Books Monthly July 2015 The Jerry Dowlen Column...

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Jerry Dowlen on... John Masefield

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives


If anyone says “John Masefield”, or asks “What is your favourite poem about the sea?” I bet that the most likely response will be a recital out loud of this very well-known piece of poetry:


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky …


That opening line of his famous poem ‘Sea Fever’ is veritably the signature tune of John Masefield (1878 – 1967). He was Britain’s poet laureate throughout the latter part of his life. In addition to his poetic fame, he is credited with having written two classics of children’s fiction: The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935).


Poet Laureate


Born in Herefordshire, the young Masefield soon chose for himself to be a rover, experiencing the vagrant gypsy life. After some naval training, he embarked on sea voyages, ending up in Chile and New York. Addicted to reading and writing, he became smitten by poetry while odd-jobbing in mainland New York in 1895.


Love of poetry and seafaring merged to produce his stirring poem Sea Fever: it is arguably Britain’s maritime national anthem?!


I must go 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 sails shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go 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 spry and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go 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.


It had been expected in 1930 that the vacant post of poet laureate would go to Rudyard Kipling whose patriotic military poems are part of Britain’s national heritage. But perhaps there was something prescient in John Masefield becoming the new royal poet: a man who would write noble verse of Britain’s island heritage and mastery of the high seas. In 1940 the miracle of Dunkirk would see Britain’s “little navy” execute a daring rescue of our stranded troops. It was a manoeuvre that would turn the tide at a critical early stage of the Second World War.


John Masefield knew intimately the genre of small-scale passenger vessels, steamers, fishing boats and lifeboats that carried out that dramatic evacuation in May and June 1940. In the third and final verse of Cargoes, another famous, much-loved and enduringly popular maritime poem, John Masefield caught perfectly the essence of our nation of beloved “small ships”:


Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack

Butting through the channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rail, pig-lead,

Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.


Children’s Classics


The Midnight Folk is a pearl of children’s literature: the more so for my Heinemann edition (1992) containing magical illustrations by the incomparable Quentin Blake the latter-day children’s laureate.


The book’s title is apt, for the treasure-hunt by young Kay Harker transports the reader into a realm of cosmic folk-lore and adventure. It is prose, yes: but surely a sparkling, poetic form of prose that soars above the skies and dips below oceans and lagoons; embracing colourful and lovable characters such as Blinky the Owl and (my favourite name of all) the foxy Mr Rollicum Bitem.


I won’t betray the secret of the missing treasure and Kay’s quest to find it; but I will suggest to you that young Master Harker ends up with a more important prize than any jewel from the Santa Barbara coast. He gains the young and beautiful Caroline Louisa as his new governess:  a super swap for his harsh-minded former governess appointed by Sir Theopompous, his unsympathetic guardian.


Eight years after the success of The Midnight Folk, the follow-up book The Box of Delights gave us young Kay Harker, now away at boarding-school, reunited with old enemy Abner Brown and travelling through time to find King Arthur and even ancient Troy. You’ll note that John Masefield used the word “trick” in the final line of Sea Fever: it is a master-conjurer of an author, I warrant, that can write two such marvellous and timeless classics of fiction that are, absolutely, a “delight”!


Jerry Dowlen

June 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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