Today’s poem is by John Masefield, who was Poet Laureate of England in the middle years of the last century. He is popularly well-known for poems of the sea, like his famous “Sea-Fever”. This poem is also about the sea, about sea-borne trade, and I love the opening line, and also the contrast between the first two stanzas and the third.
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
“Quinquireme of Nineveh” is a great opening to a poem – a galley with five banks of oars travelling between Nineveh, the ancient city on the Tigris, and Ophir, a mysterious place, possibly on the African shore of the Red Sea. The galley is bringing a rich cargo of luxury goods to Palestine – ivory, apes, peacokc, exotic woods and wine.
In the second stanza we fast forward perhaps a couple of thousand years to the great trade in precious metals brought back to Spain from its central and south American empire, Again, the setting is exotic, the cargo is high value, feeding the taste for luxury of the Spanish imperial court in Madrid. The galleon is stately and its cargo rich.
The third stanza again leaps forward by 500 years or so to the modern day, and we see a grimy British coastal cargo ship in the murky weather of the English channel, carrying coal, iron goods and industrial products from the Tyne, in northeast England, presumably heading for the Thames estuary and London. There is nothing glamorous or romantic about this ship or its cargo, but Masefield puts it on the same level as the vessels of the first two stanzas; the message is that the trading and maritime strength of England is just as impressive as that of ancient Nineveh or sixteenth century Spain.
The Poetry Dude