Reynard the Fox is John Masefield’s Great War poem. It celebrates a pre-war continuity within the English countryside and rural community. It revels in the excitement of a chase. It empathises with ‘one against many, who keeps his end up, and lives, often snugly, in spite of the world’ and also embodies the image of ‘something primitive, wild, beautiful and strange in the Spirit of Man [that] had been pursued through most of Europe with the threat of death’.1 It is also a narrative of a fox-hunt that is full of excitement and pace.
Masefield was born on 1 June 1878 in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Orphaned at an early age, he was educated aboard the Mersey school-ship Conway as training for service within the merchant marine. Life at sea proved a disaster, however, and Masefield deserted ship in New York in 1895 turning, instead, to homeless vagrancy. He returned to England in 1897 and, although plagued by ill health, the would-be poet achieved success in 1899 with publication of his first poem in The Outlook. His first volume of verse, Salt-Water Ballads, was published in 1902 and a second volume, Ballads, followed in 1903. These collections included ‘SeaFever’ and ‘Cargoes’ respectively. In 1903, Masefield married Constance de la Cherois Crommelin (1867–1960), a woman eleven and a half years his senior. The couple were to have one daughter, Judith (1904–88) and one son, Lewis (1910–42).
In 1911 with publication of The Everlasting Mercy, Masefield arrived on the literary scene with a new and shocking voice. This long narrative poem concerning the spiritual enlightenment of a drunken poacher was followed in 1912 with The Widow in the Bye Street and Dauber in 1914. After the Great War further long narratives were published comprising Reynard the Fox (1919), Right Royal (1920) and King Cole (1921). With the death of Robert Bridges, the position of Poet Laureate fell vacant and in 1930 Masefield was appointed. Poetic, dramatic and critical works continued to appear, in addition to a succession of novels (including The Bird of Dawning and the Christmas fantasy for children, The Box of Delights). The 1950s saw little published work owing to illness; however, the final years of Masefield’s life saw a resurgence of activity and success. Masefield died on 12 May 1967 and his ashes were interred in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. Robert Graves, in his memorial address, stated that in Masefield ‘the fierce flame of poetry had truly burned’.2