john masefield coming together or communion is the natural end of art, even when the theme of a poem or fiction is not transcendence. In a way, Muriel Spark’s John Masefield teases out the aesthetics of her Catholic vision. No wonder she calls it ‘a work of my maturing mind’.
Though this book includes vivid details of Masefield’s life, especially the early years, Spark is not a biographer here, she reminds us, but a critic. What matters in the life is what can be traced into the poems, and what Masefield does to recompose, amend and transform it there. Detail matters, but also the economies of story, the sometimes very slight pretexts which yield compelling work. Her theme is Masefield as storyteller. Even though one or another element in almost all of his works displeased her, he remained her touchstone in this respect: ‘He is a poet of outwardness – of the essence of reality, not the essence of illusion. A born story-teller.’ She shared this outwardness with him, a charm against the perils of self-expression and its accompanying self-indulgence, of becoming ‘a “lady-novelist” with all the slop and sentimentalism that went with that classification’.
Just as in her earlier book on Mary Shelley she had a mission, to deliver her subject from the bondage of false or partialising categories (as a woman writer whose work was fine for children and haunted nights, but not worth serious attention as literature), so in John Masefield she had a mission of revaluation. It entailed delivering him from the stale-seeming company of the Georgian poets to which he had been assigned as a kind of progenitor by critics and journalists. In his early work, poems and prose, she traces his formation most clearly, and this formation most engages her.
And the early work has about it a freshness that is less evident in Masefield’s later writing: he had an immensely long and fruitful writing life, as Spark herself would. Unlike her, he became a national treasure, a Poet Laureate from 1930, bleached by thirty-eight years’ meaningless limelight. His earlier work had long lost its radical claims on readers and writers because the very opening out of form and diction it facilitated in Anglophone poetry made its original challenge bland by comparison with what came later. By the time he died in 1967, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had been in existence for eleven years.
Born in 1878, Masefield lived through the Modernist revolution and all its aftermaths. He is decidedly a writer whose bearings were taken well before the First World War – he was thirty-six when it began, and The Everlasting Mercy (1911) and Salt-Water Poems and Ballads (1912) were already having their immense success – and his readership in the wake of the First and Second World Wars went to