John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ for a Globalized Age (2011)

1 Jun

A curious small commission came my way in 2011, when the artist Yelena Popova was beginning to put together the film that would later become Particulate Matter, a response to time spent in China. She had become intrigued by John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ and planned to include a reading of Masefield’s poem over some of her film footage. She also wanted to update the poem’s historical sequence to account for the present day, so where Masefield’s original stanzas describe the contrasting goods traded in three distinct eras – the ancient world, the 1500s and his own industrial era of the early to mid-twentieth century – the challenge posed by Popova was to add a twenty-first century stanza. It turned out to be an interesting exercise: how to update something this well known, as seamlessly as possible, keeping the additions within the metrical and tonal register of Masefield’s poem, and allowing them to be both wildly anachronistic and exist plausibly enough to seem as though they might always have been there? In the end, the discovery of a group of paintings by a former Nottinghamshire miner, J.W. (‘Bill’) Hill, aka ‘Grandad Hill’, proved so productive that it led Particulate Matter in an entirely other direction to that originally planned and Masefield fell by the wayside, for the moment, at least.

Cargoes by John Masefield (Update)

(for Yelena Popova)

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.

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.

Maersk shipping’s steel containers stacked to the sky
On vessels departing Guangzhou and Shanghai,
With a cargo of computers,
Plastic Poundland toys,
Primark sweatshirts, gadgets, a new range for IKEA.


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