worth a look.
Today's poem has moved many a heart with it's description of the sea-faring life. There's more here, though. The "wild call" that is all of nature may even be a call to do something that will bring on loneliness or danger but cannot be denied – like an artist or a writer or a composer or even a policeman, fireman, farmer. There's the feeling of the individual facing life and enjoying its dangers and beauties in this poem, which is why, I believe, it is so successful. It sums up what we all feel about life whether we are sailors or not – that feeling of being one with some part of nature, being invigorated by the challenges ahead. The prospect of a new journey. The hard work and fellowship with other travelers. The sweet rest afterward. It is a metaphor for life, too, yes?
John Masefield (1878-1967) was brought up by an aunt who urged him to go to sea to "break his addiction to reading." His mother died when he was six years old and his father died not long after that. ( I don't know that it's necessary to say it, but I will anyway: poets are most often sprung out of family anomalies and tragedies–from Tennyson's wacky dad to Rilke's mom dressing him as girl when he was little to Kunitz's dad drinking acid to Corso being sent to orphanages and told his mom was dead when she wasn't – the list goes on and on. Just sayin'.) Masefield wrote his thoughts in a journal and always had, as my parents used to say of me, "his nose in a book." (This is an interesting statement really. I suppose when you are not the one reading but just observing a reader it does look like you are just staring at something intently. The reader is miles away – on a ship, in the past, in the future, riding a horse, seeing battles, falling in love – but especially to those who read little, it looks like staring at a page.)
Masefield was 17 on his first ocean voyage as a hand on a ship bound for Chile. He saw wonders (a nocturnal rainbow, flying fish etc.), got seasick and ended up in New York where he had a variety of jobs including being a bartender and working in a carpet factory. Masefield was still an avid reader, spending most of his meager cash on books. He read a poem by Duncan Campbell Scott, "The Piper of Arll" which set him towards poetry. He even wrote Scott a letter telling him that he was the one who had inspired Masefield to write it.
After returning to England he met the woman who would be his wife and life-long partner, Constance Crommelin. She was 35, he was 23. She was a mathematics teacher who was a lover of English literature. He wrote copious amounts of love letters to her. They were together until her death in 1960.
Masefield was a busy writer. He wrote book reviews by the score, plays, children's books, poetry and made a pretty good living doing it. He was also a lecturer and was thought to be an expert on English Literature, most particularly Chaucer, due to his "reading addiction." After the death of Robert Bridges, Masefield was appointed England's Poet Laureate as his successor. He was England's laureate from 1930 until his death in 1963 (only Tennyson lasted longer at the post.) There was some little controversy over this as some had assumed Kipling would be appointed. Masefield, throughout his writing career, even when he was laureate, always included a self-addressed stamped envelope with every submission of work he made so that if it was rejected it could be sent back to him (this is common practice for writers but not common for the laureate- very humble of him.)
Here's one of his final verses, found after his death:
Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns:
Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.
You can find more Masefield here: www.poetry-archive.com/m/masefield_john.html