Skip Navigation

John Masefield

John Masefield

John Masefield's "Cargoes"

by George Soule

Revised from an entry in Masterplots II: Poetry Series Supplement, ed. John Wilson and Philip K. Jason. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1998.

Many years ago "Cargoes" by the English Poet-laureate John Masefield (1878-1967) was a very well-known poem, read by high school students along with such lyrics as Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" and such almost forgotten narratives as "The Courtship of Miles Standish" and "Snowbound." Tastes change, and canons get revised, and poems are forgotten. But even though "Cargoes" celebrated its centenary of publication in 2003, it (like the other poems I just mentioned) is still an enjoyable poem. Here it is:

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, amethests,
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-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin toys.

Enjoyable, yes. But what is it about? What can be said about such a poem? What does it say about love? Social problems? The human condition? The problem resembles that faced by my fellow graduate-students at Yale many years ago when dealing with a little poem by Robert Herrick: they decided it displayed "an ironic lack of meaning." But let's see what can be said.


First let us get the literal meanings straight. "Cargoes" is a short lyric poem consisting of three five-line stanzas, each of which describes a different kind of ship. The first two lines of each stanza describe the ship moving through water; the last three lines list the different cargoes the ships are carrying.
Stanza one's ship is a quinquireme, a large vessel which people like the ancient Phoenicians employed to trade across the Mediterranean Sea. These ships were propelled both by the wind and by men rowing. The prefix "quin" may refer to the five banks of oarsmen arranged vertically on each side of the ship. More probably, because five banks of oars would get hopelessly entangled, it refers to the five oarsmen manning the three oars in each vertical row. Masefield's ship departs from "distant Ophir," a region in either Arabia or Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea, and is being rowed to northern end of that sea. (Masefield must have intended the term "Palestine" to apply to the land at farthest reach of the present Gulf of Aqaba.) The ship's goal is a happy one, for Palestine is a safe "haven," and its skies are "sunny." This boat carries a cargo of animals, birds, exotic woods, and wine.
Masefield found many of his details in the Old Testament. Nineveh, an important Assyrian city, is often mentioned there, and many of the details of this stanza come from 1. Kings 10: ivory, apes, peacocks, and cedars. That chapter also mentions drinking vessels, though not the wine in them, and almug trees, which may be the same as sandalwood.

In Stanza two, the poem moves ahead about two thousand years to the sixteenth or seventeenth century and changes its focus to the West Indies. A galleon was a large sailing ship often used in trade between Spain and Latin America, a part of the world Masefield himself knew well from his days as a sailor. This "stately" (splendid, dignified, majestic) ship begins its journey at the Isthmus of Panama and progresses with a vessel's normal up-and-down motion ("dipping") through the verdant and beautiful islands of the Caribbean. Its cargo contains precious (emeralds and diamonds) and semi-precious stones, spices, and gold coins (a "moidore" is a Portuguese coin; the word means literally "coin of gold").

In Stanza three, the British ship is not so pretty as the previous two (it is "dirty") nor so big. A coaster is a small ship designed chiefly to carry goods along a coastline, not on the high seas. This coaster is propelled by a steam-engine (it has a smoke-stack), and it moves through the English Channel with a force and motion that resembles an animal's butting with its head. Part of its cargo are things to burn: wood for fireplaces and coal mined near Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the eastern coast of Britain. The rest is metal that has been processed or manufactured, perhaps in the British Midlands not far from Newcastle: metal rails with which to build railroad tracks, lead ingots or "pigs," items of hardware made of iron, and "cheap tin trays."


Masefield's poem is formally precise. As we have seen, each stanza describes a ship in its historical era, each ship is pictured in motion, and its cargo is noted. In each stanza, the first two and last lines are long, whereas the third and fourth are short; the second and fifth lines rhyme. The rhythm of each stanza is very similar. Masefield seems to have abandoned usual English syllabic verse for accentual verse, which was being experimented with in his day. This poem is best read with strong accents, giving two beats to each short line and four beats to each long line. An extra half-accent may be given in the second and fifth line of each stanza to words like "white," "green," and "tin."

Because "Cargoes" has no clauses, independent or dependent, it makes no statement, provisional or otherwise. Therefore it must depend for its effect on the associations and connotations of the words Masefield has chosen. These effects differ significantly from stanza to stanza.

All readers may not know that the details of Stanza one describe Solomon's lavish court at the time of the visit of the Queen of Sheba. Even so, readers will sense the exotic and sensual nature of this cargo. Ivory is lovely to touch; it and sandalwood come from far-off regions, even further away than distant Ophir. Both sandalwood and cedarwood are pleasingly aromatic; white wine is sweet to taste; apes and peacocks may decorate opulent palaces in sun-drenched Palestine.
Even though a quinqireme had sails, Masefield only describes only how it is rowed by human power. Other omissions are significant. Although the Bible says that Solomon possessed great quantities of gold and spices, Masefield does not mention them. And in this stanza Masefield chooses to distort geography and history in order to heighten the poetic effect of his lines. Nineveh was a great distance from the Red Sea and flourished long before the era of quinquiremes. It would have been almost impossible for such a large ship to have navigated down the Tigris river from Nineveh. Masefield probably chose the word "Nineveh" mainly for its sound and rhythm and for its aura of importance.

Stanza two is almost as exotic as Stanza one and even more opulent. Masefield may have omitted sailing and gold from Stanza one because he wanted to save them for Stanza two. The emphasis here is on the riches of gold and gems, not on sensual pleasures. Yet these gems, the galleon, and the palm-green shores have a wonderful beauty that may exceed that of the ancient world.

Stanza three offers a stark contrast to Stanzas one and two. The British coaster is in no way beautiful or exotic or wealthy. Instead of the lovely weather of Palestine and the Caribbean, Masefield now provides unpleasant "mad March" days. The seas that cake the funnels with salt must be butted through with the help of a steam engine. The coaster's cargo is similarly unexotic, practical fuels and manufactured goods, some of them ugly.

Masefield varies his sound to suit his subject matter. The first two stanzas are euphonious and slow-moving. Stanza three is cacophonous and fairly quick to read; its accents are heavier and less subtle, and its consonants are harsh: "salt-caked smoke-stacks." One reason "Cargoes" has been anthologized so often is that Masefield's control of his language produces so much pleasure.


But what does it mean? The most obvious theme of "Cargoes" has to do with ships. Masefield was a sailor as a young man, and throughout his life he delighted in describing ships and the sea. Though a dirty coaster is not the sort of vessel to which he usually responded, this poem clearly shows the poet's love of various kinds of ships. Masefield imagines these ships at their most attractive; they are in action, dipping and butting in both smooth and choppy seas. When Masefield contrasts three very different ships from three very different historical eras, he implies that the wonders of ships and the sea, despite some changes, remain constant. Because this poem contains no clauses and hence no statements, it is tempting to say that Masefield has produced a pretty anthology-piece with very little meaning. Yet the contrast of the poem's stanzas will yield a simple but effective view of history, and more especially a view of Masefield's own age.

In this poem, the ancient world is shown as sensual, given to exotic pleasures. Its boats are propelled by only human power over modest distances. In contrast, the world of the 16th century is magnificent and heroic. Its wind-driven ships traverse vast oceans and bring cargoes that are not only beautiful but opulent: gems and gold that are worth a great deal. In both stanzas, the ships are bringing their wonderful things back home for the differing enjoyments of those who live there.

Whether or not Masefield literally believed in these readings of history, they serve as a backdrop for his view of contemporary life in Stanza three. Modern life is one of change. The dirty coaster is propelled by a steam-engine, a comparatively recent machine that was supplanting the time-honored sail even while Masefield was working as a sailor. This world is not a particularly pleasant one. The coaster is not a pretty ship; it is having a difficult time steaming in the choppy seas. It is not bringing wonderful things back home to be enjoyed; it is taking a cargo of goods, many of them manufactured goods, away from home for delivery or sale at some unspecified port, perhaps elsewhere in Britain or across the English Channel in France. These goods are not sensual or beautiful, but practical, commercial, utilitarian, and sometimes cheap: rails for railroads, hardware, tin trays.

Even so, this modern ship has an energy that Masefield finds admirable. The coaster suggests the side of British life that Masefield wishes to praise: not the elegant aristocrats of Victorian England, but the vigor of the common working person of the beginning of a new century.

* * * * * * * * * *

After this article was posted on the internet, I got an eloquent email from Jonathan Ogle of Oakland, California, who went to sea as a ship's officer as a young man and still works in the shipping industry. He wrote to say that he thought Masefield here was reflecting on the nature of empires. "Each stanza refers to an imperial era defined by the described ship. The Assyrians ruled their world, the Spanish theirs, for a time, and when this was written, Britannia ruled the waves. However, those earlier empires went the way of Ozymandias, arguably due to their romantic, sensual pursuits. Sure, Masefield seems to say, they were great, but it was a greatness built on exotics like sandalwood and peacocks, or diamonds and cinnamon, and dainty days in fair weather. How could that last? British dominion, on the other hand, was the result of steam and coal and the ability to deliver the road rails in the mad days of March. This is a dominion which will perservere, is what I read. Given the time that it was written, it might even have been a warning to his fellow Englishmen to remember the roots of their greatness."

Mr. Ogle went on to say that he was attracted to this poem because it shows Masefield's "historical sense of continuity in the seagoing profession. We are all part of the same continuum, from the Greeks on their black ships on a wine-dark sea, to the treasure fleets of the Spanish Main, to his contemporary British Merchant Marine. . . . Most of us going to sea were drawn to it for the romance and adventure, with sunny seas and emerald shores in mind. But we have spent most of our time butting into heavy seas, salt-caked and perservering, hauling oil or wheat or generic containers from places like Beaumont or Oakland to the outskirts of Bremerhaven or a modern harbor 20 miles outside of Shanghai. Masefield understood this, as he sailed in the twilight of the sailing-ship era and the dawning of the steamship era. . . . I have always thought this poem tied me and my contemporaries to those ancient sailors and all their descendants who worked the seas on an ever-changing range of [vessels], right up to today's pragmatic, now diesel-driven, ships."

These remarks add several interesting dimensions of my enjoyment of Masefield's poem. --G. S.