IT IS not easily apparent why the Poet Laureate of England should have written this book. It is a strictly factual account of his first term as a thirteen-year-old apprentice aboard H.M.S. Conway, a training ship for potential officers in England’s Merchant Marine. Perhaps a nostalgic reverence for the seafaring life has mellowed his recollection of the past; for, although he calmly recounts the succession of brutalities and indignities he was forced to endure, he does so with an almost aloof serenity. Only at times do passages of beauty and feeling break through the accurate, pedestrian journal of life aboard the Conway.
He came to the ship an orphan, eager, infatuated with the sea, anxious to enjoy the humblest task, provided it was sailor’s work, from swabbing decks to polishing brightwork; he reveled in going aloft alone and studying the varied shipping in the Mersey. But from the moment of his first meal in mess, he lived in fear. He was forever being knocked down and knocked about, dumped out of his hammock, kicked and abused by a gang of sadistic louts who took pleasure in brutalizing and degrading their juniors, the “new chums.” Some of the older boys treated him kindly and tried to protect him, but the bullies were always lurking, ready to seize any opportunity for another of their cowardly attacks. It is not a pretty story.
Nothing, however, could extinguish the new chum’s profound feeling for ships and seafaring. By the end of his term he was passionately a sailor. He appreciated to the full each new discovery, the nice craftsmanship of sailors, the knots they tied, the models they made, the pictures they drew. He took keen pleasure in the ships themselves and the way they were made, the unsplinterable hardness of the decks, the functional rightness of the rigging, the lines of the great clippers, the sheer of their bows, the rake of their masts, the beauty and truth implicit in a creation destined to struggle with and overcome the sea — a contest in which only the best and cleanest and the least superfluous could endure and survive.
Perhaps he became a poet subconsciously when, for the first time, he saw the wounded Wanderer returning to harbor through fog and rack, from havoc of tempest and ocean, beautiful beyond imagination. He discovered beauty in the tall ships, and he never forgot his discovery. In this book written some fifty-odd years after the event, that discovery of beauty is the important thing — not the technical details so carefully described, not the physical pain and humiliation, not the indifferent schooling, but the sudden boyish awareness of
. . . the beauty and mystery of the ships,
And the magic of the sea.
And the magic of the sea.
He could have said that — and indeed has said it — in a single poem. One asks again, Why did he write this story in this way? It may be the subtlest of approaches to future volumes which will sound with glory. This is the basic foundation perhaps, the facts you have to know before you can understand the mystery and the magic. One thing is sure — and the same is true of so many other volumes which he has written — when you have read and closed this book, your chief emotion is that you like John Masefield. He must have been a brave, as he was certainly an eager and sensitive, boy. He learned his lessons the hard way, but he kept, man and boy, his integrity.
R. E. DANIELSON