Those of the bourgeoisie who are handicapped by their hyper-extended educations and tedious histories of talking therapies usually avoid words that have, linguistically speaking, a high degree of modality like ‘must’ and ‘should’. We don’t do emphatic injunctions (see what I did there?). We prefer shadowy multi-valence: we seek out grounds for misconstruction, shy away from certitude and are perpetually prepared to flee along carefully established verbal escape routes.
The poet John Masefield, however, was largely self-taught and, as far as I know, un-analyzed. Although thoroughly upper-middle class (within the taxonomy of the British class system) and thus, in the Edwardian era, expected to go to one of two Universities he was, instead, sent away to sea having been diagnosed by a maiden aunt as, heaven forbid, a bookworm. Ironically, (for said aunt) the merchant seaman has ample spare time and a distinct lack of amusements available to him on the high seas (in an age before digitized movies). The youth was therefore shipped into an ideal environment for literary annelids, far richer even, than the bookish humus available at Oxbridge and one already possessed of an old-boy of unimpeachable credentials, Joseph Conrad.
All of this, it seems to me, is essential background to an understanding of,
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…..”
This line is responsible (among so many others) for the ill-repute into which almost all rhyming poetry has fallen. The sing-song attack that generations of English and not a few American school children use in the annihilation of poetic reason likely smothers Masefield’s next line,
“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…..”
in a typical abnegation of meaning as rhythm and rhyme transcend all in a race to the bottom of the doggerel pond. The fallout settles like toxic grime on all poems that you-know-what. Pity: because Sea Fever is quite an effective piece of verse. Who cannot, if of a certain age, but empathize with the hopeless, impotent dreams of lost youth so affectingly sketched in the last stanza?
“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.”
Ain’t going to happen, except for that last bit. So it was, ever the versifier, that Masefield left instructions to his "Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns":
“Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there's an end of me.”
Scatter….Water….Ouch! Agreement in terminal sounds? Not so much. But with that written he felt ready to take his last breath: the ‘must’ in Masefield victim of mortality - the imperative applied to one too many items on an overly ambitious bucket list.
Speaking of which (lonely sea and the sky): at the further reaches of Koenigstein Road, where it becomes a track serving cattle pastures on a ravine-split mesa, then a winding mostly paved road headed for the Nesbitt’s avocado farm, a horse ranch and an off-the-grid shack currently on the County’s watch-list, then splits off to the left up a nameless canyon (by which time it has presumably shed its allegiance to the eponymous German hotelier) and then hairpins around several seasonal streams that cleave to deep fissures in the hillside, there is sometimes a view of the sea set beneath a wide-ranging sky. It is there, on clear days, in hazy sight of Ormond Beach, that I retain a connection to the Pacific Ocean.
Used to be that I needed to live close enough to check the surf, or at least be within a short walk of the beach and most certainly within ear-shot of a sizeable swell crashing on the shore. Remarkably, I achieved that for the most part of thirty years – ten in Sydney and twenty in Venice or Santa Monica Canyon. Now that need has fallen away. Running has replaced surfing and the chaparral the beach. Good trade.
At first light, after overnight rain, looking west between the Santa Ynez and the Santa Monica Mountains, the agricultural plain lays far below, unshrouded in its customary morning mists while plumes of steam arise from the Proctor and Gamble plant in Oxnard and the 1500 megawatt twin natural gas-fired steam turbine units of the Ormond Beach Generating Station. Beyond, a grey-white slab of ocean merges almost imperceptibly with the dawn sky - an ocean that serves as boundary to an earthen shore beholden to its top-predator - where are produced power, food and products on an epic scale.
Further still, unseen, are the modern-day equivalents of Masefield’s tall ships, container vessels and oil tankers that plow the sea lanes between beach and islands along the Santa Barbara channel. From the trail, they are but ghost-ships drawing the world together in a Gordian knot of trade routes delivering energy and box-store stuffing.
Masefield’s middle verse…
“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”
…is a beautiful evocation of the sights, sounds and atmospheric energy of ocean and sky – presumably as experienced on a ship under sail – but it elides the commercial circumstances that impel this merchant voyaging. Now, it seems we can no longer enjoy the likes of Thoreau’s train whistle (and it’s not clear that his was an unalloyed aural delight (Scream of a Hawk)) – or any of the sensory delights erstwhile afforded by vehicles, vessels and locomotives embedded in their infrastructures of travel and trade – burdened as we are by an awareness of their cumulative environmental costs. The romance of the road, iron or asphalt, or sea lanes has far outlived the earlier, Blakian awareness of the satanic impact of the architectural emblems of late capitalism; but now that romance is colored with the dark shades essayed, for instance, by Cormac McCarthy in The Road.
More often, as I reach the switchbacks that can afford the ocean view, there is a grey mist on the valleys below, and as Masefield might have it, “a grey dawn breaking”. Focused on the crumbling bank of sandstone, a steep chaparral slope below and the narrow path between, I register the oaks and sycamores that appear at each tumbling dry creek (now moistened by recent rain) and the wand buckwheat, deerweed, eriodyctylon and gnaphalium along the way, I am content to be cocooned in a landscape that has not changed significantly in 30,000 years.
I function as a free floating intelligence disengaged from the concerns of now: the scents, sights and sounds of the landscape pricking at my senses – the complex and destructive bargains we have made with our sheltering planet forgotten. Free (at last) from the imperative to be in other, alternate places, I determine once more that this primordial land is my home.