John Edward Masefield was a prolific English writer, poet and playwright. He was born in 1878 in the sleepy market town of Ledbury in rural Hertfordshire. An idyllic childhood there was cut short when Masefield was orphaned and sent to live with relatives. His aunt in particular is said to have been a stern figure. She sent young Masefield first to King’s School Warwick and then, when this proved disastrous, to sea. At the tender age of 13, Masefield was assigned to the school-ship H.M.S. Conway, where his aunt hoped he would lose his dubious love of reading and gain a marine career.
Masefield’s time on the Conway was influential. He found that he had plenty of time for reading and he also became fascinated with marine history and mythology, and the tradition of story telling aboard ship. At the age of sixteen he left the Conway and was apprenticed to the Gilcruix, en route to Chile. Masefield became ill during this voyage and spent time in hospital before returning to England. An arrangement to meet up with a new post on a ship in New York harbour was made, but Masefield disembarked in that city determined to make his own way as a writer, on land. He was 17.
After a couple of years working in bars and factories in Yonkers and NYC, Masefield returned to London, England in 1897 and started working as a bank clerk. By this time he was reading Chaucer, Keats and Shelley and writing poetry himself. He also began rubbing shoulders with the elite of British arts – W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, Laurence Binyon and others.
In 1899, Masefield was published for the first time, a sea poem called Nicias Moritous, which appeared in The Outlook, a well-regarded London weekly review. Successful publication continued to the point where a volume of his collected works – Salt Water Ballads – was released in 1902. The book contained one of the poems for which Masefield remains best known: Sea-Fever.
“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.”
The poem, which confirms the sea as Masefield’s major inspiration to date, was later set to music by composer John Ireland and remains a popular folk–style song. The volume also carried a dedication to three women, one of whom was Masefield’s future wife.
In 1903, at the age of 23, Masefield married Constance de la Cherois Crommelin, a 35-year old mathematics teacher with a background in classics and English Literature. The couple had two children together; Judith, born in 1904, and Lewis, in 1910 (who would perish in World War II).
While contributing articles and reviews regularly to the Manchester Guardian from 1904, Masefield also wrote the romantic 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 longer narrative poems, and within the next year, Masefield had produced two more, The Widow in the Bye Street and Dauber. As a result of these critically praised works, Masefield became widely known to the public. In 1912, he was awarded the annual Edmond de Polignac prize for The Everlasting Mercy.
Masefield served briefly during World War I, mostly as a hospital orderly in France. He would write about the experience later in poems such as Red Cross (published in 1939). Masefield also undertook a lecture tour of the United States, filing a report with the British Foreign office upon his return that addressed the American mood and attitude towards the war effort. With Foreign Office encouragement, Masefield wrote the hugely successful book Gallipoli about the disastrous Allied effort in the Dardanelles. And with the further blessing of the British Military Intelligence in France, Masefield wrote another piece about the war, this time focusing on the Battle of the Somme. Duel publications - The Old Front Line (1917) and The Battle of the Somme (1919) - would prove to be less comprehensive than originally envisioned by Masefield, since he was denied access to official records.
In 1918, Masefield returned to America on a second lecture tour and spent much of his time speaking and lecturing to American soldiers waiting to be sent to Europe. During this visit, he matured as a public speaker and perfected an ability to speak publicly from his own heart, in partially improvised addresses. Towards the end of his trip, both Yale and Harvard Universities conferred honorary Doctorates of Letters on him.
Aside from his war and maritime efforts, some of Masefield’s best-known works are long narrative poems in the manner of Chaucer. Reynard the Fox appeared in 1919 and was widely considered to be a poetic response to the War as well as being a moving meditation on foxhunting and the English countryside; Right Royal, about the steeplechase, followed in 1920. All were acclaimed, as was Masefield’s King Cole (1921) and Collected Poems, published in 1923.
After King Cole Masefield’s attention turned back to the novel form. From 1924 until the outbreak of the Second World War he published twelve novels, including more stories of the sea in The Bird of Dawning and Victorious Troy, as well as strange tales of an imaginary land in Central America with the bizarre fantasies Sard Harker and Odtaa.
During this same period Masefield wrote a number of dramatic plays (Masefield had been writing plays beginning with The Tragedy of Nan in 1909). Many of these were based on Christian themes and Masefield would repeatedly encounter the English ban on the performance of plays on biblical subjects that went back to the Reformation. Nonetheless, in 1928, Masefield’s The Coming of Christ was the first play to be performed in an English cathedral since the Middle Ages.
From his home at rural Boar’s Hill near Oxford, Masefield organized amateur theatrical productions in addition to recitations. His own private theatre (called “The Music Room”) provided a forum for poets and playwrights to develop work. Gordon Bottomley, Laurence Binyon and Thomas Hardy had plays produced at Boar’s Hill; W.B. Yeats attended a festival there in his honour.
Throughout his career, Masefield was a very active member of British letters. In 1923, he organized Oxford Recitations, an annual competition designed to encourage the recitation of poetry and verse. The event happened annually until 1929. Masefield was also a founding member of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse -- it exists today as the Poetry Association of Scotland.
Upon the death of Robert Bridges in 1930, Masefield was given the prestigious position of Poet Laureate, a role he would earnestly fulfill until his death; the only poet to hold the position for a longer period was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Masefield’s first commission was to write a poem, which was then set to music by Sir Edward Elgar (at the time holding down the honorary position of Master of the King's Music) and performed at the unveiling of the Queen Alexandra Memorial by the King in June of 1932. Masefield’s contribution became the melancholy ode So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone. Assuming the Poet Laureate post opened the floodgates for Masefield to receive many honours – the Order of Merit, degrees from most of the British universities, the presidency of the British Society of Authors.
In addition to poetry, drama and fiction, Masefield also wrote several prominent works for children, including the fantastic The Midnight Folk (1927) and its sequel The Box of Delights (1935). Much later in life, Masefield also published a great deal of autobiographical prose recalling his early days on the high seas. Works like The Conway: From Her Foundation to the Present Day (1933) and New Chum (1944) were not only well received at the time, they still evoke a long-gone much storied era in British maritime history.
Despite ill health and the death of his wife in 1960, Masefield continued to write. In 1966, he published his last book of poems, In Glad Thanksgiving, at the age of 88.
In the latter part of 1966 gangrene was diagnosed in his ankle. This gradually spread through his leg and claimed his life.
He died on May 12, 1967 and was cremated, his ashes placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.