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The Nostalgia of John Masefield

by J. Middleton Murry

Mr Masefiled is gradually finding his way to his self-appointed end, which is the glorification of England in narrative verse. Reynard the Fox marks we believe, the end of a stage in his progress to this goal. He has reached a point at which his mannerisms have been so subdued that they no longer sensibly impede the movement of his verse, a point at which we may begin to speak (though not too loud) of mastery. We feel that he now approaches what he desires to do with some certainty of doing it, so that we in our turn can approach some other questions with some hope of answering them.

The questions are various; but they radiate from and enter again into the old question whether what he is doing, and beginning to do well, is worth while doing, or rather whether it will have been worth while doing fifty years hence. For we have no doubt at all in our mind that, in comparison with the bulk of contemporary poetry, such work as Reynard the Fox is valuable. We may use the old rough distinction and ask first whether Reynard the Fox is durable in virtue of its substance, and second, whether it is durable in virtue of its form.

The glorification of England! There are some who would give their souls to be able to glorify her as she has been glorified, by Shakespeare, by Milton, by Wordsworth, and by Hardy. For an Englishman there is no richer inspiration, no finer theme; to have one's speech and thought saturated by the fragrance of this lovely and pleasant land was once the birthright of English poets and novelists. But something has crept between us and it, dividing. Instead of an instinctive love, there is a conscious desire of England; instead of slow saturation, a desperate plunge into its mystery. The fragrance does not come at its own sweet will; we clutch at it. It does not enfold and pervade our most arduous speculations; no involuntary sweetness comes flooding in upon our confrontation of human destinies. Hardy is the last of that great line. If we long for sweetness—as we do long for it, and with how poignant a pain!—we must seek it out, like men who rush dusty and irritable from the babble and fever of the town. The rhythm of the earth never enters into their gait; they are like spies among the birds and flowers, like collectors of antique furniture in the haunts of peace. The Georgians snatch at nature; they are never part of it. And there is some element of this desperation in Mr Masefield. We feel in him an anxiety to load every rift with ore of this particular kind, a deliberate intention to emphasise that which is most English in the English country-side.

How shall we say it? It is not that he makes a parade of arcane knowledge. The word 'parade' does injustice to his indubitable integrity. But we seem to detect behind his superfluity of technical, and at times archaic phrase, an unconscious desire to convince himself that he is saturated in essential Englishness, and we incline to think that even his choice of an actual subject was less inevitable than self-imposed. He would isolate the quality he would capture, have it more wholly within his grasp; yet, in some subtle way, it finally eludes him. The intention is in excess, and in the manner of its execution everything is (though often very subtly) in excess also. The music of English place-names, for instance is too insistent; no one into whom they had entered with the English air itself would use them with so manifest an admiration.

Perhaps a comparison may bring definition nearer. The first part of Mr Masefield's poem, which describes the meet and the assembled persons one by one, recalls, not merely by the general cast of the subject, but by many actual turns of phrase, Chaucer's Prologue. Mr Masefield's parson has more than one point of resemblance to Chaucer's Monk:—

  'An out-ryder, that loved venerye;
  A manly man to ben an abbot able….'

But it would take too long to quote both pictures. We may choose for our juxtaposition the Prioress and one of Mr Masefield's young ladies:—

  'Behind them rode her daughter Belle,
  A strange, shy, lovely girl, whose face
  Was sweet with thought and proud with race,
  And bright with joy at riding there.
  She was as good as blowing air,
  But shy and difficult to know.
  The kittens in the barley-mow,
  The setter's toothless puppies sprawling,
  The blackbird in the apple calling,
  All knew her spirit more than we.
  So delicate these maidens be
  In loving lovely helpless things.'

And here is the Prioress:—

  'But for to speken of hir conscience,
  She was so charitable and so pitous,
  She wolde weepe if that she sawe a mous
  Caught in a trappe, if it were ded or bledde.
  Of smalle houndes had she, that she fed
  With rosted flesh, or milk, or wastel bread,
  But sore wepte she if oon of hem were ded
  Or if men smote it with a yerde smerte:
  And all was conscience and tendere herte.'
  Ful semely hir wympel pynched was;
  His nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas;
  Hir mouth full small, and thereto soft and red,
  But sikerly she hadde a fair forhed.'

There is in the Chaucer a naturalness, a lack of emphasis, a confidence that the object will not fail to make its own impression, beside which Mr Masefield's demonstration and underlining seem almost malsain. How far outside the true picture now appears that 'blackbird in the apple calling,' and how tainted by the desperate bergerie of the Georgian era!

It is, we admit, a portentous experiment to make, to set Mr Masefield's prologue beside Chaucer's. But not only is it a tribute to Mr Masefield that he brought us to reading Chaucer over again, but the comparison is at bottom just. Chaucer is not what we understand by a great poet; he has none of the imaginative comprehension and little of the music that belong to one: but he has perdurable qualities. He is at home with his speech and at home with his world; by his side Mr Masefield seems nervous and uncertain about both. He belongs, in fact, to a race (or a generation) of poets who have come to feel a necessity of overloading every rift with ore. The question is whether such a man can hope to express the glory and the fragrance of the English country-side.

Can there be an element of permanence in a poem of which the ultimate impulse is a nostalgie de la boue that betrays itself in line after line, a nostalgia so conscious of separation that it cannot trust that any associations will be evoked by an unemphasised appeal? Mr Masefield, in his fervour to grasp at that which for all his love is still alien to him, seems almost to shovel English mud into his pages; he cannot (and rightly cannot) persuade himself that the scent of the mud will be there otherwise. For the same reason he must make his heroes like himself. Here, for example, is the first whip, Tom Dansey:—

  'His pleasure lay in hounds and horses;
  He loved the Seven Springs water-courses,
  Those flashing brooks (in good sound grass,
  Where scent would hang like breath on glass).
  He loved the English country-side;
  The wine-leaved bramble in the ride,
  The lichen on the apple-trees,
  The poultry ranging on the lees,
  The farms, the moist earth-smelling cover,
  His wife's green grave at Mitcheldover,
  Where snowdrops pushed at the first thaw.
  Under his hide his heart was raw
  With joy and pity of these things…'

That 'raw heart' marks the outsider, the victim of nostalgia. Apart from the fact that it is a manifest artistic blemish to impute it to the first whip of a pack of foxhounds, the language is such that it would be a mistake to impute it to anybody; and with that we come to the question of Mr Masefield's style in general.

As if to prove how rough indeed was the provisionally accepted distinction between substance and form, we have for a long while already been discussing Mr Masefield's style under a specific aspect. But the particular overstrain we have been examining is part of Mr Masefield's general condition. Overstrain is permanent with him. If we do not find it in his actual language (and, as we have said, he is ridding himself of the worst of his exaggerations) we are sure to find it in the very vitals of his artistic effort. He is seeking always to be that which he is not, to lash himself into the illusion of a certainty which he knows he can never wholly possess.

  'From the Gallows Hill to the Kineton Copse
  There were ten ploughed fields, like ten full-stops,
  All wet red clay, where a horse's foot
  Would be swathed, feet thick, like an ash-tree root.
  The fox raced on, on the headlands firm,
  Where his swift feet scared the coupling worm;
  The rooks rose raving to curse him raw,
  He snarled a sneer at their swoop and caw.
  Then on, then on, down a half-ploughed field
  Where a ship-like plough drove glitter-keeled,
  With a bay horse near and a white horse leading,
  And a man saying "Zook," and the red earth bleeding.'

The rasp of exacerbation is not to be mistaken. It comes, we believe, from a consciousness of anæmia, a frenetic reaction towards what used, some years ago, to be called 'blood and guts.'

And here, perhaps, we have the secret of Mr Masefield and of our sympathy with him. His work, for all its surface robustness and right-thinking (which has at least the advantage that it will secure for this 'epic of fox-hunting' a place in the library of every country house), is as deeply debilitated by reaction as any of our time. Its colour is hectic; its tempo feverish. He has sought the healing virtue where he believed it undefiled, in that miraculous English country whose magic (as Mr Masefield so well knows) is in Shakespeare, and whose strong rhythm is in Hardy. But the virtue eludes all conscious inquisition. The man who seeks it feverishly sees riot where there is peace. And may it not be, in the long run, that Mr Masefield would have done better not to delude himself into an identification he cannot feel, but rather to face his own disquiet where alone the artist can master it, in his consciousness? We will not presume to answer, mindful that Mr Masefield may not recognise himself in our mirror, but we will content ourselves with recording our conviction that in spite of the almost heroic effort that has gone to its composition Reynard the Fox lacks all the qualities essential to durability.

Book: Shattered Sighs