One of the most famous poems by poet laureate and novelist John Masefield (1878-1967), very evocative both of the luxury of the foreign ships of past times and the lovable simplicity and homeliness of British ships of the present day. Masefield began his career in the Merchant Navy and travelled the world when young. His other most famous poem is Sea Fever, one equally filled with the tang and living presence of the sea.

This poem Cargoes is beautifully repeatable and worth memorising. (No I haven't quite yet. :-) It was published in 1910 in the collection Ballads and Poems.


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, amethysts,
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.

The contrast is enormous between two of the peaks of fabulous wealth known to legend and history, and the mundane industrial cargo needed to supply the everyday wants of a modern country. Masefield could have chosen part of Britain's glorious naval heritage and power for the third part: the fast clippers or the pioneering Great Britain: but instead not only chose the most humble of working boats, but emphasised its dirt and the difficulties of its passage.

The effect is not to belittle the little ships but to bring them close to home, important, human, intertwined with all the necessities and domestic comforts of our lives.

And however magnificent the treasures of Ophir and the Spanish Main, they all have passed away. No more do we marvel at the cedars of Lebanon and Sheban gold in Solomon's palace, or the peacocks and apes that once walked its grounds; nor at the treasure-caskets of the kings spilling out their uncut gems.

Ophir (see that node for more detail) was an unknown country at a great distance by sea, mentioned in several places in the Bible. The height of ancient Israel's magnificence was in the reign of King Solomon, and that effect was in part from the treasure delivered from Ophir:

1 Kings 10
11 And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones.
15 Beside that he had of the merchantmen, and of the traffick of the spice merchants, and of all the kings of Arabia, and of the governors of the country.
22 For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.
The three stanzas can also be taken to allude to the Golden Age, Silver Age, and Iron Age. (Thanks to liveforever for pointing this out.)

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