A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts
Will be reduced to lists of dates and facts
Best remembered today for the immortal lines, “I must go down to the seas again” and his two books for children: The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), John Masefield was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1930-1967. He was born in Ledbury on 1 June 1878, the third of six children. An idyllically happy childhood was rudely interrupted by the death of his mother in 1885, after which his father’s health broke down too. In 1891 the family became orphans and were taken in by a childless uncle and aunt, who he grew to loathe. These early experiences haunted Masefield and influenced his work throughout his life.
Disregarding his love of reading, his family enrolled him at the age of 13 on the school-ship Conway to train for a career in the Navy. He qualified as a senior petty officer in 1894 and was apprenticed to a four-masted barque sailing from Cardiff to Iquique in Chile via Cape Horn. On the voyage he was violently sea sick and suffered from sunstroke. He had a nervous breakdown on arrival, was hospitalised and then repatriated to England. Forced to return to North America to join another ship, he deserted upon arrival. Aged 17, at a time of economic depression, he embarked on a life of vagrancy in North America, working variously as a bar-hand in New York and in a carpet factory at Yonkers.
During this time his love of poetry grew. He spent his spare time reading and made his first attempts to write himself. He returned to England in 1897, where, plagued with ill health, he went to work in London as a bank clerk. His first poem was published in 1899. A year later he was invited to dine with W.B. Yeats and subsequently became a member of Yeats' circle.
Laurence Binyon (later famous for “They Shall not Grow Old as We Grow Old...") introduced him to Constance de la Cherois Crommelin. John and Constance married in 1903. They had two children, Judith and Lewis. Masefield needed funds to support his family and alongside his poetry turned to journalism, taking a job on the Manchester Guardian. He also began to write prose and plays and had several books to his name before he shot to fame in 1911 with the appearance of The Everlasting Mercy, a long narrative poem full of raw emotion and strong language, which both shocked and aroused controversy.
Masefield became a hospital orderly in France at the outbreak of the First World War, and took charge of a motor boat ambulance service at Gallipoli in 1915. In 1916 he undertook a series of lectures in America to raise support for the allied cause.
After the war the Masefields moved to Boars Hill near Oxford where John’s reputation continued to grow with the publication of further long narrative poems including Reynard the Fox (1919) and Right Royal (1920). He started an amateur dramatic company, producing plays by contemporaries including Laurence Binyon and Thomas Hardy.
In 1930, following the death of Robert Bridges, Masefield was appointed Poet Laureate. At the time it was a lifetime appointment. For the next thirty-seven years he continued to publish poetry, prose and plays. He also diligently composed the requisite poem for important national events. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1935.
Tragedy struck again when his son Lewis was killed in 1942. Constance, eleven years his senior, predeceased him early in 1960. Masefield himself died in 1967. His ashes are interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.