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Old And New Masters - Chapter 17. Mr. Masefield's Secret Post by :coease Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :3828

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Old And New Masters - Chapter 17. Mr. Masefield's Secret


Mr. Masefield, as a poet, has the secret of popularity. Has he also the secret of poetry? I confess his poems often seem to me to invite the admirably just verdict which Jeffrey delivered on Wordsworth's _Excursion_: "This will never do." We miss in his lines the onward march of poetry. His individual phrases carry no cargoes of wonder. His art is not of the triumphant order that lifts us off our feet. As we read the first half of his narrative sea-poem, _Dauber_, we are again and again moved to impatience by the sheer literary left-handedness of the author. There are so many unnecessary words, so many unnecessary sentences. Of the latter we have an example in the poet's reflection as he describes the "fiery fishes" that raced Dauber's ship by night in the southern seas:--

What unknown joy was in those fish unknown!

It is one of those superfluous thoughts which appear to be suggested less by the thing described than by the need of filling up the last line of the verse. Similarly, when Dauber, as the ship's lampman and painter is nicknamed, regards the miracle of a ship at sea in moonlight, and exclaims:--

My Lord, my God, how beautiful it is!

we feel that he is only lengthening into a measured line the "My God, how beautiful it is!" of prose. A line like this, indeed, is merely prose that has learned the goose-step of poetry.

Perhaps one would not resent it--and many others like it--so much if it were not that Mr. Masefield so manifestly aims at realism of effect. His narrative is meant to be as faithful to commonplace facts as a policeman's evidence in a court of law. We are not spared even the old familiar expletives. When Dauber's paintings, for example--for he is an artist as well as an artisan--have been destroyed by the malice of the crew, and he questions the Bosun about it,

The Bosun turned: "I'll give you a thick ear!
Do it? I didn't. Get to hell from here!"

Similarly, when the Mate, taking up the brush, makes a sketch of a ship for Dauber's better instruction,

"God, sir," the Bosun said, "You do her fine!"
"Aye!" said the Mate, "I do so, by the Lord!"

And when the whole crew gathers round to impress upon Dauber the fact of his incompetence,

"You hear?" the Bosun cried, "You cannot do it!"
"A gospel truth," the Cook said, "true as hell!"

Here, obviously, the very letter of realism is intended.

Here, too, it may be added, we have as well-meaning an array of oaths as was ever set out in literature. When Mr. Kipling repeats a soldier's oath, he seems to do so with a chuckle of appreciation. When Mr. Masefield puts down the oaths of sailors, he does so rather as a melancholy duty. He swears, not like a trooper, but like a virtuous man. He does not, as so many realists do, love the innumerable coarsenesses of life which he chronicles; that is what makes his oaths often seem as innocent as the conversation of elderly sinners echoed on the lips of children. He has a splendid innocence of purpose, indeed. He wishes to give us the prosaic truth of actual things as a kind of correspondence to the poetic truth of spiritual things of which they are the setting and the frame. Or it may be that he repeats these oaths and all the rest of it simply as a part of the technicalities of life at sea.

He certainly shows a passion for technicalities hardly less than Mr. Kipling's own. He tells us, for instance, how, in the height of the fury of frost and surge and gale round Cape Horn,

at last, at last
They frapped the cringled crojick's icy pelt;
In frozen bulge and bunt they made it fast.

And, again, when the storm was over and Dauber had won the respect of his mates by his manhood, we have an almost unintelligible verse describing how the Bosun, in a mood of friendship, set out to teach him some of the cunning of the sea:--

Then, while the Dauber counted, Bosun took
Some marline from his pocket. "Here," he said,
"You want to know square sennit? So fash. Look!
Eight foxes take, and stop the ends with thread.
I've known an engineer would give his head
To know square sennit." As the Bose began,
The Dauber felt promoted to a man.

Mr. Masefield has generously provided six pages of glossary at the end of his poem, where we are told the meaning of "futtock-shrouds," "poop-break," "scuttlebutt," "mud-hooks," and other items in the jargon of the sea.

So much for Mr. Masefield's literary method. Let me be equally frank about his genius, and confess at once that, in any serious estimate of this, all I have said will scarcely be more relevant than the charge against Burke that he had a clumsy delivery. Mr. Masefield has given us in _Dauber a poem of genius, one of the great storm-pieces of modern literature, a poem that for imaginative infectiousness challenges comparison with the prose of Mr. Conrad's _Typhoon_. To criticize its style takes us no nearer its ultimate secret than piling up examples of bathos takes us to the secret of Wordsworth, or talking about maniacal construction and characterization takes us to the secret of Dostoevsky. There is no use pretending that the methods of these writers are good because their achievements are good. On the other hand, compared with the marvel of achievement, the faultiness of method in each case sinks into a matter almost of indifference. Mr. Masefield gives us in _Dauber a book of revelation. If he does this in verse that is often merely prose crooked into rhyme--if he does it with a hero who is at first almost as bowelless a human being and as much an appeal for pity as Smike in _Nicholas Nickleby_--that is his affair. In art, more than anywhere else, the end justifies the means, and the end of _Dauber is vision--intense, terrible, pitiful, heroic vision. Here we have in literature what poor Dauber himself aimed at putting down on his inexpert canvases:--

A revealing
Of passionate men in battle with the sea,
High on an unseen stage, shaking and reeling;
And men through him would understand their feeling,
Their might, their misery, their tragic power,
And all by suffering pain a little hour.

That verse suggests both the kind and the degree of Mr. Masefield's sensitiveness as a recorder of the life of the sea. His is the witness less of a doer than of a sufferer. He is not a reveller in life: he is one, rather, who has found himself tossed about in the foaming tides of anguish, and who clings with a desperate faith to some last spar of beauty or heroism. He is a martyr to the physical as well as to the spiritual pain of the world. He communicates to us, not only the horror of humiliation, but the horror of a numbed boy, "cut to the ghost" by the polar gale, as high in the yards Dauber fights against the ship's doom, having been

ordered up when sails and spars
Were flying and going mad among the stars,

How well, too, he imparts the dread and the danger of the coming storm, as the ship gets nearer the Horn:

All through the windless night the clipper rolled
In a great swell with oily gradual heaves,
Which rolled her down until her time-bells tolled,
Clang, and the weltering water moaned like beeves.

And the next verse reiterates the prophecies of the moving waters:

Like the march of doom
Came those great powers of marching silences;
Then fog came down, dead-cold, and hid the seas.

The night was spent in dread of fog, in dread of ice, and the ship seemed to respond to the dread of the men as her horn called out into the impenetrable wilderness of mists and waters:

She bayed there like a solitary hound
Lost in a covert.

Morning came, bringing no release from fear:

So the night passed, but then no morning broke--
Only a something showed that night was dead.
A sea-bird, cackling like a devil, spoke,
And the fog drew away and hung like lead.
Like mighty cliffs it shaped, sullen and red;
Like glowering gods at watch it did appear,
And sometimes drew away, and then drew near.

Then suddenly swooped down the immense black fiend of the storm, catching, as the Bosun put it, the ship "in her ball-dress."

The blackness crunched all memory of the sun.

Henceforth we have a tale of white fear changing into heroism as Dauber clambers to his giddy place in the rigging, and goes out on the yard to his task,

Sick at the mighty space of air displayed
Below his feet, where soaring birds were wheeling.

It was all a "withering rush of death," an orgy of snow, ice, and howling seas.

The snow whirled, the ship bowed to it, the gear lashed,
The sea-tops were cut off and flung down smashed;
Tatters of shouts were flung, the rags of yells--
And clang, clang, clang, below beat the two bells.

How magnificent a flash of the fury of the storm we get when the Dauber looks down from his scramblings among rigging and snapped spars, and sees the deck

Filled with white water, as though heaped with snow.

In that line we seem to behold the beautiful face of danger--a beauty that is in some way complementary to the beauty of the endurance of ships and the endurance of men. For the ship is saved, and so is the Dauber's soul, and the men who had been bullies in hours of peace reveal themselves as heroes in stress and peril.

_Dauber_, it will be seen, is more than an exciting story of a storm. It is a spiritual vision of life. It is a soul's confession. It is Mr. Masefield's _De Profundis_. It is a parable of trial--a chant of the soul that has "emerged out of the iron time." It is a praise of life, not for its own sake, but for the spiritual mastery which its storms and dangers bring. It is a paean of survival: the ship weathers the storm to go boldly forward again:--

A great grey sea was running up the sky,
Desolate birds flew past; their mewings came
As that lone water's spiritual cry,
Its forlorn voice, its essence, its soul's name.
The ship limped in the water as if lame,
Then, in the forenoon watch, to a great shout,
More sail was made, the reefs were shaken out.

Not even the death of the Dauber in a wretched accident defeats our sense of divine and ultimate victory. To some readers this fatality may seem a mere luxury of pathos. But it is an essential part of the scheme of the poem. The poet must state his acceptance of life, not only in its splendid and tragic dangers, but in its cruelty and pathetic wastefulness. He must know the worst of it in order to put the best of it to the proof. The worst passes, the best continues--that is the secret enthusiasm of Mr. Masefield's song. Our final vision is of the ship in safety, holding her course to harbour in a fair wind:--

Shattering the sea-tops into golden rain.
The waves bowed down before her like blown grain.

And as she sits in Valparaiso harbour, a beautiful thing at peace under the beautiful shadow of "the mountain tower, snow to the peak," our imagination is lifted to the hills-to where

All night long
The pointed mountain pointed at the stars,
Frozen, alert, austere.

It is a fine symbol of the aspiration of this book of men's "might, their misery, their tragic power." There is something essentially Christian and simple in Mr. Masefield's presentation of life. Conscious though he is of the pain of the world--and aloof from the world though this consciousness sometimes makes him appear--he is full of an extraordinary pity and brotherliness for men. He wanders among them, not with the condescension of so many earnest writers, but with the humility almost of one of the early Franciscans. One may amuse oneself by fancying that there is something in the manner of St. Francis even in Mr. Masefield's attitude to his little brothers the swear-words. He may not love them by nature, but he is kind to them by grace. They strike one as being the most innocent swear-words in literature.

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