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The New Laureate

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Poems (Complete in One Volume). By John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00.

In the appointment of John Masefield as poet laureate to fill the vacancy made by the death of Robert Bridges there is a representative significance. In the “Poems (Complete in One Volume)” there is an introduction to “Part One” in which Mr. Masefield says that toward the end of the last century a reaction began in poetry among young men who felt “that the poets had gone sufficiently far in their striving for the faultless.” He adds of the younger poets that “Often their work has been harsh, violent and ill-considered,” but that they constitute “a school of life instead of a school of artifice.” ” ‘The only light which counts for a work of art,’ ” he quotes Michael Angelo as saying, ” ‘is the light of the piazza.’” Bridges was a scholar as well as a poet; he wrote some of the most delicately beautiful of modern lyrics, yet most of his work, including his important if not wholly successful “The Testament of Beauty,” was “poetry for the few.”

Masefield has been vigorous in the humanization of poetry. He too has sometimes been “harsh, violent” but he has always tempered the realistic harshness with an undertone of deep pity and an enveloping atmosphere of beauty. Not even Kipling has done poetry a greater service in bringing it nearer the earth and giving it a new vigor for having sunk its roots into the soil of things. There have been a few poets of the English language who have had the power of treating poetry simply, naturally, humaniy: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Burns, Browning, and Masefield. Of these, four—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Browning, and Masefield—are almost the oniy English poets who have understood the human heart as the masters of fiction understand it. In this, is one of Mase-field’s special claims to greatness: his power as a poet consists in part in his being more than a poet. I do not mean by that to refer to his work as a dramatist and novelist. His tragedies have been to a degree successful, and scattered through his several novels—especially “Sard Harker”—are passages of unusual beauty. But Masefield is not important in either field.

John Masefield’s work as a poet has been the most diversified of his generation. He has excelled in five very different types of poetry: the singing lyric of his early “Salt-Water Ballads”; the dramatic narrative of red-blooded, sometimes coarse-mouthed realism; the lyric of quiet, contemplative beauty; the romantic narrative ballad; and the dramatic narrative of rollicking, happy English sport life.

There are two epochs in Masefield’s life as a poet; the one closed with “August 1914,” the other opened with “Reynard the Fox”; and the war lies between. The first poem in his new edition of the collected “Poems” is “A Consecration” and it is his early creed: “Mine be the dirt and the dross,.the dust and the scum of the earth!” Its closing “Amen” marked the sad sincerity with which Masefield worked as a realistic poet; and it was in this period that he won his fame. From the horrible reality of the war, with its reeling atrocities of action and thought he turned to seek relief in romance and the warm glow of happy human hearts at earnest play. In the preface to his collected poems in 1918 he turned from his earlier poetic creed and wrote:

Perhaps when the war is over . . . one may go back to that life in the mind, in which the eyes of the mind see butterflies and petals of blossoms blowing from the unseen world of beauty into this world. In that life, if it comes again, one may not be too old to look toward that world of beauty, and to see it and tell of it. . . . And though, before the war, when I was writing, I saw little enough of that land, life is kind and wise and generous, and perhaps in that new time, I may see more, and be able to tell more, and know in fuller measure about the world and those people existing forever over in England, the images of what England and the English may become and spiritually, are. Chaucer and Shakespeare, some lines of Gray, of Keats, of Wordsworth and of William Morris, the depth, force, beauty and tenderness of the English mind are inspiration enough and school enough and star enough to urge and guide in any night of the soul, however way less from our blindness or black from our passions and our follies.1

The poetic expression of this new “consecration” is found in his two-sonnet sequence “On Growing Old” beginning, “Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying.”

The “Salt-Water Ballads,” which introduced Masefield to his public, will probably always be popular. They are very derivative, and in trying to do for the English tar what Kipling has done for Tommy, he shows the older poet’s influence. The four splendid realistic narrative poems, all written around 1911 and 1912, and the shorter “The River,” first fully demonstrated Masefield’s genius and remain, I think, his most significant work. “The Everlasting Mercy” won literally a shocking reputation for its author. The first canon of art that must be accepted, if one is to enjoy, Masefield’s realistic poems, is that a poem is to be considered as a whole rather than by parts. So judged, the central conception of this poem has both rough strength and the exquisite beauty of the lily flowering from the muck. “The Widow in the Bye Street” and “The Daffodil Fields” are full of a rough passion too, but few poems have so completely possessed the power to evoke the magic that comes . . .

When the light gentles and the wind is soft, And beauty in the heart breaks like a flower.

“Dauber” does less violence to the conventionalities of poetic taste and the poet’s descriptive power has the sea for its range. It can not be said of poetry as Dauber himself said of painting . . .

It’s not been done, the sea, not yet been done, From the inside by one who really knows.

In his second period, Masefield the realist has given way to Masefield the romanticist. Now that we have all his work in one big volume it is noticeable how slightly the work of the younger poet is suggested by the romantic narratives, “Enslaved” and “South and East,” or the Arthurian poems, and lovely as they are they seem pale and feeble by the vividness of the realistic narratives. Perhaps it is wrong to compare “Part One” and “Part Two” of the “Poems.” There is one vein at least that continues into this later section. Some of the personal poems, especially in the sonnet form, are as rich in color and feeling as any, verse of recent years. There is the same quiet strength of creative originality that made “Biography,” “Ships,” “August, 1914,” and the “Sonnets” of the earlier years poems that place their author among the masters in the older traditions of poetic form.

The two poems, though, that give the greatest individuality to the second section of the volume are “Reynard the Fox” and “Right Royal.” In them Masefield achieved a new effect—a popular one and yet one in harmony with English traditions, literary as well as racial. And perhaps those two exciting narratives of the fox hunt and the steeple-chase best testify to the appropriateness of John Masefield’s appointment as laureate. In the era since 1914 such a poem as “Reynard,” in which (to quote the Introduction to “Part Two”) are brought “together on terms of equality all sorts and conditions of the English people,” is more suitable to the King’s poet than a welcome to a sea-king’s daughter who is to marry a prince.

John Masefield is past fifty: there is no guess as to what he has yet to say. He has always been unpredictable—an uneven poet of a great diversity of powers. It may be that he will only repeat the unimportant and unexciting beauties of his recent poems on that theme which has been the Lorelei of so many poets. It may be that he may prove his philosophy that “The days that make us happy make us wise” by finding new themes that will show his creative powers at their height.


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