The poem was first published in the English Illustrated Magazine, May 1893, as one of the six sub-sectional poems to "A Song of the English" It was collected in The Seven Seas, published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co. New York, D. Appleton & Co.
The Seven Seas was itself collected in the successive editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Inclusive Verse (1918, 1926, 1932) and Definitive Verse (1940): also in the Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV) and the Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII).
The deep-sea cables of the electric telegraph were the first universal means of instant communication, girdling the earth. The first commercial electric telegraph was introduced in Great Britain in April 1839. The first successful transatlantic cable was laid and brought into service in 1866. By that date, Great Britain was linked to all the continents (except Antarctica), and the age of instant communication had truly begun.
As a result, a communication from Britain to Australia could receive a reply on the same day. Before that date, it took the best part of eight months. A century and a half later, although, in many aspects of their traffic, the cables have been superseded by radio, either direct or via satellite, they still carry a vast amount of commercial traffic.
Down in the lightless ‘deserts of the deep’ lie the deep sea cables linking all (well, most) of the corners of the world, transmitting ‘warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth’, so that all men might say ‘Let us be one’.
Kipling saw the cables as a unifying force.
[Line 1] The wrecks dissolve above us
Ralph Durand, writing in 1914, said:
Ships that founder in deep water are said never to reach the bottom of the sea, because the water at great depths, owing to the weight above it, has a density greater than that of the material of which the ships are made.Kipling clearly believed this, since the implication is that the ships are, in effect, hovering above the ocean floor, and their detritus falls to the cable lying below them. In fact, this is bad science, since the density of seawater does not increase significantly below about 1000 metres depth.
The maximum density of seawater is usually about 1.028 gm/cubic centimetre (with an absolute maximum of about 1.05 gm/cubic centimetre), whereas that of steel is about 7.5 gm/cubic centimetre. So a steel-built ship is always going to sink to the sea-bed.
[Line 2] Down to the dark, the utter dark
When Kipling wrote, and later still when Durand wrote, man had not constructed bathyscaphes (deep diving submersibles) capable of going to the deepest depths of the oceans. So his impression of the ocean floor relied on his imagination (which was largely correct). In 1960, the bathyscaphe Trieste (right) descended to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, at almost 11,000 metres, the deepest underwater point on the earth’s surface.
[Line 6] flicker and flutter and beat
These are the pulses of the Morse code, poetically expressed. Today the messages are transmitted in digital form.
[Line 8] For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet
For a power—of electricity—gives force to the still—the cable, lying apparently inert on the sea-bed—and as a result a communication is passed without the use of the human voice or a human messenger.
[Line 9] They have killed their father Time
As remarked above in The background, the introduction of electric telegraphy had, effectively, annihilated time by enabling instant communication.
[Line 12] whispering, ‘Let us be one!’
A pious hope, but unrealised. Undoubtedly, faster communication does provide opportunities for the more speedy resolution of differences and misunderstandings, but it doesn’t, of itself, remove the cause of the difference or misunderstanding.
©Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved