Cargoes, revisited

If you think back to your school days, I believe there’s a good chance that you were exposed to John Masefield’s poem, Cargoes

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,
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-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

– John Masefield (1878–1967)

Masefield published that in his 1903 book Ballads.

Now, I’m no poet laureate (as you will soon discover) but I set myself the task of bringing Masefield’s poem up to date. Blame it on the jet-lag, as I sit sleepless in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur…

Masefield could have done the job himself, as modern container shipping is generally held to have commenced in April 1956, at which point the poet still had eleven years ahead of him.

A former sailor, Masefield wrote much about the sea, but he never did attempt to expand Cargoes, so here’s my own attempt at a fourth stanza:

Vast modern cargo ship with flag of convenience,
Squeezing through Panama with no time to lose,
With a cargo of acronyms,
Barcodes, jargon,
Product-service offerings and TEUs.

I detected in the original a steady decline from the exotic quinquireme (carrying apes and peacocks, no less!) through the Spanish galleon, and down to the British coaster with its cargo of mundanity. I’d like to think I maintained that downward trend, into dreary and anonymous box-shifting.

But… my goodness! Haven’t those boxes shrunk the world?



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