The Japanese hokku writer Buson wrote this:

Koma-bune no yorade sugiyuku kasumi kana

A Korean ship
Passes by without stopping;
The mist.

There are many interpretations of this verse, but for me it is another of Buson’s imaginary hokku that romanticize the distant past. He fantasizes looking at the spring sea, and out of the mist appears an ancient Korean trading vessel; it does not pause or turn toward port but sails on, back into the mist. The mist is time and Buson’s imagination. The ship appears out the past and then returns to it, a brief reverie.

This kind of hokku — imaginary hokku — is not the kind I teach or favor, but it does have its uses. Today that use for me is as an entry point into another poem that romanticizes sea trade in the distant past, this time written by the British poet and novelist John Masefield (1878-1967). We will look at the first two stanzas — the “romantic” stanzas, and then at the last, by contrast:


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, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

The past is always easier to romanticize than the present, but somewhat more difficult to depict accurately.

Masefield uses imagery to evoke shapes, colors, and smells in the mind. He shows us a “quinquireme,” an ancient ship named, scholars think, for its five rows of oars. It was very large, but in reality it was a warship, not a cargo ship. And Masefield calls it a “quinquireme of Nineveh,” but the Assyrian city of Nineveh, on the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, was looted and abandoned in 612 B.C.E., which was more than two centuries before the quinquireme galley came into use on the Mediterranean sea of the Hellenistic era.

Masefield says the Nineveh quinquireme was coming from “distant Ophir.” That reveals Masefield’s source of inspiration for this stanza, because Ophir is a place mentioned in the Old Testament. Its precise location is uncertain, but it appears to have been somewhere on the east coast of Africa. If we look at a couple of lines from the biblical book 2 Chronicles, chapter 9, we find this concerning King Solomon :

10: And the servants also of Huram, and the servants of Solomon, which brought gold from Ophir, brought algum trees and precious stones…
21: For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.

Masefield conflated (combined into one) Ophir with the cargo of the ships of Tarshish, and came up with

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir

This poem, then, is not history but romantic imagery, so we must overlook the inaccuracies and look instead at the image of a great, multi-oared vessel rowing to port in Palestine on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, coming from far off Ophir, laden with white ivory tusks, with chattering apes and colorful peacocks, with fragrant sandalwood and cedarwood, and sweet white wine. That gives us the first set of images of sea cargo.

Next comes this:

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Masefield shows us a wooden sailing vessel from many centuries later than the quinquireme — a Spanish galleon on its return voyage from the Americas, from “the Isthmus.” That is the Isthmus of Panama, that narrow strip of land connecting North and South America. It is the region where gold and silver coming north from Spanish possessions in Peru were carried from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Caribbean Sea on the “Atlantic” eastern side in the days long before the Panama Canal, and then shipped on to Spain, so it was a very important center of trade.

Masefield shows us the galleon sailing past the shores and islands of the Caribbean, green with palm trees, and onward to Spain, loaded

With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

This is a rich and colorful list, spiced with the fragrance of cinnamon bark. First the stones: Sparkling white diamonds, green emeralds, purple amethysts, and topaz in every color from yellow to blue to reddish brown. And then come gold moidores, literally “coins of gold” in the Portuguese language (moedas de ouro) shining gold coins that ceased being minted in 1732 but continued in circulation on trading ships for a long time — coins of the “pirate” era, along with doubloons and pieces of eight. We can see from Masefield’s rhyming it with “shores” in line two of the stanza that he wants it pronounced as “moy-dors.”

Now we come from the exotic past into what was, for Masefield, the prosaic present, and something he would have seen often:

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-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Look at the adjectives: “dirty,” “salt-caked,” “mad,” “cheap.” Compare those with the adjectives in the first and second stanzas:
“distant,” “sunny,” “sweet,” “white,” “stately,” “palm-green,” “gold.”

A “coaster” was a ship trading up and down the coast of a country, not a vessel of the deep sea. This one is dirty from long and hard use, and unlike the quinquireme that was powered by oars and the galleon powered by wind in its sails, the coaster has a boiler powered by burning black coal. The stack from which the smoke pours is caked with salt from the sea spray, and the coaster does not move gracefully, but rather goes “butting” — pushing its way — through the rough waters of the English Channel in the “mad” days of March, days when the weather is erratic and can be very windy and cold.

The cargo of the coaster is nothing exotic or colorful. It carries heaps of coal from the coal-shipping center on the Tyne River in northeastern England; it carries iron rails for train tracks; it carries pig lead, that is, lead cast into large ingots (“pigs”) that can be stacked and shipped for eventual re-melting and casting into other forms; it carries firewood; it carries ironware (objects cast from iron, such things as kettles and tools, etc.); and finally it carries cheap tin trays. One can easily see that compared to the cargo in the first two stanzas, the third has only utilitarian and uninteresting and ordinary things for everyday use, not the luxury items of the rich that were carried on quinquireme and galleon.

What do we see in this poem, then? First and foremost, it shows us colorful and romanticized imagery in the first two stanzas, so much so that the third is something of a letdown. Second, it presents a striking contrast between the rich and the ordinary, between luxury goods and everyday utilitarian items. Third, it shows us the difference between the pre-industrial world and the smoky, dirty, industry-polluted world in the days after the Industrial Revolution, a contrast between past and present, and the present suffers by comparison. Fourth, it shows us the continuous importance of shipping in human history, which to Masefield was significant because in his youth he went to sea and spent a number of years sailing to places as distant as Chile. Those years meant a great deal to him and strongly influenced his poetry. He never quite got the sea out of his mind.

The structure of the poem is simple: the last word of the second line in each stanza rhymes with the last word in the last line of each stanza.

Ultimately, though, this poem is just a pleasant presentation of sights and smells that contrast the “romantic” past (which we cannot see, and thus paint with the imagination) with the “prosaic” present (which we can see). There is nothing deep in it, just a sequence of colorful pictures that fade to dingy grey at the end.

Of course the past is never as romantic as we think it to be when we carefully select such exotic things as ivory and emeralds out of times that were for most people very difficult and filled with hunger, disease, hard labor, violence and early death. But humans have always found it more interesting to remake the past into a pleasant dream.

That is what Buson did with his vision of an ancient Korean ship coming out of the spring mist, and that is what Masefield did with his Nineveh quinquireme and Spanish galleon.



  1. Another David

    Thanks, David. The ‘poetic licence’ of Masefield’s inaccuracies should, as you say, be ignored – the importance lies in the imagery. So just two points I’d like to make:
    1. Those inaccuracies seem to include the coaster – where would it have been heading off to down the Channel with that Tyne coal and road rail? By the 20th century the railways would have been carrying the rails for themselves, assuming they needed them in the south-west; which would have got its coal cheaper from South Wales anyway. Would such a cargo have been heading across channel to France or Spain? Unlikely I suspect.
    2. Much more seriously, it seems to me an over-simplification to see the poem only as a contrast between the first two stanzas and the third, as all the analyses I have seen seem to do . All three stanzas represent a progression – from the relatively simple innocence of the items on board the quinquireme, through the much more materialistic, greedy lust for gold and jewels represented by the galleon’s cargo, to the even more materialistic prosaic worldliness of the coaster’s. The whole sequence thus becomes a questioning of ‘whither “civilization”?’, and do we really regard all this as totally unalloyed “progress”?
    Considered in this light, it surely must be felt that the galleon’s cargo manifest requires a rather questionable value system to be regarded as “romantic”? The poem is about the “Cargoes” – it is not just an exposition of pretty imagery. Wonderful as the imagery is, it is there to serve a purpose, to make the point. And therefore the poem is in fact a far deeper, and more serious, statement than merely a contrast between the romance of the past and modern materialism (depressing enough though we may feel that to be that too!).

  2. Glyn Evans

    For more of Masefield’s sea poems and prose have a look at the book ‘CARGOES – A Celebration of the Sea’ by Glyn L Evans. Each item is enhanced by a painting by the marine artist Kenneth D Shoesmith.

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