Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Cargoes by John Masefield 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, Emeralds, amythysts, 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, Road-rails, pig-lead, Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
This is one of those poems that should be read out loud because the words feel wonderful in your mouth. The poem works well even if taken superficially because of its beautiful use of language and metre but it has multiple layers of meaning if one delves deeper as I intend to do now but briefly. The three stanzas describe different times in history. The first cargo ship is a quinquireme, a Roman galley with five levels of oars on each side and it is moving, in Biblical times, from North Africa to Nineveh. Nineveh is not mentioned in the Bible but it works nicely in the poem because of its metre. The ambience is stately and purposeful, Next the Spanish galleon “Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores”, what a fabulous line of poetry! The Isthmus from which it sails is The Isthmus of Darien, now known as Panama but centuries before the canal was built. The Spanish brought home incredible amounts of precious jewels and gold from their American possessions. The mood has become triumphant. Miodores, incidentally, were Portuguese gold coins that were widely used for hundreds of years. And the third, and final, stanza brings us to contemporary times and describes the dreary British vessel with the “salt-caked smoke stack”. The romance has gone and modern reality cuts in like a banjo chord! A tacit invitation to make comparisons has been made. Whereas, it could be argued, all of the ships are carrying the spoils of empire, this last boat brings home the reality of cheaply made mass-produced products for workers. We may ask ourselves is this progress? The cargoes have ceased to be items of high worth or intrinsic beauty but evolved into the mundane and “cheap tin trays”, a possible comment on the state of the British Empire, still flourishing when the poem was published in 1902. If you now read the poem again, out loud if you may, it will hopefully carry more meaning.