Thursday, June 01, 2017

`I Must Go Down to the Seas Again'

“Sometimes I have wondered what were the earliest poems to delight me. One of them must have been The Dying Swan, by Tennyson.”

Like John Masefield, I was charmed early by Tennyson’s poem. He was among the first “grownup” poets I remember enjoying and trying to commit to memory. It was Tennyson’s music not his sick bird that grabbed me. His rhythms and succulent textures are irresistible: “. . . grassy, wild and bare, /Wide, wild, and open to the air.” Say that aloud and try not to exalt. I’m certain I couldn’t tell a coronach from a shawm, but seduction precedes understanding. Today I like “. . .that waste place with joy / Hidden in sorrow” and “the swallow, / Chasing itself at its own wild will.” Masefield continues in So Long to Learn (1952), one of his autobiographies:

“Then I came to know many of the charming short poems of William Allingham: and almost all the poetry of Longfellow, especially Hiawatha, Evangeline, and the lyrics and translations. I knew much of his work by heart, from often reading, before I was six.”

Many of us did, on both sides of the Atlantic. Longfellow’s poems were as ubiquitous as the “Gettysburg Address,” and known almost as well. I heard “The Village Blacksmith” recited by Daffy Duck and on the Little Rascals, and my brother and I worked out a vaudeville routine based on “Paul Revere’s Ride” (words, music and choreography available on request). Masefield goes on to mention Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends and the poems of Thomas Hood, neither of which I knew. He writes:

“I liked all these poems much as I liked new bread, tulips, the chicory flower, salt, white clover, speedwell, moon-daisies and golden flag-flowers.  They were all good things: but I had a feeling that The Dying Swan touched a higher level than any.”

Not on Masefield’s list, for obvious reasons, are his own poems, in particular those devoted to life at sea. I was reading some of them side by side with Tennyson (“Break, Break, Break”) and Longfellow (“The Secret of the Sea”). I read Masefield at the same time as Robert Louis Stevenson, and long before I read Melville and Conrad. Here is his “Sea Fever”:

“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 sail’s 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 spray 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.” 

Masefield was born on this date, June 1, in 1878, and lived, remarkably, until 1967, when I already knew some of his poems.

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