Cargoes by John Masefield is a wonderful romantic view of ancient cargo in stanza one and two, described as being exotic exciting treasure contrasted with the modern cargo of stanza three, which is practical industrial dirty cheap and boring. Leonard Wilson is correct, a Spanish cargo containing all these jewels at once and gold moidores is extremely unlikely. The moidore is a Portuguese gold coin minted from 1640 to 1732. A Spanish cargo of mostly silver and far less gold ingots or cob coinage would be realistic. The first minted Spanish Gold Doubloons in the new world was in Mexico from 1732 but gold cobs were produced until 1750.
The lines ‘QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir, /Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine, ’ is historically impossible. Nineveh is an ancient Assyrian city and capital from 705 to 612 BCE. Roman Palestine is a term used from around the time of the birth of Jesus, but Palestine first appears as ‘Syria Palaestina’ on Roman maps in 132 CE when the ‘Emperor Hadrian changed the name of the province from Iudaea, Judea as it was called in Herod’s reign. The quinquereme is not a trading ship but a Hellenistic-era warship used extenively by the Carthaginians and Romans from 399 BCE but invented by Dionysius of Syracuse.
John Masefield’s description of the cargo of Ophir, is from the earliest time period, in the reign of King Soloman 971-931BCE. Soloman received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks from Ophir, every three years. At1 Kings 10: 22, it reads ‘The king had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.’ The translation of 'baboons' is rare, older translations have 'peacocks' instead.
Therefore Masefield uses a mixture of historical periods to create a romantic cargo in stanza one. Soloman’s real trading ships may have included designs like Hatshepsut's Naval Vessels from the 15th Century BCE or may have been modeled after an Egyptian Naval Vessel of 1250 BCE. The early Phoenician trading ships of Soloman’s collaboration with Hiram of Tyre had ‘a keel, not ill shaped, a rounded hull, bulwarks, a beak, and a high seat for the steersman. The oars, apparently, must have been passed through interstices in the bulwark.’
The exports of Phoenicia are more romantic than any description Masefield describes, but it is the contrast of ships and cargoes which is Masefield’s purpose. Yet Phoenician smelting' or 'refining ships', hauling smelted ores from the mining towns in Sardinia and Spain shares a similar purpose to the ‘Dirty British coaster’.
Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, on the Tigris River, actually not in Palestine, although Palestine was included in the empire. Ophir was a land rich in gold, probably in Africa. 'Haven' is a word rich in connotation, suggesting shelter and security and peace, and adding this to 'home, ' another word with highly favorable connotations, multiplies the effect. The last line, 'Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine, ' is, in my opinion, one of the most pleasant sounding lines in English poetry.
The 'stately Spanish galleon' creates the image of a tall sailing vessel with billowing white sails. It is coming from the central American region, carrying a rich cargo of gold and jewels. Actually it is highly unlikely that it would have had all the different types of jewels, but the Spanish did ship a huge fortune in gold from South America. The line 'dipping through the tropics by the palm-green shores, ' like the use of the word 'sunny' in the first stanza, indicates very favorable sailing weather and gives a picture of serenity.
Unlike the other ships, this one is a coaster, that is just sailing from one port to another on the same coast, staying close to home; and since the poet is British, this is in his own area, not a distant part of the world. Note the extreme contrast of 'Quinquireme of Nineveh' and 'Stately Spanish galleon, ' the smooth sounding 'm' and 'n's and the soft, sibilant 's's with the harsh sounding 'Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, ' with the hard 'r, ' 't, ' and 'k' consonants. And unlike the quinquireme, rowing in sunny weather, and the galleon, dipping through the tropics, the little British steamer is 'Butting through the Channel in the mad March days'—forcing its way against the elements in the English Channel during the stormy weather of early spring. Tyne coal is from the river Tyne area in England, and the rest of the cargo is far from interesting, although it may be much more practical and useful than the exotic cargoes of the other ships. The choice of the terms 'pig-lead' and 'cheap tin trays' makes the whole thing seem rather sordid. Just compare the last line of this stanza with the beautiful line at the end of the first stanza.
Of course, Masefield is doing nothing but describing the ships, their destinations, and their cargoes, but the great contrast here makes it obvious that he is implying a theme beyond mere descriptions. My understanding of his purpose is that he is saying that when we look back at the past and at exotic places, we tend to notice the unusual, the romantic, the glamorous. But when we look around us in our own time and place, we just see the very mundane and mostly uninteresting elements. Personally I would rather be a British union member on the steamship than a slave on that rowing ship or a scarcely more free sailor on the galleon. But it is human nature to dream of the long ago and faraway and think that those were much more exciting than our humdrum existence. Have you ever read Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem 'Miniver Cheevy'? This is exactly the attitude of the protagonist of that poem.
I love this little poem of Masefield's, for the thought, the vivid descriptions, and the highly skillful use of word sounds and connotations. It is a little masterpiece of a poem.
This is one of the most enduring poems I had been taught way back in 1958, along with Walter de la Mare's 'Arabia'. both poems are so modern yet so evocative. They criss cross the time lines and one is so swiftly carried across to the splendors and opulence as well as the romanticism of the past while being firmly rooted inn the present. The rhythm produced by the masterly craftsmanship of these wordsmiths is a joy!
Harmon says the debate has started. Why and on what basis does he assert that? You readers who agree with Harmon, please specify by citing lines in Masefield's poem that support the remark! Methinks I detect a whiff of PC! Guys like Harmon don't read poetry, they search for what they perceive to be incorrect thinking! Does no one on this site understand the history of PC all the way back to der Fuhrer, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Jong, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro et al? Check out a little history!
A poem that states rather matter of factly the kinds of cargo carried on ocean-going vessels. The five-sailed ship of Nineveh and the Spanish galleon transport expensive and rare trinkets and goods. The modern steam ship transports all those materials and manufactured items that have improved life in most lands around the globe. Quibble if you will about their importance, but Masefield knew about salt-water sailing. And he was not ashamed about those coasters, nor was he subject to politically correct opinions current in this century!
This poem tells you exactly what is in the ships. It has a realistic idea of what might be in a dirty British coaster and a fantastic idea of what might be in the quinquireme and stately Spanish galleon. The rhythm of the poem keeps the beat very well. I really like John Masefield and the way he keeps the rhythm in his poems is not at all old fashioned as rappers are doing the same every day.