Friday, December 2, 2016

Moby Dick and Masefield in Jack B. Yeats's Little Fleet

Image Credit: Stephen Foster Books
This "Moby Dick" was a toy boat described and illustrated by Jack Butler Yeats in his 1909 children's book A Little Fleet. Ernest Marriott explains in his 1911 monograph on Jack B. Yates:
“A Little Fleet” is a description of the various toy-boats made by young Jack Yeats and his chums. The narrow winding stream and small pond at their disposal are magnified into a wide and treacherous river, full of whirlpools and snags, and running under beetling cliffs…. Another vessel they built was the Moby Dick, a steamboat with a cocoa-tin as paddle-box:—

She sailed down Gara valley,
She startled all the cows;
With touchwood in her galley
And green paint round her bows.

This boat did not live long, and eventually

She came to flying anchor
At the twilight time of day;
But the strain on the cable sank her—
And the crew, oh, where were they? 
One of five in the South Devon fleet, Jack B. Yeats's toy Moby Dick "was supposed to be a Mississippi River steamboat." Project Gutenberg has a nice eBook version of A Little Fleet; also available in the Villanova Digital Library.

The unnamed "Fleet Poet" to whom Yeats ascribes all the verses in A Little Fleet is John Masefield. From the New York Sun (March 31, 1912); available online at NYS Historic Newspapers and Chronicling America:
A whole summer Masefield and Yeats spent there loafing, talking and indulging in a sport which from a grownup’s point of view appears rather “tame” when indulged in by other grownups. They built little boats and sailed them down the Gara River. The Gara River is at its greatest width about four feet from shore to shore and its greatest depth is never over two feet.

The boats were all the way from ten inches to one yard in length and the two sillies topped the silliness of this pastime by writing quite scientific descriptions of their fleet accompanied by drawings, diagrams and charts and, now and then, a few stanzas due to the pen of the fleet’s poet, Masefield. --The New York Sun - March 31, 1912
New York Sun - March 31, 1912 via NYS Historic Newspapers:
Openly indebted to the New York Sun article, the treatment of Masefield as "The Man of the Hour in English Letters" in The Literary Digest for April 13, 1912 highlights the story of Masefield as Sixth Avenue bar-back, but omits the matter of Jack B. Yeats and The Little Fleet.

The poetry of A Little Fleet also is credited to Masefield by Iolo Aneurin Williams in his 1921 John Masefield bibliography.


Hilary Pyle in her 1970 biography of Jack B. Yeats names the ships portrayed in A Little Fleet including the Moby Dick. In a later article she measures their significance, thus:
While the building and destroying of toy ships, and the creation of 'Pyrat' mythology, may seem somewhat immature in two men, one of twenty-five, the other thirty-three, the pursuit of such ideas certainly stimulated the imaginations of both. Neither ever lost his grasp on reality, or forgot how to distinguish between a real and a fairy-tale world.  --Hilary Pyle, "About to Write a Letter." Irish Arts Review - Spring 1985
On Pinterest, Margaret Miller has made a beautiful Jack B. Yeats board.

Here in Melvilliana, Masefield's glorious line from Sea Fever
"all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by"
has already been nominated as the very finest thing Herman Melville never said.

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