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John Edward Masefield, OM, (1 June 1878 – 12 May 1967) was an English poet and writer, and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death in 1967. He is remembered as the author of the classic children's novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, nineteen other novels (including Captain Margaret, Multitude and Solitude and Sard Harker), and many memorable poems, including "The Everlasting Mercy" and "Sea-Fever", from his anthology Saltwater Ballads.


Early life

Masefield was born in Ledburymarker, in Herefordshiremarker, to Caroline and George Masefield, a solicitor. His mother died giving birth to his sister when Masefield was only six, and he went to live with his aunt. His father died soon after. After an unhappy education at the King's Schoolmarker in Warwickmarker (now known as Warwick School), where he was a boarder between 1888 and 1891, he left to board the HMS Conwaymarker, both to train for a life at sea, and to break his addiction to reading, of which his aunt thought little. He spent several years aboard this ship and found that he could spend much of his time reading and writing. It was aboard the Conway that Masefield’s love for story-telling grew. While on the ship, he listened to the stories told about sea lore. He continued to read, and felt that he was to become a writer and story teller himself.

In 1894, Masefield boarded the Gilcruix, destined for Chilemarker, this first voyage bringing him the experience of sea sickness and a taste of fierce weather. He recorded his experiences while sailing through the extreme weather: it was obvious from his journal entries that he delighted in viewing flying fish, porpoises, and birds, and was awed by the beauty of nature, including a rare sighting of a nocturnal rainbow on his voyage. Upon reaching Chile, Masefield suffered from sunstroke and was hospitalized. He eventually returned home to England as a passenger aboard a steam ship.

In 1895, Masefield returned to sea on a windjammer destined for New York Citymarker. However, the urge to become a writer and the hopelessness of life as a sailor overtook him, and in New York, he deserted ship. He lived as a vagrant for several months, before returning to New York City, he did many odd jobs where he was able to find work as an assistant to a bar keeper.

For the next two years, Masefield was employed in a carpet factory, where long hours were expected and conditions were far from ideal. He purchased up to 20 books a week, and devoured both modern and classical literature. His interests at this time were diverse and his reading included works by Du Maurier, Dumas, Thomas Browne, Hazlitt, Dickens, Kipling, and R. L. Stevenson. Chaucer also became very important to him during this time, as well as poetry by Keats and Shelley.

When Masefield was 23, he met his future wife, Constance Crommelin, who was 35. Educated in classics and English Literature, and a mathematics teacher, Constance was a perfect match for Masefield despite the difference in age. The couple had two children (Judith, born in 1904, and Lewis, in 1910).

By 24, Masefield’s poems were being published in periodicals and his first collected works, "Salt-Water Ballads" was published. "Sea Fever" appeared in this book. Masefield then wrote two novels, "Captain Margaret" (1908) and "Multitude and Solitude" (1909). In 1911, after a long drought of poem writing, he composed "The Everlasting Mercy".

"The Everlasting Mercy" was the first of his narrative poems, and within the next year, Masefield produced two more narrative poems, "The Widow in the Bye Street" and "Dauber". As a result of the writing of these three poems, Masefield became widely known to the public and was praised by critics, and in 1912, the annual Edmund de Polignac prize was bestowed upon Masefield.

World War I to appointment as Poet Laureate

When World War I began, though old enough to be exempted from military service, Masefield joined the staff of a British hospital for French soldiers, Hopital Temporaire d'Arc-en-Barrois, Haute-Marne, France, serving briefly in 1915 as a hospital orderly, later publishing his own account of his experiences.

Masefield in 1913
After returning home, Masefield was invited to the United Statesmarker on a three month lecture tour. Although Masefield's primary purpose was to lecture on English Literature, a secondary purpose was to collect information on the mood and views of Americans regarding the war in Europe. When he returned to England, he submitted a report to the British Foreign Office, and suggested that he be allowed to write a book about the failure of the allied efforts in the Dardanelles, which possibly could be used in the US in order to counter what he thought was German propaganda there. As a result, Masefield wrote Gallipoli. This work was a success, encouraging the British people, and lifting them somewhat from the disappointment they had felt as a result of the Allied losses in the Dardanelles.

Due to the success of his wartime writings, Masefield met with the head of British Military Intelligence in France and was asked to write an account of the Battle of the Somme. Although Masefield had grand ideas for his book, he was denied access to the official records, and therefore, what was to be his preface to the book was published as "The Old Front Line", a description of the geography of the Somme area.

In 1918, Masefield returned to America on his second lecture tour. Masefield spent much of his time speaking and lecturing to American soldiers waiting to be sent to Europe. These speaking engagements were very successful, and on one occasion, a battalion of all Black soldiers danced and sang for him after his talk. During this tour, he matured as a public speaker and realized his ability to touch the emotions of his audience with his style of speaking, learning to speak publicly with his own heart, rather than from dry scripted speeches. Towards the end of his trip, both Yalemarker and Harvardmarker Universities conferred honorary Doctorates of Letters on him.

Masefield entered the 1920s as an accomplished and respected writer. His family was able to settle in a somewhat rural setting, not far from Oxford, and Masefield took up beekeeping, goat-herding and poultry-keeping.

Masefield continued to meet with success, the 1923 edition of "Collected Poems" selling approximately 80,000 copies, quite a lot for a book of poetry. Another threesome of narrative poems was produced by Masefield early in this decade. The first was Reynard The Fox, a poem that has been critically compared with works of Geoffrey Chaucer. This was followed by Right Royal and King Cole, poems of beauty and movement, with the relationship of humanity and nature emphasized. While Reynard is the best known of these, all met with acclaim.

In 1921, Masefield received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Oxford University, and in 1923, organized the Oxford Recitations, an annual contest whose purpose was "to discover good speakers of verse and to encourage ‘the beautiful speaking of poetry.’" The Recitations were seen as a success given the impressive numbers of contest applicants, the promotion of natural speech in poetical recitations, and the number of people learning how to listen to poetry. Masefield began to question however, whether the Recitations should continue as a contest, believing that the event should become more of a festival. In 1929, Masefield broke with the contest concept, and the Recitations came to an end.

Masefield also wrote a very large number of dramatic pieces during this time. Most of his dramas were based on themes of Christianity, and in 1928, his "The Coming of Christ" was the first play to be performed in an English Cathedral since the Middle Ages.

Later years

In 1930, due to the death of Robert Bridges, a new Poet Laureate was needed. Many felt that Rudyard Kipling was a likely choice. However, upon the recommendation of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, King George V appointed Masefield, who remained in office until his death in 1967. The only person to remain in the office for a longer period was Tennyson.

In 1932, Masefield was commissioned to write a poem to be set to music by the Master of the King's Musick, Sir Edward Elgar and performed by choir and orchestra at the unveiling of the Queen Alexandra Memorial by the King on 8 June 1932: this was the ode "So many true Princesses who have gone".

Although the requirements of Poet Laureate had changed, and those in the office were rarely required to write verse for special occasions, Masefield took his appointment seriously and produced a large quantity of verse. Poems composed in his official capacity were sent to The Times. Masefield’s humility was shown by his inclusion of a stamped envelope with each submission so that his composition could be returned if it were found unacceptable for publication.

After his appointment, Masefield received many honours, including the Order of Merit by King George V. He was the recipient of many more honorary degrees from Universities throughout the United Kingdom, and in 1937 he was elected President of the Society of Authors.

Masefield encouraged the continued development of English literature and poetry, and began the annual awarding of the Royal Medals for Poetry for a first or second published edition of poetry by a poet under the age of 35. Additionally, his speaking engagements were calling him further away, often on much longer tours, yet he still produced a veritable amount of work.

It was not until about the age of 70, that Masefield slowed his pace due to illness. But even then, he continued to learn new things, and took a greater interest in classical music.In 1960, Constance died at 93, after a long illness. Masefield was constantly at Constance’s side, and although her death was heartrending to him, he had spent a very tiring year watching the woman he adored die. He continued his duties faithfully as Poet Laureate, and even his other literary works continued. His last published book, "In Glad Thanksgiving", was published when he was 88 years old.

On 12 May 1967, John Masefield died, after having suffered through a spread of gangrene up his leg. According to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes placed in Poets’ Cornermarker in Westminster Abbeymarker. Later, the following verse was discovered, written by Masefield, addressed to his ‘Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns’:

:Let no religious rite be done or read
:In any place for me when I am dead,
:But burn my body into ash, and scatter
:The ash in secret into running water,
:Or on the windy down, and let none see;
:And then thank God that there’s an end of me.

In 1977, Folkways Records released an album of his poetry, including The Western Hudson Shore, and read by Masefield himself.. In 2007 the pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon opened a pub in New Ferrymarker, Wirral, with the name John Masefield. It caused a certain amount of uproar when opened due to the rather unfortunate similarity of the likeness of Masefield used on the sign to that of Adolf Hitler.


This is not an exhaustive list. For a full (and recent) bibliography refer to Errington, Philip W., John Masefield - The 'Great Auk' of English Literature - A Bibliography, The British Library / Oak Knoll Press, 2004



  • Captain Margaret (1908)
  • Multitude and Solitude (1909)
  • Martin Hyde: The Duke’s Messenger (1910)
  • Lost Endeavour (Nelson, 1910).
  • The Street of Today (1911)
  • Jim Davis (Wells Gardner, 1911).
  • The Dream (MacMillan, 1922) Illustrated by Judith Masefield.
  • Sard Harker (Heinemann, 1924)
  • ODTAA (1926)
  • The Midnight Folk (1927)
  • The Hawbucks (1929)
  • The Bird of Dawning (Heinemann, 1933).
  • The Taking of the Gry (1934)
  • The Box of Delights: or When the Wolves Were Running (1935)
  • Victorious Troy: or The Harrying Angel (1935)
  • Eggs and Baker (1936)
  • The Square Pegg: or The Gun Fella (1937)
  • Dead Ned (1938)
  • Live and Kicking Ned (1939)
  • Basilissa: A Tale of the Empress Theodora (1940)
  • Conquer: A Tale of the Nika Rebellion in Byzantium (1941)
  • Badon Parchments (1947)

Non-fiction and autobiographical

  • Sea Life in Nelson's Time (1905)
  • The Conway: From her Foundation to the Present Day (1933)
  • "Gallipoli"
  • "The Old Front Line"
  • Grace Before Ploughing (Heinemann, 1966)

Popular culture

  • Perhaps the most famous Masefield quotation is from "Sea-Fever": "All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by."
    • Besides being used in many other written works, this quotation was also referenced in the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Though not directly stated to be so, it hearkens back to a conversation between Kirk and Dr. McCoy in the original Star Trek series episode "The Ultimate Computer". The scene in Star Trek V opens with Kirk quoting Masefield, and McCoy incorrectly stating that it was a quote by Melville. This precipitates a rather amusing argument between "Bones" and Spock, who correctly identifies the author.
    • Lines from "Sea-Fever" are also referenced in Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night. In Episode 3 ("The Hungry And The Hunted"), Dan Rydell misquotes the first and eighth lines of the poem. The characters then argue about whether the poem was written by Thoreau, Wordsworth, Whitman, Byron, Dylan Thomas, or "Slim" Whitman (the last being Casey McCall's idea of a joke). Neither the poem's title nor the correct poet is ever identified.
    • The quotation was used in the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The line was spoken by Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka) before the psychedelic boat trip down the chocolate river.


  • In November 2007, a Wirral pub named in Masefield's honour had complaints because some locals claim its sign looks like Adolf Hitler. Locals have nicknamed the John Masefield in New Ferrymarker "The Adolf" because of the sign's resemblance to the Nazi leader. Seanie Walsh, who manages the pub, said he would not be dictated to and refused to change the picture: "That is what he looked like so the sign is to stay."

  • A high school in Ledbury, Herefordshire is named after him.

  • The library/IT building at the school which Masefield attended, Warwick Schoolmarker, is named after him, being called the 'Masefield Centre'.


  1. John Masefield: A Biographical Sketch
  2. Early Life
  3. Middle Life
  4. Later Life
  5. John Masefield Reads His Poetry

Secondary works

  • Peter Webster, 'George Bell, John Masefield and "The Coming of Christ": context and significance', Humanitas. The Journal of the George Bell Institute, 10;2 (2009). Available online in SAS-Space

External links

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