Thursday, 22 May 2008

Poem of the day

I love BBC Radio 4's In Our Time. I know it marks me out as a sad ex-Look and Learn reader who really ought to get out more, but just watch me not care; it's still great, in my humble opinion. Name me another radio or TV programme which you could tune in to at random and find yourself learning about topics as diverse as the Black Death, Newton's Laws of Motion, W B Yeats, the Multiverse, the Statue of Liberty, the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the Nicene Creed, genetic mutation or the Fibonacci Sequence? And that's just in the current series. It's a national treasure, I tell you.

Anyway, the other week I was listening to In Our Time's discussion of the Library at Nineveh, an archaeological treasure trove of over 20,000 cuneiform tablets , providing a window into the lost world of the Assyrians and Sumerians. Perhaps the most significant discovery from the library was the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Ever since listening to that programme, the opening line of John Masefield's poem Cargoes popped back into my head my head and I've not been able to get rid of it since. Here's the first line of the poem - and the rest:

Quinquereme 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,
Emeralds, amethysts,
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,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

I think this is what George Orwell called "good bad literature", or something if the sort. Tum-te-tum rhyme scheme, hazy nostalgia for a lost golden age, almost doggerel. But it's still "good" in the sense that I can't get it out of my head and I find myself savouring the opulence and exoticism of the language.

I wonder whether Masefield was being ironic when he contrasted the exotic cargoes of the distant past with the 'cheap tin trays' of his contemporaries? In the real ancient world, only a tiny, aristocratic minority would be swanning around the ziggurat roof-gardens with peacocks, ivory and sweet white wine (not to mention apes - I'm getting visions of an Assyrian Michael Jackson in a bronze-age Neverland here). The vast majority were peasant farmers with next to nothing. I think those peasants would have been astonished at the material well being of quite ordinary people in Masefield's time - cheap tin trays and railway tickets only seem commonplace when you've got even more yourself. The nostalgia is misplaced, but you can't help warming in it anyway - I feel much the same way when I listen to Kate Rusby's splendid cover of the Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society - I don't feel nostalgic for "china cups, antique shops and virginity", but I kinda warm to those things when listening to the song.

Someone has commented that the poem's first line is questionable, since Nineveh is 200 miles from the sea. I don't actually have a problem with that, since the city was on one bank of the Tigris and I imagine that a quinquereme might have a shallow enough draft to navigate the river. I do worry about anachronism, though - Nineveh was razed to the ground by the Medes in 612BC, whereas Wikipedia tells me that the quinquereme was invented in the Mediterranean towards the end of the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC).

I enjoy the last verse of the poem as much as the first - I can almost see the spray breaking over the bow of the little steamer and taste the salt spray in on the cold wind. In my mind the March day is bright and the sky over the white-capped breakers is blue and filled with scudding cotton-wool clouds. I get a strange feeling of pride in the dirty, plucky little ship, busily chugging along, like the impish black tug in The Fighting Temeraire.