Reynard the Fox, or the Ghost Heath Run

THE ATLANTIC’S BOOKSHELF

Books Selected This Month

Reynard the Fox (Masefield). After-War Atlas and Gazetteer of the World (Edited and revised by Reynolds). Deep Waters (Jacobs). The Complete Works of Leonard Merrick.

By JOHN MASEFIELD. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919. 12mo, xiv + 166 pp. $1.60.
THE publishers refer to Reynard the Fox as ’a triumph of the New Poetry.’ The triumph is secure, but the honor belongs to the genius of John Masefield, and to a superb tradition of English poetry which comes down from Geoffrey Chaucer. The Ghost Heath Run is English to the core, in its theme, in its metre, in its diction; and its methods hark back, in their virility and directness, to the Canterbury Tales. The ‘newness’ is the fresh leafing of an ancient oak. And its roots have proved again their invincible vitality.
The poem falls into two parts. The first is the gathering for an English fox-hunt; the second, the chase of the fox. No less than seventy persons. instead of Chaucer’s immortal nine-and-twenty, ride up to the rendezvous. And in spite of that appalling number our interest never flags. For a fox-hunt is as catholic as a pilgrimage, and the men and women who appear in swift succession, on horseback and in habit as they live, are of all sorts and conditions, and are done with incomparable zest. Part one is neither a catalogue, nor a gallery of portraits, nor an anthology of epitaphs; it is a vivid cross-section of the English country-side in action. And its vividness is due in large degree to a diction so racy and direct that the words have almost the tangible qualities of things. Nothing in the poem is more remarkable than the overwhelming preponderance in its vocabulary of those downright native English words — ‘pithie, sinnowie, full, strong, compendious, and materiall’ — which give tang to the marrowy speech of English villages and fields. And redolent of this same rustic speech (and no less of Chaucer and the ballads) are the homely and pointed similes; —
He was as steady as a bollard.
And gallant as a skysail yard.
Nick Wolvesey on a hired hack
Came tittup, like a cup and ball.
Just like an axehead in its helve
Old Bennett sat and watched the gathering.
Never since the Knight and the Squire, the Monk, the Merchant, the Shipman, and the Wife of Bath has the seat of the horseman on his mount been used so tellingly in characterization.
The fox is the central figure of the second part. And the sweep and vigor of the narrative are worthy of the great tradition. The whole lovely English landscape flies before us and beneath us, but we are not spectators — we are participants. Not one detail in the swift flight of crowded yet sharp and clear impressions IS there for its own sake. ‘ Pale pastures, red-brown plough, dark wood,’ ‘Hung clods, still quivering from the kick, cut hoof-marks pale in cheesy clay,’ the windblown spinney, the blackthorn hedge, stones, lanes, and houses with their hoary English names — all sounds and smells and looks and textures of earth, air, and water are focussed on the racing fox and the thundering hunt at his heels —
. . . Rob on Pip,
Sailing the great grass like a ship,
Then grand Maroon in all his glory,
Sweeping his strides, his great chest hoary
With foam-fleck, —
and Stormalong, Stormcock, Skylark, and the rest. The conception is masterly in its breadth, and its execution is accomplished with consummate skill. And he will be a sternly conscientious reader who, half way through the gallant contest, forbears a surreptitious glance at the last page.
Nothing is perfect, and the swift course of the poem sometimes barks its shins on the fence of rhyme; a few pet words (like ‘romp’) recur too often; and the printer has botched the punctuation beyond belief. But when all discounts are allowed, one is inclined to give Ben Jonson’s line a turn, and say: ‘John Masefield his best piece of poetry.’ J. L. L.