skip to Main Content

Turning From the Shadows: John Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy

The Everlasting Mercy. John Masnfield. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

 

While completing Master’s work in the mid 1990’s, I befriended an older Rastafarian from Jamaica. When he wished to emphasize a point in conversation, it was not uncommon for him to quote from John Masefield’s 1911 poem, The Everlasting Mercy. [1] My friend explained to me that growing up he had received a very rigorous education which included memory work.  A lover of art and poetry, he had committed Masefield’s 75 page poem more or less to memory.

The Everlasting Mercy tells the tale of a ruffian being rescued from sin and darkness through the grace of Christ. The tale reflects a strength of Christianity, as Eric Voegelin observed, to “appeal to the inarticulate humanity of the common man,” [2] a class of being I consider myself to belong to. What does Christianity offer the commoner? Among other things, an ability to comprehend that we walk this troubled earth accompanied by a divine presence that, when it stirs our soul, orients us to loving communion, and hope in the good.

In the telling of the tale, Masefield includes a defense for the political and social reality of his time. One hundred years later, the poem can still evoke an intentional meditation for the reader. How do we live with the dissatisfactions of our day? Do we have any faith that our lives transcend the vicissitudes of this mortal existence? Is it possible to remove the sufferings and injustices found in communal life? If not, do we have the capacity to look with some sense of gratitude at the societal and political institutions that bring structure to our collective lives, despite their distressing imperfections?

The lost soul in The Everlasting Mercy is named Saul Kane, a name loaded with innuendo to the point of overkill. He is a shiftless character who poaches rabbits, abuses alcohol, and ensures the reputations of the bar maids are tarnished for a lifetime. Although Kane’s excessive debauchery insulates his closed soul from any intrusion of grace, it is in winning an unjust fist fight through dumb luck that he begins to grow agitated in spirit. Feeling guilt over beating a man and former friend who was in the moral right wakes up Kane to the possibility that his train wreck of a life is a despicable one.

As Kane walks alone that night, the painful recognition of his low moral stature is made clear while he passes through the beauty of the sacramental presence of the Christian culture and natural world that surrounds him. Beneath the chiming bells of the steeple a dog barks, an owl calls, and water tumbles over the stones in the brook. Are the bells a call to judgment? Is the barking dog a reminder of impending death? Is the owl an invitation to seek out wisdom? Is the rushing water a reminder of the life giving Spirit that is the source of that wisdom?

The beauty of the town church rises over not only Kane’s life, but of countless other lives who have trod the earth before him, a sense of melancholy growing in Kane as he contemplates the passing of time beneath the starry heavens. He sees the old, beautifully crafted stone church as proof that the people who preceded him and his generation were happier. Still, Kane reminds himself that even these gifted, happy builders “had to die, the same as every one,” and there is no hope to be found in this life because, “no one lives again.” All the beauty and strength of any generation “is cut down like a withered flower.” Kane is bogged down not only from an acute awareness of his debauch, but from a nihilistic impulse that keeps him rooted in such a condition. He may well feel a stirring in his soul during this nightly sojourn, but these stirrings only sadden him, because they remind him of his isolation in a cold, incomprehensible universe.

Despite his blues-filled melancholy, Kane’s soul has been awoken by the unjust circumstances of the fight, and he finds a broad perspective to measure himself by in light of the beauty found around him. Overwhelmed by the ugliness of his debauchery, his despicable existence wavers before the chasm of death, the Devil whispering in his ear, “Why should you want to live at all?” The Devil continues to goad Kane, urging him to “Throw yourself down and end it.” Kane is still driven by a blind will to live, however, so the self-pitying misery burdening him, instead of being surrendered to God, is magically transformed into a prophetic critique of his society. His lazy, self-centered shiftlessness, after all, cannot have been born from his own moral failings, could it? Society will now carry the burden of his unhealthy soul.

The new born “Elijah” observes the “sanctimonious crowd,” a town full of,

window-peeping, prying,
Maligning, peering, hinting, lying,
Male and female human blots
…whores and sots…

Flinging stones at all the Stephens,
Standing firm with all the evens,
Making hell for all the odd,
All the lonely ones of God,
Those poor lonely ones who find
Dogs more mild than human kind. [3]

Like a rioter in our day who will vandalize public buildings and statues in the name of all the injustices in the world, Kane whips himself into a frenzy at the hypocrisy society is full of. He tears the clothes from his body and frantically rings the town fire bell, waking everyone to his drunken, prophetic rantings that warn this “Sodom and Gomorrah” about the coming fires of hell. Full of unholy zeal, Kane streaks through the town, outpacing the alarmed authorities, and vandalizes the homes of the rich.

The next day, aching from his rough night, Kane heads out “in clothes still dirty from the street.” Now his prophetic eye turns from the general population of hypocrites to the people with the earthly powers. The English Church is “a subsidy of Caiaphas,” and he can only see the sacrifice of the martyrs as fueling the Church’s “jolly fire,” where priests and bishops can “guzzle port with Squire, and back and praise his damned opinions about his temporal dominions.” The working man is given squalid conditions in which to live, with women and children never having enough food to eat. The common person receives a poor education that limits their understanding of the world in order that they never grow discontented with the unjust state of affairs. The rich, meanwhile, are lucky enough to live in mansions, use leisure time to amass still more knowledge, and have the means to send their children to college, “that pleasant place, where getting learning is also key to money earning.” And while wages are kept suppressed for the working poor, those with power can hand out “shoddy blankets” at Christmas that will endear them to those same people, essentially consolidating their power over the masses.

Kane has painted such a picture of injustice in the town that soon “many folk had gathered” to listen in. It certainly is easy to point out the injustices in our day, but as the list of grievances grows longer, the more intoxicated the judge making the list grows, to the point of disorientation. Is our entire society built on nothing but lies? The parson also came along, old and humble, listening attentively to Kane. It is now that he responds, the crowd visibly relaxing as he offers a sober counter-argument to this drunk rabble rouser who has never worked an honest day in his life, nor raised a family of his own. Says the parson,

“You think that Squire and I are kings
Who made the existing state of things,
And made it ill. I answer, No,
States are not made, nor patched; they grow,
Grow slow through centuries of pain
And grow correctly in the main,
But only grow by certain laws
Of certain bits in certain jaws.
You want to doctor that. Let be.
You cannot patch a growing tree.
Put these two words beneath your hat,
These two: securus judicat.
The social states of human kinds
Are made by multitudes of minds,
And after multitudes of years
A little human growth appears
Worth having, even to the soul
Who sees most plain it’s not the whole.
This state is dull and evil, both,
I keep it in the path of growth;
You think the Church an outworn fetter;
Kane, keep it, till you’ve built a better.
And keep the existing social state;
I quite agree it’s out of date,
One does too much, another shirks,
Unjust, I grant; but still… it works.
To get the whole world out of bed
And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and
fed,
To work, and back to bed again,
Believe me, Saul, costs worlds of pain.” [4]

The parson reminds everyone that the society in which they live did not spring out of thin air, birthed by conspirators, but arose rather through sacrifice, a multitude of minds, and uncontrollable circumstances over centuries of time. The social state is admittedly not “whole,” but the imperfect nature of any human creation is rooted in the reality of the real world—including a corrupt human nature, not an evil, all-seeing conspirator’s machinations. Therefore, we need to be cautious when judging what has been born from the past. As far as the future goes, there are innumerable influences both good and evil that will continue to guide the growth of society. Societal institutions, despite their failings, keep society growing into the future with some semblance of stability, and in light of the Church, hopefully growing while guided by the common good. In the meantime, people rise in the morning for work and school, and return home in the evening for a meal. How often do we pause to give thanks for a society that can house and feed so many, despite the problems that make the headlines?

Saul Kane recognizes the wisdom of the parson next to his drunken rantings, but is in no mood to admit this out loud. Kane prefers to remain intoxicated by his self-righteousness. Casting aside his prophetic role, he grows angry and sulks away. Hoping to meet with his lover of convenience—yet another diversion from the light of truth that keeps knocking on the door to his soul—Kane ventures out. Finding himself alone, he takes a rest at the nearby brook. As with the night previous, Kane suddenly grows aware of the presence of death beneath a “pale moon” and a western wind. A pike jumps from the water and the roiling earth and sky “had a death look,” of something “dark, foretold by God.” Kane resolves to brace himself with more gin, because “There’s death let loose to-night, and Change.”

Stumbling into the brightly lit market, Kane finds a boy who has been left alone. He feels pity for this personification of innocence, exclaiming: “Lord, give to men who are old and rougher the things that little children suffer,” reminding us that the narrator has a firm understanding of living in a moral universe, but does not know how to participate in it. Reeking of gin, Kane gives the young boy, Jimmy, a pear to eat, and amuses himself by amusing the boy with dark tales of where “tom-cats go by night.” It is in this state that Jimmy’s mother finds him, and she promptly tears a strip off of Kane while sharply scolding her son.

Kane tries to defend himself and the boy, and it is here that the mother alerts him to the possibility that, in his self-centered universe, the last thing he understands is what is good for a human soul. She lets Kane know that she had eight children but has already buried five. One child died in childbirth, two by measles, one was drowned, and one was run over by a cart. Of her remaining three children, two are on “the road to hell.” Her daughter Susan “went the ways of shame” when the artillery regiment was stationed nearby, and now she will “have a child without a father.” Her son, Dicky, has fallen to a life of drunkenness, which apparently, is now Jimmy’s future as well. Says the mother,

“I’ve washed eight little limbs,
I’ve taught eight little souls their hymns,
I’ve risen sick and lain down pinched
And borne it all and never flinched;
But to see him, the town’s disgrace…

Who never did since he was whole
A hand’s turn for a human soul,
But poached and stole and gone with women,
And swilled enough gin to swim in;
To see him only lift one finger
To make my little Jimmy linger.

In spite of all his mother’s prayers,
And all her ten long years of cares,
And all her broken spirit’s cry
That drunkard’s finger puts them by,
And Jimmy turns…” [5]

The mother wonders if she should have just drowned her children like cats if this is how things turn out, especially in light of the injustice surrounding this life. Next to the power of evil, goodness seems weak and vulnerable, a life’s dedication to goodness and hope easily swept aside in one moment of passion. Drunkards and troublemakers like Kane, “strong and proud,” who would “make white shirts of’s mother’s shroud,” think this is nothing but a joke to laugh at, “though it’s the gates of hell to Jim.” She remembers the men who corrupted Susan and Dick, and how they are still “drunk and strong” while she bears her suffering with an ailing husband with a bad knee, the knee probably made lame from years of hard work, work which the drunkards, of course, avoid like the plague. This state of affairs is wrong and unjust, but the mother can face the day with the patience of Job because she remembers the source of moral order, and has faith that in God’s glory and judgment, a right order will be realized in the end, when we meet our Creator.

Kane has heard “religious ranters” before, and in the past has “put them down as windy canters,” but now in this bustling market where the approving crowd listens to the mother’s beseeching words, Kane’s eyes have been opened yet again. He can see “the harm I done by being me.” He is strong and charismatic, but “given to sin I ‘tracted weaker vessels in.” In other words, however imperfect society may be, Kane, like all of us, has a role to play in drawing the tension of our world toward greater order. This drawing of the good line is carried out first through conducting our lives virtuously and humbly, and by extension, in treating the people we meet on our path with dignity and honor. The shame Kane feels now is born from the recognition that he has corrupted the common good in his society through his own self-serving actions—his sins.

This revelation is overwhelming, and at first Kane is not sure what to do except withdraw once again from the public eye so he can drown his demons with more drink. Since the unjust fist fight, Kane’s soul has been cracked open and his inner eye re-oriented on two consecutive nights, but of course, surrendering his demons and dying to his old life so he can be reborn as something new is not an easy step to take. He suffers not only from the prideful thick headedness of a Pharaoh who repeatedly closes his soul to the shock of divine presence, but from confusion as to how he can discover the divine source of order that will guide his steps into the future.

Kane is hopelessly confused, and in desperation, publicly ridicules a Quaker woman who makes it her business to visit the bars in the hope of turning people to Christ. Even Kane’s drunken friends begin to feel uncomfortable. How low can Kane go? All of these shiftless men still have a shred of good in them that resists sinking into an evil where people are intentionally destroyed. As the bar closes, and the ticking of the clock—Kane’s mortal existence—becomes audible, the Quaker, who to her credit has not backed down from the rabble rouser, says in the quiet darkness, “He waits until you knock.”

However powerful God’s grace may be in the Christian scheme of things, a life of faith, of being open to, and guided by, the highest good, still requires an act of will. At this point, we should remember the Quaker woman, the mother, and the parson, who all risk public humiliation in confronting Kane. Their standing for what is true has been an essential aspect to the saving of Kane’s soul. In every age, those who concern themselves with public standards of moral decency risk ridicule, and sometimes, perhaps, deservedly so, if they overstep their bounds. We do well to remember, however, that these characters not only hold a moral line in the public square, but can participate in the restoration of the lost and suffering.

The pale Quaker, the ticking clock, and the invitation to knock, scares Kane because he is now in the unavoidable presence of death. He suddenly senses “something broke inside my brain.” Fleeing outside, however, he realizes a deep peace, and understands prayerfully that he has been birthed from Christ and now shares in divine communion with all men and women, “and every bird and every beast.” Now, he can see how “dumb” and “blind” he has been.

It is the story of Jesus, and the perceived presence of Jesus, that assists Kane in not only reorienting his soul to divine presence, but in surrendering his self-centered existence to that presence. Sensing he has been reborn from a life of sin into a life that joins him in relationship with all people as brothers and sisters, Kane walks through the early morning countryside, alert to the transcendent wonders around him. He marvels at the beauty in creation, from the dew soaked fields to the reaching chestnut trees. With new eyes of faith, Kane recognizes he is surrounded by meaning and communion.  A gate crossing the lane reminds him of Jesus’ way made plain, and the mists of the fields remind him of our mortal and transient nature. Coming upon a ploughman in the early morning light, Kane cinches his belt and jumps the fence in order to take up the reins. Kane has become a humble participant in creation, participating with his fellow citizens in working for the common good. However we come to such a place, this would seem to be the hope for all of us.

Notes

1. Masefield, John. The Everlasting Mercy. Sidgwick & Jackson LTD., London. 1913

2. Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12, p. 189. Cited from Cooper, Barry, Consciousness and Politics, p. 369. St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana. 2018.

3. The Everlasting Mercy, p. 29-30

4. Ibid., p. 45-46

5. Ibid., p. 58-59

Michael Buhler

Michael Buhler is the Pastoral Care Worker for the Northeastern Catholic District School Board in Timmins, Canada. He has a B.A. from the University of Alberta in History and Comparative Religious Studies, and a M.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University in Religious Studies. His studies included two years of work for a M. Div. at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.

Back To Top