North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
7:44 AM 16th April 2024

Poem Of The Week: Cargoes By John Masefield (1878-1967)


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.

Image by Enrique from Pixabay
Image by Enrique from Pixabay
In the manner of Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, poet and laureate John Masefield’s other work will ever be doomed to stand in the shade of ‘Sea Fever’, that much-recited, much-memorised perennial of the school classroom. Which is unfortunate because so much of enduring value lies just beyond the horizon, like the galleon sailing northwards through the Tropics in Masefield’s poem, ‘Cargoes’.

‘Cargoes’ is a fine poem of sharp contrasts, conceived, first, in the sumptuously opulent tones of a dream of bejewelled exotica, the rapine pillaging of distant lands to satisfy European vanities; then later, in the rough-hewn consanantal violence of British imperial power. The opening stanzas in this richly ornamented lyric conjure respective seascapes of ambient excess as they negotiate a passage between the Arabia and Palestine of the Ancients, and the merchant galleons of the Spanish of many centuries later.

Whether we detect a diminution alongside the brute language of Masefield’s final verse might depend on how we view the poet’s attitude to the turgid, cheap and colourless nature of heavy industrial commerce. But we are obliged to conclude, from the depressing weight of his language, that an aesthetic price is exacted as the British Coaster butts its relentless way south and west. The tableau lacks a redeeming feature; as ugly, in its aspect, as D.H. Lawrence’s vision of the Nottinghamshire coalfields.

‘Cargoes’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1950, published by the Oxford University Press (1972).