The first two lines are not remarkable as poetry. Many of us might have turned them out on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The same goes for "the wind's song" and maybe even the white sail. But "the wheel's kick" gives us a hint of reality -- and perhaps we begin to realize that this poem is a heartfelt one from the poet's own life and experiences.
Masefield was very much a poet of the people, shaped in that "school of hard knocks" we hear about, rather than by a sequestered life at Oxford or Cambridge. He was born in 1878 in the rural village of Ledbury, in Hertfordshire, the son of a lawyer. He went to sea (never far away in England) and spent several years before the mast. That included a perilous trip "around the Horn," which became the setting of one of his long poems, Dauber. The hard knocks also included a stint as a dishwasher at O'Connor's Saloon in New York City.
This was a strange beginning for a future poet laureate, but Masefield became famous as early as 1911 with the publication of The Everlasting Mercy. The poem shocked many with its frankness of language and subject, with its use of the vernacular and a depiction of English country life that sometimes strayed far from the charming scenes we associate with, say, the paintings of Arnold Constable. The poem begins with a grueling boxing bout, a grudge match that fits its rural background and setting quite realistically.
What is the poem about? To put it most simply, it is about redemption.It is in the same tradition as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner or Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. These stories revolve around a hero whose spiritual emptiness leads to failure and suffering until, through an experience of grace, an illumination or "epiphany" leads to his redemption or rebirth.
Coleridge's mariner unthinkingly kills an albatross, a near-sacred bird in the lore of the sea, because he sees creatures of the sea as repellent: "Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea." It is only after catastrophe is visited upon the crew and the ship that he sees differently, and his redemption can begin:
In The Everlasting Mercy, the main character Saul Kane (I leave it to you to consider the implications of the name) begins as a liar, cheat, and drunken carouser, albeit not without saving grace. He goes through a series of encounters that bring that grace to the fore and lead him to an overpowering love for nature, the creation and mankind.
Masefield, especially in his earlier poetry, reached for a wider audience than most of his predecessors, who, he felt "belonged...to the camp of exclusion," using "a language which the multitudes seldom spoke, and often could not understand." The writing of narrative poetry was in itself an effort to appeal to more readers. The telling of stories about people would bring poetry back to the real world. In 1925 Masefield wrote, in his essay With the Living Voice, "Those poets who shrink from the life about them, however skilfully they invent or imagine, will appeal, in the main, not to the world, but to those few who. . . cannot face the world." He went on to write two more long narrative poems, Dauber, in 1913 and Reynard the Fox in 1919. He died in 1967.
Tucson, Arizona, 1998