In the three-stanza poem, “Cargoes”, John Masefield develops imagery to create a negative impression of modern commercial life. There is a contrast between the first two stanzas and the third, with the first two demonstrating the romantic, distant past and the third demonstrating the modern, gritty, grimy present. Masefield’s images are thus both positive and lush, on the one hand, and negative and stark on the other.
The most evocative and pleasant images in the poem are included in the first stanza. The speaker asks that we imagine a “Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”, an ocean-going, many oared vessel loaded with treasure for the biblical King Solomon. The visual impression is colorful, rich and romantic The imagery of richness is established with ivory (line 3), and is continued with exoticism of a”apes and peacocks” in all their strangemess and colorfulness. The speaker adds to the fullness of this scene by referring to sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine, thus, adding images to smell and taste. The “sunny” light of ancient Palestine not only illuminates Masefield’s scene, but invites readers to imagine the sun’s warming touch. The references to animals and birds also suggest images of the sound these exotic creatures would make. Thus, in this lush first stanza, images derived from all the senses are introduced to createhe life and impressions of glorious past.
Almost equally lush are the images of the second stanza, shich completes the first part of the poem. Here the visual imagery evokes the royal splendor of a tall-masted, full-sailed galleon at the height of Spain’s commercial power in the sixteeth century. The cargo of the galleon suggests great wealth, with diamonds and amethysts sparkling to the eye, and “gold moidores” of Portugal gleaming in colorful chests. With cinnamon in the second stanza’s bill of lading, Masefield includes a reference to a pleasant-tasting spice.
The negative imagery on the third stanza is in stark contrast to the first two stanzas. Here the poem draws the visual image of a modern “Dirty British Coaster” to focus on the griminess and suffocation of modern civilization. This sprayswept ship is loaded with materials designed to pollute the earth with noise and smoke. The smokestack of the coaster (line 11) and the firewood it is carrying suggest the creation of choking smog. The “Tyre coal” (line 13) and “road rails” (line 14) suggest the noise and smoke of puffing railroad engines. As it this were not enough, the “pig-lead” (line 14) to be used in various industrial processes indicates not just more unpleasantness, but also something more poisonous and deadly. In contrast to the lush and stately imagery of the first two lines, the images in the third stanza invite the conclusion that people now, when the Dirty British coaster” buffs through the English Channel, are surrounded and threatened by visual, olfactory, and auditory pollution.
The poem thus establishes a romantic past and ugly present through images of sight, smell, and sound. The images of motion are also directed to agree with this view: in stanzas 1 and 2 the quinquerime is “rowing” and the galleon is “dipping”. These kinetic images conveyed by participles of motion suggest dignity and lightness. The British coaster, however, is “butting”, and image indicating bull-like hostility and blind force. “These, together with all the other images, focus the poem’s negative views of today’s consumer-oriented society. The facts that life for both the ancient Palestinians and the Renaissance Spaniards (by those Spanish “explorers” who exploited the natives of the (isthmus) should probably not be emphasized as a protest against Masefield’s otherwise valid contrasts in images. His final commentary may hence be thoguht of as the banging of the “cheap tin trays”, which makes a percussive climax of the oppressive images filling too large a portion of modern lives (Roberts: 1988).