Monday, 13 August 2012

John Masefield Dauber

Lowry alludes in his novel Ultramarine to John Masefield's poem 'Dauber';  "Instead of being called out on deck at all hours to shorten sail, we have to rig derricks, or to paint the smokestack: the only things we have in common with Dauber, besides dungarees, is that we still "mix red lead in many a bouilli tin" (Pg. 48).

His work began at five; he worked all day,
Keeping no watch and having all night in.
His work was what the mate might care to say;
He mixed red lead in many a bouilli tin;
His dungarees were smeared with paraffin.
"Go drown himself" his round-house mates advised him,
And all hands called him "Dauber" and despised him. John Masefield Dauber

Lowry's choice of Masefield's poem fits into one of the main themes of Ultramarine - the misfit sailor trying to   fit in with and gain the respect of his fellow sailors. Lowry also refers to the poem in a letter to Gerald Noxon dated February 1944;"but the rest falls off; he might compel a landsman to take it for granted but it is not right, & doesn't even stand up with a much cruder but somehow more human thing like Dauber. No one could find their way around that ship..." (Collected Letters Vol 1 Pg. 436)

The life at sea has given us some remarkable writers. Herman Melville, for one, comes to mind. As a young man, Melville, like John Masefield, succumbed to his desire "to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts." A whaling ship was for him, he said "My Yale and my Harvard." Then there is Joseph Conrad, many of whose best stories came directly from his maritime experience, both before the mast and on the bridge as Master. From both of these authors we can always expect the truest, most tactile rendering of that hard service.

So it was with Masefield. "Dauber" comes out of his experiences as a common sailor. Nowhere else in literature does the reader find a keener sense of the rough scrape of rope on skin, the sounds of wind and flapping sails. In June, 1894, aboard the Gilcruix, a four-masted barque, he rounded infamous Cape Horn. The ship was buffeted and battered for thirty-two days by seas forty feet high. "It was real, naked life.... At sea you get the manhood knocked bare..." He might have called the Gilcruix, to paraphrase Melville, his Oxford and his Cambridge.

A number of themes can be found in this poem . There is the old motif of the scorned and rejected misfit redeemed, a common one in literature and in folklore. There is the absolute commitment of the artist giving himself to his talent, incapable of following a more acceptable course. And there is the isolation of a sensitive man living and working among the "Philistines." But perhaps most rewarding of all in this poem is the sense of the terror and beauty of the sea. Arthur Kay [1998]

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