I recently read Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc. His quotation of John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes” (1903) brought a smile to my face, as I remembered it from high school. It also acts as a highly condensed Western Civ. sequence! Here it is in full:

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Given the artistic and cultural taste of my high school English teacher, who was always lamenting the decline of society, I think we were supposed to take this poem at face value. But now I take the opposite view. Despite Masefield’s tendentious description of the coaster as dirty and salt-caked (what, no dirt or salt-stains before the twentieth century?), “butting” along with cheap (and dull-colored) cargo, I praise the industrial capitalism that it represents! The coal, iron-ware and tin trays are consumer goods that even people like you and me can buy, because they are mass-produced and inexpensive. No, they aren’t “inspiring” like sandalwood or topazes, but what sort of people would have been able to buy these things, in either the ancient or early-modern worlds? Very rich people, if they were for sale at all and not simply shipped straight to the court to adorn and flatter the ruler. The British coaster, by contrast, would represent thousands of such ships, bringing useful products to market. Such products would also have been produced by people paid for their labor, and not slaves, as were found in the Assyrian or Spanish colonies. So to me the poem doesn’t represent the decline of civilization, but its improvement.

Moreover, now that I am older, and a little better versed in history, certain errors are apparent. The first three words, for instance, introduce an anachronism: Nineveh is in modern-day northern Iraq, but I assume that in the poem it stands in for the Assyrian Empire, which flourished in the three centuries before the Medes and the Babylonians destroyed it in 612 BC. (Nineveh was not rebuilt; its ruins were discovered and excavated by Henry Layard in the nineteenth century.) But the quinquireme was invented by Dionysus of Syracuse in 399 BC, presumably an improvement on the Athenian trireme with its three rows of oars. Furthermore, the quinquireme was a warship, not a cargo ship! All those oars meant that the sailors were packed in like sardines, with little space left to transport anything. As for the cargo, King Solomon, who did live in Palestine, did receive tribute roughly matching the list in the first stanza of the poem from “Ophir,” wherever that was. But in the second stanza, where does the galleon’s cargo come from? The ship is sailing from the Isthmus (of Panama, I assume). It’s carrying cinnamon, a product of Asia, but that may have been brought from the Philippines by one of the Manila galleons. Emeralds come from Mexico (Cortez acquired a bunch), as do topazes, but Mexico is not known for diamonds, and amethysts come largely from Brazil, which was Portuguese. Also Portuguese was the moirdore – were the Spanish incapable of doing their own smelting?

This is why I think that this poem is ironic. It is suggesting that the past always looks better than the present, but it’s an illusion. We remember what we want to remember, and it’s often the best that survives anyway – but the haziness of recall should tip us off that all might not be as it seems.