Like most schools, mine had inter-house competitions. One year, it fell to me to be House Captain of Music because I was the oldest boy who could play the clarinet. The Housemaster chose the Captain on age, not on ability. Every boy had to sing in the choir, and the performance piece chosen was John Ireland’s setting of Sea Fever by the poet laureate at the time, John Masefield.
Everyone had to sing, from the few with treble voices to the tuneless late-teen tough-guy growlers. We learned about melding music and words, how to enunciate ‘whetted knife’ as if you were cut by a cold wind; how to sound the sibilants to suggest gale and spray and how to prolong the final word – over. The poem was ended, but the feeling and atmosphere lingered on.
Our performance was creditable, but the adjudicator marked us down for choosing this sophisticated and sensitive piece. He preferred Boots by Rudyard Kipling and set to a clomping marching beat by P J McCall. Nevertheless, our instrumental performers and madrigal group made up the points, and I collected the silver cup at the end of term.
So Masefield entered my life and his poem Cargoes, known to most schoolchildren. Masefield also wrote narrative poems. Reynard the Fox is most noted. Another, The Everlasting Mercy, was parodied by the satirist EV Knox as The Everlasting Percy.
Earlier this month, Masefield surfaced again. Dr Charles Lansley gave a talk to the Southampton Writers Circle. He mentioned that he had discovered seven letters from John Masefield among his deceased father’s papers. Written to Mrs Gwyn Edmunds, a former member of the Writers Circle, they contained some literary wisdom.
Extracts from the Letters
- Poetry is a kindling matter and will spread light and gladness.
- You say this in 50 words. When you say it in 10, it will be a poem.
- Tell your tales by word of mouth to someone.
- Set your songs to tunes of your own and sing them to everyone.
- The immediate judgement of men and women who listen to your work will help you far more than any professional newspaper criticism.
- Be sure your descriptions describe.
- Try your plan of a tale almost all dialogue (sic). It will make you concentrate on character and what excites character.
- You will learn where you succeed or fail, and the fun will make you try again.
- In a short poem, one should have an end that is not a repetition of your beginning.
- One must always seek for the magical adjective. Use no adjective except the one that is magical.
- Consider even a door-mat; how many different adjectives can be applied to it. Which, of all these, best suits your purpose? Why?
- Get into the way of reading aloud all that you write to people. The writer is always addressing minds and feelings. A writer’s audience gives an instant criticism of a living kind. Reading or speaking aloud will show you what to omit and will teach you (at once) how few adjectives will serve any page of narrative, lyric or drama.
- Read your poems out loud to people. You will not hold them with adjectives.
- “Elisha said, if you call me names, I’ll call a bear and he’ll eat you and they did and he did and it did.” No adjectives but real effect.
- Take our lightest poet, Herrick, and our sternest poet, Milton, and note how they use adjectives, or avoid using them.
- The three guides to literature are: Bold design. Constant practice and Frequent Mistakes.
- …it is worth while to strive for a skill in any art. It will bring you joy and give you power, something jolly to share with others.
John Masefield berates us about adjectives as Stephen King does about adverbs. Both use these words but choose them ‘magically’ and with care. ‘Sea Fever’ has three very ordinary adjectives, quiet, sweet and long, in the final line. But that last line quells a stormy voyage into peaceful contentment.
Herrick, and Milton to whom Masefield refers, died about 1648 and 1674 respectively, were near contemporaries. In these two poems, the same subject is expressed differently.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may… Robert Herrick.
How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth… John Milton.
British Poet John Masefield (1878-1967) in 1912, by painter William Strong (1859-1921)