Chapter 6:

[Diego Rivera: The Bandit Hero (1936)]

Masefield and the Quest

John Masefield


Sard Harker

In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), Anthony Burgess mentions encountering the following question in his examination for the 'Customs and Excise' service:

Give the ingredients of a rattling good yarn, with reference to either Redgauntlet, The Four Feathers, The Thirty-Nine Steps, or Sard Harker. (Burgess, 1988, p.162)

Habituated to the subtleties of Hopkins and Joyce, he was unable to make much of the challenge.

In a similar vein, Stephen Medcalf, reviewing William Golding’s (then) latest novel Fire Down Below (1989) for the Times Literary Supplement, remarks in an aside of The Bird of Dawning (1933):

although like others of Masefield’s novels it contains one passage as good as anything in English literature, the encounter of an open boat with a great wave – the story as a whole maintains no depth of excitement under the excitement of event. (Medcalf, 1989, p.267)

These two comments combine to give a fairly accurate picture of the received opinion on Masefield’s fiction: that it has no depth of implication under the ‘excitement of event’, and that its virtues – readability, pace, suspense – are essentially those of the ‘rattling good yarn’ or adventure story. Even if one were to acknowledge this to be so, it might still be argued that his work was worthy of consideration as an unselfconscious mirror of the prejudices and presuppositions of his era – the very preference for such superficial ‘yarns’ being a datum in itself. It would, however, be premature to make any such assumption before testing this view of Masefield against the evidence of one of his texts.

I have therefore chosen in this chapter to examine Sard Harker (1924), one of the two books mentioned above, and the first of his trilogy of novels set in ‘Santa Barbara’, an imaginary country on the ‘Sugar Coast’ of South America. This has the advantage of combining our consideration of Masefield’s fictional strategies with a charting of the view of South America implied by these three works (in order, Sard Harker, Odtaa (1926), and The Taking of the Gry (1934). The method I shall be pursuing will be the cataloguing of the surface ‘South American’ aspects of the novel, followed by a discussion of their function in context (whether it be narrative, thematic, topographical, or a combination of the three).

In the progress of the argument so far, then, this can be seen as a natural continuation of the inquiry made in the last two chapters into the relationship between fiction (popular or otherwise), and the settings chosen for it – specifically, in this case, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ versions of South America. Let us begin by listing the selected features one after the other.

[John Masefield: Sard Harker (1924)]

(a) Mimicry

Sard took the sheet of coarse yellowish paper printed in blunt old type which had once printed praise of Maximilian. He read from it as follows:

‘Feast of Pugilism.
At three o’clock punctually.
Grand Display of the Antique Athletic.
Contests with the gloves for the decisions.
The Light-Weights, the Middle-Weights,
The World Famous Heavy-Weights.
At three o’clock punctually.
At three o’clock punctually.
Six contests of the three rounds for the Champions
of Las Palomas
For the Belt of the Victor.
To be followed by a Contest Supreme.
Twenty Rounds. Twenty Rounds.
Twenty Three-Minute Rounds.'

(Masefield, 1924, p.33)

This boxing match does play a part in the development of the book’s plot, since it is there that Sard overhears a conversation threatening the abduction of a ‘Mrs. Kingsborough’ from a house out of town, but the entire poster would not have to be reproduced simply for that reason. It demonstrates very well, though, one of the most obvious surface characteristics of Masefield’s text – its obsession with oddities of speech and diction.

The villains whom Sard hears plotting at the match, for example, speak in a strange argot composed of slang and fragments of verse:

Yah, you dirty Carib,

Knocky, knocky neethy
On your big front teethy.

That’s what’s coming to you in one dollar’s worth. the royal order of the K.O., or else a boot you’ll feel for as long as you can sit. (Masefield, 1924, p.43)

Other interesting phrases employed by them include: ‘This is God’s country: it isn’t going to be any black man’s not while little ‘Arry Wiskey is on the tapis’; ‘he’ll have about as much show as a cat in hell without claws. When it’s peace, he has a show, but when it’s war, he’s got to go’; and ‘you may listen and you may glisten, but you’ll go where the nightshade twineth if you put the cross on little ‘Arry Wiskey’ (Masefield, 1924, pp.41-42).

Overall, one does indeed get from all this the impression of a rather cryptic overheard conversation – a series of propositions à propos of nothing readily understandable – but there is also a rich prodigality about ‘Mr Wiskey’s’ verbal fantasias. The rhetorical devices employed by him include inversion (‘a boot you’ll feel for as long as you can sit’); internal rhyme (‘you may listen and you may glisten’, ‘he has a show ... he’s got to go’); deliberate archaisms, both in a punning sense (‘on the tapis’ for ‘above ground’), and for redundant poetic effect (‘you’ll go where the nightshade twineth’4 ); and elaborated metaphors (‘he’ll have as much show as a cat in hell without claws’ replaces the simple ‘as much chance as a cat in hell’).

When a number of these techniques are combined in one short phrase – such as ‘you may listen and you may glisten, but you’ll go where the nightshade twineth if you put the cross on little ‘Arry Wiskey’ – they do indeed seem to rise ‘to a kind of song’ (p.41), as Sard himself puts it. A strong sense of the rhythm of speech is supplied by the rhetorical triplet ‘you may ... and you may ... but you’ll go’; and ‘the nightshade twineth’, in context, justifies the pun on ‘cross’ immediately following – both making the (personified) Mr Wiskey ‘cross’, and putting a cross on someone’s grave (where it can be entwined by nightshade).

The basic strategy, however, consists of substituting a periphrasis for each stage in a straightforward syntactical structure: ‘you may do what you like, but you’ll regret it if you anger me’. ‘Me’ becomes the third person ‘little ‘Arry Wiskey’; ‘regret’ is translated into an elaborate metaphor for death; and ‘do what you like’ becomes a play on words referring to earlier snatches of conversation about the palm-oil used by negroes to make their skin glisten, and the possibility that some of the other spectators at the boxing match (Sard, for instance) might understand what is being said (‘listen’).

I have devoted so much time to this analysis in order to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of this ‘thieves’ jargon’. It may communicate the atmosphere of half-understood, somehow threatening snatches of conversation, but its tropes appear also to be aesthetically self-sufficient – displaying their wealth of linguistic invention for its own sake. This is the constant tension running through all the verbal pyrotechnics recorded by Masefield in his novel – on the one hand they give a powerful sense of the ‘alienness’ of the environment the hero is seeking to explore, on the other they seem simply to record Masefield’s own love of puns, pastiche, and conflicting registers of speech (a taste which can be clearly discerned in his letters and other writings not intended for publication).[1]

The boxing poster from which I have quoted above illustrates the same tension in a slightly different way. The hyperbole and verbal flights of fancy here are attempts to echo the characteristic rhythms of Spanish as they appear to an English speaker. A ‘Feast of Pugilism’, for example, instead of a boxing match; the redundancy of ‘Contests with the gloves for the decisions’; and the constant repetitions of ‘At three o’clock, punctually’, which engender suspense by their very clumsiness. It is not just Spanish which Masefield hopes to evoke, however (which distinguishes him from Hemingway’s attempts to echo its syntax in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)), but this particular kind of Spanish – in ‘an old type which had once printed praise of Maximilian’ (a fairly effective distancing gesture), in a Caribbean coastal town, for a contest of no merit between two unknown boxers. This ‘Grand Display of the Antique Athletic’ is overblown even by Spanish standards, as Masefield suggests in the quasi-Eliotic repetition of the portentous drumroll, ‘Twenty Rounds. Twenty Rounds./ Twenty Three-Minute Rounds’.

Again, then, the sober intention of suggesting the style of Spanish, insofar as that is possible in English, is subverted by Masefield’s own linguistic exuberance. A speech, for him, can never simply serve a structural role – it must be composed and then elaborated upon for its own sake (one good example is in his essay on Chaucer, where the simple idea of illustrating different types of verse narration leads him to compose a series of Homeric, Dantesque, Wordsworthian, and dramatic versions of ‘the cat sat on the mat’).[2] This spirit – not just of mimicry, but of exaggeration and parody – is what gives his texts their primary quality of verbal excess. Whether it can be called, for the most part, a virtue or a vice depends on its effect in the context of the narrative – but for that we will have to consider some further features of Masefield’s novel.

[The Virgin of Guadalupe (1531)]

(b) Peculiarities of Character

They were no longer of this world, nor conscious of it: they went dancing back to the kitchen, with hallelujahs. A jar or pot boiled over as they entered, with an overwhelming wash of splutter and crackle. A flood of smoke shot up from the mess with a smell of burnt dinner. Ramón seized the offending pot and cast it on the floor, singing:

‘Never mind the little things, happy Ramón,
The little things of this world, happy Ramón,
For you have seen the joyous, happy Ramón,
Lady in the blue skirt, happy Ramón.
But, oh, the Lord, the saucepan burn my fingers!’ (Masefield, 1924, p.92)

Tio Ramón and Tia Eusebia, the old black servants of Margaret and Hilary Kingsborough, have just seen a vision of the Virgin Mary ‘near the forest edge’ (p.91), and are trying to tell their employers about it. The two gringos ‘watched the dance from the kitchen door. They had heard that miraculous visitations were quite frequent along the coast and that when they came they filled the life of those visited for two days’ (p.92).

This religious fervour, which makes the old couple unfit for anything else until it has burned out, is useful to the narrative – in that it allows the villains introduced earlier to abduct Margaret Kingsborough with maximum ease – but it seems, again, a little surplus to requirements. It gives Masefield a chance to let himself go with some really rousing and lunatic ‘spirituals’, such as:

‘There shines the Lord.’
‘O, the little glittering feet!’
‘I see the long white beard of Father Abraham.’
‘Oh, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost.’
‘Halle-halle-halle-hallelujah’ (Masefield, 1924, p.93)

But it seems otherwise a fairly blatant piece of racial stereotyping.

If we go on a bit, though, we find a white ‘young woman, just beginning to grow fat’ (p.137), who is characterized in just as extreme a fashion.

‘Assuredly,’ she said. ‘It is true, then, as they say, that the English are as ice. “Assuredly.” You said it with a peck, as from a beak. “Assuredly.” If I were to take a dagger and thrust it into my heart so that I fell dead, you would say “Assuredly she has driven the point too far. Assuredly she is no longer alive.”’ (Masefield, 1924, p.140)

This woman, whose name is ‘Clara of the Salt-Pans’ but who prefers to be known as ‘Rose of the South’ (in opposition to Margaret – Margarita – Kingsborough, who turns out really to be called ‘Juanita de la Torre’ (p.314)), is – with her ‘exceedingly good-natured’ mouth – as much of a stereotype of the good-natured, passionate Spanish woman as the two servants are of black religious enthusiasts – but since the business about ‘Assuredly’ is more effective as parody of the English than of their Latin neighbours, one is forced to conclude that Masefield is playing with the stereotype rather than simply endorsing it. And, if we continue to examine the various ‘types’ encountered by Sard in his progress across the continent – Smugglers (‘there were cries of “Narker!” “Put it on him, George!” “I set he was a spy, py Gott!” “Hay que matarle!” etc.’ (p.148)); Bandits (‘“Here I am, old Pappa Peppy, and I’m as drunk as I want to be. Come on out, Martin, Tomás, Ramón, Espinello, for I tell you I’m not Pappa Peppy, but an avenging angel of the Day of Doom ...” And at this he let fly with two revolvers at the doors of the huts’ (p.236)); and Sailors ashore (‘We’re not making any row, you young pup; go and lap milk in a tea-joint ... I’ve torn a man’s trousers off for less; dammy, the sea’s that refined nowadays it’s chronic’ (p.270)) – we find that the satire is at least evenly spread.

What one is driven, finally, to acknowledge is that Masefield uses his linguistic creativity as a means of distinguishing these various characters, otherwise liable to be blurred into a single confused picture of ‘lower-class’ insobriety and violence. The stereotype, then, works as a tool for composition rather than as a vehicle of racist ideology. In order for Masefield to chart the peculiarities of his new land, he must have some means of classifying the diverse individuals and peoples he finds there; and the one he has chosen (perhaps the only effective one), is to exaggerate their habits and appearance, and reflect this exaggeration in the individuality and exuberance of their speech.

The two servants whom we started with, therefore, rather than reflecting Masefield’s own prejudices, reveal the efficacy of this method. Religious fervour – from the Virgin of Guadelupe, to the ancient Jaguar cults of the Andes, to the frightening rituals of candomblé (Brazilian voodoo) – is one of our principal associations, as Westerners, with South America; and it could hardly be more neatly critiqued than in this small vignette. Take the principal feature of the scene – the fact that the two Kingsboroughs are looking on in wonder at this display, and assuming that it will all be over within ‘two days’:

‘So they have seen the Virgin,’ Margaret said. ‘They will need us no more tonight.’ (Masefield, 1924, p.92)

The gap between theory and practice in the Kingsboroughs’ view of their religion is made apparent here – they see no way in which this alleged vision could impinge upon them, and assume it as a matter of course to be a temporary aberration. This might not seem an unreasonable line to take, under the circumstances – but it is a little more difficult to sustain when one already assents, as they do, to the whole medley of miracles of the Catholic Church. Masefield points the moral even more obviously by making Margaret’s abductor a devil-worshipper, and one who seems actually to possess supernatural powers. Sard, too, is helped in his quest by visions and prophetic dreams.

The way in which the old couple is presented – entirely from the outside, with no insight into their thought processes except that provided by their own speech and the tacit reaction of the two Europeans – is therefore more complex in implication than the ‘surface’ phenomenon which it at first appears to be. The same is true of the other classes of people portrayed in the novel – we have, always, the evidence of their own register of language and of one of the main characters’ (Sard, Margarita, Hilary’s) reactions to them – but the clash between the two, between the stereotype and its fulfilment, always leaves a gap which precludes too hasty or doctrinaire an interpretation.

[Matthew J. Hoffman: The Narrow Path (2009)]

(c) Landscapes

Half a mile up the cañon he stopped, for in front of him the walls of the cañon drew together, and there at each side of the chasm the rock had been hewn into a semblance of columns, a hundred feet high. Drawing a little nearer, he saw that the heads of the columns were carven with the heads of monsters which were crushing human skulls between their teeth; blood seemed to be flowing from their mouths; blood spattered the columns; as he drew near, he could hear it dripping on the rocks below. The noise of the great bird, or whatever it was, had been silent for some time; now he heard it much nearer and with a new note, not of joy nor of sorrow, but of laughter that had no feeling in it. Sard stopped; he felt his hair stand on end, while his heart seemed to come up into his throat and thump there till it was as dry as bone. (Masefield, 1924, p.213)

We have looked at the somewhat disproportionate verbal invention of Masefield’s characters’ speech, and seen that it embodies a tension between the demands of narrative context and its author’s own taste in hyperbole; we have gone on to see that same exaggeration justified as a means of defining individual character in an alien society. Now, however, it is time to consider the most apparently ‘surface’ characteristic of all – Masefield’s treatment of the South American landscape.

Immediately we are met with a paradox – Masefield’s characters are all surface glitter: tricks of speech which leave the inner self inviolate; his landscapes, on the other hand, could hardly be more anthropomorphic and subjective. Take the one described above. It is true that it is a striking scene – more striking, perhaps, because Masefield delays an explanation of the columns spattered with blood. It is, though, a relentlessly ‘Sard’s eye’ view – even the delay corresponds to his own hesitation in formulating an explanation:

‘They’re only those streams,’ he said, ‘with iron ore or with red pigment in them, and they’ve led them in channels to those figures’ mouths. That’s all it is.’ (Masefield, 1924, p.213)

When we go through the rest of the passage we find a similar concentration on the stance of the central character at each point. ‘He stopped’ because – ‘in front of him the walls ... drew together’. It is true that it was the walls that halted him, but their drawing together is syntactically predicated on his stopping. Further on, ‘Drawing a little nearer, he saw ...’ – and we, too, are allowed to see – the ‘heads of monsters ... crushing human skulls’. Then, ‘as he drew near, he could hear ...’ – sound is added to our vision as Sard comes near enough to hear the blood dripping down. One sound recalls another, and Sard suddenly begins to hear again the ‘strange, metallic cry’ which preoccupied him a page before:

Sard’s mind offered many suggestions, one after the other. Now it was like some great bell, but it was not a bell. Now it was like some ringing true blow struck by a gigantic tuning-fork, or like the blow of an axe upon a gong, or like the drilling of some gigantic woodpecker into a musical wood. He could not think what it was. (Masefield, 1924, pp.211-12)

‘He could not think what it was’ – and therefore ‘it’ remains unformulated until he can think what it is. For the moment, it resembles ‘laughter that had no feeling in it’. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in this landscape, objects do in fact exist only to the extent that they can be formulated by an observer. ‘That’s all it is’, is Sard’s conclusion to his explanation of the streams of blood, but the passage continues: ‘It was all that it was, but in the dusk of the cañon and of the day, to one very weak and weary as well as feverish, it was enough’ (Masefield, 1924, p.213).

Similarly, when he discovers that ‘the noise of the great bird’ is actually ‘the wind striking sharp angles in the rocks at the chasm top’, he sums up:

‘Those Indians spoke the truth,’ he thought, ‘when they said that the gods speak in music from dusk to dawn.’ (Masefield, 1924, p.214)

This explanation is meant no more figuratively than the earlier ones about a bell or a woodpecker – the landscape is perceived by Sard in an animistic way, as either helping or hindering his passage, but it is perceived by us as a literal ‘objective correlative’ of Sard’s mental landscape. ‘His heart seemed to come up into his throat and thump there till it was as dry as bone’ is Sard’s echo of the dryness and the ‘ringing true blows’ of the bird’s voice. The whole cañon with its speaking gods, furthermore, arises in response to Sard’s thought, ‘“Here ... I may come upon some unknown beast or bird or race of men or giants, for there may be anything in a place like this”’ (Masefield, 1924, p.213).

This sense of ‘double exposure’ about the landscapes in Sard Harker – the fact that they can only be perceived from Sard’s point of view, and yet seem to be simultaneously dictated by his state of mind – is nowhere clearer than in the famous passage in which Sard attempts to make his way across a swamp. For ten pages of the novel, he is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with what is little more than an overflowing ditch. The disproportionate length of this passage, given its lack of importance to the plot, has caused it to be regarded (like the ‘great wave’ passage in The Bird of Dawning), both as a showcase of Masefield’s talent at description, and an example of his failure to master the architectonics of the novel-form. To me, however, the textual intractability of Masefield’s description of the struggle with the swamp is designed to echo in all respects its role in Sard’s journey.

It is, at first, intended as a short-cut:

He judged that the sea beach would be about half a mile from him and that he would save at least three-quarters of a mile by going by the beach. (Masefield, 1924, p.117)

The fact that Sard is attempting to rejoin his ship before it sails, having tried (unsuccessfully) to warn the Kingsboroughs of their peril, imparts an added tension to this monstrously misjudged device for saving time. The reader too is anxious to know what has become of Margaret, and is therefore equally frustrated by the lack of success of this manoeuvre. The disproportionate difficulty Sard finds in negotiating his short-cut therefore matches the disproportionate length at which it is narrated (both character and reader being slow to perceive that, far from being a detour, the heart of the struggle is here).

As Sard comes closer and closer to being drowned, his only desire is to regain his ship (he does not know that Margarita has already been kidnapped). He is saved, however, by a ‘spray of xicale flowers [which] came floundering down from above, into his face’ (Masefield, 1924, p.128): the flower is linked with Margarita, who lives in a villa called ‘Los Xicales’. The reader too does not realise that by being deflected a hundred times – by being frustrated on every side and led on a mad dash through the heart of the continent, Sard will finally manage to be in time to save his lover, and that the supernatural aid of dreams and flowers is more significant in this drama than quotidian details of ships and sailing-times. Sard’s lack of knowledge, then, is echoed by the lack of knowledge of the reader – and the arid, threatening nature of the landscapes which he encounters, landscapes which seem created only to serve as an obstacle to him, can be explained by the fact that they are precisely that. They are narrative obstacles to too hasty a resolution – and their beauty and terror (the beauty and terror of South America itself), is a reflection of the fact that the journey is as important as the destination: that the success of such a Romance depends as much on the intrinsic interest of its parts as on the ingenuity of its conclusion.

It is perhaps not exaggerating the case too much to say that Masefield presents language objectively and landscape subjectively because he has more faith in the former than the latter. Sard’s world is shaped by his own thought processes – and by the language in which they are couched – both from Sard’s point of view (the order in which they appear), and ours (the ways in which tangible things – the swamp, the cañon, the flowers – seem to echo the state of his soul). The landscapes in the book, then, operate on three levels: as anthropomorphic obstacles to Sard; as narrative frustrations to the reader; and as hints at an overall perception of landscape as language (not I think too ‘post-modern’ a sentiment to attribute to Masefield, under the circumstances).

[Penitentiary (Lima)]

(d) Small Town Paranoia

Sard felt that they knew that he was there, and that they were looking for him. Then he felt that though they were men, they wanted some of the senses of men; they were like some race of men born blind, who felt for their enemies by some sense which men no longer have ... They seemed to feel the ground and lift samples of it, then they muttered remarks about the samples ... Sard could hear their mutterings and a discussion going on among them. Evidently they had come upon his trail and were puzzled about it.

For a few moments the thought of dealing with a race of giants was unnerving. He saw how such a race could live in that land in the great caves of the limestone, coming out only at night into the wilder places of the hills, taking their prey and going back before dawn. Then he thought, ’They cannot be men, they must be bears. But if they are bears it won’t be any better. They can only be grizzly bears who attack any man on sight.’ (Masefield, 1924, p.203)

On one level, this quotation illustrates what was said in the last section – the way in which Sard’s perceptions govern his environment. The bears become bears, for all intents and purposes, at the moment when he names them as such.[3] What it actually represents for our purposes is, however, somewhat different. It shows the ever present sense of threat and alienation which dogs the progress of the entire story.

This overriding atmosphere – and all the features listed so far contribute to it in some way: the brittle strangeness of Masefield’s mimicked speech; the arbitrary, illogical fury of the strangers Sard encounters; and (above all), the literal ‘hostility’ of the landscape – is perhaps most clearly exemplified in the episode where Sard, having arrived in the mining town of ‘Tlotoatin’ by train, is arrested for no reason at all.

‘We desire no proof, since we need none. You were on the line, that suffices; without papers, which clinches it. You are arrested.’

... If he had resisted, perhaps if he had said another word, they would have shot him and pitched him down a disused working. Sard knew that the silver escorts were apt to shoot to save trouble. (Masefield, 1924, p.170)

As Sard is led away, he hears the crowd (mostly ‘mestizos or Indios’) beginning to pass sentence on the ‘bandit’:

‘Ha, dirty thief, to the gallows!’

‘Ho, Englishman, it is not so easy to rob our silver: we are not your Africans from whom you may rob gold.’

‘Englishman, the garota: cluck-cluck!’

‘They say he killed seven before being taken.’

‘He? An Englishman? They were asleep, covered in their blankets. He stabbed them sleeping.’

‘Hear you, he killed seven, sleeping.’ (Masefield, 1924, p.171)

So, from a stranger just arrived in town, Sard has become (in the eyes of the populace), a murderer and a thief in just a few minutes. He does finally manage to escape from their jail, but not before having had it brought home to him that in a town as remote as this, reality is what the inhabitants choose to call it. They can do exactly what they want – execute him, rob him (whether it be in the guise of a fine or a bribe), or let him go – and there is no-one to whom he can appeal. He has, in short, become a criminal (‘“I’m suspect without a hat,” he thought, “and I am also guilty of train-trespass and prison-breaking”’ (Masefield, 1924, p.187)). Who is to say that these are not capital offences in Tlotoatin?

The cell was lit by the omission of one block of adobe just under the eaves at the back. Sard could just see out of this hole by standing on tiptoe. He saw a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand; rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks. Beyond the sandy strip and distant about 120 yards was the railway, with its platform, water tank, fuel heap, and the legend


Beyond this was the desert reaching to infinity (Masefield, 1924, pp.174-75).

‘Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away’ (Shelley, n.d., p.589). Masefield has put his finger on perhaps the most potent fear of the Romantic age. Associated with the cult of wildness, of solitude, of space – comes the terror of formlessness and meaninglessness. It is not that Sard has no purpose in crossing this desert (though he does not yet realise that it is to save Margarita that this series of ‘coincidental’ detours has been arranged) – but the purpose is so attenuated that it may, at any moment, dry up and leave him alone in the middle of a wilderness, or (worse still) in the hands of the citizens of Tlotoatin.

The basic, existential fear which Masefield is hinting at in these passages is conveyed by a skilful interweaving of a number of the features which we have already discussed. Take, for example, the chorus of taunts quoted above – the techniques used include, again, inversion (‘Hear you, he killed seven, sleeping’); ‘Spanish’ word-order (‘we are not your Africans from whom you may rob gold’); onomatopoeia (‘Englishman, the garota: cluck-cluck!’); all of which culminate in a sort of syllogistic syntax, one assertion providing grounds for the next (‘He? An Englishman? They were asleep, covered in their blankets. He stabbed them sleeping’). It is the groundlessness of these remarks that makes them so unsettling – the fact that they are entirely self-generating. One man says that the Englishman has killed seven; the next says that they must have been asleep to be so easily defeated; and the next proclaims this as the official reason for the arrest. It is hard to think of a more overt way in which the ‘surface’ nature of Masefield’s rhetorical tropes could justify itself – it is a mode of speech which creates meanings out of nothing, and which is frightening because it acknowledges no other basis for meaning.

I could go on to analyse the similar use of character in this context – the instinctive suspicion and low cunning of the prison guards, always on the lookout for a trick – and the masterly employment of features of description such as the ‘rats … humping about’ among the refuse – but this would be to elaborate the point which has already been made. It is the surface glitter, the lack of any ‘depth of implication’ – which we noted as the principal objections to Masefield’s fiction at the beginning of this essay – that make it possible for him to substantiate this threatening, alienating view of South America.

From the basic stereotypes associated with the region – feigning, flowery speech; stubborn but ‘picturesque’ characters; frightening emptiness combined with scenic grandeur – Masefield has made a narrative structure whose implications go beyond mere evocation of the spirit associated by him and his readers with the two words ‘South America’. The continent has become, for him, the quintessential ‘landscape of the mind’ – inscrutable in all its aspects, and therefore demanding more or less arbitrary interpretation every minute. Such dislocation of a solid basis for meaning must inevitably be a frightening thing – and this too Masefield acknowledges, and echoes in his parable of the bears, where the sudden realisation that it is not a race of giants that he has to deal with is followed by Sard’s wary proviso: ‘But if they are bears it won’t be any better’.

[John Masefield: Odtaa (1926)]



We have, therefore, gone some way towards answering the question with which we started – whether Burgess’ and Medcalf’s strictures on Masefield were entirely justified – but it still remains to discuss what, if it is not a ‘rattling good yarn’ concerned solely with the ‘excitement of event’, Sard Harker actually is. I have already suggested that it employs a number of conventionalized features of South America in order to problematize our view not only of that continent but of the nature of all such ‘mental landscapes’. I now propose to extend that insight and – employing, in a slightly modified sense, I. A. Richard’s terms ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’ (defined by David Lodge as words ‘coined ... to distinguish the two elements in a metaphor or simile. In “ships ploughed the sea”, “Ships’ movement” is the tenor and “plough” the vehicle’ (Lodge, 1979, p.75)) – to look first at the book’s ‘tenor’, its significance, in Masefield’s own creative life; and then its ‘vehicle’, the sub-genre to which it belongs (in this case, the Romantic Quest – a genre already discussed in the opening section of Chapter Two).

A novel might be said to be an unusually extended metaphor – and the factors which animate it may not, as a result, be immediately apparent without reference to other writings and verbal expressions of its author. For example, one small detail from the passages already quoted from Sard Harker seems to me to contain the key to the reconstruction of the evolution of Masefield’s feelings towards South America. I refer to the sentence in his description of ‘Tlotoatin’:

He saw a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand; rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks. (Masefield, 1924, p.174)

In April 1894, John Masefield sailed from Cardiff as junior apprentice aboard the Gilcruix, a four-masted barque with a cargo of coal-dust for Chile. He was sixteen years old, and this was his first (and last) voyage as a merchant seaman. The thirteen week passage, including thirty-two days of bad weather going around Cape Horn, seems to have been fairly miserable – especially being ‘never warm nor dry, nor full nor rested’ (Smith, 1978, p.27) – a feeling reflected in his narrative poem Dauber (1912). In any case, when they arrived at Iquique, the main nitrate port of Chile, he fell ill, ‘smitten by sunstroke’ – although ‘it seems that he also suffered some kind of nervous breakdown’(Smith, 1978, p.29). He was classified as a Distressed British Seaman, or ‘D.B.S’, and sent to the British Hospital in Valparaiso, having been discharged from his ship.

It is this hospital which provides the frame for one of his early short stories, ‘The Yarn of Lanky Job’, which includes a most revealing passage:

The place we chose for our yarns was among lilies, under a thorn tree which bore a fragrant white blossom not unlike a tiny rose. When we were seated in our chairs we could see the city far below us, and that perfect bay with the ships and Aconcagua snowy in the distance. A few yards away, beyond a low green hedge where the quick green lizards darted, was a barren patch, a sort of rat warren, populous with rats as big as rabbits. I was getting well of a sunstroke and my nerves were shaken, and the sight of these beasts scattering to their burrows was very horrible to me ... My comrade watched me shudder as a rat crept through the hedge in search of food. (Smith, 1978, pp.29-30)[4]

The story itself would be of little concern were it not for the fact that it is obviously inspired by these rats and their ‘rat warren’. It tells of a sailor who falls into the sea and is picked up by a ‘big ship, black as pitch, with heavy red sails’, which turns out to be the ‘rat flag-ship, whose boats row every sea, picking up the rats as they leave ships going to sink’ (Masefield, 1918, pp.33-35). There are one or two nice details, such as the decks being ‘ropy with their tails’ (p.34), but for the most part it is a straightforward sea-yarn – typical of Masefield at this stage in his career. In combination with the description of the hospital and the bay, however, it becomes rather an interesting piece of work.

On the one hand we have the careful setting of the scene – among lilies, with the ‘fragrance’ of thorn blossoms providing a little haven: an impression seconded by the magnificent view of the ‘perfect bay’ and its snow-capped volcano. This whiteness (snow, lilies, blossoms) is contrasted, through the medium of a ‘low green hedge where the quick green lizards darted’, with the dusty brown hues of the ‘barren patch’ full of rats. This three-fold colouring is matched by the combination – suggested by the syntactical structuring of the passage – of the beautiful landscape (‘that perfect bay with the ships’); the horror of the rats (‘a sort of rat warren, populous with rats as big as rabbits’); and Masefield’s own feelings of sickness and debility (‘I was getting well of a sunstroke and my nerves were shaken’). To elaborate the point a little further, one might say that the ‘sterility’ of white (the hospital) is filtered through the ‘quick green’ of everyday life to produce, in this state of illness, a pathological view of the ‘barrenness’ and horror of natural processes.

I do not insist upon every detail of this reading, but I would maintain that, taken together with the story, we have here a clear example of Masefield’s use of an image or correlative to express, and thereby exorcise, an impression or a feeling. To return to the sentence from Sard Harker quoted above, the odd syntax of the expression ‘rats were humping about in this among refuse tipped there from the barracks’, together with the use of the expressive (and ambiguous) word ‘humping’, make doubly sure that readers will pause at this point. To be sure, there seems no immediate reason, beyond the fact that they both concern rats, to connect this passage with the one from ‘The Yarn of Lanky Job’ – but when it is looked at more closely, the link seems much more plausible.

What, for example, is the setting for Sard’s observation of the rats? He is in prison, looking out of a gap in the wall at ‘a patch of sandy soil which had been channelled and pitted by people wanting sand’. Beyond this there is the railway, a sign saying ‘Tlotoatin’, and then ‘the desert reaching to infinity’. In other words, we have a three-fold structure: observer, Sard, in jail; sand pitted by people and rats; then railway, sign, and desert. I have already discussed this passage in terms of Romantic terror of formlessness, but it seems that there may be more to it than simply a Pascal-like expression of terror at the infinite. In short, then, I would propose that the phrase about the ‘people wanting sand’ is intended to associate them with the futilely ‘humping’ rats – that however good their reasons may be for collecting sand (for building, perhaps? or baths?), Masefield means them to appear like scurrying rodents, imbued with malevolence and little else. The railway, of course, is the way out – but it is blocked by the ‘legend’ of the town’s name (a name brilliantly chosen to give a sense of total desuetude – an Indian tongue-twister like ‘Tenochtitlán’ or ‘Toltec’, without even the dubious ‘Europeanness’ of coastal towns such as Las Palomas or Santa Barbara). The key to the puzzle is, however, Sard himself. Like Masefield convalescing in his Chilean hospital, Sard’s ‘nerves are shaken’ – he has been poisoned by a stingray, half-drowned in a swamp, run for miles, and fought with smugglers and guards, before being thrown into prison at the end of an uncomfortable train ride. He can be forgiven for taking a slightly jaundiced view of things. The equation of rats with people, therefore, is his – just as the seeming ‘infinity’ of the desert is his response to the twin prospects of staying in this accursed town or attempting, somehow, to escape. Both appear to mean certain death.

I do not, in saying that this is Sard’s view, mean to imply that we are intended, as readers, to censure him for his narrow-mindedness – the intention is, rather, to give us an entirely subjective angle on South America – one which, in Ford Madox Ford’s words, will combine absolute ‘accuracy as to impressions’ (Stang, 1987, p.92) with indifference to (alleged) facts.

What Masefield means to give us in Sard Harker is his South America, not a generalized travelogue complete with every feature familiar from the films. More, it is his intention to portray for us – as accurately as he can – the particular range of human sensations associated by him with South America: in this case, illness, the futility of life in such surroundings, and the inexplicable horror of certain sights (rats, fragments of ancient carving, a sign marked ‘Tlotoatin’). It is not a comforting perspective on South America – or on existence – which is why Masefield is careful (in the novel) to put it in the context of Sard’s finally successful journey.

It is, in fact, a nightmarish view (it is no accident that the ‘logic of dreams’ governs Sard’s progress not only in a metaphorical sense, but in a structural one – the whole quest is heralded by a prophetic dream, and visions and prophecies guide him throughout), and it seems not too strained a conjecture to suggest that it had its origins in his initial associations with the area: as a boy of sixteen, ill with sunstroke and a nervous breakdown, at what seemed an absolute impasse in his life.

To an unusual extent, then, Masefield the writer is bound up with the fate of his characters. Sard is obviously, to some extent, an ideal self dealing with the rigours that Masefield himself was unable to face. The horrors are therefore exaggerated to giant size (the swamp, the bears, ‘Tlotoatin’) – but the prize of romantic success (‘your Excellency will have to ask my wife’ (Masefield, 1924, p.332)), is correspondingly lessened. None of Masefield’s heroines are particularly convincingly imagined, and the double natured ‘Margaret/Juanita’ – though undoubtedly interesting both as a symbol and a narrative device – is no exception. Her twin facets – English and Spanish, pursuer and pursued (she, too, has been looking for Sard, whom she knows as ‘Chisholm’, his real Christian name, rather than ‘Harker’) – provide a justification for the book’s incredibly roundabout structure, but do not succeed in making us apprehend its conventional ‘romantic’ ending as anything but an anticlimax.

Masefield appears to have taken the failure to heart – since this particular deficiency is rectified in his next novel, Odtaa (an anagram for ‘One Damned Thing After Another’), where the heroine, Carlotta, is already betrothed to the god-like Manuel before the book’s hero, Highworth Ridden, arrives on the scene. The horrors and confusions of a South American journey are therefore untainted by the insipidity of a ‘love interest’ in any but the most hagiographic sense (Carlotta is adored by the entire nation as a virtual goddess). The quest, what is more, is this time conducted in vain. Carlotta is murdered by the Dictator Lopez, and ‘Hi’ is left with the rather scant consolation that, while ‘Life’s battle is a conquest for the strong; / The meaning shows in the defeated thing’ (Masefield, 1941, p.372).

Our account of Masefield’s earliest associations with South America should therefore ideally be supplemented with some hypothesis relevant to his life-long inability to portray convincingly a ‘love’ relationship between a man and a woman, but that is a little outside the scope of this study.[5] As far as the tenor of Sard Harker itself is concerned, I think it is sufficient to note that inability, and (more importantly) to record the extreme ‘obsession-compulsion’ with the elements of his narrative which led him to repeat its essential features (albeit marginally ‘improved’), in another novel within two years.

[John Masefield: The Taking of the Gry (1934)]



The map of the savannahs was a dream. The names Brazil and Guyana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood. I clung to them now as to a curious necessary stone and footing, even in my dream, the ground I knew I must not relinquish. They were an actual stage, a presence, however mythical they seemed to the universal and the spiritual eye. They were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and heartland I intimately saw. I could not help cherishing my symbolic map, and my bodily prejudice like a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt. I saw this kingdom of man turned into a colony and battleground of spirit, a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed.(Harris, 1985, p.24)

In order to study the agency or ‘Vehicle’ of Masefield’s narrative, it will be necessary to examine some other works belonging to what might be termed the South American ‘Quest’ genre. The three that I have chosen are Dead Man Leading, by V. S. Pritchett (1937), Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps], by Alejo Carpentier (1953), and Palace of the Peacock, by Wilson Harris (1960). They therefore represent, respectively, European, Latin American, and West Indian contributions to this narrative sub-branch. I quote from them in reverse chronological order:

Al cabo de algún tiempo de navegación en aquel caño secreto, se producía un fenómeno parecido al que conocen los montañeses extraviados en los nieves: se perdía la noción de la verticalidad, dentro de una suerte de desorientación, de mareo de los ojos. No se sabía ya lo que era del árbol y lo que era del reflejo. No se sabía ya si la claridad venía de abajo o de arriba, si el techo era de agua, o el agua suelo; si las troneras abiertas en la hojarasca no eran pozos luminosos conseguidos en lo anegado … Empezaba a tener miedo. Nada me amenazaba. (Carpentier, 1985, pp.223-24)

['After sailing for a time through that secret channel, one began to feel the same thing that mountain-climbers feel, lost in the snow: the loss of the sense of verticality, a kind of disorientation, and a dizziness of the eyes. It was no longer possible to say which was tree and which reflection of tree. Was the light coming from above or below? Was the sky or the earth water? Were the openings in the foliage pools of light in the water? ... I was beginning to be afraid. Nothing menaced me.' (Carpentier, 1980, p.145.)]

And finally:

this land enclosed him in himself. He was not travelling as he had travelled in Greenland; he was travelling here in himself, paddling down the streams of his own life and nature, enclosed in the jungle of his own unknown or half-known thoughts and impulses. But present with him all the day, written on the walls of the trees in all their variegated detail, was his own life ramified, overgrown, dense and intricate and mysterious in its full tones, half tones and shades of consciousness. The forest itself was like the confusing, shapeless product of a torpid and bemused introspection. (Pritchett, 1984, pp.115-16).

All of these novels have features in common. They all concern journeys into the South American jungle (Palace of the Peacock is set in Guyana, Los pasos perdidos on the headwaters of the Orinoco, while V. S. Pritchett in Dead Man Leading specifies only the 'interior of Brazil'); they all make great play with voyaging by river (conforming in this, as in other respects, to their prototype, Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (1899)); and, while the principal expeditionaries are men, they all in some way see their journeys as related to women with whom they are, or have been involved. What is more, taking passages at random, one can find a good deal of imagery which is common to two or more of the books (not just the references to 'Greenland' and 'mountain-climbing' in the quotations above – there is also Pritchett's reference to how 'the chaotic coast opened with the brilliant order of a peacock's tail, its momentous and gorged profusion' (Pritchett, 1984, p.51), which matches Wilson Harris's ‘palace’ where 'The stars became peacocks' eyes, and the great tree of flesh and blood swirled into another stream that sparkled with divine feathers’ (Harris, 1985, p.112); not to mention the use of Biblical language, especially portentous references to the days of Creation, common to Harris and Carpentier: 'It was the seventh day from Mariella. And the creation of the windows of the universe was finished' (Harris, 1985, p.111); 'se daba por terminada la Convivencia del Séptimo día’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.70) [the Living-Together of the Seventh Day had come to its end' (Carpentier, 1980, p.8)].

I do not think that too great a stress should be placed on these coincidences of nomenclature, but there are respects in which these books’ common features are less arbitrary. They all appear to me to postulate, in some sense, the jungle landscape as an image of the self. In Harris, the identification is complete: 'They [the names] were as close to me as my ribs … my symbolic landscape … my bodily prejudice’, despite being mere 'colonial conventions'. This is roughly in accord with the nature of Harris's narrative, which details the spiritual journey of a crew of drowned men to the headwaters of a river in Guyana ('derived', says the author, 'from an Amerindian root word which means "land of waters"' (1985, p.7)).

In Carpentier, on the other hand, the ‘relativism’ - the sense of confusion between self and landscape - is only partial. The narrator has become confused by the sameness of the sights that surround him, which leads him to doubt the evidence of his senses, but he is still in no real doubt that there is an answer to the question: 'si el techo era de agua, o el agua suela?’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.224) [Was the sky or the earth water? (Carpentier, 1980, p.145)] (Elsewhere he believes that 'vivo el silencio; un silencio venido de tan lejos, espeso de tantos silencios, que en él cobraría la palabra un fragor de creación. Si yo dijera algo, si yo hablara a solas, como a menudo hago, me asustaría a mi mismo’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.173) [I was living silence: a silence that came from so far off, compounded of so many silences, that a word dropped into it would have taken on the clangour of creation. Had I said anything, had I talked to myself, as I often do, I should have frightened myself' (Carpentier, 1980, p.99)] – even here, though, he preserves a distinction between the self which is 'silence' and that which is capable of speech).

Finally, in the passage from Pritchett, the hallucinatory state of the principal protagonist, Harry Johnson, is shown by his close identification of himself with this 'jungle of his own unknown or half-known thoughts and impulses'. Probably this usage is the closest to Masefield’s Sard and the ‘wasted’ land which is traversed by his wounded self.

To sum up, then, the three books which we are examining all belong to different literary traditions, and have a different sense of what is ‘allowable’ or comprehensible in the field of the novel. Pritchett's, the earliest of them, is basically a naturalist text, which 'attempted' (as the author explains) 'a psychology of exploration' (Quoted in Paul Theroux's introduction to the 'Twentieth-century classics' edition (Pritchett, 1984, p.ix)). He therefore allows himself to express the characters' feelings about the land they are traversing, without committing himself to any endorsement (or contradiction) of their views. Carpentier, similarly, equips his novel with a realistic framework and a single narrative point-of-view - thus confining his challenge to convention (he is regarded as one of the founders of magic realism) to what Brian McHale would regard as the 'epistemological' axis. Only Wilson Harris could be said to be a fully-fledged post-modernist - with the corresponding lack of an unequivocal basis in reality (it is unclear if any of his characters could be said to be alive at any point in the narrative, but one hesitates to commit oneself to the view that it is – like Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve (1944) – an entirely 'posthumous' book, since various of them succeed in dying again during the course of the journey); and his 'ontological' questioning of the nature of the world (or worlds - or words) we inhabit.

Given the disparity of these traditions, however, the books which have resulted from them do have a remarkable amount in common. We have already mentioned the fact that all of them identify the self with the landscape that is being traversed – but there are at least two other topoi which they share.

The first is that of the 'landscape as a woman':

Por su boca las plantas se ponían a hablar y pregonaban sus propios poderes. El bosque tenía un dueño, que era un genio que brincaba sobre un solo pie, y nada de lo que creciera a la sombre de los árboles debía tomarse sin pago … No sabía decir por qué esa mujer me parecío muy bella, de pronto, cuando arrojó a la chimenea un puñado de gramas acremente olorosas, y sus rasgos fueron acusados en poderoso relieve por las sombras. (Carpentier, 1985, pp.149-50)

[‘Through her lips the plants began to speak and describe their own powers. The forest had a ruler, a one-legged tutelary genius, and nothing that grew in the shade of the trees should be taken without payment ... I could not have said why this woman suddenly seemed to me so beautiful as she threw a handful of pungent herbs into the flames, which brought out her features in strong relief against the shadows. (Carpentier, 1980, pp.76-77)]

The unnamed narrator of Carpentier's novel is unable to say why Rosario, the earthy woman of the forest, through whom the plants 'se ponían a hablar y pregonaban sus propios poderes’ [began to speak and describe their own powers], should suddenly seem so attractive to him - but in the context of the novel, nothing could be clearer. As he explains it later to Ruth, his American wife, he initially took a mistress ('Mouche') because in her 'al menos, había encontrado algo del juvenil desorden, del impudor alegre, un tanto animal, que era inseparable, para mí, del amor físico’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.304) [at least I had found a kind of youthful abandon, a gay shamelessness, with that touch of the animal which for me was indispensable to physical love (Carpentier, 1980, p.222)]. Rosario, on the other hand, he depicts as 'un arcano hecho persona, cuyos prestigios me habían marcado, luego de pruebas que debían callarse, como se callaban los secretos de una orden de caballería’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.305) [an arcanum made flesh who had set her seal on me after trials whose secret must never be revealed, like those of the knightly orders (Carpentier, 1980, p.223)]. Even to him this seems a little 'Wagnerian', but Ruth has her revenge by referring to his forest lover coldly as 'Tu Atala’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.305) [Your Atala] (Carpentier’s italics).

Leaving aside the rather nauseating conceit of Carpentier's central character, we may note here the careful schematization of his three lovers. Ruth, the American, is an actress living in New York, the slave of a long-running Broadway hit, who accords him her favours regularly every seven days. Their life together, in other words, is all façade. Mouche, his French mistress, an astrologer by trade, is only exposed as inadequate by the realities of the forest journey - her bohemianism, though all very well in New York, is a hollow sham by the standards of 'the interior'. This is symbolized by the insensitive way in which she makes homosexual advances to Rosario. Rosario herself, as we have heard, is the 'voice of the plants' – and the hero's final decision to leave her (in the belief that it will only be temporary, until he can provide himself with some of the trappings of civilization - such as books and paper), is the fatal error which exiles him from this vegetable paradise.

In Dead Man Leading the three main characters, on an expedition into Brazil, are all in some way 'led' by their relationship to the same woman, Lucy Mommbrekke (there is something pleasing in the reflection that, while the Latin hero of Carpentier's novel enthralls three women one after another, in this British novel none of the men are sure of Lucy's continued affection - a gauge of the respective optimism of the two cultures?). Gilbert Phillips, the journalist, is her ex-lover; Charles Wright is her step-father, though he appears to have married her mother only to get closer to her; and Harry Johnson, her present lover, is driven to madness and hallucination by the thought that he might have made her pregnant, and thereby 'sullied' his own purity. Charles Wright speaks for them all:

He too had his private unknown land. He had seen its face and its dress. He longed to be in its body. The talk of the missionary's country and the mystery of his disappearance was talk of a rival and an attempt to enhance her attraction (Pritchett, 1984, p.62).

The 'missionary' in question is Harry Johnson's father, lost in the Brazilian jungle seventeen years before, the 'dead man' who leads them on. Charles too dies in pursuit of his 'unknown land', unaware perhaps of the suspect nature of his desire to be 'in its body'. In any case (unlike Conrad's Kurtz) the last word he utters is 'Lucy ...' (Pritchett, 1984, p.130).

In Palace of the Peacock, Mariella, the mistress of the narrator's brother Donne, is (it appears) the one who ambushes and shoots him at the beginning of the book. The trip up the falls, to the mission where she has taken refuge, is the beginning of their quest into the unknown (defined as a certain number of days 'from Mariella' (Harris, 1985, p.111)). Wilson Harris's use of this motif is, however, a little more playful than that of his predecessors. Of one of the brothers' boat-crew, Cameron, he says:

There was always the inevitable Woman (he had learned to capitalize his affairs) (Harris, 1985, p.40).

- A pun which leads us in more than one direction.

The second topos shared by the three books might be summed up as 'language as the only definition of a world'. The sense in which this is meant is, however, slightly more contingent on the nature of the various narratives. For example, in Carpentier's case, I have already quoted his central character's remarks about being 'living silence' - a comment which he supplements by claiming that 'Un día, los hombres descubrirán un alfabeto en los ojos de los calcedonias, en los pardos terciopelos de la falena, y entonces se sabrá con asombro que cada caracol manchado era, desde siempre, un poema’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.270) [A day will come when men will discover an alphabet in the eyes of chalcedonies, in the markings of the moth, and will learn in astonishment that every spotted snail has always been a poem (Carpentier, 1980, p.190)]. In other words, landscape is a language in the sense that it will, some day, be able to be read – along with the true nature of men and animals. A fairly visionary prospect, but one which leaves the essential division between language and reality unchallenged.

Wilson Harris, predictably, takes it a stage further when he describes (accurately, when one thinks about it) one of the daSilva twins as resembling old newsprint:

His bones were splinters and points ... and his flesh was newspaper, drab, wet until the lines and markings had run fantastically together. His hair stood flat on his brow like ink ... He shook his head again but not a word blew from his lips. DaSilva stared at the apparition his brother presented as a man would stare at a reporter who had returned from the grave with no news whatsoever of a living return. (Harris, 1985, pp.95-96)

Once again, the pun conceals a subtlety of intention. 'Reporter' is supposed to mean simply 'someone who has returned', but it also means 'one who fills the columns of newspapers'. It is hard to imagine a more telling image of the disintegration of a fictional character than this description of the processes of decay eroding the ink and paper of which he is 'composed'. The textuality of Harris's entire world – as in the first quotation above – is therefore in no more doubt than the existence of the 'dream' which is his 'symbolic map' of the savannahs.

Pritchett too employs this motif in a very suggestive way. Harry Johnson and Gilbert Phillips are still pursuing the chimera of the lost missionary:

Less and less they spoke and the words became shorter; their completest trust was in silence ... Normal speech, would have been alien and rich in betrayal. To suggest their normal world would have insinuated doubts, angers and irritations, would have made them separate. When they were together hacking their way, they merely swore. (Pritchett, 1980, p.170)

Language is for them, then, a possible means of division. The only way in which they can avoid recognizing the deadly peril which they are in is by avoiding 'normal speech', with its residue of logical structures and syntactical demands.

If we now go back to our analysis of Masefield's treatment of landscape, we find, similarly, 'hints at an overall perception of landscape as language', shown in the immediate way in which Sard's interpretations are echoed by the obstacles (the canon, the swamp) which he encounters. Nor is there any doubt that Sard's exterior landscapes operate as an image of the self. In fact, the only aspect of our 'Pritchett - Carpentier - Harris' paradigm only partially explored with regard to Sard Harker is the idea of landscape as woman; but the dual nature of Juanita/Margarita, and the ways in which she is associated with every aspect of Sard's quest - also the fact that it is almost invariably the women who advance and the men who hinder his progress - suggest that that element is present too.

What I am building up to, in fact, is an answer to the accusations of purely 'surface' excitement levelled against Masefield's novels by Stephen Medcalf; also, an alternative line of descent to oppose to Anthony Burgess's suggestion of 'rattling good yarns' like The Four Feathers (1902), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), and Redgauntlet (1824) (Medcalf's implied juxtaposition with William Golding – especially works like Pincher Martin (1956) or Rites of Passage (1980) – is a little closer to the mark, but still not very informative). In short, every essential feature which we have isolated from Carpentier, Pritchett and Wilson Harris is also to be found in Masefield's South American 'trilogy' (one should not forget that the obsessive, the not purely 'surface' nature of these themes is signalled by his willingness to repeat them and vary them). More to the point, despite their very different provenances, and despite the fact that I have deliberately tried to analyze them in their own terms without stressing too much their similarities with Sard Harker, anyone of our three authors might be measured according to the same criteria.

'Landscape' we have already dealt with in some detail, but for 'Mimicry', take the following passages from Wilson Harris:

'We been playing a year ago,' Carroll said musingly. 'Suddenly we lose we way in the trees. We think we never find home. We started hugging, a frighten sweet-sweet feeling like if I truly come home. I wasn't a stranger no more. She cry a little and she laugh like if she was home at last. And she kiss me after it all happen ....

'... Look man, look outside again. Primitive. Every boundary line is a myth. No-man's land, understand? (Harris, 1985, pp.72 & 22)

This differentiation of styles of conversation may be more schematically regional than Masefield's, but it has a comparable vigour and authority.

'Peculiarities of Character' are, predictably, to be found in abundance in all of these narratives - but the character of Calcott in Dead Man Leading might perhaps be seen as paradigmatic. With his endless insinuating conversation, his table-turning with the Portuguese Silva (which has resulted in a 'thick bundle of MS.’ (Pritchett, 1980, p.78) full of the 'eloquence' of their spirit-guide Hamlet), and his simultaneous contempt and admiration for the educated classes, he is a character in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He is also, of course, a stereotype out of Maugham and Kipling - the 'hard-drinking white man' who has 'gone native'; but here, once again, the stereotype can prove strangely fruitful. As Carpentier, himself at pains in his afterword to justify the accuracy of :his. characterization (‘En cuanto a Yannes, el minero griego que viajaba con el tomo de La Odisea por todo haber, baste decir que el autor no ha modificada su nombre, siquiera’ (Carpentier, 1985, p.332) ['As for Yannes, the Greek miner who travelled with the Odyssey as his sole possession. [ should like to say that I have not even changed his name (Carpentier, 1980, p.252)]), is careful to point out, such characters:

son los personajes que encuentra todo viajero en el gran teatro de la selva. Responden todos a una realidad - como responde a una realidad, también un cierto mito del Dorado, que alientan todavía los yacimientos de oro y de piedras preciosas. (Carpentier, 1985, p.332)

[‘are personages every traveller encounters in the great theatre of the jungle. They all represent a reality, as does the myth of El Dorado, which is nourished by the deposits of gold and precious stones.' (Carpentier, 1980, 252)]

We thus see a neat connection made between the 'mito' of El Dorado and the exigencies of characterization in a South American quest narrative. Truly, to return to the words of Charles Darwin quoted above, 'The theatre is worthy of the scenes acted on it’ (1891, p.136)

Finally, the existence of 'Small Town Paranoia' is hardly in doubt in any of these rather disconcerting novels. In Dead Man Leading both Gilbert and Harry withdraw into worlds of their own, with increasingly little connection with the perils of their situation – their only remaining emotion being mutual suspicion. In Los pasos perdidos the narrator, originally hailed on his return from the jungle as a hero, is vilified when the public learns of his relationship with Mouche. The purest expression of this pervading sense of malign and irrational threat (almost omnipresent in Wilson Harris's metaphysical world) is, however, in the final sentence of our first quotation from Carpentier above:

Empezaba a tener miedo. Nada me amenazaba. (Carpentier, 1985, p.224)

['I was beginning to be afraid. Nothing menaced me.' (Carpentier, 1980, 145)]

For sheer conciseness of expression, the only rival to that is Masefield's splendidly enigmatic conclusion to Odtaa (referring to the martyred Carlotta, subject of so many poems and eulogies in the text):

And Carlotta?

Ah, Carlotta. (Masefield, 1926, p.326)

[Wilson Harris: The Guyana Quartet (1985)]

1. Take, for example, the following passages from Masefield’s Letters to Reyna (1983) – a series of letters written to a young lady violinist. They range from parodies of Chaucer (p.118):

My yongè brightè fresshè mayden dere
That fiddleth so that joy it is to here.
Swete gentil-hart Reyna, yow I mene
(As thesè wysè Spaniards clepen Quene)

to literary anecdotes (p.175): ‘Two young American ladies came to see [Victor Hugo] one day, & VH said to his interpreter, “What say these Ladies?” ... The Ladies said that “they were just tickled to death to meet him”. VH still somewhat puzzled, asked again, “What say these ladies?” The interpreter said, “Master, they say, that they salute the Eagle of the World.” After that, probably, all went well ...’; to mere persiflage (p.178): ‘I fear you must often have shuddered, seeing a packet from me, & thought: “O, yet another 20 pounder: farewell my bow hand, welcome neuritis and the end.”

2. They range from an imitation of the Divine Comedy:

Within that seventh circle of red hell
There came what seem’d a squeak, and looking near,
Lo, a black-visaged Cat, exceeding fell,
Who on the shadow of a rat made cheer.

which concludes with the sage reflection: ‘This is the end of too much love of cheese; to ‘The dramatic way. Curtain rising discovers Rat. Enter Cat.’

Pounce. Ow! Curtain. (Masefield, 1931, pp.8-12).

3. This contention is backed up by the fact that a similar passage can be found in his early novel A Book of Discoveries:

They had a moment’s wild hope that, by staying up late, they might conceivably, somewhere, see a few woaded creatures, slinking from dens on the hills to rob a hen-roost, and slinking back, silent as the grave, furtive, going in Indian file, dodging from tree to tree out of the moonlight, leaving no footmarks, stealthier than animals, dreading the sun. (Masefield, 1910, pp.104-5)

Only here it concerns the last surviving ancient Britons.

4. Interestingly, this passage was omitted when the story was reprinted in book form in A Mainsail Haul (1905).

5. See, in this connection, pp.89-131 of my unpublished M.A. thesis, ‘The Early Novels of John Masefield, 1908-1911’ (Ross, 1985), where I discuss these features of his psychology in a rather wider context.

[Alejo Carpentier: Los pasos perdidos (1953)]

Works Cited:

  • Burgess, Anthony. Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

  • Carpentier, Alejo. Los pasos perdidos. Ed. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. Letras Hispanicas. Madrid, 1985.

  • Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. Trans. Harriet de Onìs. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

  • Conrad, Joseph. ‘Heart of Darkness’. In Youth: A Narrative; Heart of Darkness; The End of the Tether. Everyman's Library. London: Dent, 1967. 43-162.

  • Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H. M. S. 'Beagle' Round the World. 2nd ed. Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books, 2. London, 1891.

  • Harris, Wilson. Palace of the Peacock. 1960. In The Guyana Quartet. London, Faber: 1985. 15-117.

  • Kipling, Rudyard. Verse: Definitive Edition. 1940. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.

  • Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature. London, 1979.

  • Masefield, John. The Bird of Dawning. London: Heinemann, 1933.

  • Masefield, John. A Book of Discoveries. London: Heinemann, 1910.

  • Masefield, John. Chaucer: the Leslie Stephen Lecture Delivered at Cambridge, 1 March 1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931.

  • Masefield, John. Collected Poems. 3rd edition. London: Heinemann, 1941.

  • Masefield. John. 'Dauber.' In The Story of a Round-House and Other Poems. New York: the Macmillan Company, 1912.

  • Masefield, John. Letters to Reyna. Ed. William Buchan. London: Macmillan, 1983.

  • Masefield, John. A Mainsail Haul. 1905. London: Grant Richards, 1918.

  • Masefield, John. Odtaa: A Novel. London: Heinemann, 1926.

  • Masefield, John. Sard Harker: A Novel. London: Heinemann, 1924.

  • Masefield, John. The Taking of the Gry. London: Heinemann, 1934.

  • McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London, 1987.

  • Medcalf, Stephen, 'Review of Fire Down Below, by William Golding'. TLS, 448 (17 March 1989): 267-68.

  • Pritchett, V. S. Dead Man Leading. 1937. Introduction by Paul Theroux. Twentieth Century Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

  • Ross, John Mackenzie. ''The Early Novels of John Masefield: 1908-1911'. [Unpublished M.A. Thesis]. University of Auckland, 1985.

  • Ross, John Mackenzie. 'John Masefield’s South America: Anatomy of a ’Rattling Good Yarn’. [Unpublished article]. Palmerston North: Massey University, 1991.

  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe, & John Keats. Complete Poetical Works. Modern Library. New York, n.d.

  • Smith, Constance Babington. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford. 1978.

  • Stang, Sondra J., ed. The Ford Madox Ford Reader. London, 1987.

  • Williams, Charles. All Hallows’ Eve. 1945. London: Faber, 1947.

[Dona Alice Brant: The Diary of 'Helena Morley', trans. Elizabeth Bishop (1957)]

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