Weekly poem: “CLM” by John Masefield
I originated in the darkness of the womb.
My mother’s existence shaped me into a mature individual.
During the entire duration of human pregnancy
Her appearance nourished my ordinary ground.
nor do anything.
I am unable to see, breathe, move, or perform any actions.
However, due to the passing of certain individuals.
Down in the darkness of the grave
She is unable to witness the impact of her actions.
Despite her deep affection, she is unable to express it.
every effort I make will be a lesson for me
No matter how I utilize it, each attempt I make will serve as a learning experience.
Nor knock at dusty doors to find
Her beauty has faded in my memory.
If it were possible to open the gates of the grave.
She wouldn’t recognize her young son, who was…
I am so grown. If we should meet
She would pass by me in the street,
Unless my soul’s face let her see
My sense of what she did for me.
What steps have I taken to remember
What is my obligation to her and all women?
What woman’s happier life repays
What was her experience during those miserable months?
My body, devoid of a mouth, absorbed all notifications and comments.
Before the gates of hell were opened at birth.
What actions have I taken, attempted, or spoken?
Can we express our gratitude for the deceased woman?
Men triumph over women still,
Men trample women’s rights at will,
The desires of man wander freely throughout the world.
* * * *
Dear grave, please remain closed so that I am not embarrassed.
John Masefield’s poem “CLM” is a part of his 1910 collection, Ballads and Poems, where he mourns an unnamed woman, possibly his mother Caroline née Parker. This collection marks a shift in Masefield’s career as he had already established himself as a poet and was now turning to prose. According to Philip W Errington’s introduction to a new edition of the Selected Poems, Masefield was struggling with despair and felt that his work was not meeting his expectations. The five short sestets in “CLM” show a personal and melancholic perspective. If one is not familiar with Masefield’s life, they may mistakenly think that it was his birth that caused his mother’s death. However, in reality, he was only six years old when she passed away while giving birth to his sister.
The boy had a peaceful childhood in rural Ledbury, but it was destroyed when his father passed away following the loss of Caroline. He was then sent to live with his uncle and aunt, attended a boarding school that he did not enjoy, and was eventually sent to a naval training ship, the Conway, in hopes of breaking his habit of reading. However, his time at sea only gave him more opportunities to read, and after some more experiences, he published his beloved first collection of poems, Salt Water Ballads, in 1902.
The author praises the early poems of Masefield for their simple and melodic quality, nautical language, and use of dialect. However, the author also acknowledges that Masefield’s poetic talent goes beyond these well-known works such as “Cargoes” and “Sea-Fever.” Despite finding success in other literary genres and serving as poet laureate, Masefield remained committed to poetry throughout his long life (1878-1967). As his poetry evolved over time, it became more serious and unique. This cannot be solely attributed to his narrative style, although he was a skilled storyteller. Instead, it is a reflection of his humanity and generosity, which are evident in both his longer works and shorter lyrics. Even in his war poems, Masefield takes an anti-romantic approach and never forgets the harsh reality faced by soldiers on the battlefield.
In CLM, the portrayal of pregnancy is portrayed as a harsh experience for women: “I am unable to see, breathe, or move, / Except through the death of some of her.” In the fifth stanza, this dismal view expands to encompass female life in general. Are there any “happier moments” within it that could make up for the mother’s sacrifice “as my body was drained / Before Birth’s release from hell”? These lines bring to mind a repulsive parasite, with the only escape for its host being through the unimaginable (or once naively imagined) horror of childbirth. However, the second and third stanzas take on a different tone, seemingly softened by actual memories. The delicately imagined non-encounter between mother and son is particularly poignant.
Masefield is not approaching this topic as a geneticist. A contemporary poet might mention that his manhood and gender were determined by the presence of a Y chromosome in his father’s sperm. (Further information on the captivating subject of chromosomes can be found here).
Masefield reveals that there is a similar existential experience occurring in the “dark womb” where he originated from – the gradual shaping of a potential self, gaining sustenance from the mother’s own self. Is there a suggestion that this process is remarkable because a man’s life carries more weight and complexity than a woman’s? This may be seen as a harsh question in light of the poem’s progression, with its recurring expressions of guilt, intense self-analysis, and ultimate self-debasement.
The reader may encounter a few small issues. The word “beauty,” which Masefield often uses, may sound overused when it first appears. Some may find the use of asterisks to separate the last line of stanza six overly dramatic (although I do not!). The words “lust” and “roves” may confine the meaning of “shame” to solely sexual contexts. However, if we consider “lust” to encompass a desire for power, it adds depth to the poem.
Masefield was ahead of his time in disclosing a complicated visceral response to his orphaning. His form and technique are traditional but fluidly deployed, giving him room to search for a woman he knew well, as loved children always know their mother, but could never know well enough. The adult-child must “knock at dusty doors to find / Her beauty dusty in the mind.” In what is said and unsaid, Masefield stirs the dust: his image of CLM becomes visible.