Opening the Box of Delights

A Book of Discoveries

by John Masefield
Frederick A. Stokes (out of print)

Jim Davis

by John Masefield
Amereon Ltd, 243 pp., $20.95

The Midnight Folk

by John Masefield, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Heinemann, 212 pp., £12.99

Like many writers of his time, John Masefield outlived his reputation. Today his fiction is forgotten, and his poetry is thought to display the worst qualities of the Georgians: decorum, metrical monotony, conventional morality, and the idealization of Beauty with a capital B. Sometimes the charge of hypocrisy is added by those who know that this “poet of the sea” was frequently seasick; and that at the age of seventeen he left the Merchant Marine, which had inspired his most famous works, and spent the rest of his life well inland.

I must down to the seas again,” declares the first line of his best-known poem; “to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” But Masefield did not go down to the seas again. As soon as he could afford it, he moved with his wife and children to an increasingly grand series of English country houses, where, for the rest of his life, he enjoyed the quiet existence of a rural squire.

The private Masefield, moreover, was the opposite of the Masefield projected in his work: the tough, hearty, gregarious old sea dog, full of yarns and tales of adventure in foreign lands or on a sailing ship among rough men in bad weather—or among bad men in rough weather. In fact he was gentle, courtly, self-effacing, and fond of books and nature.1

Modern Americans, even poets—who might have been sympathetic, since some of them have equally incongruous public and private lives—have been dismissive of Masefield, or have sought him out only because of his connection to other writers. The poet and critic Daniel Hoffman, for instance, visited Masefield in 1961 in order to ask him about Yeats, whom he had known in youth. Though Hoffman appreciated some aspects of Masefield’s poetry, its “moments of fierce anarchic emotion” and “clear and supple verse,” the visit was disappointing. When he arrived in a steady drizzle at what he describes as “a large, ungainly mock-Tudor structure in brown stucco with a dark roof,” he was mistaken for the TV repairman by Masefield’s daughter Judith. His interview took place in a “vestibule” lit by one bare hanging light bulb; afterward he was served tea and a “sticky sweet cake.”

Perhaps as a result of this unhappy experience, Hoffman afterward characterized Judith as “a rather squarely built middle-aged woman in…groundgripper shoes” and Masefield himself as “an anachronism who embodied very parochial British values” and whose “ambitious narratives are hobbled by conventionality.”

It is true that Masefield’s poems now seem dated; limited by a strict adherence to meter and rhyme, and by his determination to tell stories in verse. A case can probably still be made for works like Reynard the Fox, and Muriel Spark, in her brilliant early study of Masefield’s work,2 has done her best to make it—but not all readers will be convinced.

But there is another John Masefield; the Masefield who wrote five books for children. All of them are interesting, and one has become a classic. Posterity, at least in its commercial incarnation, has recognized this. Except for obscure facsimile editions, the only works by John Masefield recently in print in this country were children’s books: two fantasies, The Box of Delights and The Midnight Folk, and Jim Davis, a historical novel. In many ways, it is appropriate that Masefield should end up most famous as a writer for children. For one thing, he had the history that seems to be characteristic for authors of juvenile classics: an early, idyllic childhood cut short too soon, but vividly remembered and longed for ever after. It is the story, among others, of Lewis Carroll, James Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and Florence Hodgson Burnett. In a sense, perhaps, some part of these people did not grow out of childhood slowly and naturally, but was abruptly forced underground, where it was preserved unchanged.

Masefield’s daughter, Judith, in her brief memoir, describes her father as a wonderful playmate—essentially, another child. Once, when she was housebound with a sprained ankle, he bought her a toy butcher’s shop; and she reports that “We played tirelessly until my foot was well, taking it in turns to be butcher and customers.” Judith also notes that in old age, “When asked to name two great books of modern times, he said without hesitation, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.”

Although he published a short literary autobiography, So Long to Learn, in 1952, Masefield was always secretive and vague about his early years, except with a few close friends. He did not want his biography to be written or his letters published—indeed, according to rumor, he put a curse on anyone who might attempt this. It was not until 1978, more than eleven years after his death, that the first biography of the poet, by Constance Babington Smith, appeared. (Apparently the curse was ineffective, for Ms. Babington Smith went on to publish several more books.)

It now seems ironic that Masefield should have tried to suppress the most interesting aspects of his life. The truth, when it emerged, was far more remarkable, and also more impressive than the conventional picture of an easy and confident rise to literary eminence. Indeed, when one knows what obstacles he had to overcome, and how hard he worked for his success, one cannot help but feel amazement and admiration.

According to Masefield, until he was nearly seven he “was living in Paradise.” Paradise was located in Ledbury, Herefordshire, where Masefield was born in 1878, the third of five children of a local solicitor. But in January 1885, his mother died after giving birth to her sixth child. Earlier writers reported that Masefield’s father also died “soon afterwards.” In fact Masefield senior survived for over six years, during which he became increasingly disturbed mentally; he ended his life in a local hospital. Meanwhile the care of Masefield and his brothers and sisters passed to a dim, silent uncle, an unsympathetic aunt, and a critical and suspicious governess whom all the children detested.

Masefield was a solitary, sensitive, dreamy boy, who loved wandering in the countryside and telling himself long stories. Before his mother’s death his relationship to nature had been idyllic and Wordsworthian.

All that I looked upon was beautiful, and known by me to be beautiful, but also known by me to be, as it were, only the shadow of something much more beautiful….

Now everything began to go wrong. He lost “the ecstatic bliss of my earliest childhood.” “Certain sorrows then crushed my power to enter it: and for a long time I mourned, thinking that I had been damned, as some of my elders had said I should be. The effect upon myself could not be distinguished from damnation.” Masefield’s aunt believed that books and the arts were a waste of time, “and worse still they opened the door to an immoral life.” When Masefield said he would like to study art or literature she was scornful. “It was agreed that I had no talent” and “was always far too much given to idle reading.” Instead, he was literally shipped off, at thirteen, to a Merchant Marine training vessel in Liverpool, the Conway.

It is hard to imagine a teenager less suited to the Merchant Marine than this shy, nervous, unhappy boy. At first he was mercilessly bullied, and had to fight off unwelcome homosexual attentions. But presently he was befriended by an older student who became his hero. His attachment to this savior, whom he referred to later only as H.B., was deep and long-lasting, and when H.B. shipped out Masefield’s misery was intense. “Nothing in my boyhood hurt me so cruelly,” he wrote later. “I have thought of him every day for more than half a century.”

After a while Masefield adjusted to life on the training ship, though his fellow students, when interviewed later in the days of his fame, remembered him as an “odd fish” who didn’t mix with the others, but spent all his spare time reading. But his first ocean voyage after graduation was traumatic. Now sixteen, he was excited and moved by the beauty of the sea and by the bravery and endurance of the sailors. But he was also violently seasick, worn down by the heavy work, and stunned by what he later called the “brutality and non-stop blasphemy” of life on board. The passage round Cape Horn was too much for him. By the time his ship reached Chile, he was ill with a combination of sunstroke, exhaustion, and nerves, and was invalided home to England.

Masefield wanted to try another career, preferably as a painter or writer, but as soon as he had recovered, his aunt insisted that he go back to sea. He was sent to New York to join another ship; but when he arrived in America he failed to report for duty. Detectives were sent after him, but without success. Like many other rebellious adolescents, he had disappeared into the underworld. With a drinking companion whom he later called “a disreputable ruffian” he traveled around the United States as a hobo, begging, hitching rides on trains, sleeping rough and occasionally taking odd jobs.

Eventually Masefield resurfaced in New York, where for two months he worked sixteen hours a day in a saloon, and then for two years in a carpet factory in Yonkers, just outside the city. He lived in a local boarding-house and spent most of his disposable income on cheap editions of the English classics.

But he was now determined to become a writer, and in 1897, at nineteen, he managed to get back to London. There he earned his keep first as a clerk in a bank, an occupation of which he appears to have been greatly ashamed, and then as a hack journalist. Gradually he began to publish verse and stories. In 1902, when he was twenty-four, his first book of poems appeared, and ten years later he was a recognized poet and novelist.

Established authors who occasionally turn to writing for children often reveal far more of themselves than they do in their adult prose or poetry. For one thing, they are as it were on vacation, and under no pressure to produce a Great Work. Masefield was very sensitive to criticism, and modest about his literary abilities. He knew from the start that he would never be as good a writer as his friends Yeats and Synge. What he was, he sometimes said, was a storyteller, and in his children’s books, all he needed to do was tell a good story. As a result, his tone is easier and more relaxed; there is no sense of critics breathing down his neck as he writes.

For Masefield there was another advantage to juvenile fiction. He had always been uneasy about his lack of formal education: unlike most of his friends and colleagues, he had not been lucky enough to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but had left school at twelve. Now, though, he was writing for an audience that had no more education than he did. It was not only unnecessary to display erudition, it was counterproductive.

In his children’s books Masefield also seems to feel no need to present a hero who embodies or develops the standard British male virtues. For his boy protagonists the split between child and adult, between private and public self, has not yet occurred. They can be reckless, frightened, and disobedient, they can make mistakes and even weep.

The authors who write most successfully for children do not write as adults talking (sometimes talking down) to a juvenile audience, but as one amazingly articulate child speaking to another. In his best juvenile fiction, Masefield was able to enter into the fantasies of childhood and respond to the natural world with a child’s wonder and enthusiasm, because he was in some ways still a boy.

Masefield’s first works for children, A Book of Discoveries and Martin Hyde, appeared in 1910, the year his son Lewis was born, and when his daughter Judith was five years old. A Book of Discoveries, though presented as a story, is really a series of informal lectures on local history and ecology, possibly suggested by the family’s recent move from London to a house in Buckinghamshire. It describes the explorations of two rather undifferentiated English boys under the guidance of a neighbor, Mr. Hampden, a thinly disguised version of the author. Mr. Hampden knows everything about the countryside, with an emphasis on the battles that were fought there from Roman times onward. He teaches the boys how to rig a model schooner, chart the local river, predict the weather, build a camp, practice amateur archaeology, and understand the habits of birds, beasts, and fish. A Book of Discoveries strongly recalls an earlier Canadian children’s classic, Two Little Savages (1903) by Ernest Thompson Seton, which was designed to teach Indian woodcraft to boys. But perhaps because the English landscape is so much tamer, or because the characters and plot are less developed, Masefield’s book never had as great a success, and today it is very slow going. It was clearly written by the public, adult, Masefield.

Martin Hyde: The Duke’s Messenger is a much better and more original book; an exciting adventure story set in the late seventeenth century, full of spies, disguises, midnight rides, battles, imprisonment, and escape. It also, most unusually, contains a heroine who does more than allow herself to be rescued. In Masefield’s adult work the female characters tend to be undeveloped; often they are peripheral to the plot or totally absent. As G. Wilson Knight puts it,

Ships, often regarded as living creatures, have the grace and beauty men usually attribute to women, whose place they fill in Masefield’s narratives….

But Amelia Carew is a convincing character: a beautiful and brave teenager, and a very active and successful spy. She is also several years older than Martin Hyde, to whom she relates as to a younger brother. She represents the type of woman Masefield was most drawn to: strong, competent, and considerably his senior. Constance, his wife, was eleven years older, and he had several romantic but probably unconsummated affairs with older women.

To give a character the name of Hyde, especially at that time, was to suggest a connection with Stevenson’s masterpiece; and Martin Hyde can be seen as in some ways the hidden rebellious adolescent self of his respectable author. The story is told in the first person, and Martin says on the first page, “I know not the day of my birth”—a claim that Masefield often made himself. (His suggestion of a mysterious origin was false, since the date—June 1, 1878—appears in local records.)

Like Masefield, Martin Hyde has an idyllic early life, which ends abruptly when he is orphaned at twelve and sent to stay with an unsympathetic uncle. He portrays himself as a semi-juvenile delinquent: disobedient, sneaky, impulsive, alternately frightened and foolhardy. Shortly after the book begins he breaks into a neighbor’s house, where he overhears a plot against the monarchy. He is discovered by the conspirators, and becomes half-reluctantly attached to a bad and failing cause: the ill-starred Monmouth Rebellion, which attempted to overthrow the government of James II and put the Duke of Monmouth on the English throne.

Very soon Martin Hyde finds himself at sea. The indignities he suffers cause him to remark that “for brutal, thoughtless injustice, it is difficult to beat the merchant ship.” Like Masefield at the same age, he is at first “much ashamed at having to work as a common ship’s boy.” But he learns from the experience, and comes to respect the sailors, realizing that, in his words, “It is nothing to be proud of that your parents are rich enough to keep your hands clean of joyless, killing toil, at an age when many better men are old in slavery.”

Later, going against all the traditions of popular boys’ fiction, Martin Hyde warns his young readers against “the life of adventure.”

It is a life of sordid unquiet, pursued without plan, like the life of an animal. Have you seen a dog trying to cross a busy street? There is the adventurer. Or the rabbit on the cliff, in his state of continual panic; he, too, lives the adventurous life.

Masefield, also most unusually for the period and the genre, refuses to glorify war. When the Duke’s forces go “foraging,” Martin remarks:

It was theft with violence, coloured over by some little touch of law…. We were like an army of locusts, eating up everything as we passed.

The battles are scenes of terror and confusion, in which Martin Hyde, unlike most boy heroes, does not rise to the occasion:

Another ball came just over my head, with a scream which made my heart quite sick. I sat down cowering under a ruined thorntree by the road, crying like a little child…. I saw a man staggering down the road towards me, holding his side with both hands. He fell into the road, dead, not far from me. Then others came past…in a long horrible procession, men without weapons, without hands, shot in the head, in the body, lacerated, bleeding, limping…. It was nothing but a time of pain, a roaring, booming horror with shrieks in it.

Evidently Martin Hyde was too downbeat to survive as juvenile fiction; but as a first-rate, morally serious historical novel it can sustain comparison with Stevenson, whom Masefield much admired; it should be much better known.

Jim Davis, which appeared the following year, in 1911, is much shorter, and also less ambitious and dark, perhaps this is why it has remained in print. It is the story of a boy who falls in with smugglers on the coast of Devon in 1812. The book is full of incident: there are gypsies, mysterious night riders, a sea voyage, storms, caves, fights, pursuits, and of course a sunken treasure.

The influence of Treasure Island is also apparent in the figure of the gypsy Marah, who is a kind of ambiguous substitute father for Jim and his friend Hugh. Like Mr. Hampden in A Book of Discoveries, he teaches the boys the rudiments of rigging and sailing ships, and other kinds of practical expertise. But Marah, like Long John Silver, turns out to be a criminal—one of the gang of smugglers. Unlike Long John, however, he reforms at the end of the book and becomes a respectable landsman. Also, though Jim is imprisoned by the smugglers when he is caught spying on them, he does not witness or take part in their crimes. In Treasure Island, on the other hand, Jim Hawkins not only sees men die, he kills one of the pirates himself—in self-defense, of course.

In Jim Davis Masefield not only tells an exciting story, he writes vividly and even poetically about physical activity and the natural world. Though it was now fifteen years since he had been to sea, his memory of it remained clear. When the smuggling ship lies off the coast of Devon at night, Jim says:

…it was so still, so very peaceful, that we could hear the waves breaking on the beach with a noise of hushing and of slipping shingle, as each wave passed with a hiss to slither back in a rush of foam broken by tiny stones.

Jim Davis, like Martin Hyde, draws in many ways on Masefield’s own early experience. Like Masefield, Jim is an orphan sent to live with unpleasant relatives. “My aunt and uncle had no children of their own, and no great fondness for the children of others,” he tells the reader, something that might well be said of Masefield’s own aunt and uncle. Like Masefield, at ten he is sent away to school, which at first he detests. But Jim’s life turns out happier than his author’s; Masefield provides him with an ideal substitute mother as well as an ambiguous substitute father: the kind and devoted housekeeper Mrs. Cottier, whom he rescues in a storm.

The Midnight Folk, which appeared first in 1927, is a wonderful if somewhat cluttered fantasy for younger children partly set, from internal evidence, in Masefield’s childhood home and in Masefield’s own childhood in the 1880s. Travel is by horse, carriage, or broomstick, and the young hero’s friend Ellen, the housemaid, speaks of “my grandfather’s time, in the French wars.”

The plot centers around Kay Harker’s search for two lost treasures: one from a pirate ship, the other the spoils of a highwayman. In his quest Kay is aided by several animals and by his own forgotten toys, who are lovingly listed and described. On the other side is Kay’s unpleasant governess, whom Masefield later admitted was based on the one he hated as a boy. Kay is also opposed by a coven of witches, and two sly and treacherous cats. These forces of evil turn out to be led by a sinister wizard called Abner Brown, who I am sorry to say is an American. Abner’s attitude toward the English landscape is one that Masefield, who had ambiguous feelings toward Americans, was familiar with. “I fell right plumb in love with this green countryside, so full of real old buildings,” Abner says, and he can hardly wait to buy some land and start digging it up.

The book has the air of having been created episode by episode, without much advance planning—in the manner of a story told night after night to a child. All kinds of extraneous events and characters keep appearing, as if a child had requested them. One can almost hear him or her saying: “Put in some Indians, please. Put in some mermaids. And flying, and a desert island.”

This method of storytelling can be successful, as many parents have found—but it can also somewhat overwhelm a narrative. James Barrie, in Peter Pan, followed a similar method: he used the stories he had told the Davies boys and the games he had played with them on holiday. The drama that grew out of these stories and games also includes Indians, mermaids, pirates, and flying, all held together by Barrie’s genius. The Midnight Folk is even more diverse. Kay not only flies magically through the air, he also travels in time and space, goes to sea on a model sailing ship manned by mice, and sees King Arthur and his knights.

Moreover, with remarkable inventiveness, Masefield introduces several incidents and characters that prefigure, and possibly lie behind, those of later children’s classics. At one point, for instance, Kay Harker becomes a bat and flies through the night under the guidance of another bat; later, with the help of an otter, he becomes an otter—just as T.H. White’s boy King Arthur does in The Sword in the Stone, published eleven years later. Kay also meets a greedy, selfish low-life character called Rat, who appears to be the direct ancestor of Templeton in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Like Templeton, he saves the day—but only for a price, which must be paid in half-spoilt food.

But perhaps The Midnight Folk is most remarkable for the way in which it evokes the workings of a child’s consciousness. Kay, who seems to be about eight or nine years old, still does not clearly distinguish among reality, dreams, and imagination. When he is bored in the schoolroom, he diverts himself by playing games under the table:

When he had scraped off a slipper, he could push it about with his toes, and imagine that it was a canoe full of Redskins on the warpath, going down the rapids; or a diving bell, …bringing up treasure from one of the ships of the Armada; or great-grandpapa Harker’s ship, the Plunderer, engaging seven French privateers….

Kay moves easily and naturally from fantasy to reality, and both are deeply satisfying to him, just as they were to Masefield as a small child. Like Masefield, he imagines tigers under his bed at night; and the figures of his daily life easily enter his fantasies. His governess becomes a witch, and the angry gamekeeper on the neighboring estate a wizard; his favorite cat and his lost toys are loyal and heroic companions. And though Kay does not get to keep the treasure, at the end of the book he finds something better: a kind and affectionate guardian, Caroline Louisa, who sends his governess away.

Eight years later, in 1935, Masefield published his most popular children’s book, The Box of Delights: When the Wolves Were Running. It is a sequel to The Midnight Folk, and has the same hero, Kay Harker. However, though Kay is only a year older, the story has leapt forward in time half a century. We are now in a world that includes telephones, automobiles, and airplanes, and feisty little girls who refuse to play the feminine role. The Box of Delights takes place during the Christmas holidays, when Kay is home for the first time from school, along with Jemima, Susan, Maria, and Peter Jones. In The Midnight Folk these were the names of his forgotten toys; now they are real children, staying with Kay and Caroline Louisa while their parents are abroad.

The witch governess, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, and the wizard, Abner Brown, are still around, and now they are married. Abner Brown is the head of a gang of jewel thieves, but he also dabbles in magic. He has disguised himself and his gang as members of a theological college; on occasion, they transform themselves into wolves. They already control many magical devices, including a fleet of taxis that can become airplanes and kidnap unsuspecting passengers. Abner is after the Box of Delights, which has magic powers. Currently it belongs to an old puppeteer called Cole Hawlings, who, when hard-pressed by the gang, gives the Box to Kay.

The plot of the book is largely moved by Abner’s attempts to find the Box, in the course of which he and his gang, using their flying taxis, kidnap Cole Hawlings, two of Kay’s friends, and his guardian Caroline Louisa. They also “scrobble up” the entire staff of the local cathedral, including the Bishop and the choir. If they cannot be rescued, there will be no midnight service on Christmas Eve. The climax of the story thus involves a fullscale conflict between good and evil, along with a record-breaking snowstorm.

Who is the mysterious old puppeteer Cole Hawlings, and what is his Box of Delights, which gives one the power to travel in time and space? He appeared first, as critics have noted, in Masefield’s narrative poem King Cole (1923), where he revived a failing traveling circus and brought joy and inspiration to an entire town. From the point of view of a folklorist, Cole is the “magic helper,” or, in Jungian terms, the guide or sage whom the hero meets at the beginning of his quest. In the poem he is a ragged old man who plays the flute and is followed by birds, beasts, and butterflies: both a benevolent version of the Pied Piper and a pagan nature god or Green Man. He also recalls John Masefield himself, who had a deep love of animals and birds; his daughter later wrote that “I often saw him cross the lawn with a mob of birds following, for his pocket was always filled with crumbs.” Cole Hawlings in The Box of Delights can summon butterflies, birds, and beasts with his panpipes, and turn a room into a forest. But he cannot protect himself or his Box of Delights from Abner Brown; he needs the help of Kay and the other children.

In the real world, at this time, Masefield was fifty-seven and at the height of his fame, but he was also beset with public duties and demands. In 1930 he had been named Poet Laureate, and though he had promised once that he would not write to order, he now continually provided verses for ceremonial occasions. He was also constantly asked to write, to speak, to answer letters, to travel abroad, and to appear at public events. It would not be surprising if, like Cole Hawlings, Masefield felt himself surrounded and even imprisoned. Moreover, outside his country retreat, in the larger world, things were not going well. In 1935, all over Europe, the wolves were running.

And what of the Box of Delights, which the old magician can no longer guard and must entrust to a child? From the outside, it is only a small flat rectangle, nothing much to look at. But when it opens, Kay sees inside “…what he took to be a book, the leaves of which were all chased and worked with multitudinous figures, and the effect that it gave him was that of staring into an opening in a wood.”

The Box that reveals one wonderful and sometimes frightening scene after another, and gives one the power to travel in time and space, is in fact a book—or rather, all books. And the person who owns it has the power to bring the world to life through imagination; that is, he or she is a writer, or a child.

Masefield’s literary sympathies were wide: he loved most of English poetry from its beginnings through the end of the nineteenth century, and he admired both Yeats and Frost. But he did not care for T.S. Eliot, and greatly disliked most contemporary American poetry. Is it too far-fetched to point out that in The Box of Delights: When the Wolves Were Running, the great danger is that the Box may fall into the hands of a mercenary, wolfish American wizard?

In the book, at least, the danger is averted. Cole Hawlings gets his Box of Delights back at the end of the story with the help of a boy, Kay Harker, who is both Masefield’s childhood self in the 1880s, as in The Midnight Folk, and the child who survives within him in 1935. And, magically or not, Masefield regained his power to travel imaginatively in time and space, as a child does. He went on in the next few years to publish some of his most successful historical novels, including Dead Ned and Live and Kicking Ned, which many critics consider his best. Unfortunately, though, he never again wrote juvenile fiction. But he left our children, and children not yet born, three original and remarkable books.

  1. 1

    A former student of mine who has become a professional astrologer says that the split between Masefield’s public and private selves was due to his having been born exactly at midnight. When you are born at midnight, he claims, the person you are at work is exactly the opposite of the person you are at home; while if you are born at noon, they are identical. In this context, it is interesting that Masefield’s most haunting children’s book is called The Midnight Folk.

  2. 2

    John Masefield (Peter Nevill, 1953).