The poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death in 1967, John Masefield occasionally turned to Christian themes in his writing. In 1911 he wrote “The Everlasting Mercy,” a long poem that tells the tale of a man’s conversion from a life of sin to life in Christ. Masefield takes us down into the darkness felt by the poem’s antihero and speaker, Saul Kane—a belligerent drunk and a womanizer—and then up into the light he experiences when, in his own words, “the Lord took pity on me” and “brought me into grace.”
The bulk of the poem takes place during one of Saul’s drinking binges: he has just clobbered one of his friends in a boxing match, defending his (knowingly false) claim to a piece of land, and is celebrating at the Lion, a local pub. As is his custom, he starts flirting with a barmaid and then makes a sexual pact with her. He feels a sting of moral conviction about this—
And while we whispered there together
I give her silver for a feather
And felt a drunkenness like wine
And shut out Christ in husks and swine.
I felt the dart strike through my liver.
God punish me for’t and forgive her.
—but not enough to stop him from carrying out the deed. To ease his conscience, he issues a direct address to his fellow males, urging them away from such behavior:
O young men, pray to be kept whole
From bringing down a weaker soul.
Your minute’s joy so meet in doin’
May be the woman’s door to ruin;
The door to wandering up and down,
A painted whore at half a crown.
The bright mind fouled, the beauty gay
All eaten out and fallen away,
By drunken days and weary tramps
From pub to pub by city lamps
Till men despise the game they started
Till health and beauty are departed,
And in a slum the reeking hag
Mumbles a crust with toothy jag,
Or gets the river’s help to end
The life too wrecked for man to mend.
Throughout the poem Saul’s narration is shot through with this sort of guilty awareness of his own depravity. It disgusts him, but he represses that disgust while he’s in the act of perpetrating whatever sin is at hand, whether it be lying, stealing, poaching, punching, speaking irreverently, or taking sexual advantage of young women.
Still, he must admit to himself the giant emptiness he feels. When his friends pass out from excessive drink, he decides, “If this life’s all, the beasts are better.” He looks outside the pub window at the church across the square and thinks how great it would have been to be among its builders, to leave a legacy like that. He wonders if they were happier than he—but then he reasons that whatever man’s accomplishment or degree of happiness, death is universal:
But if they were [happier], they had to die
The same as every one and I.
And no one lives again, but dies,
And all the bright goes out of eyes,
And all the skill goes out of hands,
And all the wise brain understands,
And all the beauty, all the power
Is cut down like a withered flower.
In all the show from birth to rest
I give the poor dumb cattle best.
He ponders what will be the death of him, and whether redemption is possible, concluding that “parson chaps are mad, supposin’ / A chap can change the road he’s chosen.”
As he sits there, his self-hatred expands into a hatred of all humankind. Dogs, he says, are nobler than most humans, for they at least can identify “a kind heart in a sinner”; they show pardon and grace. Saul remembers that when he returned home from prison—the first of nineteen times—none of his family was happy to see him; they just glowered with disappointment, whereas his dog, Crafty, wagged his tail in heartfelt joy and welcome.
(I’ve thought of that old dog for years,
And of how near I come to tears.)
But you, you minds of bread and cheese,
Are less divine than that dog’s fleas.
You suck blood from kindly friends,
And kill them when it serves your ends.
Double traitors, double black,
Stabbing only in the back,
Stabbing with the knives you borrow
From the friends you bring to sorrow.
You stab all that’s true and strong,
Truth and strength you say are wrong.
The more he muses on the sins of man, the more worked up he gets until, overtaken by a drunken rage, he strips himself naked and wreaks havoc on the pub: smashing punch bowls and glasses and windows, tearing doors off their hinges, and yelling like a maniac. He rings the town’s alarm bells, shouting “Fire!” When the fire brigade comes asking where, he tells them and the gathered townspeople,
I am the fire. Back, stand back,
Or else I’ll fetch your skulls a crack;
D’you see these copper nozzles here?
They weigh ten pounds apiece, my dear;
I’m fire of hell come up this minute
To burn this town, and all that’s in it.
To burn you dead and burn you clean,
You cogwheels in a stopped machine,
You hearts of snakes, and brains of pigeons,
You dead devout of dead religions,
You offspring of the hen and ass,
By Pilate ruled, and Caiaphas.
Now your account is totted. Learn
Hell’s flames are loose and you shall burn.
He runs from house to house, rousing people from their sleep by beating together two brass hose nozzles and preaching judgment to the religious and nonreligious alike. He denounces all those who, like him, are given over to alcohol and lust, but he also attacks the greed of the wealthy class that keeps the poor man down:
You teach the ground-down starving man
That Squire’s greed’s Jehovah’s plan.
You get his learning circumvented
Lest it should make him discontented
(Better a brutal, starving nation
Than men with thoughts above their station),
You let him neither read nor think,
You goad his wretched soul to drink
And then to jail, the drunken boor;
O sad intemperance of the poor.
You starve his soul till it’s rapscallion,
Then blame his flesh for being stallion.
You send your wife around to paint
The golden glories of “restraint.”
How moral exercise bewild’rin’
Would soon result in fewer children.
You work a day in Squire’s fields
And see what sweet restraint it yields,
A woman’s day at turnip picking,
Your hearts too fat for plough or ricking.
And you whom luck taught French and Greek
Have purple flaps on either cheek,
A stately house, and time for knowledge,
And gold to send your sons to college,
That pleasant place, where getting learning
Is also key to money earning.
But quite your damndest want of grace
Is what you do to save your face;
The way you sit astride the gates
By padding wages out of rates;
Your Christmas gifts of shoddy blankets
That every working soul may thank its
Loving parson, loving squire
Through whom he can’t afford a fire.
Your well-packed bench, your prison pen,
To keep them something less than men;
Your friendly clubs to help ’em bury.
Your charities of midwifery.
Your bidding children duck and cap
To them who give them workhouse pap.
O, what you are, and what you preach,
And what you do, and what you teach
Is not God’s Word, nor honest schism,
But Devil’s scant and pauperism.
He expresses how hurt he is by people’s perception of him as worthless. Those who fail to extend mercy, he says, are “Making hell for all the odd, / All the lonely ones of God.”
After his outburst, Saul is able to escape the authorities, with the help of a woman from the pub. The next day, though, he returns to the bottle, even more depressed than before.
Then a Quaker woman, Miss Bourne, shows up; she has a reputation of traveling from pub to pub, preaching the power of Christ to overcome sin. Saul mocks her and her message. She responds kindly but directly,
“Saul Kane,” she said, “when next you drink,
Do me the gentleness to think
That every drop of drink accursed
Makes Christ within you die of thirst,
That every dirty word you say
Is one more flint upon His Way,
Another thorn about His head,
Another mock by where He tread,
Another nail, another cross.
All that you are is that Christ’s loss.”
These words sit uncomfortably with Saul and within the next hour prompt a major interior shift. He realizes that his sins have brought hurt not only to other human beings but to God himself, to the only one who shows mercy. He wants no more of it: right there, at the bar, he confesses his need for divine intervention and receives Christ into his life.
As closing time hits and Saul leaves the pub that night, he is caught up in spiritual rapture, caused not by his drink (though he’s still a bit intoxicated) but by his heart transformation. Roaming his village from dark to dawn, he sees it all anew; everything speaks to him some truth about God. His most powerful encounter comes from seeing old farmer Callow at his plow, which he interprets as an illustration of the work Christ has been doing in him over the years: loosening up the tight soil of his heart—breaking up the weeds, bringing nutrients to the surface—to prepare it to receive the seed of new life.
This final, exulting excerpt picks up from when Saul leaves the pub immediately following his conversion (the emphasis is my own):
Out into darkness, out to night,
My flaring heart gave plenty light,
So wild it was there was no knowing
Whether the clouds or stars were blowing;
Blown chimney pots and folk blown blind,
And puddles glimmering like my mind,
And chinking glass from windows banging,
And inn signs swung like people hanging,
And in my heart the drink unpriced,
The burning cataracts of Christ.
I did not think, I did not strive,
The deep peace burnt my me alive;
The bolted door had broken in,
I knew that I had done with sin.
I knew that Christ had given me birth
To brother all the souls on earth,
And every bird and every beast
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.
O glory of the lighted mind.
How dead I’d been, how dumb, how blind.
The station brook, to my new eyes,
Was babbling out of Paradise,
The waters rushing from the rain
Were singing Christ has risen again.
I thought all earthly creatures knelt
From rapture of the joy I felt.
The narrow station-wall’s brick ledge,
The wild hop withering in the hedge,
The lights in huntsman’s upper storey
Were parts of an eternal glory,
Were God’s eternal garden flowers.
I stood in bliss at this for hours.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then down the hill to gipsies’ pitch
By where the brook clucks in the ditch.
A gipsy’s camp was in the copse,
Three felted tents, with beehive tops,
And round black marks where fires had been,
And one old wagon painted green,
And three ribbed horses wrenching grass,
And three wild boys to watch me pass,
And one old woman by the fire
Hulking a rabbit warm from wire.
I loved to see the horses bait.
I felt I walked at Heaven’s gate,
That Heaven’s gate was opened wide
Yet still the gipsies camped outside.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So past, and past the stone heap white
That dewberry trailers hid from sight,
And down the field so full of springs,
Where mewing peewits clap their wings,
And past the trap made for the mill
Into the field below the hill.
There was a mist along the stream,
A wet mist, dim, like in a dream;
I heard the heavy breath of cows;
And waterdrops from th’alder boughs;
And eels, or snakes, in dripping grass,
Whipping aside to let me pass.
The gate was backed against the ryme
To pass the cows at milking time.
And by the gate as I went out
A moldwarp rooted earth wi’s snout.
A few steps up the Callows’ Lane
Brought me above the mist again,
The two great fields arose like death
Above the mists of human breath.
All earthly things that blessed morning
Were everlasting joy and warning.
The gate was Jesus’ way made plain,
The mole was Satan foiled again,
Black blinded Satan snouting way
Along the red of Adam’s clay;
The mist was error and damnation,
The lane the road unto salvation.
Out of the mist into the light,
O blessed gift of inner sight.
The past was faded like a dream;
There come the jingling of a team,
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain,
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain.
Up the slow slope a team came bowing,
Old Callow at his autumn ploughing,
Old Callow, stooped above the hales,
Ploughing the stubble into wales.
His grave eyes looking straight ahead,
Shearing a long straight furrow red;
His plough-foot high to give it earth
To bring new food for men to birth.
O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep.
Slow up the hill the plough team plod,
Old Callow at the task of God,
Helped by man’s wit, helped by the brute,
Turning a stubborn clay to fruit,
His eyes forever on some sign
To help him plough a perfect line.
At top of rise the plough team stopped,
The fore-horse bent his head and cropped.
Then the chains chack, the brasses jingle,
The lean reins gather through the cringle,
The figures move against the sky,
The clay wave breaks as they go by.
I kneeled there in the muddy fallow,
I knew that Christ was there with Callow,
That Christ was standing there with me,
That Christ had taught me what to be,
That I should plough, and as I ploughed
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud,
And as I drove the clods apart
Christ would be ploughing in my heart,
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots,
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.
O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
The share will jar on many a stone,
Thou wilt not let me stand alone;
And I shall feel (thou wilt not fail),
Thy hand on mine upon the hale.
Near Bullen Bank, on Gloucester Road,
Thy everlasting mercy showed
The ploughman patient on the hill
Forever there, forever still,
Ploughing the hill with steady yoke
Of pine-trees lightning-struck and broke.
I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay
There on his hill, day after day
Driving his team against the sky,
While men and women live and die.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And in men’s hearts in many lands
A spiritual ploughman stands
Forever waiting, waiting now,
The heart’s “Put in, man, zook the plough.”
Scholars are unable to find the word “zook” in any dictionary; it’s likely Masefield made it up (see “A Study in Masefield’s Vocabulary”). But the context makes its meaning clear, as synonymous with “put in”: start, power up, let’s go. The speaker, Saul, is saying that Christ patiently awaits the heart’s invitation for him to come in and cultivate new life. Once the consent is given, his mercy and grace, like a mighty plow, break through all the sin, guilt, and spiritual barrenness and begin their transformative work.
This is not the final line of the poem—there are a few more stanzas that follow, and it concludes with the metaphor of Christ the flowering lily. To read “The Everlasting Mercy” in full, click here.