The archive of John Masefield is now available

On the tote bag that you can purchase from Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford’s centrally located Broad Street, there is a poem by John Masefield:

I seek few treasures, except books, the tools
Of those celestial souls the world calls fools.
Happy the morning giving time to stop
An hour at once in Basil Blackwell’s shop
There, in the Broad, within whose booky house
Half of England’s scholars nibble books or browse.

Black and white portrait of John Masefield by Elliott & Fry, 1910s, National Portrait Gallery [NPG x82495], CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Deed

John Masefield by Elliott & Fry, 1910s, NPG x82495, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Deed

Masefield, whose archive catalogue is now online, was Poet Laureate for thirty-seven years, and wrote many collections of poems, adventure novels, children’s novels, and plays. And yet when I asked in Blackwell’s out of curiosity whether I could purchase a copy of his poems, I was met with quizzical looks. Few had heard his name, and his works are not stocked. During my time as an intern for the Bodleian Library’s Archives and Modern Manuscripts department, I have learned a great deal not just about archiving, the diligence required, and the many departments involved – conservation, rare books, digital archiving, web archiving – but I have also discovered much about the man behind the tote bag.

While Masefield might be regarded as a traditional English poet, his route into poetry was by no means traditional. His mother died when he was seven-years old and his father suffered a mental health crisis, so Masefield – known as ‘Jack’ to his five siblings – grew up in the Herefordshire countryside with his aunt and uncle. He went to Warwick School before joining HMS Conway as a merchant marine. In 1894, he sailed to Chile. He jumped ship in New York and travelled rough across the United States, Kerouac-style, working as a barman in Greenwich Village and as a factory worker in Yonkers, before being shipped home as a DBS – a ‘distressed British seaman’ – ‘with about six pounds and a revolver’, determined either to get a job or to shoot himself.

It’s a great relief, then, that he acquired a position as a clerk and began writing seriously, producing the extensive (and unfortunately damp-damaged) archive that I have spent the past month sifting through and cataloguing. The Salt-Water Ballads (1902), his first collection of verse, was a success, and it is clear that he preferred writing about the sea than sailing on it. The collection contained his most famous poem, ‘Sea-Fever’: ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.’ He was a real-life Ishmael from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Due to the popularity of his first collection and an introduction to W.B. Yeats in 1901, Masefield became a full-time writer and entered the literary world. In the following decades, he continued writing and publishing verse collections, narrative poems, and even drama – many of which were religious plays. He was also a prolific novelist for most of his life and wrote adventure novels such as Sard Harker (1924) and ODTAA (1926) – which brilliantly means ‘One Damn Thing After Another’ – and children’s books: The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935) have become classics and remain some of his only works left in print.

Handwritten list of Oxford Recitations office holders, including Constance Masefield

Handwritten list of Oxford Recitations office holders, including Constance Masefield

But there are several things the collection teaches us about Masefield that feature less prominently in his biography. The first is that he was a family man, immensely proud of his children, and collaborated artistically with his wife and his daughter. In 1903, he married Constance de la Cherois Crommelin (1866-1960), with whom he founded and organised the ‘Oxford Recitations’, a competition which encouraged the ‘beautiful speaking of verse’ and ran from 1923-1929 in the Examination Schools on Oxford’s High Street. Every year, both John and Constance Masefield sat on the judging panel. Constance had been educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Masefield was careful to respect his wife’s intelligence, autonomy, and contribution to the ‘Recitations’. In an autograph draft of the programme, for example, he crosses out ‘Mrs John Masefield’ and writes ‘Constance Masefield’ instead when listing his wife as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer.

Their daughter, Judith Masefield, also competed in the ‘Recitations’ – but perhaps to dispel any rumours of bias, she did not win (Dep. d. 281). Judith wrote poetry of her own, which Masefield nestled amongst his drafts (Dep. c. 306), valuing his daughter’s creativity as he had valued his wife’s contribution. Music and poetry was a family affair, and their son, Lewis Masefield, was also a talented musician. Masefield proudly kept the Rugby School List from the 1928 Summer Term which lists his son’s name as the winner of a music prize. Sadly, Lewis would be killed in action in Africa during the Second World War, but Judith looked after Masefield in his final years. She supervised the internment of his ashes in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner upon his death in 1967 and deposited his collection with the Bodleian in 1968.

Play programme for the play 'The Two Angry Women Of Abingdon' from the Oxford Summer Diversions, 1939

Play programme from the Oxford Summer Diversions, 1939

The rich collection also informs us of his deep connection with Oxford. He was a man without whom Oxford might not be the same – which is a convoluted way of saying that he was a core member of the city’s artistic and academic community, added to the fact that he lived nearby in Abingdon for most of his life. In 1919, he wrote a letter to The Times asking for government funds to found a ‘small repertory theatre’ in Oxford which might aid young men hoping to kick start their careers in theatre – and provide respite from the woes of a newly post-war Britain (Dep. d. 278). Triumphing the importance of the arts, the letter is remarkably similar in tone to the campaigns made during Covid to ensure that creative institutions in the UK were recognised for their contributions to public life and received the funding they deserved.

With Nevill Coghill, he also founded the ‘Oxford Diversions’, a series of plays, ballets, poetry recitations, and music recitals that took place over three consecutive summers (1937-1939) in college gardens (unless, as the instructions stipulate, it rained). The low ticket prices suggest these performances were intended for all, not just members of the university. Despite never studying officially at Oxford University, he was awarded an honorary degree in the 1950s.

Naval memorabilia and ephemera from the John Masefield archive, 1963, n.d.

Naval memorabilia and ephemera from the John Masefield archive, 1963, n.d.

Another amusing detail about Masefield we can learn from his archive is that he never stopped being obsessed with ships. As the opening lines of ‘Sea-Fever’ suggest, he had a longing for the sea which never abated. Many of the miscellaneous boxes contain Navy memorabilia, and there are extensive drafts and typescripts of non-fiction works on eighteenth-century pirates and on the ‘Mast and Yard, with their Gear’ (Dep. c. 315/1, Dep. c. 315/2). We can perhaps be grateful however that he spared us the publication of these works.

We can learn much about his writing process – and he kept evidence of every stage. While tying and organising (sometimes not so neatly) his early autograph drafts into folders, he would send his typescripts and page proofs to local Oxford binders to have them bound in volumes. He was reluctant to throw his own writing away, in any form and from any stage of the publishing process. And he produced lots of it. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests he wrote too much, but the appropriate quota of writing over a sixty-year career is difficult to establish. He kept manuscripts, typescripts, page proofs, galley proofs, and even the binding specimens for The Midnight Folk, which are blank volumes with sample covers (Dep. e. 135). His unusual journey into the literary world, guided by the enigmatic Yeats and Synge, ensured Masefield always remained fascinated by and tuned into the publishing experience. The beautiful decorative bindings of Reynard the Fox suggest pride in a career that was of his own making (Dep. c. 337). He would correspond with his publishers over errata and liaise with agents about film rights, present at every step of the way, a seafarer, enjoying the publishing voyage. In learning about his writing process, we therefore learn about the man: relentlessly fascinated, humble, careful, and proud.

Opening pages of a translation of two of Masefield poems into Chinese by O.S.P. Yu,1932 (Dep. c. 338)

Opening pages of a translation of two Masefield poems into Chinese by O.S.P. Yu, 1932 (Dep. c. 338)

There are more intriguing items in the archive too: he was sent tributes from around the world, including a rather embarrassingly bad poem from Douglas Steuart (Dep. d. 304), a copy of a book from his ‘friend’ L. Conrad Hartley (Masefield failed to cut the locks, showing that he never read it (Dep. e. 138)), and even a translation of two of his poems into Chinese by O.S.P. Yu from 1932 (Dep. c. 338).

Further examination and research into the script and into this translator has unearthed an account published by Shipeng Yu in the Anhui University Journal which details his visit to Oxford and Cambridge. It is likely that the manuscript is Yu’s own handwriting, and that he presented it to Masefield during his visit.

"Notes Written by some of the Judges on the Beautiful Speaking of Verses", from the Oxford Recitations syllabus

“Notes Written by some of the Judges on the Beautiful Speaking of Verses”, from the Oxford Recitations syllabus

As Yu’s translations show, Masefield achieved international renown – surely aided by his lengthy stint as Poet Laureate (1930 until his death in 1967). The only writer who held the position longer was Lord Alfred Tennyson – and while accepting the post graciously, Masefield did decline a knighthood more than once. By the 1950s, his poems were learned by heart in schools and spoken aloud, carrying on his love for the ‘beautiful speaking of poetry’ (my only encounter with Masefield prior to encountering his catalogue in the Bodleian had been listening to an interview with Joanna Lumley where she spoke about her difficulty reciting the opening line of Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ at school: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir…’). His fame even reached the US, and he received honorary doctorates from institutions like Yale and Harvard. Such success has led many to speculate that he was a victim of his own popularity.

Portrait of John Masefield by Howard Coster, 1943, National Portrait Gallery image number x23654

John Masefield by Howard Coster, 35mm negative, 1943, NPG x23654, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Deed

But if Masefield was anything, he was – as I have learned over the past few weeks – a man of great care, in many senses of the word. Not only did he carefully keep his archive (though unfortunately not in the best of storage conditions), he cared a great deal. He cared about his children and what they were doing. He cared about social causes and the arts. He cared about his city, his country, about his friends. He cared about the speaking of poetry, and that it should be done correctly – and by that, he meant beautifully. It has been an incredibly satisfying time carefully boxing and cataloguing his archive, which preserves the man before he becomes a myth – or even worse, a poem on a tote bag much purchased by Oxford students, residents and tourists alike, without knowing who wrote those words and how he shaped the city around them.


-Kelly Frost

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