Written by the former Poet Laureate of Great Britain, this poem is composed of three five-line stanzas and written in a lyrical style. Each stanza describes a different type of ship. Part of the simplicity of the poem is the parallelism between the stanzas, with each following the format of describing the ship moving in the first two lines and the last three lines listing the types of cargoes the ships carry.
The first stanza is full of historical references. The poem starts with, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine.” This can be a confusing and abstract opening if you do not understand the reference. Encyclopedia.com defines a quinquireme as “an ancient Roman or Greek galley of a kind believed to have had three banks of oars, the oars in the top two banks being rowed by pairs of oarsmen and the oars in the bottom bank being rowed by single oarsmen.” Once this this reference is understood, the reader can have a clear picture of how massive this vessel is and how much manpower it would demand. The word “haven” indicates this is a joyous trip. Another indication of this is the cargo that is described in the poem, “...of ivory,/ And apes and peacocks,/ Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.” These are very indulgent and rich items of the time. The fact that this ship is “rowing” also hints at indulgence, since these treasures are having to be moved by hard labor from those that will not enjoy them. According Encyclopedia.com, this is a late 16th century sailing warship. While this ship is also caring treasures that are different than the ones described in the poem above, “...of diamonds,/ Emeralds, amythysts,/ Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.” These are riches as well but they are more ornamental items. The focus here is not worldly pleasures but of wealth.
Stanza two also uses a historical reference that the reader needs to understand to appreciate the image of a galleon. According to Encyclopedia.com, this is a late 16th century sailing warship. While this ship is also carrying treasures, they are different than the ones described in the poem above, “...of diamonds,/ Emeralds, amythysts,/ Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.” These are riches as well but they are more ornamental items. The focus here is not worldly pleasures but of wealth.
The third stanza is a vastly different image from the first two. “Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,/ Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,” is a much more negative view than the reader has been shown. The word “dirty” helps show the reader that this not a stately ship like the other two. Other indicators in the poem of this are the cargo,” of Tyne coal,/ Road-rails, pig-lead,/ Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.” These are far from riches or luxury items. The cargo described in this stanza are items needed for the function of industries.
The fact that Masefield uses ships to show these glimpses of history makes the statement that he feels the working man is important to, and not the leaders of, that time period. This is what Masefield was in his youth, and is what moves a nation, not the men whose names will be in the history books.