“I’m Satan, newly come from hell…”
On the first page of John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy, the poet rhymed ‘whored’ with ‘Lord’.
The work caused a literary sensation.
This was a strange beginning for a future poet laureate of Great Britain.
Masefield’s escape from the shadow of his poetic mentors came in 1911.
The Everlasting Mercy, his colloquial first-person narrative of a rural hell-raiser, Saul Kane, and his religious conversion, hit a nerve with younger readers when it was first published in the English Review in October 1911.
The poem shocked many with its colloquial coarseness of language and subject, and a depiction of life in England that strayed far from the charming scenes we often associate with English country life.
The poem begins with a grueling boxing bout—a grudge match that fits its rural background and setting quite realistically.
What is the poem about? To put it most directly, it is about redemption. It is in the same tradition as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner or Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
The main character, Saul Kane, begins as a liar, cheat, and drunken carouser. He goes through a series of confrontations that lead him to an overpowering love for nature, the creation, and all mankind: an epiphany that leads to his redemption and rebirth.
Many long narrative poems have been written about redemption, but few, if any, can compare with The Everlasting Mercy. It can be found on countless lists of the finest literary works of all time, and is one of Masefield’s major achievements, remaining as transcendent as ever in this beautifully realized 21st century digital edition; as relevant today as when it was first published a century ago.
JOHN MASEFIELD (1878-1967) was an English poet and writer, and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death in 1967. He was a master prose stylist who brought a distinct sensibility to all his works. He is best remembered as the author of Gallipoli, the classic children's novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, nineteen other novels, including Captain Margaret, Multitude and Solitude, and Sard Harker, and many memorable poems, including "The Everlasting Mercy" and "Sea-Fever", from his anthology Saltwater Ballads.