September 23: On this day in 1891, at the age of thirteen, John Masefield began his first sea apprenticeship. Masefield had been orphaned, and his aunt thought that his dreamy, bookish ways might be corrected by English naval discipline. Four years later, Masefield deserted ship in New York, vowing to “be a writer, come what might.” Despite his reluctant and limited years as a sailor, Masefield became the ‘Poet of the Sea’ for a generation by virtue of such early poems as “Sea Fever,” written when he was just twenty-two:
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….
Over his sixty-year writing career Masefield wrote in every genre, but his greatest notoriety came from The Everlasting Mercy, one of a series of long, narrative poems published while he was in his thirties. When it was published in 1911 those horrified by its swearing and low-life scenes denounced it as “nine-tenths sheer filth,” while its fans applauded the hero’s reformation and Masefield’s ability to make “incomparably the finest literature” from common ingredients. In the following passage, Saul Kane is drinking at the “Lion” with the lads:
A dozen more were in their glories
With laughs and smokes and smutty stories;
And Jimmy joked and took his sup
And sang his song of ‘Up, come up’.
Jane brought the bowl of stewing gin
And poured the egg and lemon in,
And whisked it up and served it out,
While bawdy questions went about.
Jack chucked her chin, and Jim accost her
With bits out of the ‘Maid of Gloster’.
And fifteen arms went round her waist.
(And then men ask, Are Barmaids chaste?)
Despite the controversy, Masefield was selected England’s Poet Laureate in 1930, over such other candidates as Kipling, Housman, and Yeats.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.