“Truth” by John Masefield

“Man with his burning soul
Has but an hour of breath
To build a ship of truth
In which his soul may sail-
Sail on the sea of death,
For death takes toll
Of beauty, courage, youth
Of all but Truth.

Life’s city ways are dark,
Men mutter by; the wells
Of the great waters moan.
O death! O sea! O tide!
The waters moan like bells;
No light, no mark,
The soul goes out alone
On seas unknown.

Stripped of all purple robes,
Stripped of all golden lies,
I will not be afraid,
Truth will preserve through death.
Perhaps the stars will rise-
The stars like globes;
The ship my striving made
May see night fade.

Having finished the Ficino correspondance, I have been reading the collected poems of John Masefield. It seems to me a tragedy that Masefield is only known for his “I must go down to the sea again” poem as it was an early one published in his first collection. It also, even within that volume of sea based poems, seems out of place amongst the other poems which are all narrative accounts of various fatalities at sea and the dangers of being a sailor in those far off days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Masefield wrote a considerable amount of poetry that dealt with what might be called “kitchen sink” subjects with characters that are believable and real. “The Everlasting Mercy”, for example, is a long narrative poem about a drunken poacher going on a “holy” rampage through his village having lost a boxing match and contains some amazingly heartfelt invective aimed at religious figures that has more than a grain of truth in it. “The Widow In The Bye Street”, similarly, deals with a world of wife beating shepherds and gypsy women cuckolding each other. In many ways it is a tragedy that his public reputation appears to rest on a single atypical poem rather than the far grittier tone that predominates otherwise. I guess the question of their length is one issue. With Masefield we find somebody writing what are essentially short stories in verse form and that may be a trifle offputting for some.

However Masefield also produced some fine and thoughtful shorter poems like the one I have reproduced above. I particularly like the ship sailing on a sea of death metaphor which reflects his ongoing reflections on his own experiences onboard and the faith with which he holds onto the rudder of his chosen vessel as it sails into the unknown waters.

Masefield later wrote some fine sonnets dealing with more metaphysical matters which I may also post here at a later stage.

A tragedy he is not better known.


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