J John Masefield

Cargoes by John Masefield

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is a well-loved, short poem that explores cargo ships. The poet empathizes the way the ships have changed throughout history.

Throughout the lines of ‘Cargoes,’ the poet provides readers with interesting and engaging imagery and makes use of several examples of literary devices. The first two stanzas of this piece spark the reader’s imagination while the latter brings them back to reality. The poet’s feelings in regard to which period is the least appealing of the three are quite clear.

Cargoes by John Masefield


Summary

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is an interesting poem about the history of cargo ships and the cargo that they transported.

In the first stanza, the poet explores ancient ships and ports from the Bible and the various items they could’ve been transported from Ophir. These include apes, peacocks, and sandalwood. The second stanza brings in a Spanish galleon and the gemstones this particular type of ship would’ve carried. These two different periods in history are juxtaposed with one another as well as with the final. The poet describes a more contemporary, dirty, British ship that carries coal and cheap, uninteresting items.

Themes

Throughout this piece, Masefield engages with themes of change and history. The poet emphasizes the differences between these three different periods in history but especially between the first two and the third. The world made a huge shift with the advent of modern shipping and that change everything, including the goods that were traded. Sailing loses its romantic quality by the time the reader gets to the end of the third stanza. There is nothing appealing about the dirty ship and its uninteresting goods.

Structure and Form

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, known as quintains. These quintains only contain one set of rhyming lines each. The second and fifth lines rhyme in each stanza and the others do not. The poet also chose not to structure this piece with a specific metrical pattern.

The lines are quite different from one another. Stretching from four syllables up to more than ten. This means that the poem changes a great deal from line to line and stanza to stanza. This makes sense when readers consider the content and Masefield’s interest in exploring cargo ships throughout time.

Literary Devices

Throughout ‘Cargoes,’ Masefield makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “tin trays” in the last line of the poem and “salt-caked smoke stack” in the first line of stanza three.
  • Imagery: seen when the poet uses especially clear and interesting descriptions. For example, “Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine” and “Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores.”
  • Allusion: occurs when the poet uses very specific and unusual words like “Quinquireme.” Readers have to either look up what the word means or depend on a faint understanding of its origin. Most allusions provide readers with a bit of information about something but don’t go into detail.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

(…)

Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

In the first stanza of ‘Cargoes,’ the poet uses several words that readers might not know. He starts off by describing “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir.” The word “Quinquireme” refers to a Roman galley with five banks of oars on each side, according to The Free Dictionary. They were common ships of the period. These ships were from “Nineveh,” an important city in the Assyrian empire, and from Ophir, a port that’s mentioned in the Bible.

It’s associated with King Solomon and the story of his receiving cargo from there every three years. The items included sandalwood, gold, and apes, and peacocks. These are all things the poet mentions in the following lines. With this reference to the Bible, as well as the biblical connections to Nineveh, it’s important that readers consider this first stanza to have religious, or at least historically religious undertones.

This first stanza is filled with imagery, from the apes to the “sweet white wine.” Readers are given a very layered and interesting image of what a cargo ship was like at this period in history. The next two portraits of cargo ships are quite different.

Stanza Two

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

(…)

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

In the following lines, the speaker moves into the discussion of another type of cargo ship from another period in history— the Spanish galleon. This was a large, Spanish ship the was used as an armed cargo carrier from the 16th to 18th centuries. These ships carried different cargo through a different part of the world.

Again, readers are given several good examples of imagery. The speaker describes “Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.” The word “moidores” is also likely unusual for most readers. It refers to a gold Portuguese coin. This period of cargo appears to be focused primarily on wealth. The gemstones are contrasted against the “palm-green shores.”

Stanza Three

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,

(…)

Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The final stanza of ‘Cargoes’ brings the reader towards the present day. The speaker discusses the “Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack.” Gone are the massive Spanish galleons and exotic-sounding “Quinquireme of Nineveh.” Now, readers are presented with a “dirty” ship that’s putting out smoke and “Butting through the Channel.” There is nothing romanticized about this image of a cargo ship.

Clearly, the speaker has a different image of the present than they do of the past. The ships no longer transport gemstones, apes, and peacocks. Now, they carry coal along the River Tyne and “iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.” These unappealing items do not speak to the reader’s imagination in the same way as the previous stanzas did. A change has come over the world that corresponded with industrialization.

FAQs

Why did John Masefield write ‘Cargoes?

It’s not entirely clear what inspired Masefield to write ‘Cargoes’ but it was likely that he wanted to share a concise history of cargo ships while also exploring how time has changed trade and travel. It’s fairly obvious he, or at least the speaker he was channeling, saw these changes as negatives.

What is the tone of ‘Cargoes?

Throughout this poem, the poet uses an informative tone. He provides readers with information, and it’s not until the final stanza that it really feels like he’s emotionally invested in what he’s talking about. The final lines suggest the speaker is disappointed with how history has progressed.

When did John Masefield write ‘Cargoes?

The poem ‘Cargoes’ was first published in 1903 in Ballads. He was likely inspired by the power of the British Empire at the time, growing industrialization, and an interest in history.

Who is the speaker in ‘Cargoes?’

In this poem, the speaker is someone who has a broad knowledge of sailing and cargo history. They’re interested in different time periods and how they might be visualized and understood in regard to their trade. Perhaps this person is from Great Britain due to their focus on Britain in the last stanza and opinion about the current state of trade, sailing, and industrialization.

What type of poem is ‘Cargoes?’

‘Cargoes’ is a lyric poem. The poet uses numerous literary devices throughout this piece, provides readers with examples of imagery, and uses poetic language


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Cargoes’ should also consider reading some of John Masefield’s other best-known poems. For example:

  • Sea Fever’ – explores a speaker’s desire to travel, specifically, to go to sea and sail.
  • On Eastnor Knoll’ – elegantly and poetically depicts the end of the day and the setting of the sun below the horizon.

Other related poems include:

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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