The Salt-Water Poems and Ballads were published in the new days of the twentieth century by a young man, newly home in Britain but freshly off a ship which arguably had been his truest home since before his eighteenth birthday. The love for the sea that John Masefield lays out in front of us is more than a simple saccharine wistfulness for the aquamarine beauty. He cares for its darkness, its perilous changeability and mercilessness.
Whilst many poets who deal with a life at sea focus exclusively on the swashbuckling adventure available on tropical isles in ports of anarchy, The Salt-Water Poems and Ballads take in this element along with the accidents, the fears and the comfort of the routine in the midst of danger. Masefield cherishes even the darker moments beneath the ‘cold skies’.
‘When the rising moon was a copper disc and the sea was a strip of steel, We dumped him down to the swaying weeds ten fathoms beneath the keel’
The poems work with the full spectrum of a sailor’s life, the movement, the longing and the even the superstition and folklore of a life at sea. Picture the author in a little cabin, far out on deep water. Shimmering waves and flickering lamplight as John Masefield began to reach out and call us all to go to sea, more surely than any siren or mermaid. In the author’s own words
‘I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.’