Discovered Letters of John Masefield

Written by Mike Sedgwick

Dr Charles Lansley, who spoke to the Hampshire Writers about his father, Peter’s book ‘Pon my Puff’ mentioned that he found copies of seven letters to a Mrs Gwyn Edmunds among his father’s papers from John Masefield, who was Poet Laureate from 1930 until he died in 1967. Most people know one or more of his poems; Cargoes and Sea Fever are the best known. He also published long narrative poems, Reynard the Fox is most noted (https://archive.org/details/reynardfox00mase/page/n399/mode/2up).

The letters are undated but most likely written during Masefield’s later years. Gwyn Edmunds wrote poetry and was a member of Southampton Writers Circle during the 1960 -1980 period. Unfortunately, the letters she wrote are lost, but she sent poems to Masefield for comment.

From those letters, I have distilled some of his literary wisdom.

  • Poetry is a kindling matter and will spread light and gladness.
  • You say this in 50 words. When you say it in 10, it will be a poem.
  • Tell your tales by word of mouth to someone.
  • Set your songs to tunes of your own and sing them to everyone.
  • The immediate judgement of men and women who listen to your work will help you far more than any professional newspaper criticism.
  • Be sure your descriptions describe.
  • Try your plan of a tale almost all dialogue (sic). It will make you concentrate on character and what excites character.
  • You will learn where you succeed or fail, and the fun will make you try again.
  • In a short poem, one should have an end that is not a repetition of your beginning.
  • One must always seek for the magical adjective. Use no adjective except the one that is magical.
  • Consider even a door-mat; how many different adjectives can be applied to it. Which, of all these, best suits your purpose? Why?
  • Get into the way of reading aloud all that you write to people. The writer is always addressing minds and feelings. A writer’s audience gives an instant criticism of a living kind. Reading or speaking aloud will show you what to omit and will teach you (at once) how few adjectives will serve any page of narrative, lyric or drama.
  • Read your poems out loud to people. You will not hold them with adjectives.
  • “Elisha said, if you call me names, I’ll call a bear and he’ll eat you and they did and he did and it did.” No adjectives but real effect.
  • Take our lightest poet, Herrick, and our sternest poet, Milton, and note how they use adjectives, or avoid using them.
  • The three guides to literature are: Bold design. Constant practice and Frequent Mistakes.
  • …it is worth while to strive for a skill in any art. It will bring you joy and give you power, something jolly to share with others.                                

John Masefield berates us about adjectives as Stephen King does about adverbs. Both use these words but choose them ‘magically’ and with care. Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/sea-fever/) has three very ordinary adjectives, quiet, sweet and long, in the final line. But that last line quells a stormy voyage into peaceful contentment.

Herrick, (died about 1648) and Milton (died 1674), to whom Masefield refers were near contemporaries. In these two poems the same subject is expressed differently.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…  Robert Herrick.

How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth…  John Milton.

John Masefield – 1878-1967

1891 – Sent to sea

1897 – Returned to England

1903 – Married Constance de la Cherois Crommelin

1915 – Medical orderly

1917 – Lecture tour USA

1920 – Established poet. Encouraged performance of poetry

1930 – Succeeded Robert Bridges as Poet Laureate. Was active into his last year.

British Poet ”’John Masefield”’ (1878-1967) in 1912, by painter William Strong (1859-1921) 

Mike Sedgwick October 2021

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