John Edward Masefield was an English poet and children’s fiction writer born June 1, 1878, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, England. Following the deaths of both his parents, six-year-old Masefield, now under the guardianship of his aunt, was sent to board at the King’s School in Warwick (now, the Warwick School). In 1891, seeking to break his “addiction” to reading as well as train him for a naval career, Masefield’s aunt sent him to embark on the HMS Conway. Masefield spent several years aboard the ship, where he devoted much of his spare time to reading and writing and gained a reputation as a storyteller. At seventeen, he was set to join a windjammer, or large merchant sailing vessel, in New York City but jumped ship upon arrival. For several months, he lived as a vagrant, doing odd jobs until finding work at a carpet factory in Yonkers, New York. It was during this time that Masefield discovered his love of poetry. He wrote often, in both prose and verse. In 1897, Masefield decided to return home to England.
Masefield’s first success as a poet came in 1899 with the publication of his poem “Nicias Moriturus” in the June 3 issue of the British magazine The Outlook. In 1900, Masefield began what would become a lifelong friendship with William Butler Yeats. This relationship ushered Masefield into a creative world wherein he befriended other writers and artists, such as the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, the artist Janet Ashbee, and her husband, the Arts and Crafts Movement architect and designer Charles Ashbee.
After a brief stint working for the Manchester Guardian, Masefield found work as head of the fine arts section of the 1902 Arts and Industrial Exhibition in Wolverhampton, England. His first collection of poems, Salt-Water Ballads (Grant Richards, 1902), was released that same year. Although Masefield’s work was published consistently in subsequent years, it was not until 1911 that he enjoyed widespread success. The publication of his book-length poem The Everlasting Mercy (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1911) solidified his name on the literary scene.
During the First World War, Masefield served as an orderly at a British hospital for French soldiers. Afterward, he set out for a three-month lecture tour across the United States. A proponent of the Allied forces, Masefield wrote Gallipoli (The Macmillan Company, 1916) in an effort to counteract German propaganda. In 1918, Masefield returned to the U.S. on a second lecture tour, speaking primarily to American soldiers, and received honorary doctorates of letters from both Harvard and Yale. In addition to nonfiction and plays, Masefield published three books of poetry during this time: Reynard the Fox (The Macmillan Company, 1920); Rosas (The Macmillan Company, 1918); and Sonnets and Poems (Self-published, 1916). He received an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Oxford in 1921.
After the publication of his next book-length poem, King Cole (The Macmillan Company, 1922), which included drawings by his daughter, the illustrator Judith Masefield, Masefield turned his attention primarily to writing fantasy novels for children. He remained an advocate for poetry. In 1923, he founded the Oxford Recitations, an annual contest for verse. The following year, he became a founding member of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse.
In 1930, following the death of his friend and next-door neighbor Robert Bridges, Masefield was appointed as Britain’s poet laureate, succeeding Bridges in this role. Masefield would remain in this post until his death—his tenure surpassed in length only by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In his role, Masefield also provided poems for royal occasions. He received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University in 1931 and, in 1935, was awarded the Order of Merit.
Masefield spent his later career working to encourage fellow poets. In 1933, King George V instituted the Gold Medal for Poetry at Masefield’s suggestion and, in 1937, Masefield was elected president of the Society of Authors, a British trade union for professional writers, illustrators, and translators. He published his final book, In Glad Thanksgiving (The Macmillan Company, 1967), only months before his death.
John Masefield died of an infection on May 12, 1967, in Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England. On June 20, 1967, he was interred in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, in a grave that adjoins that of Robert Browning.