Sunday, May 12, 2013

English poet and novelist John Masefield died - 1967

After spending a wonderful week in Ireland celebrating my birthday unplugged from all things electronic, visiting all the sites and hoisting a Guinness or two. I have returned home with a renewed vigor and inspiration for my craft.

English poet and author John Masefield died on May 12, 1967 in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England. He was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death. He is remembered as the author of the classic children's novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and poems, such as "The Everlasting Mercy" and "Sea-Fever.” Masefield was born on June 1, 1878 in Ledbury, Herefordshire, England. After graduating from the King’s School in Warwick, Masefield spent several years aboard the HMS Conway, both to train for a life at sea, and to break his addiction to reading, of which his aunt thought little. It was aboard the Conway that Masefield's love for story-telling grew. While on the ship, he listened to the stories told about sea lore. He continued to read, and felt that he was to become a writer and story teller himself. Eventually, the urge to become a writer and the hopelessness of life as a sailor overtook him, and in New York, he deserted ship. He lived as a vagrant for several months and worked odd jobs. In 1897, he returned home to England and met his future wife, Constance Crommelin, who was educated in classics and English literature, and was a mathematics teacher. They would have two children.

By the time he was 24, Masefield's poems were being published in periodicals and his first collected works, Salt-Water Ballads (1902) was published, the poem "Sea-Fever" appearing in this book. Masefield then wrote the novels, Captain Margaret (1908) and Multitude and Solitude (1909). In 1911, after a long drought of poem writing, he composed "The Everlasting Mercy", the first of his narrative poems, and within the next year, Masefield had produced two more, "The Widow in the Bye Street" and "Dauber.” As a result, Masefield became widely known to the public and was praised by critics.

When World War I began, though old enough to be exempted from military service, Masefield joined the staff of a British hospital for French soldiers, serving briefly in 1915 as a hospital orderly, and later publishing his own account of his experiences. After returning home, Masefield was invited to the United States on a three month lecture tour. Although Masefield's primary purpose was to lecture on English Literature, a secondary purpose was to collect information on the mood and views of Americans regarding the war in Europe. When he returned to England, he submitted a report to the British Foreign Office, and suggested that he be allowed to write a book about the failure of the allied efforts in the Dardanelles, which possibly could be used in the U.S. in order to counter what he thought was German propaganda there. As a result, Masefield wrote Gallipopli. This work was a success, encouraging the British people, and lifting them somewhat from the disappointment they had felt as a result of the Allied losses in the Dardanelles. Due to the success of his wartime writings, Masefield was asked to write an account of the Battle of the Somme. Although he had grand ideas for his book, he was denied access to the official records, and therefore, what was to be his preface to the book was published as The Old Front Line, a description of the geography of the Somme area.

Masefield entered the 1920s as an accomplished and respected writer. His family was able to settle on Boar's Hill, a somewhat rural setting not far from Oxford. He continued to meet with success, the 1923 edition of "Collected Poems" selling approximately 80,000 copies. He produced three poems early in this decade. The first was Reynard the Fox, a poem that has been critically compared with works of Geoffrey Chaucer. This was followed by Right Royal and King Cole.

After which, he turned away from the long poem and back to the novel, and from 1924until World War II published twelve novels, which vary from stories of the sea (The Bird of Dawning, Victorious Troy) to social novels about modern England (The Hawbucks, The Square Peg), and from tales of an imaginary land in Central America (Sard Harker, Odtaa) to fantasies for children (The Midnight Folk, The Box of Delights). This variety in genre testifies most impressively to the breadth of his imagination.

In 1930, on the death of Robert Bridges, Masefield was appointed Poet Laureate. After his appointment, Masefield was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V and many honorary degrees from British universities. It was not until about the age of 70 that Masefield slowed his pace due to illness. In 1960, Constance died at 93, after a long illness. Although her death was heartrending, he had spent a tiring year watching the woman he loved die. He continued his duties as Poet Laureate; In Glad Thanksgiving, his last book, was published when he was 88 years old. In late 1966, Masefield developed gangrene in his ankle. This spread to his leg, and he died of the infection on May 12, 1967. According to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Great Britain’s Literary Legends. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following links:

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