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John Masefield 1902

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Cargoes” is perhaps the most well-respected of John Masefield’s shorter poems and, like a great many of his poems and prose works, pertains to ships. Masefield began a love-hate relationship with ships and the sea when he took his first and only overseas voyage as a teenager. This trip left indelible marks—some of them scars—on his character and work. “Cargoes” was included in Masefield’s second volume of verse, Ballads, published in 1903. At this time, the British Empire was still the most powerful in the world, vesting in ships and the cargo they could carry. Turn-of-the-century England, then, was an ideal time and place to reflect back on the history of shipping, cargoes, and, most important, on power and empire.

In “Cargoes,” one ship sails through each of three stanzas. The first ship rows around the lands of the Old Testament, the second sails across the Atlantic Ocean sometime between the fifteenth and eighteenth century, and the third motors through the English Channel, probably at the turn of the twentieth century, the time the poem was written. The poem is thus a concise history of ships, shipping, consumption, and empire. For Masefield, much has changed, apparently for the worse. Once, Masefield’s story goes, ships had exotic names and sailed through idyllic climes to and from faraway destinations with strange and marvelous cargoes. But by the turn of the century, dirty, polluting ships motored their way through the bad weather of the confining English Channel. The cargo these ships carry is not only produced in the same country it is shipped to, but it is cheap and plentiful—a cargo destined for the masses instead of the kings and queens of yesterday. These three snapshots of three ships might be quick, but they are also somewhat complex. In contemplating “Cargoes,” we might understand that what Masefield has given us is not only the lushness of poetry, but also the austerity of photography.

Author Biography

John Masefield was Poet Laureate of England for thirty-seven years. He was honored with numerous awards and received honorary degrees from the most prestigious universities in England and the United States. He published a huge body of plays, poems, criticism, and works of fiction, some of which sold very well. Now, however, he is a rather obscure poet, much criticized and infrequently anthologized. Perhaps it was Masefield’s preoccupation with poetic conventions such as meter and rhyme, or his romance with sea and ships, or perhaps it was a limited education that would have likely subdued his rather dreamy, expressive voice—one mostly unencumbered by hardened analysis, political anger, or nagging self-doubt. In a phrase, Masefield was more a poet of emotion than thought.

Masefield’s childhood was, in his own words, like “living in Paradise.” Born June 1, 1878, in a Victorian house with vistas of fields and woodlands, and grounds with garden and orchard, Masefield was the third of six children. When he was a child, his mother recited poems to him. Loss of paradise came with the death of his mother when he was six and the death of his grandparents a year later, which put a financial strain on the family and slowly drove his father into insanity. Until he went to boarding school at age ten, he and his siblings were looked after by a governess they despised (John going so far as once stabbing her with a fork). Masefield also hated boarding school but, instead, took the violence out on himself: he attempted suicide by eating laurel leaves. By the time he began to like school—the place he began writing verse— his father became so ill that Masefield was forced to return home. His father died when Masefield was thirteen, and he fell under the guardianship of his father’s brother and his wife, both of whom tried to keep him from reading. Fed up, they resorted to sending Masefield to a school to learn seamanship aboard the H.M.S. Conway. Here, he continued

reading, and showed ineptitude with mathematics and an aptitude for writing. After graduation, Masefield apprenticed on the H.M.S. Gilcruix and in April of 1894 began his first and only voyage as a sailor, an experience that furnished the material for his long, narrative poem Dauber (1913). The stormy and emotionally difficult thirteen-week voyage resulted in sunstroke and a nervous breakdown that landed Masefield in a Chilean hospital. Although he was sent back to England to recover, his unsympathetic aunt soon forced him to enlist in the service of another ship, which he was supposed to meet in New York. He never met it: “I deserted my ship and cut myself adrift from her and from my home. I was going to be a writer, come what might.” Masefield would stay in New York as a tramp, doing odd jobs and wandering about to evade detectives employed by his uncle to find him. In New York City he worked as a barboy in Greenwich Village and then at a carpet mill in Yonkers for two years, all the time reading and writing. When Masefield quit the factory and sailed back to England, he was barely nineteen years old. His assessment of this period in his life was that it was “a seclusion ... among the looms of Yonkers, a seclusion due to my hatred of Americans.” Seclusion though it was, it resulted in his first two collections of verse that were never published. Back in England, Masefield found steady employment, first with a business firm and then at a bank, which provided a stable enough income for him to recover from his ill health. In 1899 his first poem was published in Outlook, a literary and political journal. By 1900, Masefield had become a literary man, visiting W. B. Yeats’s Monday evenings of liquor and literature and meeting people such as Irish playwright John Millington Synge and the scholar-poet Lawrence Binyon. In 1901, at the age of 23, Masefield left the bank and began life as a free-lance writer. His first book, Salt Water Ballads (1902), sold out its initial run of 500 copies in six months. In 1903 Masefield married Constance Crommelin and later fathered two children with her. After the wedding, Masefield worked as a book reviewer, an editor, and even organized an art exhibit. By 1910 Masefield had published one book of poetry, three plays, four novels, and six volumes of prose. During his wife’s second pregnancy, Masefield developed a deep infatuation for a woman, Elizabeth Robins, who was old enough to be his mother. (Indeed, he called her “mother,” she called him “son.”) After several months, she broke off the relationship that had been conducted mostly through intense letter writing—he once wrote her nine letters in one day. From 1915 to 1918, during World War I, Masefield made four trips to France, one to the Middle East, and two to the United States. On his first trip to France, Masefield nursed soldiers for the Red Cross. During the next trip, he surveyed the hospital area in the city of Tours for the purpose of setting up a fresh-air hospital, a plan that never materialized. The third trip was under the auspices of British Intelligence. It was to gather knowledge of American aid for French medical units, the report of which, it was hoped, would enlist more support from America for the war effort. The last trip to France was to chronicle the battle of the Somme. Masefield also went to Gallipoli, in Turkey, to nurse the wounded for the Red Cross in 1915. In 1916, before the United States entered the war, he was sent to America, ostensibly to deliver lectures, but also to assess the attitudes of Americans toward the Allies. Masefield’s second trip to America in 1918—the United States had already entered the war—was made to strengthen ties between Britain and America. Masefield visited training camps to give lectures to the soldiers. In America, Masefield met and befriended Florence Lamont, the wife of a wealthy financier in the House of Morgan. The Lamonts would, on occasion, help Masefield out with money for theater projects. In his letters to Florence Lamont, Masefield frequently expressed his love of the common man and the simpler life of the countryside and his aversion to ugly cities and rampant commercialism. In 1922 Masefield help set up a theatrical company called The Hill Street Players, which produced plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and himself.

When Poet Laureate Robert Bridges died in 1930, Masefield assumed the post and served until his own death in 1967. As Poet Laureate, Masefield generated awards for younger poets, held verse recitations, and generally stimulated literary activity. Masefield believed that verse was an oral art: “I am all for a stringed lyre and speech: the printing press is a mistake; one of the many mistakes that the Renaissance made.” Masefield lost his son in combat in World War II and his wife in 1960. With his sister, Judith, at his bedside, Masefield succumbed to gangrene—rather than have his leg amputated—at the age of 89 in 1967.

Poem Text

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.                   5

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.                     10

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March
With a cargo of Tyne coal, 
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.                     15

Poem Summary

Lines 1-5

A quinquireme is an ancient ship with five banks of oars. Nineveh is the ancient capital of Assyria (now Iraq), whose ruins are opposite Mosul (Al Mawsil) on the Tigris River. This area is considered one of the cradles of civilization, a source for some of the earliest written and built histories of ancient human communities. Ophir is an ancient country of uncertain location mentioned in the Old Testament. From Ophir, gold was brought to Solomon, King of ancient Israel in the tenth century B.C. Presumably, this particular quinquireme is bringing its cargo to Solomon. The Nineveh reference is unclear. Perhaps the ship was built in Nineveh, rowed to Ophir, then on to its destination in Palestine. The traditional cargo of Ophirian gold is replaced by an exotic catalog of luxury items from Nineveh or from other places along the route. It is uncertain whether Masefield is referring here to a particular historical voyage or even a particular period of ancient biblical history. It seems just as likely that these words laden with history have been collected for their ability to create the desired sound and meter as well as the desired image.

Lines 6-10

The Spanish ship of stanza two, a large sailing vessel, is likely sailing from the Isthmus of Panama back to Spain through the North Atlantic approximately 2,500 years later. This is the period of the Spanish Empire—beginning in the 1500s— when Spain controlled the commerce from much of the Americas. Again the cargo is of luxury goods, especially precious stones, bound for Spanish royalty and nobility. The gold moidores, or coins, are of Portuguese origin and are likely from Brazil, Portugal’s only Western colony. Stanzas one and two have several things in common. First, their valuable cargo is destined for the only ones who can afford it: those in power, namely, King Solomon the ruler of the biblical “empire” of Israel, and, in stanza two, for Spanish royalty in Spain’s much later and larger empire. Second, the items are nonessential, extravagant luxuries. Third, the climates are sunny and beautiful. In these two stanzas, then, impressive ships on exotic voyages carry exotic cargo to exotic and extravagant rulers. The overall impression is of beauty.

Lines 11-15

The ship of the third stanza stands in for the somewhat later empire of Britain. With its colonization of North America, Britain began its empire building approximately a hundred years after Spain and Portugal; these two countries already controlled a great many of the world’s newly explored areas. This dirty British coaster, a ship engaged in coastal trading, sounds like a vessel of Masefield’s own time. This particular ship is different than the two others, not just because it is unimpressive, but because it is not travelling to or from abroad. Instead it carries materials from one part of Britain to another through the English Channel. The coaster’s material is also different than that of the quinquireme or the galleon. No longer luxury items, this cargo is not beautiful, but purely practical and, one might assert, ugly as the coaster is dirty and salt-caked. The material is not bound for royalty and nobility, but for the captains of industry to process. Finally, the setting the ship sails in is quite different: the first two ships sail through sunny weather and tropical climes, while the last sails through the channel during the “mad March days.” Masefield juxtaposes these three ships to show that while trade was once a romantic business of beautiful goods for beautiful people, it has become a dirty business of processing nature into drab products for the masses; through years and empires, trade has been transformed into mere commercialism. Through almost picture-like images of three ships representing three successive empires, Masefield economically sums up and negatively comments upon the history of capitalism and trade.


Romance and Reality

The first two stanzas of “Cargoes” fall under the heading of “romance” and the last stanza under “reality.” Even without any understanding of the words “quinquireme,” “Nineveh,” and “Ophir,” their unfamiliarity and the repetition of sounds in the first two words make them seem magical—the stuff of witches’ curses and wizards’ incantations. The first stanza describes an ancient ship, placed by Masefield in the time of Solomon, the son of David who ruled Israel from 961 to 922 B.C. From Ophir (an unknown locale that might have been located in what is now Saudi Arabia), and from other locales, Solomon received the expensive and exotic products of gold, cedar, and sandalwood (called “almug” in the Old Testament) for vast building projects, especially a temple and his palace. Also imported were ivory for his throne, and the other cargo mentioned, except for “sweet white wine,” which Masefield seems to have invented. Solomon had a glorious kingdom that magically combined the virtues of incredible wealth, deep wisdom, and devoted religiosity; that is, until he began worshipping other gods and his kingdom fell apart. The second ship belongs to the Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that imported products from its empire in South America. This glittering cargo is for an empire that once ruled half of the world (Portugal controlled the other half). By the time of the third stanza, however,

Topics for Further Study

  • In the first two stanzas of “Cargoes,” transporting products from one country to another sounds beautiful and exotic. One might say that these stanzas are written from the perspective of the country receiving these goods. To gain another perspective, research the effects on a people and area that has supplied or still supplies the labor and such materials as are described in “Cargoes.” Some examples from the present day might be copper from Indonesia and oil from Nigeria.
  • Research the history of trade to see how it has changed through the centuries. If a more specific topic is desired, one could research how ships and navigation have changed and the effect this had on trade. Or, one could investigate different means—military, diplomatic, etc.— that countries have used to get other countries to trade with them.
  • List reasons why road rails, pig-lead, firewood, ironware, and cheap tin trays are apparently less desirable than topazes, cinnamon, diamonds, ivory, and exotic animals. Try to be precise in your answer.
  • On a map, draw out the trading routes in this poem. Map out some present-day trading routes. For example, how does Egyptian cotton reach the United States?
  • What are the reasons for having an empire, for imperialism?

these days had vanished. What Masefield’s England was left with was the British version of empire: one that began with the conquest of foreign lands and the importation of exotica, but one that had become a grubby country of factories and machinery churning out massive amounts of materials for masses of people forced into cities when their land was taken from them. Succinctly put, the world of trade had been transformed from glamorous to grimy.

Growth and Development

From the first to the third stanzas there is growth and development. The first stanza’s Palestine was an area that included the Kingdom of Israel, a rather small “empire” by later standards such as Portuguese and British. Still, Israel was made rich by conquering areas around it and enslaving its peoples. Solomon employed these slaves, according to Kings I of the Bible, to build his cities. By the time Spain was an imperial power, enabled by the Pope who gave it rights to the Western world, Spain controlled a large part of North and South America. The later British Empire was even larger, penetrating into America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. But as empires grew and developed, they also fell. By the time of the British coaster in stanza three, Britain had become a large factory, processing not only materials from the rest of the globe, but also from those it cut down and mined in its own country. Instead of just importing goods from other climes to make itself wealthy as Israel and Spain had, Britain was destroying itself—through procuring and processing—in order to make itself rich. With the Industrial Revolution, Britain had turned itself into a noisy, grimy machine that turned development into a dirty word.

Wealth and Poverty

As to wealth and poverty, there is again a difference between the first two stanzas and the last. In the first stanza, the cargo on the quinquireme is wealth meant for King Solomon, his family, and those lucky enough to move within his orbit. The “stately Spanish galleon” carries a shipment of goods thought even more to belong to the province of kings and queens—those jewels meant for royal robes and diadems, that cinnamon meant for feasts, and those gold moidores, Portuguese coins, meant for Spain’s royal coffers. The wealth shipped on the quinquireme and the galleon, then, is wealth destined for the very few, to be distributed to just a few more. Not so with the British coaster. This is wealth of another kind that only a captain of industry, not a king or queen of state, could love. The coaster’s cargo will not be confined to palaces and manor houses; it will be distributed throughout the country to factories for energy and for reprocessing, furnishing jobs to the urban masses dispossessed of any link to lands they once farmed. While this material will be distributed to the masses in the form of wages and some services, such as railroads, these masses will arguably be poorer and more dependent on someone else than ever before. This time the people, however, are not dependent upon the reach of a central royal family, but on the grip of capitalists in every town and hamlet across Britain. As Jorge Luis Borges has written, “Yesterday’s poverty was less poor than the poverty handed down to us today by industrialism.” Masefield championed the poor and the common man: he too had worked at low-paying jobs at a bar, a farm, a factory, and on a ship. It appears Masefield longed, despite the drawbacks, for the glory days of the ruling monarchy. For then, even when the very few got richer, the poor did not necessarily get poorer.


From a formal viewpoint, “Cargoes” is a fascinating poem. Its three, five-line stanzas follow an unusual abcdb rhyme scheme. The first, second, and fifth lines of every stanza are best read with three feet to a line (trimeter), though some lines, such as the first line, are comfortably read with four feet (tetrameter). All of the stanzas’ third and fourth lines have two feet (dimeter). The poem’s rhythm at the beginning of the first, third, and fifth lines of each stanza mostly follows a form called the paeon, which is a foot with one accented syllable followed by three unaccented syllables: “QUIN qui reme of / NI ne veh from.” In actuality, the accents, in stair-step or wave-like fashion, gradually fall or descend in the words “quinquireme” and “Nineveh,” then slightly rise with the preposition before rising still higher with the beginning of the next foot. The rhythm is thus a gradual movement from unaccented to accented syllables and vice-versa, much like the repetitiously gentle dipping and rising of peaceful ships at sea. Things change, however, at the third foot of most of the first, second, and fifth lines of each stanza. Here, we usually come upon what is called a mollossus, a foot with three consecutive strong beats as in lines 1, 7, and 15:

distant Oph  ir /
palm-green shores  /
/ cheap tin trays

Lines with two feet follow different variations of iambs, anapests, trochees, and dactyls. In the following line there are two feet of dactyls, a first accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables:

Emeralds, / Amethysts

But in the following line there are two trochaic feet:

Road  -rails/ pig  -lead

Finally, there is the repetition of sounds. For instance, in lines 6 and 11, an “s” sound dominates. In line 5 a “w” sound repeats. Throughout the poem, there are instances of repeated vowel sounds, called assonance (firewood, iron-ware); repeated consonant sounds, called consonance (salt-caked smoke stacks); and repeated sounds at the beginning of words, called alliteration (salt-caked smoke stacks). The repetition of these sounds not only feel good in the mouth, but along with regularities of stanzas and lines, it pulls disparate parts of the poem together into different unities. One might think of the poem itself as a ship carrying and storing different kinds of poetic cargo in similar places.

Historical Context

“Cargoes” was published in 1903 during what has come to be known as the Edwardian Age or Edwardian Decade. Spanning the period from 1901-1910, The Edwardian Age began with the death of Queen Victoria, who had reigned from 1837 over the most successful imperialist country in history— one that, at its height, controlled more than one quarter of the earth’s surface. Perhaps the most important domestic result of Victorian expansionism was the forced and almost complete transition from a rural economy of people attached to land to an urban economy of people toiling in trade and manufacturing. London became the center of the West, increasing its population from two million to six and a half million in just sixty years. With the increase of imports and of manufactured exports such as cotton and wool through cheap labor working under harsh conditions, the invention of new machinery that increased production and cut down on labor costs, and due to having the world’s best fleet of ships, England became the world’s workshop, its dominant and wealthiest nation, and its largest banker. The result was a Britain of overweening pride, nagging guilt, and obsessive propriety.

Other countries besides Britain were now experiencing their imperial rites of passage. In 1898 Spain and the United States, a new imperial power, came to blows over Spanish-controlled Cuba and the Philippines. The United States won the Spanish-American War easily, partially because the Spanish colonies were far from Spain and close to the United States. At the war’s end, the United States took control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

Meanwhile, various nations were also fighting over China. Japan was the first to make inroads,

Compare & Contrast

  • 1900: The Chinese Boxers (a.k.a., The Society of Harmonious Fists), supported by former empress Tz’u Hsi, seized Peking, murdering Western diplomats and Chinese who had converted to Christianity. The Western imperialist powers with interests in China, including Great Britain, band together and put down the Boxer Rebellion. The Emperor Kuang Tsu is forced to resign.

    1998: In the spring, students revolt for several days in Jakarta, Indonesia. The rioting and looting is a response to skyrocketing prices brought about by austerity measures, themselves caused by a $40 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Millions of dollars worth of property is destroyed and hundreds are killed. Under local and international demands, President Suharto resigns.

  • 1901: H. G. Wells publishes The First Men on the Moon.

    1966: U. S. spacecraft Surveyor I makes a soft landing on the moon and transmits more than 11,000 television images. Edwin Aldrin steps out of the Gemini spacecraft for 129 minutes.

    1997: The Pathfinder Probe lands on Mars. The Soujourner vehicle moves about the surface of Mars taking pictures.

  • 1898: In a blow to the once world-dominating Spanish Empire, Spain loses the Spanish-American War to a newly emerging imperial power, the United States. As part of the treaty, Spain must cede the colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States.

    1991: The Russian Empire breaks up from the mounting costs of competition and the cost of maintaining its empire. The Soviet Union and its satellites are replaced by the independent nations of Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia to name two, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, comprised of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

but at such a cost that it was weakened. The European countries, beginning with Russia, seized their chance and ousted Japan from the Chinese peninsula. Britain added two naval bases to its other possessions. China, however, survived partition; France, Germany, Britain, and Russia were too much at odds to agree to any arrangement. In 1900, China made a violent attempt to kick out the Western powers with its anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion. The attempt failed and Europe, especially Russia, clung more tightly to China, especially that part known as Manchuria. This bothered both Britain and Japan, so in 1902, these two countries signed the Anglo-Japanese treaty. Among other things, the treaty stated that should Japan go to war with Russia over Korea and eastern parts of China, Britain would do its best to prevent any other imperial power from aiding Russia. The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, and by 1905, Japan would win the Liaotung Peninsula and Korea. Britain’s move had paid dividends.

When Edward VII assumed the throne in 1901, Britain was an unpopular country fighting an expansionist war. The Boer War began in 1899 when Britain annexed the Boer-controlled provinces of Transvaal and the Orange Free State in South Africa. The Boers were descended from Dutch settlers who had invaded South Africa before the British and had coexisted, though uneasily, with the British for decades. The discovery of diamonds and gold, however, and the increasing desire of the British to create a corridor of possession over the whole East-African coast to monopolize access to the Indian Ocean and their prized possession, India, changed British plans. The British government—fueled largely by mining corporations, especially De Beer whose head, Cecil Rhodes, was also the Prime Minister of England—began a war to take the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The war took three years to win and resulted in a terrible loss of humanity. Boer farms were burned to the ground, and women and children were rounded up into “concentration camps,” a brand-new, British invention. Disease and lack of food were so prevalent in the camps that out of 117,000 people imprisoned, 20,000 died. The war and the decision, in 1903, to import forced Chinese laborers to work the British mines deeply divided Britain and soured the world about imperialism, especially the British version, even if some of Britain’s most radical thinkers—Karl Marx included—could look on the bright side of British colonial rule: British rule, it was said, had its advantages; and besides, the rule of the other imperialist countries was far worse. Nonetheless, it might be said that while Britain won the Boer War, it began to lose the Imperialist battle. English guilt was surpassing English hubris.

Critical Overview

As early as 1922, in the first book-length study of Masefield’s poetry, the fault-finding begins. Though generally an advocate of Masefield, especially his “realism” and characterization, W. H. Hamilton’s assessment, in John Masefield: A Critical Study, of the poet’s first two books of poetry is dismissive: “Indeed it must be confessed that the best things in the book—the nearest to perfect— are the merest trifles; the pretty jingles of rime and curiosities of design like the well-known ‘Cargoes,’ which cannot boast one finite verb. Such verses, were they never so perfect, must of need be minor—mere exercises in word colouring.” Not only is the poetry of Ballads trivial, says Hamilton, but imitative, especially of Yeats: “The poems quoted and referred to show verse more restrained [than in Salt-Water Ballads] ... but still, at best, only a very skilful discipleship of other older cunning artists.” Hamilton believes that while poets must admire and study other poets, they should never imitate them, at least not in published work. By 1973, in his John Masefield’s England: A Study of the National Themes in His Work, critic Fraser Drew would steer away from all assessment of “Cargoes,” only saying that it is a “favorite anthology piece.” This, by the way, is no longer true: neither the comprehensive Harper Anthology of Poetry (1981), the Norton Anthology of English Literature (1986), nor the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1988) includes any of Masefield’s work, let alone “Cargoes.” Drew’s only remarks about the content of the poem is his observation that the three ships signify three civilizations, and that while the British coaster of “Cargoes” is Masefield’s icon of disdain, the stately clipper ship is elsewhere in Masefield an index of that Britain called “Great.” In might be noticed that, in both Hamilton and Drew, there is a near absence of interpretation, perhaps signalling that the poem is too simple to need it. In 1985, however, Neil Corcoran expresses admiration for “Cargoes” because it has “clearly imposed a self-denying ordinance on itself: it has made a canny judgment about the point at which delight, if pursued, is likely to become indulgence.” But this admiration of “Cargoes” serves primarily to set off Corcoran’s more general disdain:“... much of Masefield’s poetry is cripplingly disabled by un-selfconsciousness about language.” It appears that Hamilton’s dismissiveness of Masefield’s early work has now spread to a dislike of most of Masefield’s oeuvre. Finally there is the brief comment of June Dwyer, in her work John Masefield, that, like the comment of Drew, interprets only what is most obvious, and, like Corcoran, cites “Cargoes” as a contrast to Masefield’s poorer verse: “Avoiding both the vagueness and the regularity of his weaker verse, Masefield comments on the passing of time through the description of three cargo-laden ships from three different periods of history. The beauty and romance of the past founder against the grimy industrial present in the last stanza.” What all these critics say without quite saying it is that while “Cargoes” has value, it does so largely in contrast to most, much, or some of Masefield’s weaker work. “Cargoes,” then, appears like a tiny diamond in the rougher body of Masefield’s work—a body of work thought, unfortunately, by many critics to resemble the rougher and cheaper freight of a dirty British coaster.


Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman describes and interprets the meaning of the cargo from the three ships in Masefield’s poem.

What Do I Read Next?

  • David Cooperman and E. V. Walter’s Power and Civilization: Political Thought in the Twentieth Century, published in 1962, is an anthology of writings by some of the most important figures of the twentieth century—George San-tayana, Karl Kautski, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Herbert Marcuse, to name just a few. Its 600 pages are divided into the modern (1918-39) and the postmodern world, from World War II to the present day.
  • David Harvey’s 1990 work, The Condition of Postmodernity, investigates the relationship of space and time to flexible modes of capitalist accumulation in the last third of the twentieth century.
  • George Lukacs’s 1968 influential work, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, is a collection of writings during a period that Lukacs’s calls his “apprenticeship in Marxism.” He is especially effective at showing how the capitalist system influences all aspects of life.
  • John Masefield’s long narrative poem from 1913, Dauber: a Poem is not only a completely different example of Masefield’s poetic talents, but it is drawn from his only sea voyage—an odyssey that developed into an obsession with ships and poems about ships.
  • Masefield’s On the Spanish Main (1906) is a factual history—in a storytelling mode—of the looting expeditions of Drake and other sixteenth-century pirates operating in the West Indies.

“Cargoes” would appear to be saying little more than this: whereas the products of empire were once glorious, they are no longer. But why say it? This will be the question I will try to answer. In order to do so, I will have to force these three cargoes to speak—to tell where they came from, how they were got, who got them, and what they were used for. Only then might we understand what these cargoes represent.

The first ship rows right from the Bible’s Old Testament, Kings I. In that book, there is no mention of Nineveh, an ancient town on the Tigris River in ancient Assyria whose ruins are in what is now present-day Iraq. Nineveh was likely selected for its general historical relevance and, most important, for its contribution to the poem’s metrics. Just as there is no mention of Nineveh, the word “quin-quireme” is also absent in Kings I, but quinquireme is the name of an ancient ship with five banks of oars, which could have been similar to the kind used by Solomon, King of Israel, in the tenth century B.C. Solomon sent a fleet of ships, perhaps quinquiremes, to get gold from Ophir. No one quite knows where Ophir was located, but it is thought to have been in what is now southern Saudi Arabia. The ships from Ophir brought back a bit more than gold. For one thing, they carried Ophirian al-mug wood, now called sandalwood. Sandalwood was used to build not only the supports of Solomon’s extraordinarily lavish temple, but also to make lyres for his singers. Ivory was also brought back from Ophir. With it, Solomon made his throne, which he also overlaid with gold. But this was not enough: “The throne had six steps, and at the back of the throne was a calf’s head, and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions stood there, one on each end of a step on the six steps.” Apes and peacocks were also shipped in, but there is no mention of precisely what Solomon did with these. Two materials in the poem do not come from Ophir. Cedar came from Lebanon, not from Ophir. Solomon used a great deal of cedar to build his palace and temple. And sweet white wine seems to make no appearance at all in this section about Solomon. We might safely assume that the three “w”’s and the three consecutive accented syllables of “sweet white wine” seduced Masefield into using the words for his poem. As I briefly mentioned, much of this cargo was used for two building projects: Solomon’s temple and palace. Who built these immoderate structures? The forced labor of 183,300 men who saw their labor as a yoke, one which earned such resentment that it would later cause disruption in Israel under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. To summarize: valuable cargo from a distant land was shipped to the Kingdom of Israel, heaped upon the backs of men under the yoke of a king who used wealth and labor to glorify himself through a god he claimed had spoken to him. But even after Solomon’s death, his deeds acted on the living: Solomon’s use of forced labor to build his temple and palace later caused trouble for his son.

In the second stanza, readers find themselves on a Spanish galleon, a sailing ship used for commerce and warfare. The ship is sailing from Central America, specifically from the Isthmus of Panama—now the locale of the Panama Canal. Generally the ship is coming from the Tropics, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the West Indies— the major outposts of what would become the largest empire the earth had thus seen, the Spanish Empire. This title was due to the conquests of Her-nan Cortes, conqueror of Aztec Mexico in 1521, and Francisco Pizarro, who left from the Isthmus of Darien (now the Isthmus of Panama) and conquered Incan Peru in 1532. From Mexico and Peru came fabulous wealth: gold, silver, and the precious gems mentioned in “Cargoes.” Worth noting is that, while gold was the major booty in both Ophir and the Americas, Masefield hardly mentions it in “Cargoes,” except when it is processed into moidores, or Portuguese coins. An explanation might be that gold has only one syllable and it does not sound as exotic as the rest of the booty. Here is one description of the treasure found by Cortes in Tenochtitlan, then capital of Mexico: “The Spaniards ... saw mounds of golden ornaments and jewels and stacks of gold bars.” On one occasion, it was reported that Montezuma, Tenochtitlan’s ruler, sent green stones, probably emeralds, to Cortes as a gift. And on Cortes’s first shipment of Aztec gifts back to Charles V of Spain, was “a gold necklace set with both green and red stones and pearls and hung with gold bells, a gold bracelet; a wand or scepter girdled with gold and pearls: a wood headdress decorated with gems and golden bells....” There was reputed to be even more wealth from the Incas. When Pizarro took the Incan King Atahualpa hostage, he demanded the ransom of a room’s

“Overall, what distinguishes the coaster from the quinquireme and the galleon is that the coaster does not hide what it is: a dirty ship carrying on a dreary commerce that reflects the tawdry society that produced the ship and its ‘goods.’”

worth of gold and jewels, some of which were emeralds like those that studded the King’s robes. The loot from the Americas meant unbelievable wealth for Spain: “The precious metals arriving in Spain had by the end of [Charles V’s] reign increased ten-fold: from a yearly average of 200,000 pesos between 1516 and 1520, to 1,975,000 pesos between 1551 and 1555.” And what happened to the Indians of the Americas from the Spanish invasions? They were made into slaves or treated to near genocide from war and disease. The Indians also got Christianity. Charles V spent at least some of Cortes’s first shipment of booty on an expensive coronation in Germany where he would succeed his grandfather, Maximilian I. As in the Kingdom of Israel, the Empire of Spain grew rich off of the misery and decimation of lands and peoples: Israel enslaved its men at home (no mention is made of the Ophirians), and Spain enslaved and killed the native peoples of the Americas.

The last ship in Masefield’s brief history of civilization is a coaster, a ship of commerce operating along the coast of Britain. This motorized ship is dirty and is neither exotic like the quinquireme, nor stately like the galleon. The coal-driven ship is likely soiled because of its own smoke, the pollution from the ports at which it docked, and the rough weather—indicated by “mad March days” and “salt-caked”—through the English Channel. It might be said that while the coaster is dirty, the other ships are, in comparison, clean. Finally, the ship is operating within one country, not coming from distant lands like Ophir or the Americas. Not only are ship, weather, and route different, but so is the cargo. The British cargo is distinct in several ways. First it is bound not for kings, but for industrialists who will process it and sell it—directly or indirectly—to masses of people forced into cities because they had been formerly dispossessed of land and because they are needed to stoke the furnace of industry. The British cargo is also different from the cargoes of the past because, in and of itself, it is not valuable. It only becomes valuable through being processed and sold to many people. The cargo is not so much dirty, but the result of dirty processes involving the burning of coal and wood. Another difference is that the cargo is a combination of imported goods (tin from Nigeria and Malaya) and “home-grown” goods such as coal and iron. Lastly, the coaster’s cargo is mostly named by thudding words of two syllables, whereas most of the cargo of the other ships is composed of a mellifluous three syllables.

Overall, what distinguishes the coaster from the quinquireme and the galleon is that the coaster does not hide what it is: a dirty ship carrying on a dreary commerce that reflects the tawdry society that produced the ship and its “goods.” Victorian and Edwardian England (1837 to 1910) is the setting of “Cargoes,” a time when Britain produced—for internal use and for export—more coal, iron, and steel than any other country. Yet one third of its people lived a ghastly existence: “Conditions were so bad that it was believed they were producing degenerate physical types, anaemic mothers of rickety children, young men incapable of defending the Motherland and the Empire.” Among the hard hit were dockers, those who loaded and unloaded British coasters. Workers toiled twelve or more hours a day for subsistent wages. Miners worked dangerous jobs in isolated, dirty towns and tramps abounded, probably having come to the conclusion that they could no longer work so long and so hard for so little. The government did not help. It showed itself hostile to labor unionism, especially in the Taff-Vale Case of 1901. Laborers had little recourse but to accept their lot and do the best they could. One reason for such abjection was an entrenched class-consciousness that produced England’s version of a caste system. It was thought by the upper classes, said J. B. Priestly, that if the working masses were given more money and leisure time, there was no telling what they might do with it. Besides, the upper classes would say, workers had chosen these conditions since, if they wanted to, they could work harder and climb out of poverty. It was plain that England would have to wait until after the writing of “Cargoes” for improved social programs and working conditions for the working classes. Poor regard and miserable conditions for the people who helped produce the wealth of the British empire contributed to the early-twentieth-century decline of a dirty, hyperrational empire. The British empire was so rife with injustice that it deeply divided the people between those who wanted capital spent on more production that would produce more riches, supposedly for more people, and those who wanted some of the wealth immediately diverted to decent wages and working conditions. English society was also divided about its empire overseas, especially when it came to the Boer War (1899-1902), fought largely for the possession of diamond and gold mines that had been discovered in South Africa. The South-African countryside was decimated, concentration camps to house Boer women and children were invented (20,000 died), and, altogether, 5,774 British and 4,000 Boers were killed in the conflict. Notice here that while the British won this capitalist war of conquest, they lost more lives than the Boers.

Through the experience of England, the largest imperial power the world has ever seen, the desire for empire was now tainted. Before the British, empire had seemed a glorious undertaking—worth killing, enslavement, and the risking of one’s own countrymen. After all, there was money and glory to be had as well as souls to be saved. After Britain, however, the cost of directly maintaining an empire became too great, both in money and lives. The British coaster is the most ignominious ship in “Cargoes,” but it is also the most important: the British empire destroyed not only distant peoples and distant lands, as in the case of Spain, but its own people and land, as in the case of ancient Israel.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer characterizes Masefield’s poem as “a political examination of human development as seen through artifacts.”

John Masefield’s “Cargoes” is a unique poem that implements meter and language to convey a gradual sense of diminution through time. The world, as the poem suggests, is a victim of progress, of a reductio ad absurdum where values are shrinking. For Masefield, a passionate observer of maritime experiences and traditions, an age is weighed and measured in the scope of human history by what its participants choose to convey over great distances. The major question that the poem raises is why Masefield is so fascinated with the manifests of these ships? Are we to perceive the cargoes as metaphors for worth, importance and values? The poem examines three different epochs—the Ancient, the Modern and the contemporary-and, by process of comparison, exposes progress and human development as a question of values. At first glance, what was once stately, opulent, and rich is bathetically shrinking, lowered and diminished so that the poem is not only a commentary on history but an indictment of progress. But the ultimate picture that the poem paints, a political examination of human development as seen through artifacts, suggests a much different reading to the poem.

Structurally, Masefield has divided the poem into three very distinct—both in terms of content and meter—sections. The first section deals with the ancient world, the second with what can be loosely termed the “modern” world (the term modern here applied to anything after the Medieval era), and the last with the contemporary world. By dividing the poem into these three period units, Masefield is very subtly hinting at a much broader literary theme: the debates between the ancients and the moderns—a line of argument that was used by such writers as Machiavelli in The Prince and Swift in The Battle of the Books to measure the changes and development in human knowledge over the centuries. In the battle of the ancients versus the moderns, the question is always who is better and who is wiser. The stanzas, each self-contained and with their only segues and connections based on the theme of “cargoes,” are meant to raise comparisons simply through the juxtaposing of periods. The addition of a third stanza about the contemporary world underscores the twentieth-century ideal to reinvent all ideas and to question all aspects of the past, whether ancient or modern. The relationship between the third stanza and the first two highlights the discrepancies between the twentieth century and all previous eras; the result is a world that is absurdly far different from anything that has gone before. The implication of this structure underlying the poem, at first glance, is that time is a bathetic, reductive process and that things are heading downhill at a very rapid and unstoppable pace.

Within the poem, the process of thematic reduction is expressed by Masefield through the use of three metrical variations. The stanzas, each one representing a journey that defines one of the three eras, literally become faster and faster sounding as time progresses and riches fade. For Masefield, who throughout his poetry echoes the themes of preservation and even repugnance at the impositions and devaluations that modern times impose on the world, “Cargoes” is both an evocation and a demonstration of his poetic thesis.

The first ancient, leisurely journey is set approximately in classical times and is undertaken on a “Quinquireme” or Roman galley “with five files of oarsmen on each side” between “Ophir” in North Africa to “Nineveh” in the Middle East. The opening line of this first journey evokes a feeling of slowness. The slowness of the opening line is achieved sonically through the use of ionic (major) feet—metrical measures in which each foot is composed of two heavy stresses followed by two light stresses. The ionic (major), as a measure, is graceful, archaic, and leisurely, with the two leading, heavy stresses echoing the solemnity of a spondee, but without the unrelieved gravity that the funereal and drumlike spondee implies. As meters go, it is almost ritualistic in the tonal connotations it carries. By establishing the ionic (major) as the initial and shaping measure of the opening stanza of “Cargoes,” Masefield is setting the reader up for the gradual rise in the tempo of the stanzas and for the surprising metrical shifts and variations that hallmark each succeeding stanza.

The second stanza, in contrast, opens with a line composed of iambic feet. The iamb is the rhythm of poetic speech and moves with an elegant pacing that is usually in equated in poetry with stateliness, eloquence, persuasion, address, and precision. The iambic foot is also the measure of the Renaissance—the meter of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets—and it is no coincidence that Masefield chooses to frame his Renaissance journey of a “Spanish galleon ... / Dipping through the Tropics” in the iambic foot. In a subtle play between meter and image, the reader is reminded that the iambic foot “dips” from measure to measure with the light stress followed succinctly by a heavy stress. The sonic movement in the second stanza is faster, but it is far from the heady and breathtaking pace set by the third and final stanza of the poem.

The third stanza opens with a line that sets a tone of mindlessness and hurriedness established

“... more than simply a clever play with meters and sound, ‘Cargoes’ is a very specific satire, perhaps even an invective, against Masefield’s own society.”

through the use of ionic (minor) meter, a reversal of the opening stanza. The ionic (minor) foot is composed of two light stresses followed by two heavy stresses. It is giddy, quick, and almost frivolous in its tone, and it conveys a character of inconsequential lightness and flimsiness. The ionic (minor) foot contains the image of the “Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,” a tramp steamer that hurriedly plows “the Channel” in the “mad March days.” The suggestion here is that speed is burning everything up, and that the world is a place not of precious preservation, but of mass consumption reliant on coal from the Tyne region in northern England. The overall impression is that of a world that is frenzied, sooty, and ugly. The meter in this final stanza supports the bathetic notion that the cargoes of the modern world are not gold or spices or jewels but are “pig-lead” (essentially ingots that are going to be melted into other metals to debase the stronger base metals into alloys for mass production), iron-ware (a kind of all-purpose pottery for rough, daily use) and “cheap tin trays.”

But more than simply a clever play with meters and sound, “Cargoes” is a very specific satire, perhaps even an invective, against Masefield’s own society. In these three portraits that examine the values and the valuables of humanity through the ages, Masefield is questioning the nature of progress as it relates to humanity and the shifting perspectives of what is deemed important. Here, the key to understanding the underlying statement of the poem, all metrical pyrotechnics aside, is in an examination of the ships that he chooses as the focus for each stanza. Each ship is a metaphor that masks a very different truth from the surface reality and the sonic implications that the poem presents on first reading. Through a powerful sense of allusion through very controlled and subtle understatement, the cargoes of the poem operate almost as miniature allegories on the nature of materialism and its relation to human beings.

The “Quinquireme,” or Roman galley, was powered by five tiers, or rows, of slaves. The ship is slow and the meter is almost ritualistic. However, the reality is that the cargo is not simply the exotic items of the manifest observed by the lines of the opening stanza. The “cargo” is also the slaves who are driving the vessel. The suggestion here is that beneath the splendor and preciousness of material goods and exotic items such as the “sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine,” there is a far darker reality where human beings are valued less than inanimate items. Politically, man, in the opening stanza, is a slave to materialism. Masefield is making a wry and subtle comment on the nature of materialism—that material beauty is often built upon ignoble principles—through an image that is at once deceiving and elliptical, yet he makes no outward statement of the issue. A reading public reared on naval terminology and history, however, would easily see through the image and establish it as an allegory on tyranny.

The “Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus” is a pleasant-enough image at first glance. The underlying truth, however, is far different. As an Englishman and a seafarer, Masefield’s unspoken reality of the galleon is that it is a target for plunder, a vessel of the Spanish Main that is laden with “diamonds, / Emeralds, amethysts, / Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.” This cargo manifest of gemstones, spices, and precious metals is essentially the stuff of plunder, perhaps goods that are themselves about to be plundered. Here the allegorical aspect is that material goods are the result of plunder and that the world operates on the “dog-eat-dog” principle of one group taking from another.

In the final stanza, Masefield is locating his action and his ship in the world of democratic consumerism. No longer are human beings pulling on the oars or plundering each other; they are the masters of their own destiny, “butting” ahead as if stepping out of line or pushing against their own limitations. There is a wonderful undertone in the final stanza of liberation, of heady excitement and unlimited potential. The use of the month of “March,” coupled with the adjective “mad,” suggests that the notion of progress, which binds up so much of the industrial world’s consciousness, is actually a “mad march” toward some indefinite, chaotic goal. The material goods are now shared by all. The cargo is no longer exotic, but it is utilitarian and of mass appeal. The liberation into this world of “cheap” consumer goods masquerading as items of either beauty or artistic worth is bought at the price of the materials that make for the fabric of wealth, power, and civilization. This shift in values and the value of valuables signals a new “mass” era that, on the surface, is “cheap” but that underneath is of consummate reward to human kind.

So, the question that emerges for the reader when confronting Masefield’s cargoes is a simple one: should we establish value in material items or in ideals? The poem is a political statement that does not make an open statement. It is an allegory in which the reader must penetrate the purpose of the poem and examine its contents and weigh the value of those contents as if looking inside a ship, peering down into the hold, and wondering why the vessel is transporting what it carries and where it is going. By leaving the poem open-ended, by not commenting upon the reason for writing about the cargoes or the destiny and use of such materials, Masefield is being more than merely descriptive. He is offering an allegory. What should be remembered about allegories is that they leave their completion in the hands of the reader, and it is the reader who captains the extended metaphor to its inevitable destination or conclusion.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.


Alvarez, Manuel Fernandez, Charles V: Elected Emperor and Hereditary Ruler, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Dwyer, June, John Masefield, New York: Ungar, 1987.

Hamilton, W. H., John Masefield: A Critical Study, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1969.

Johnson, William Weber, Cortes, Boston: Little Brown, 1975.

Masefield, John, Poems, New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Priestly, J. B., The Edwardians, New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Read, Donald, Edwardian England 1901-15: Society and Politics, London: Harrap, 1972.

Smith, Constance Babbington, John Masefield: A Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Spark, Muriel, John Masefield, London: Hutchinson, 1992.

von Habsburg, Otto, Charles V, New York: Praeger, 1967.

For Further Study

Drew, Fraser, John Masefield’s England: A Study of the National Themes in His Work, Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1973.

Some of the national themes explored in Masefield’s extensive oeuvre are England’s heritage, countryside, people, games and pastimes, ships, sailors, and soldiers. There is also an extensive bibliography divided into categories.

Hearnshaw, F. J. C., ed., Edwardian England: A.D. 1901-1910, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.

This anthology contains an overview of the period, an entry about King Edward VII, and essays on the politics, religion, literature, and science of the period. There is also an interesting essay on empires.

Marx, Karl, Capital: Volume One, New York: Vintage, 1976.

Marx’s first of three volumes from 1867 is itself over a thousand pages. This volume studies capitalism through commodities and money, the transformation of money into capital, the production and accumulation of surplus value, and wages.

O’Day, Alan, ed., The Edwardian Age: Conflict and Stability 1900-1914, London: Macmillan, 1979.

O’Day’s anthology contains exclusively political and social essays on such topics as the period’s standard of living, the Labour Party, the family, and the role of women. An especially relevant article is on the coming of World War I.

Smith, Adam, (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of) The Wealth of Nations, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Smith’s work of one thousand plus pages from 1976 rests on a solid belief that humanity is moved most effectively by self-interest. Such topics include land, labor, stocks, and the progress of opulence in different nations.