In this reappraisal of John Masefield, Paul Binding reminds us of the stir that the writer caused with his narrative poems The Everlasting Mercy, The Widow in the Bye Street and Dauber. The first became the topic of heated debate, with fervent admirers and detractors, it was quote from pulpits and proved that the English could become just as excited by poetry as the French. Of the last Stephen Spender was to say: ‘John Masefield’s Dauber shocked contemporaries. … The shock was still reverberating through my boyhood.’
Paul Binding considers The Everlasting Mercy to be the start of the Masefield canon, a body of work in effect ending as the 1920s began, as his work lost its troubling rawness and became more overtly romantic in style. That is not to say, of course, that the rest of his oeuvre has few merits, be it in breadth of imagination, especially in the very successful children’s stories, or in the pervasive poetry, whether in fact in prose or in verse.
But what made Masefield? What made the man, the perception of whom is a quintessential Englishman living a quiet life in the country, write these tough, often violent works, some with a message of earthly redemption, some confronting existence at its most brutally Darwinist? This book considers the strands of Masefield’s difficult early life, and their long-term creative effect, strands which seemed to come together on a country walk one spring day in 1911, when The Everlasting Mercy came into his head, to flow line after line.
One strand was clearly the countryside round Ledbury, in which the overwhelming part of the great narrative poems are set. Masefield roamed that countryside as a boy, and must , one suspects, have encountered many of the characters who appear in his works. His sad childhood, with its upheavals, and an uncle and, notably, an aunt who provided for rather than cared about him, made him self-sufficient, and this was a stimulant to his imagination. Couple this with his happier times at Woollas Hall, near Bredon Hill, where he had the run of an old library, and the story-teller within him was early at work; he was to be a story-teller through a long life. His adolescent experiences on, first, the Conway, a Liverpool-mooted training ship, and then the Gilcruix, on her voyage to Chile, provide the bases for his stories and poems of the sea. But Paul Binding wonders at unmentioned episodes which must have taken place, the references to Spanish women, for example, who may hold the key to the sexual aspects of the canonical works.
This is a book which does indeed reappraise Masefield’s writing; it is not a biography. The sheer volume and range of his productions becomes apparent, their time and place in relation to other literary works; their effect and their quality and intensity are here to see. John Masefield, so famous in his lifetime, should not be a footnote to English literature, but one of its key figures.
Hardback | 228 pages | 234 x 156 mm | 1998
22 b&w photographs