18 December 2014

Poetry Thursday - Cargoes by John Masefield

Quinquireme... 1/600th scale (via)


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

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-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield (via)

This poem is mentioned by Hugh Aldersey-Williams in "Periodic Tales: the curious lives of the elements": the elements "rise and fall on the tide of cultural whim. [The poem] lists eighteen commodities in its three short verses portraying three eras of global trade and plunder, eleven of them either elements in their pure state or materials which derive their value from the particular nature of one element ingredient".

John Masefield (1878-1967) was well known and respected in his day and much anthologised and taught in schools - "I must go down to the sea again" sticks in my mind. Many of his poems had the sea running through them. He went to sea at 14 but deserted ship in New York when "the urge to become a writer and the hopelessness of life as a sailor overtook him." Working in a factory there, he bought up to 20 books a week - essentially he was self-educated.

Many of his poems were set as art songs by British composers of the time, for instance John Ireland's "Sea Fever". He was poet laureate of the UK from 1930 till his death, and his ashes are in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Some of his works can be downloaded free as audiobooks from the LibriVox site.

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