Dirty Rotten Symbolism

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"Dirty British coaster with the a salt-caked smoke-stack, / Butting through the Channel in the made March days" (Lines 11-12).
                John Masefield, "Cargoes"

I think Masefield wrote this poem as a way to question society of his time.  The three stanzas of this poem serve as reflections of three types/times of civilization.  The first stanza describes the cargoes of ancient ships as carrying "ivory, / and apes and peacocks, / sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white whine" (Lines 3-5).  Everything sounds grand, and almost regal since peacocks generally represent pride and whine gives the sense of the upper class.  Even the ship's destination is described as a "haven in sunny Palestine" (Line 2).  Nothing in this stanza displays negative imagery.

The second stanza, though depicting a different civilization through its cargo, also provides positive imagery to the reader.  This ship's cargo is full of "diamonds, / emeralds, amethysts, / topazes, cinnamons, and gold moidores" (Lines 8-10).  Again, the reader is given the sense of royalty and riches through the description of jewels and other valued items.  The ship journeys through the "Tropics by the palm-green shores" (Line 7), further suggesting a peaceful, wealthy trip.  I do not see any negative imagery here at all.

In the last stanza, however, the imagery is much darker and grimier.  Right away, Masefield describes the British ship as being "dirty" with a "salt-caked smoke-stack" (Line 11), suggesting the degradation that has occurred over time in society between that of the previous two stanzas and that of Masefield's England.  The ship's cargo seems poor and inferior to the cargo of previous, richer societies, a fact that is emphasized through Masefield's imagery.  The ship doesn't move as smoothly as the previous ones seemed to sail, as the British ship is described as "butting through the Channel in the mad March days" (Line 12).  Perhaps Masefield is using this imagery to suggest that British society has lost some of the better qualities of previous civilizations during the time Masefield was alive, when the steam engine was the world's most efficient means of transport.

Melissa provides a different but very interesting interpretation in her blog, Passage of Time.

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2 Comments

Aja Hannah said:

Or he could be commenting on what civilizations as a whole have become, dirtier (less Green). We replaced beautiful, natural wealth with monetary wealth.

But thanks, I actually didn't notice that shift in attitude.

I think that's an excellent point, Aja. Just because he was using the British ships to make his case doesn't mean Masefield was restricting his perspective to Britain alone. Also, many other civilizations were shaped by British influence, such as the US, Canada, and India among many others. The use of a British ship to symbolize the degradation of society as a whole wouldn't be much of a stretch because Britain has influenced so many other nations.

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