(notes edited by Commander
Alastair Wilson, R.N.)
Their law – Poseidon’s Law, as Kipling calls it, is a very special one. On board, they must abide absolutely by a logic of navigation, by the logic of the machine–gods who serve them. Machines, as Kipling has told us, “cannot tell a lie”. But sailors too (especially those serving the cause of civilisation’s law in the Navy) must not tell a lie – as Poseidon says to all sailors in the poem.Wilson then quotes some lines from the verse and continues:
The language is as obscure as it is pretentious, and hardly fitted to bring home their duties to more than a handful of sailors, but the situation he describes is a special and glorious case for the Law as put forward in Stalky & Co. Absolute vigilance and duty when at sea, total ‘laissez-faire’ for larks and lies and anything else when Jack’s ashore. A kind of ‘in school’ and ‘out of school’ ethic for adults.This editor would contend that Wilson has only considered the verse superficially, and very much from the point of view of a landsman, with little experience of the sea. The verse is not about “the logic of navigation”, nor the “logic of the machine-gods”. It is far deeper, and relates to “the dangers of the sea”, in the sense the phrase is used in the Naval prayer, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the Heavens, and rulest the raging of the seas, who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us Thy servants, and the fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy …It is the Law of that God, personified by the ancients as Poseidon, which says “Never, ever, lie to Me”. And lying includes self-deceit. You must never take the Sea and the forces of Nature for granted. That is the message which Kipling is re-iterating, albeit light-heartedly.