The Greak Auk of English Literature
By Philip W. Errington
London and New Castle, Del.: British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 1584561440 Price: $125.00
Masefield fans, however scant in number, will be enthralled by Errington's work.
Before you think Philip Errington terribly unkind in comparing the subject of his mammoth bibliography to a great auk, described by Webster's as "any of several black and white short-necked diving seabirds that breed in colder parts of the northern hemisphere," take note that he has instead shrewdly borrowed John Masefield's comparison of himself to this mutant penguin.
Such is indeed the current standing of the long-time (thirty-seven years!) English poet laureate. Masefield (1878–1967) reminds me somewhat of American poet and editor William Cullen Bryant, who died the year Masefield was born. Bryant was a tender seventeen years of age when he composed "Thanatopsis" (not published until 1817, when Bryant was a hoary 23). Though Bryant lived to be eighty-three and wrote many more volumes of verse during his long and productive life, that single juvenile piece remains his best-known poem. Masefield's first book, Salt-Water Ballads, likewise defined his career, casting him as a sea poet in the popular imagination.
"John Who?" is unfortunately the response you get nine times out of ten (I'm being generous) when you drop the name John Masefield into a conversation with any but the most bookish American. Although his output was prolific and he was widely published in the United States (both Yale and Harvard granted him honorary doctorates), Masefield is one of those household-name authors who have fallen off the literary map in the four decades since his death. Errington is the first to note that, despite having been "a best-selling author and a publishing phenomenon," today he is a literary figure who "only lingers on in poetry anthologies of a conservative nature."
Who better to explain the Masefield paradox than the person who has studied him more intensely than anyone alive—Errington. "Today Masefield's former popularity, Edwardian multiplicity and prodigious output apparently count against him," writes Errington. "In composing new works he…became a mixture of creative artist, popular balladeer, and best-selling novelist. It is perhaps this curious combination that now damages his reputation."
Masefield fans, however scant in number, will be enthralled by Errington's work. The standard bibliographies for many years were Charles Simmons' A Bibliography of John Masefield (1930) and Geoffrey Handley-Taylor's John Masefield (1960). At 171 pages and 96 pages, respectively, they are skimpy and basic in the face of Masefield's bibliographically complex canon. When Errington uses several pages of introduction to elaborate his bibliographical method and decisions, you know you're in the presence of Serious Bibliography.
His thoroughness lends him the authority to take on fallacies long accepted as fact. Masefield's first book, for instance, the 1902 Salt-Water Ballads, supposedly became collectible and expensive because Grant Richards, in his 1934 book Author Hunting, told of a fire at the bindery warehouse that soon made the book unprocurable. Errington dismisses this story. "My ledgers of that period in no way support it," he writes. "A few copies may have been burnt in the Leighton fire and so have given rise to the tale."
Errington's notes accompanying each entry provide detailed, often fascinating material on the business history of each specific edition, including Masefield's correspondence discussing his books. Here Errington also points out bibliographical disputes and other fine points. It's amusing and oh-so-British that the jacket copy modestly describes as an "added detail" Errington's research in the "archives of agents and publishers… in order to detail the publishing history of [Masefield's] individual works." That is rather like saying that Chicago's Sears Tower, its tallest skyscraper, was a nice afterthought thrown in to spice up the skyline.
Might Errington's bibliography spark renewed interest in Masefield among dealers and collectors? Errington does hail from the world of the auction hall (Sotheby's), after all, not the halls of academia. Sadly, new bibliographies seldom affect real-world prices or collecting activity—though one can always hope. Some collectors likely prefer Masefield's modern-day anonymity so he will remain their private, unappreciated treasure. Errington of course cites Masefield's acidic words on this very subject: "Out of fashion is always cheap, and usually much better than the fashion has the wit to think."
But what's fascinating about bibliographies as exhaustive and authoritative as Errington's is that you don't have to be a Masefield maniac in the first place to appreciate such a volume. Sure, the serious collector can hardly afford to be without this work, which is certain to become the cornerstone of any worthwhile Masefield collection. As for those unfamiliar with the great auk? What better introduction than this substantial, well-illustrated tome?