John Masefield (1878-1967) was English Poet Laureate from 1930-1967 and published his most famous poem, Sea-Fever, in 1902. He published it originally with the title hyphenated, and the opening line of each stanza beginning, “I must down to the seas again…”. Not “go down”. Recent publications, such as Carcanet’s new edition of Masefield’s Collected Poems have reverted to his original version. But in between, generations of British schoolchildren have learnt it as, “I must go down to the seas again…” Robin Knox-Johnson, the round the world sailor – who should know a thing or two about the sea by now – learnt it with ‘go’ included, and still recites it this way.
So why did later editions of the poem change the opening line to each verse by adding ‘go’? Were publishers and teachers worried about the original being ungrammatical? Was it a simple mistake that for generations wasn’t picked up on? What did Masefield himself think about the change?
According to my brief research, it was Masefield himself who inserted ‘go’ into later versions. As well as being a keen sailor, he was also keen to promote poetry throughout his time as Poet Laureate and organised competitions, and annual recitals up to his death. Maybe he thought he should promote good grammar too?
I am not persuaded that this was necessary. Especially in a poem that is noted for its lyricism. You can read it yourself below and check out its rhythms and rhymes; its alliteration and assonance; its use of onomatopoeic words and other poetic devices. It’s hardly a show piece for soberly correct word and grammar usage; but that’s not what it is meant to be. It is an evocative poem that is highly effective at conveying the lure of the sea, with a suggestion in the last stanza of something more profound.
I prefer the original, especially for reading aloud. Insert a ‘go’ if you must!
Sea-fever, by John Masefield
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
Links to my books and social media