A Poem by John Masefield (1878-1967)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Poem, Explanatory Notes
Stanza 1 Allusions
Questions, Writing Topics
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
Type of Work and Structure

"Cargoes" is a lyric poem with three stanzas, each with five lines. The stanzas are alike in structure. For example, the first line of each stanza identifies a type of ship at sea, and the second line—beginning with an action verb ending in -ing—identifies a locale. The third line, a prepositional phrase, begins to list items in the cargo; the fourth and fifth lines complete the list. The second and fifth lines of each stanza end in masculine rhyme. In each stanza, the first line has twelve syllables and the second line has eleven syllables. Notice also that the first line of each stanza omits the definite article a before the first word. None of the stanzas has a complete sentence. The stanzas are in chronological order.


John Masefield was born in Ledbury, England. After attending King’s School in Warwick, he went to sea at age fifteen on a large sailing ship, then worked for a time in New York City before returning to England in 1897. His experiences aboard the ship provided him the raw material that made him famous as a sea poet. In 1902, he published a collection of sea poems entitled Salt-Water Ballads, in which “Cargoes” appeared.

By John Masefield 
Quinquireme1 of Nineveh2 from distant Ophir,3
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,4
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine................5

Stately Spanish galleon5 coming from the Isthmus,6
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,7
Topazes,8 and cinnamon, and gold moidores.9..................10

Dirty British coaster10 with a salt-caked11 smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel12 in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne13 coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,14
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays............................15

1....quinquireme: Large Greek, Roman, or Carthaginian ship used between the first and fourth centuries B.C. to wage war and haul cargo. Three three tiers of oarsmen on each side of the ship propelled the vessel. On its bow was a ram to batter enemy ships.
2....Nineveh: Capital city of the ancient empire of Assyria. Nineveh was on the east bank of the Tigris River in present-day Iraq.
3....Ophir: Fabled land of gold referred to in the Bible in the books of Genesis, Kings, and Chronicles. Evidence indicates that Ophir was in India, Africa, or Pakistan. Israel's King Solomon received cargoes of riches from Ophir. 
4....Palestine: In ancient times, a region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean that included parts of modern Israel and Jordan. It was occupied first by Canaanites and later by Hebrews and Philistines. After Hebrew tribes united, they defeated the Canaanites and later the Philistines and formed the nation of Israel under King David. Solomon, David's son, succeeded him. 
5....galleon: Three- or four-masted sailing vessel used to wage war and haul cargo. It was developed between 1400 and 1600. Spain and Portugal built the largest ships of this type.
6....Isthmus: Strip of land in a body of water that connects two large land masses. In the poem, Isthmus refers to the Isthmus of Panama, which connects North and South America. 
7....amethyst: Purple variety of the mineral quartz, valued as a semiprecious gem.
8....topazes: Gems formed from a hard mineral. Topaz may be colorless, like a diamond, or yellow, blue, brown, or in rare instances red. Heat treatments can change its color.
9....moidores: Gold coins minted by Portugal, beginning in about 1640.
10..coaster: Vessel that ferries cargo and passengers from one point to another along a coast.
11. salt-caked: Caked with salt from the sea. 
12. Channel: English Channel, between England and France. The French call it La Manche (The Sleeve). 
13. Tyne: River in northern England formed in Northumberland from the confluence of the North Tyne River and the South Tyne River. As it flows to the North Sea, it passes through coal fields. Ships plying the Tyne frequently carried coal. 
14. Pig-Lead: Crude lead extracted from ore and poured from a smelting furnace into an oblong mold to form a block of lead known as a pig. 


What ships carry reflects the culture, government, lifestyle, and technology of civilizations over the centuries. For example, in ancient biblical times (stanza 1), oar-propelled ships (quinquiremes) transported ivory, sandalwood, and cedarwood to construct, outfit, and maintain the palace and other buildings of King Solomon. They also carried exotic animals and wine to entertain him and his court. After Columbus discovered the New World, three- or four-masted sailing vessels (galleons) from Spain and other countries carried from the Americas the prizes of exploration and exploitation, as well as the spoils of war against native peoples or enemy ships. Their cargoes of gems, spices, and gold coins enriched the lives of the royalty and the nobility. Early in the twentieth century, commercial steamships traveling along coastlines hauled coal and wood to heat the homes of the masses or to fire the furnaces of factories manufacturing the tools and other products of a technically advanced civilization. They also carried materials to construct railroads for the transport of goods on land. Commoners as well as kings and counts shared in the benefits of ship cargoes.

Stanza 1 Allusions

The first stanza of the poem refers to the riches King Solomon imported to Israel, as alluded to in the Old Testament of the Bible:

.......The servants of Huram and of Solomon who brought gold from Ophir also brought cabinet wood and precious stones. With the cabinet wood the king made stairs for the temple of the Lord and the palace of the king; also lyres and harps for the chanters. The like of these had not been seen before in the land of Judah.
.......King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba everything she desired and asked him for more than she had brought to the king. Then she returned to her own country with her servants.
.......The gold that Solomon received each year weighed six hundred and sixty-six gold talents, in addition to what was collected from travelers and what the merchants brought. All the kings of Arabia also, and the governors of the country, brought gold and silver to Solomon.
.......Moreover, King Solomon made two hundred large shields of beaten gold, six hundred shekels of beaten gold going into each shield, and three hundred bucklers of beaten gold, three hundred shekels of gold going into each buckler; these the king put in the hall of the Forest of Lebanon. 
.......King Solomon . . . made an ivory throne which he overlaid with fine gold. The throne had six steps; a footstool of gold was fastened to it, and there was an arm on each side of the seat, with two lions standing beside the arms. Twelve other lions also stood there, one on either side of each step. Nothing like this had ever been produced in any other kingdom. Furthermore, all of King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the utensils in the hall of the Forest of Lebanon were of pure gold. . . . . For the king had ships that went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram. Once every three years the fleet of Tarshish would return with a cargo of gold and silver, ivory, apes and monkeys. Thus, King Solomon surpassed all the other kings of the earth in riches as well as in wisdom. (2 Chronicles 9: 10-22)
Use of Alliteration

Alliteration occurs frequently to enhance the appeal of the poem to the ear. The most obvious examples of this figure of speech include the following:

Line 1:....Quinquireme
Line 2:....home to haven 
Line 5:....Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine
Line 6:....Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus
Line 11...Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Line 12...Mad March
Line 13...Cargo of Tyne coal
Line 14...Road-rails
Line 15...tin trays

The last three lines of the first two stanzas present concrete images of cargo from distant landsfor example, ivory, peacocks, sandalwood, white wine, emeralds, and cinnamonthat facilitate luxurious living. Lines 3-5 of the last stanza, on the other hand, present examples of commonplace practical products from nearby locales to maintain the mundane life of the masses. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Describe each of the types of ships mentioned in the poem. 
2. Write an essay discussing how King Solomon and his subjects used the cargo from Ophir. 
3. What is meant by "mad March days" (line 12)? 
4. List words in the poem that appeal to one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (feeling). Keep in mind what a word suggests. For example, firewood may suggest a feeling (warmth) as well as a sound (crackling) when it is burning.
5. Write a poem that imitates the structure of "Cargoes."


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