1 October 2017 Susannah

John Masefield & Cargoes

The Battle of Actium, by Laureys a Castro

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,
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.

John Masefield, 1915

John Masefield, photographed by E. O. Hoppé in 1915

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:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

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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Featured image credit- The Battle of Actium, by Laureys a Castro, painted 1672. By Lorenzo A. Castro. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3525889
Body image credit- John Masefield in 1915, photographed by E. O. Hoppé (1878 – 1972), German-born British photographer.[1] – The War Illustrated, 31 July 1915, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14101327

Comments (27)

  1. Richard King

    Also one of my favourites.The picture intrigues me as it is not a quinquireme and looks something like the Battle of Lepanto.But the barges on the left with women in it is confusing.What is it please and thank you for another great issue.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a fabulous poem. Re the picture, it was chosen by the person who helps put my newsletter posts up on line and I think she just chose it because it was ships carrying cargoes. Apologies for it not being as accurate as it might have been, but we have to find copyright-free pics that we can use.

  2. Robert Gillman

    I learnt this poem as a speech exercise where the first verse was to be expressed lyrically, the second epically and the third in a dramatic tone. Certainly “sweet white wine” slithers off the tongue compared to the grandness inherent in “gold moidores” and the way “cheap tin trays” demands to be spat out with disgust.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s an interesting speech class exercise. Does anyone do speech classes any more, I wonder. Some of them need to! Cargoes seems to have been a very popular poem in schools and elocution lessons.

  3. I am 76 now, and remembered the line ‘salt caked smoke stack and it being in the channel’,I was aged around 10′ For some reason the memory evoked me to look the poem up on the web, those four words immediately brought up the poem Cargoes and I was 10 again, listening to Miss Roberts reciting and explaining the meaning of words I hasd never heard of.
    No Pc’s and game machines in those days, just the library and ones own imagination.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It does seem to have been a popular poem for school students as many people have told me that seeing it on my website has brought back memories of learning it at school. I am so glad it brought back happy memories for you. Yes, it is sad that kids today are so obsessed with technology that the imagination isn’t being used to the same extent.

  4. R Burnet. Master Mariner.

    Excellent recall of working at sea, and of being there- done it! Got the “T” shirt.
    recall days of youth and tramping the world’s oceans
    combined with Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”. and the Wreck of the Hesperus.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, all wonderful sea poems. I’m glad you enjoyed Cargoes.

  5. Susannah Fullerton

    What a lovely connection to the poem. I’m so glad it brought back happy memories for you. It is such a fabulous poem – so evocative.

  6. Anil Srivastava

    Cargoes is evocative of the seafaring ways of the world, over a period of two thousand years. From oar propelled, to air propelled,to motor propulsion, the poem lyrically illustrates how various types of cargoes were moved by sea, over the ages. I had first read this poem at School, during the 1960s:it has not lost its charm for me, ever since.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am pleased that the poem brought back happy memories for you and that you still love it. It is so evocative and beautiful.

  7. Melody

    This poem, along with Australian Sunrise by James Cuthbertson, was drummed into us as a recitation by our fifth-class teacher and I can still (mostly) recite both poems from memory today. I credit Mr Bourke with instilling in me an appreciation of poetry, although most of the students didn’t appreciate the forced recitals at the time!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So often it is the poems we learn as children that rally stay with us. I think it is sad that so few kids learn poems by heart today.

      • Ken Barrett

        I don’t think kids learn anything today apart from wokism. please keep up your excellent work.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Isn’t it sad that kids are reading so little. If only they knew what they were missing out on! And as for this ‘woke’ business about ‘cleaning up’ Roald Dahl, my blood boils!!!!!!

  8. Fran fran woolley

    Again, an enjoyable reminder of school days, on both sides of the teacher’s table.
    I take issue with you about no sentences:
    For example
    Quinquireme, rowing home with a cargo.
    The very simple sentences are wonderfully and poetically extended. ( used as a stimulus for contrasting works by many senior primary students.)

  9. I also loved this poem at school and have thought of it often over the years. I love the images it conjures up, and the contrast between the riches of old and the ‘cheap tin trays’ etc of the present. Thanks for the memories, Susannah!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It has obviously been a popular choice of poem and interesting how many people have done it at school. So glad it brought back good memories.

  10. Sue Greta

    “Cargoes”.This was one of my favourite poems at school and our English teacher read each stanza with much feeling. That memory has stayed with me all these years and when I saw the poem as Susannah’s choice I immediately recalled with much joy the first few lines.
    Sue G

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad it brought back good memories for you. It seems to have been a popular choice this month.

      • Rod Daniel

        An old friend, Glyn Evans, has married the wonderful poems of Masefield with the stunning contemporary artwork of Kenneth Shoestring in a book called Cargoes.Well worth checking out!

    • Jim Johnstone

      This remarkable poem takes me back to the 1950’s at school, where I first discovered my love of poetry. “Dirty Brtish Coasters” remains firmly alongside the “quinquireme” and so on. We too learned to recite this and other poems. A teacher today, 2020, asked my mid fifties daughter at school what was this amazing poem that had some kids spellbound. He did not know!

      • Susannah Fullerton

        It is a wonderful and memorable poem, and a great one for school kids to learn by heart. Sadly, they don’t seem to do much of that these days. If you subscribe to my free newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’, which comes out once a month, you will get a fabulous poem each month to learn about and enjoy.

        • Dawood Suleman

          I loved this poem when I saw some lines engraved on travalgar fountain in London which I visited for the first time in 1984. I was alone and completely stranger. Seeing my homeland name … Palestine…I was filled with nostalgia and grief. Palestine is rarely mentioned any more because some strangers came from far places many of them by ships not to buy spices but to occupy it.

          • Susannah Fullerton

            Are there lines engraved on the fountain in Trafalgar Square? I must look more closely next time I am there.
            I am glad you like the poem and that it made you think of your homeland.

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