Cargoes is a poem taken from John Masefield’s 1910 collection, Ballads and Poems. I set the poem out in full below:
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.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Masefield is perhaps best known for his earlier collection, Sea Fever, published in 1902. Masefield was a poet of the sea, as well as a playwright and successful novelist. He served as a volunteer in the Great War, and eventually became poet laureate (a post with perhaps more credibility then than today, though I find the very concept of poet laureate distinctly odd). Today, Masefield is perhaps better known in the US than in his native England, it seems his work is often used as a set text for English courses in US schools.
In this poem, Masefield describes three different vessels, and their respective cargoes. Two of the ships are rather mythical in nature (though ships of their kind certainly existed), the third is distinctly quotidian for the time in which he wrote. He creates a continuity of experience, a continuity arguably also of romance, and includes within that continuity the ship of his own day with its industrial raw materials.
One could read the third stanza as an ironic counterpoint to the first two, those ships laden with treasures and the contemporary one with dross. I’m not persuaded that’s correct though. Rather, I think Masefield seeks to evoke a timelessness, a universality of maritime experience. The cargoes change, the ships (and more importantly, the sea) remain. Still, it is true that there were ships of his day that carried cargoes of great value and he chose not to describe one such, that I read as him putting the humble vessel within the tradition of the greater ones.
Structurally the poem is reasonably interesting, there is an almost chant-like effect to it, a clear use of rhythm. The poem ebbs and flows, and I do not think this is chance (is anything in poetry ever chance?). By the third stanza, the use of hyphens for me quickens the pace, as we come into industrialisation and a new and different world to those that passed before.
It’s a hugely romantic poem, not in the technical sense, but in the emotional one. I can certainly see why US teachers might set it to their charges, it’s evocative and fairly easily analysed, with sufficient strangeness though to give them something to discuss in class. For many of those students, this probably forms one of the few poems they will ever know, as for most people the only knowledge they have of poetry is that they studied at school. If you are only going to know a few poems though, this isn’t a bad one to have among that number.
I don’t intend to discuss poetry often on this blog, I’m frankly poorly qualified to do so, but I may on occasion when the mood takes me quote a poem and note what I can from it. Hopefully, with practice, what I can note will increase, poetry is dense stuff and reading it is like reading a foreign language, it takes some practice before it starts becoming at all clear.