This is the last of a cycle of sonnets that John Masefield, later the Poet laureate, published in 1916, when he was aged thirty-eight. He had an extraordinary life up till then, orphaned when only a young child, sent to train as a sailor-boy and then sent to sea, living in America, working in a carpet factory… so many adventures, and such an imagination to weave the memories and experiences into poems, ballads, and as here, sonnets.
Reading his work almost a hundred years after it was published, it is fascinating to see the resonances which still apply; no doubt, I take things from his work that he had never dreamed would be understood from his words – but that is the case with all writing. Writers cannot govern what their readers understand from their work.
As the last of sixty sonnets, this poem is a reflection on mortality, on the inevitability of an individual’s life’s end and the indifference of the elements.
Let that which is to come be as it may,
Darkness, extinction, justice, life intense
The flies are happy in the summer day,
Flies will be happy many summers hence.
Time with his antique breeds that built the Sphynx
Time with her men to come whose wings will tower,
Poured and will pour, not as the wise man thinks,
But with blind force, to each his little hour.
And when the hour has struck, comes death or change,
Which, whether good or ill, we cannot tell,
But the blind planet will wander through her range
Bearing men like us who will serve as well.
The sun will rise, the winds that ever move
Will blow our dust that once were men in love.