Cargoes by John Masefield
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,
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,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
John Masefield (1878 – 1967) became Poet Laureate in 1930, and wrote novels and plays as well as poems. His parents died when he was young and he went to live with an aunt, who disapproved of his love of reading. To break the addiction, he went to sea at the age of 15, but never succeeded in weaning himself off books. In fact, while he was at sea, he found a love of telling stories, and the sea is a major feature of many of his poems, such as Sea Fever.
Cargoes is a lyric poem in 3 stanzas, each with 5 lines. The first line of each stanza identifies a particular type of ship, while the second line gives us the locale. The next three lines list the items held in the cargo. None of the stanzas has a complete sentence.
What ships carry reflects the culture and technology of a civilisation. In ancient times quinquiremes (oar-propelled ships) carried ivory and exotic animals. Galleons from the New World carried the prizes of conquest – jewels, spices and gold. In the 20thC commercial vessels transported fuels and material for railroads.
The poem is strongly marked by Masefield’s love of language. He chooses rich, evocative and often unusual words and names – Nineveh, moidores, etc. He creates vivid images by linking words – salt-caked smoke stacks, and palm-green shores. Can’t you just see those things as you read his words?? There is plenty of alliteration – home / haven, tin / trays, etc, and a wonderful contrast between old and modern. The poem makes you wonder where all the goods will end – courtiers sipping the sweet wine while peacocks roam the court, rich scents of sandalwood and cedar perfuming the air somebody will breathe, railroads being built that will transport people to new places, where new items will be bought.
This is a memorable little poem that leaves you itching to go off on a voyage to exotic lands!
Listen to this poem read by Tom O’Bedlam:
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Sea-Fever: Selected Poems of John Masefield by John Masefield, Philip W. Errington (Edited by)
Books by John Masefield
Project Gutenberg: books by John Masefield
My Poetic Side: John Masefield
Susannah Fullerton: John Masefield is born
Susannah Fullerton: Poet Laureate
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