My small Welsh primary school lay at the end of Boundary Lane, on the Flintshire-Cheshire border. It was a good 20 miles from any beach. Nevertheless, the first thing I remember having to learn was ‘Sea Fever’, possibly the best-known poem at that time in the English-speaking world.
This was the Sixties and ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’ had been taken to heart by successive generations before mine. The entire class would soon be word-perfect with ‘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.’ I suspect most of us had only a vague idea of the poem’s meaning. Next Miss Roberts made an attempt on ‘Cargoes’, but the ‘Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack’ defeated us.
Written when their author was only 24, both poems are by John Masefield. Born into a modest Herefordshire home in 1878, at his death in 1967 he was Poet Laureate, Doctor of Letters, novelist, playwright, critic and a literary lion on both sides of the Atlantic. The response now to mention of him is usually dismissive, but for me two lines from those lessons stuck fast, though neither ‘Sea Fever’ nor ‘Cargoes’ furnished them. They were: ‘One road leads to London,/One road leads to Wales.’ As an adolescent I misread them, thinking they were a celebration of ‘getting out there’. But they made me curious enough to read as an adult Grace before Ploughing, which Masefield describes as ‘Fragments of Autobiography’.
Motherless at 6, by 12 every adult with an interest in the young John Masefield was either dead or, in his father’s case, committed to an asylum. Foisted on an aunt, he was denied access to the books that were his solace and sent to toughen up as a cadet at HMS Conway. (Not resentful, he would one day write its history.) At 16, on his first voyage, aboard the four-master barque Gilcruix, he
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in