Kipling and
The Seven Seas

(by Jan Montefiore)

This article is based on a presentation in October 2013 by Professor Montefiore at the Kipling Society Symposium "Kipling in America, 1892-1896", at Marlboro Collecge, Vermont, and published in Kipling Journal 355 for July 2014.


[July 2014]

The Seven Seas, published in London and New York on October 30th 1896, after his family left their Vermont home Naulakha for good in August 1896, (1) is at once modern and Victorian, English and American. It is modern in its fascination with new technologies of communication (telegraph cables, improved steamships and railroads) and in its multiple demotic or colloquial voices, yet as I argue below, two of its key poems ‘A Song of the English’ and ‘The Mary Gloster’ are inspired by English Victorian originals. Scattered references in Kipling’s letters between 1894 and 1896 to the progress of his new book of verse, and the letter of July 26, 1896 (2) to his New York editor, anticipating page proofs and giving instructions about the placing of ‘The Mary Gloster’ and ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’, show that he wrote the poems and planned the volume’s composition well before he moved to England.

The Seven Seas was one of Rudyard Kipling’s successes. 22,000 copies were subscribed in Britain in advance of its publication, and when Kipling died in 1936, 182,000 copies had been sold, more than any of his poetry collections except Barrack Room Ballads which sold 255,000. (3) Its poems amply fulfil the promise of the title page, featuring a storm-lashed, oilskin-clad sailor at the wheel. 20 of the 34 poems in the first half are directly concerned with ships, sailors or seafaring, and all but five of the others deal with the related topics of travel, communications technology and connections across space and/or time, (4) while Further Barrack Room Ballads conclude with the homeward-bound soldier of ‘For to admire’ contemplating an unusually calm ‘Injian Ocean’. (5)

Kipling and naval power

The principal theme of The Seven Seas is the global range of the British Empire, its territories divided by thousands of miles of salt water yet united by the ships of the Royal Navy, the merchant fleet and the ‘liners’ carrying their travellers between continents. As Kipling explained to a fan in 1917, by the ‘Seven Seas’ he meant the North and South Atlantic and Pacific, the Arctic and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. ‘It’s an unscientific system but it covers all the seas with which our Empire and Army is [sic] concerned’. (6)

Studies of Kipling’s poetry by Ann Parry (1992) and Peter Keating (1994) have already analysed the imperialist doctrines of The Seven Seas. Ann Parry argues in The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling that that the book represented Kipling’s response to recent threats to the Empire, notably the tensions between England and the USA arising from the Venezuala Crisis in 1895, and the failed South African insurrection by Dr Leander Jameson in the same year. Following Bernard Porter, she sees Kipling as participating in the construction of a ‘visionary imperialism’ of the 1890s, which was called into being by external challenges and the extension of the franchise at home; hence Lord Milner’s prophecy of a
‘great Anglo-Saxon Confederation throughout our world, with its members absolutely self-governing in their domestic concerns, but firmly united for purposes of mutual protection… the most splendid political union that the world has ever known, but also the best security of universal peace’. (7)
Parry mines ‘A Song of the English’ for political allusions, arguing that the line ‘We were led by evil counsellors’ (p. 1) refers to the ‘lukewarm policies of Liberals towards the Empire’, while ‘From the whine of a dying man, from the snarl of a wolf-pack freed’ (p. 10) alludes ‘to the previous political dominance of the Liberals, now seen to be at an end with the passing of Gladstone and his policy of Home Rule for Ireland’. (8) I doubt, however, if many contemporary readers grasped these digs at Liberalism. After ‘The Native-Born’ was first published in The Times in 1895, the editor Moberly Bell congratulated Kipling on his fine non-topical poem, only to be told that far from being ‘not written in relation to any one definite event’ as Bell thought, ‘The Native-Born’ specifically addressed ‘the colonial navy question’, hotly debated in The Times in the autumn of 1895, whether colonies as well as England should help pay the costs of the Royal Navy. (9) Although Kipling’s intervention was made explicit (or so he presumably thought) in the toast:
‘To the gain that is yours and mine,
To the Bank of the Open Credit,
To the Power-House of the Line!’
and the rousing finale:
‘By the might of our cable-tow
(Take hands!)
From the Orkneys to the Horn’
(pp. 53–4),
it is not surprising that even the well-informed Bell missed the allusion. The Seven Seas does not communicate specific political arguments with anything like the punch and clarity Kipling would later achieve in ‘The Islanders’ and ‘The Dykes’.

Peter Keating’s Kipling the Poet (1994) has a different angle on the politics of The Seven Seas, and not only because Keating is more interested than Parry the social historian in the lyrical and formal qualities of Kipling’s poetry, and in the story of his life. (10) For Keating, the poems of The Seven Seas mark not a political crisis for British Empire, but the moment when Kipling, having grasped the significance of sea power, changed from a satirical colonial writer into an imperial prophet:
For centuries, seamen, buccaneers, and privateers, had developed British interests overseas, fighting off the same ambitions of rival nations, transporting settlers and troops, carrying food and raw materials back home, and leaving behind them British settlements scattered over the world. And none of this was ancient history: it was still in process, growing rather than declining; made more, not less possible, by modern naval technology…Kipling’s ‘discovery’ of the sea … provided a historical structure and ideology, linked the present with the past and foretold the future. It was out of these concerns that the irreverent satirist of Anglo-Indian society and the spokesman for the British Tommy was transformed into the prophet of Empire. (11)

In The Seven Seas and in his later poems on the themes of ‘England’s imperial destiny, the modern spirit of adventure, the romance of naval technology, and manliness’, Kipling thus spoke as ‘the moral conscience of the nation, promoting through his writing the qualities that he believed should be nurtured if Britain’s leading position in the world was to maintained’. (12)
Unlike Parry, Keating emphasises Kipling’s desire to ally his own nation with the United States.
‘If the achievements of Empire were to be maintained, it was of vital importance that the American people should regard the imperial mission not only with sympathetic attention but with sufficient enthusiasm to participate in its expansion. To Kipling’s mind, the imperial cause was not only British: it was Anglo-Saxon … Everything rested on the common heritage being strong enough for Americans to realize that British imperial values should, properly understood, unite rather than divide the two countries.’ (13)
Yet the two poems of The Seven Seas that deal directly with the peoples of the United States, are distinctly ambivalent. ‘An American’, an arid parody of Emerson’s poem ‘Brahma’, portrays the typical American as a loud-mouthed, brutal mongrel ‘foolish-hot and fond’ whose ‘hands are black with blood – his heart/ Leaps, as a babe’s, at little things’, but who may ultimately be redeemed by the ‘American Spirit’ of ironic wisdom (pp. 1139–41). The much livelier ‘Rhyme of the Three Sealers’ tells, in swinging rhymed couplets like the frontier ballads of Robert W. Service, how three American vessels poaching sealskins off Siberia where ‘the worst of the lot, and the boldest thieves, be Yank !’ fight a bloody battle for the sake of ‘fifteen hundred skins’ (p. 60) of illegally slaughtered seals. These Yankee poachers are thieves who kill animals by the thousand, and we know from the contemporary Jungle Book story ‘The White Seal’ how deeply Kipling sympathized with their victims; (14) yet they are also skilled and daring sailors of the dangerous Siberian ‘smoky seas’ who fight bravely and when mortally wounded accept without whining that they must ‘lie down on the killing-grounds where the holluschickie go’ (p. 63). The piratical Reuben Paine and Tom Hall are not so different from the men who staked their lives ‘at risk of shoal or main’ in ‘The Dead’ (p. 7) or the English ‘gentlemenadventurers/ Fettered wrist to bar for deep iniquity’, sympathetically remembered in ‘The Last Chantey’ (p. 24).

The prevailing mood of optimism and energy in The Seven Seas reflects the expansive USA of the 1890s, whose contemporary myth of a progressive, expanding frontier chimes with Kipling’s idealisation of dash and enterprise, and especially his preoccupation with the romance of adventurous White Men taking over the world. ‘The Song of the Banjo’, boasting that
‘There was never voice before us till I led my lonely chorus,
I – the war-drum of the White Man round the world !’
travels from a ‘new raised tropic city’ and climbs ‘the bluff that sinks her thousand fathom clear’ to ‘ride the iron stallions down to drink,/ Through the cañons to the waters of the West’ (pp. 79, 81–2). Those steam trains descending from ‘cañons’ traverse the Rocky Mountains of the United States as well as Canada. In the splendid ‘In the Neolithic Age’ both the poet cheerfully dispatching his rivals
(‘Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong’)
and the conclusion that
‘the world is wondrous large …And it holds a vast of various kinds of man’ (p. 127)
evoke the good and bad sides of the US: its casual violence (15) and its democratic variety of peoples.

That variety is also represented in the book’s many different voices: the Glaswegian ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’, the shipping magnate Sir Anthony Gloster boasting of ‘Cheap repairs for the cheap ’uns’ (p. 145), the Yankee poacher yelling ‘Will you fight for it, Reuben Paine, or will you share the pelts?’ (p. 63), or the sailor Mulholland reluctantly obeying the Lord’s call to preach to his fellows on the cattle-boats: ‘I didn’t want to do it, for I knew what I should get, / An’ I wanted to preach religion, handsome an’ out of the wet’ (p. 91). Just as varied are the cockney voices of Barrack Room Ballads which jeer silently at a corrupt sergeant getting married (‘The Sergeant’s Wedding’), or mourn a dead comrade (‘Follow me ’Ome’), or remember the ignominious experience of being routed (‘That Day’), or describe getting a drunken officer out of trouble (‘The Shut-Eye Sentry’).

The Seven Seas certainly celebrates British imperialism. The theme is emphasised from the opening stanzas of ‘A Song of the English’ on page 1. This sequence of seven poems (one for each of The Seven Seas) extols the splendours of the British Empire:
Fair is our lot – O goodly is our heritage !
(Humble ye, my people, and be fearful in your mirth!)
For the Lord our God Most High
He hath made the deep as dry,
He hath smote for us a pathway to the ends of all the earth!
Kipling’s Old Testament rhetoric insists that the English (by which he meant the peoples of Great Britain) are specially favoured by God. The first line’s allusion to Psalm 16 ‘My lot is fallen to me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage’, (16) leads to the more startling claim that
‘the Lord our God … hath smote for us a pathway’, just as He divided the Red Sea for the children of Israel in their flight from Egypt. As the Jews went ‘into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were as a wall to them’, (17)
So ‘The Lord our God’ has granted the English a ‘pathway’ through the ocean, leading not to a homeland (which they already possess), but to global domination, ‘the ends of all the earth’. Neither the equivocal admonition to humility and fearfulness in the second line, which begins by echoing the cadence of Isaiah’s ‘Comfort ye, my people’ (18) and ends with a rhyme-driven ‘filler’, nor the next stanza’s acknowledgment of past ‘dishonour’ do much to lessen this mood of pious boasting. It is aptly described by Keating as
‘recalling the patriotism of Dickens’ Mr Podsnap, though without the deflationary satire. “No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country…This Island was Blest, Sir, to the Direct Exclusion of such Other Countries as – as there may happen to be”’. (19)
Yet despite its title, ‘A Song of the English’ is not in fact much concerned with ‘This Island’, apart from the coastline evoked in the second poem ‘The Coastwise Lights’. The injunction to ‘Clear the land of evil – drive the road and bridge the ford’ (p. 2) clearly doesn’t refer to air pollution in Manchester or road construction in Devon; it commends the duty and right of the English to govern and bring their engineering expertise to other lands.

The following poems are all voiced by personifications of places: in ‘The Coastwise Lights’, the lighthouses set to ‘watch the Ships of England go’; in the ‘Song of the Dead’, the dead explorers and pioneers by land and ocean who established English sovereignty overseas; in the ‘Deep-Sea Cables’, the transatlantic telegraph cables establishing instantaneous global communication; in the ‘Song of the Sons’, the overseas British colonies; in ‘Song of the Cities’, the principal ports in India, Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, Canada, the Cape, Australia and New Zealand; and finally in ‘England’s Answer’, the Mother Country Herself (those capitals are catching) speaking to her colonial ‘Sons’.

The poems that have lasted best are ‘The Coastwise Lights’ and ‘The Deep-sea Cables’ which evoke the romance of stormy seas and of their depths where ‘the shell-burred cables creep’ (p. 9). The opening of ‘The Coastwise Lights’,
‘Our brows are bound with spindrift and the weed is on our knees,
Our loins are battered ’neath us by the swinging, smoking seas’
(p. 3)
anthropomorphises the storm-lashed buildings so vividly that the voice could pass for a moment as that of a hard-pressed sailor like the ‘sodden and chafed and aching’ rowers in ‘Song of the Red War-Boat’. (20) Kipling’s humanised lighthouses are made to share his own vision of the pattern formed by their lights as a constellation, the sight of which links returning seamen to land- dwellers:
‘From our vexed eyries, head to gale, we bind in burning chains
The lover from the sea-rim drawn – his love in English lanes.’
(p. 4).
This celebration of the English people globally linked by clippers bringing wool, warships, whalers and traders, is a world away from the isolated keepers who keep the lights going, whose experience Kipling explored unforgettably in the slightly earlier story ‘The Disturber of Traffic’. (21) Pace Ann Parry’s argument that ‘A Song of the English’ glorifies commerce, (22) this theme is if anything downplayed by its vision of the merchant fleet as ‘swift shuttles of an Empire’s loom that weave us, main to main’ (p. 4), which dissolves the materialism of trade into its metaphor of the Empire as seamless fabric. Throughout the collection, Kipling’s ‘visionary imperialism’ tends to distance itself from the dirty business of making money. The speakers of ‘The Merchantmen’ regret their preoccupation with ‘trade to lose or make’ instead of the real treasure of romance: ‘Now shamed at heart are we/ To bring so poor a cargo home/ That had for gift the sea!’ (p. 30). In ‘The Sea-Wife’, England’s ‘far-spent’ sailor sons return to the mother country (23) with empty pockets: ‘Rich are they, rich in wonders seen/ But poor in the goods o’ men’, bringing back only ‘the lore of men that ha’ dealt with men/ In the new and naked lands’ (p. 101). Sir Anthony Gloster ‘not least of our merchant-princes’ with his ‘ten thousand men on the payroll, and forty freighters at sea!’ (p. 143, discussed below) is a partial exception, but even he is a flawed figure who has gained his position and wealth by sharp practice as well as hard work. It is very telling that in ‘The Liner She’s a Lady’, the fleet of shabby ‘cargo-boats’ and small commercial craft are rendered as street-walking prostitutes, however sympathetically imagined, with their refrain ‘Anythin’ for business, an’ we’re growin’ old!’ (p. 87).

‘A Song of the English’ is foggy about England’s commercial interests, let alone English people with jobs and families, because of the model of poetry which Kipling was using in it. Composition and rhetoric alike draw heavily on Swinburne’s 'Songs Before Sunrise' (1871) dedicated to the Italian republican patriot Giuseppe (‘Joseph’) Mazzini, celebrating the dawn of the Italian nation and the advent of liberty and of humanism in Europe, at length and with much use of allegorical personification. Swinburne’s sequence is very clearly the model for the last three poems.

The ‘Song of the Sons’ to England (‘Mother, be proud of thy seed!’) and the fourteen quatrains of ‘Song of the Cities’ where the ports of the Empire from Bombay to Auckland greet England (‘Hail, mother!’ (pp. 11–15), are modelled on the ‘Litany of Nations’ in Songs before Sunrise. In Swinburne’s Litany, eight European nations relate stylized versions of their histories to Mother Earth, one nation per stanza, each ending with the refrain ‘O mother, hear us’. Swinburne’s stylistic influence is also noticeable in Calcutta speaking as a femme fatale (‘Hail, England! I am Asia – Power on silt, / Death in my hands, but gold!’) and Madras eroticising ‘her’ conquest by a famous English general: ‘Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow/ Wonderful kisses, so that I became/ Crowned above Queens’ (p. 12). ‘England’s Answer’ corresponds to Swinburne’s ‘Hertha’, a lengthy response to the Litany of Nations by a maternal Life Force which addresses mankind as at once ‘my sons’ and as part of herself: ‘I am with you, am in you and of you, look forth now and see’. (24) Kipling’s England, ‘your old grey mother that bore you on her knees’ likewise speaks to her Sons who ‘come of The Blood’ (i.e. the settler colonies) as friends and allies conferring together ‘for the good of your peoples … for the Pride of the Race’ (pp. 15–17). Kipling thus re-works Swinburne’s idealistic liberal internationalism into a patriotic celebration of imperial, specifically masculine strength: ‘Go to your work and be strong….Who are neither children nor Gods, but men in a world of men!’ (pp. 16–17).

These pieties contrast strikingly with the younger Kipling of ‘The Masque of Plenty’ (1888) who mocked the distance between Swinburne’s idealized rhetoric and the actual living conditions of the ‘Much Administered’ Indian peasant: ‘He toils and he may not stop,/ His life is a long-drawn question/ Between a crop and a crop.’ Shortly after writing ‘A Song of the English’, Kipling would again parody Swinburne in the poem ‘Darzee’s Chaunt’ following ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ in The Jungle Book, (25) which is sung by the tailor-bird Darzee in stanzas modelled on Swinburne’s ‘Hertha’ in celebration of the mongoose hero’s victory over the cobras, singing how ‘Death in the garden lies dead’ thanks to ‘Rikki, the valiant, the true/ Tikki, with eyeballs of flame’, (26) until the impatient hero interrupts him. No such irony is visible in Kipling’s allegorical tableau of the mother country welcoming her sons of the ‘Maple-Leaf’ and the ‘southern Broom’ (p. 15).

Kipling's sea poetry

Fortunately, the influence of Swinburne as public poet in The Seven Seas is mainly limited to ‘A Song of the English’, whose grandiose solemnities are followed by the demotic liveliness of ‘Anchor Song’ (‘Heh! Walk her round!’, p. 92), the pathos and gallantry of ‘The Liner She’s a Lady’, the monologues ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’, ‘The Mary Gloster’, ‘Mulholland’s Contract’ and ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’, and of course the Barrack Room Ballads in the second half. Unlike Kipling’s Army poems, The Seven Seas says very little about the experience of sailors on the ocean. As Keating observes, the interest lies in ‘the relationship of man and machine’, (27) as in ‘The Derelict’ where a desolate wreck mourns the loss of the crew that gave her purpose and direction: ‘Man made me, and my will/ Is to my maker still’ (p. 74), and in the dangerous ‘conquest’ of the ocean by the Navy, celebrated in ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Sea-Wife’. There are lively snapshots of distant lands: Australia and New Zealand are nostalgically recalled in ‘The Flowers’: ‘Through the great South Otway gums sings the great South Main…Bell-bird in the leafy deep where the ratas twine’ (pp. 113–14); so is Canada in ‘Robin in the logging-wood whistles “Come to me!” . . . All the winds of Canada call the ploughing-rain’ (p. 111) and ‘The far-flung fenceless prairie/ Where the quick cloud-shadows trail’ in ‘The Native-Born’ (p. 52). And there are vivid glimpses of Arctic seas. In ‘The Last Chantey’, the soul of a ‘specksioneer’ (harpooner) longs for ‘the ice-blink white and near,/ And the bowhead breaching clear’ (p. 24). In the ‘Rhyme of the Three Sealers’, ‘the grey sea goes nakedly between the weedy shelves’ and in winter ‘the Northern Lights come down o’ nights to dance with the houseless snow’ (p. 59). The reincarnated poet of ‘In The Neolithic Age’ recalls how ‘the prehistoric spring/ Made the piled Biscayan ice-cap split and shove’ (p. 125). The rigours of the South Atlantic are unforgettably evoked in ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’ when the engineer dryly invokes the ‘Benedicite’ psalm while describing the ‘Rio run’ from New Zealand, past Cape Horn and through the South Atlantic (p. 39): (28)
Steamin’ to bell for fourteen days o’ snow an’ floe an’ blow -
The bergs like kelpies overside that girn an’ turn an’ drift
Whaur, grindin’ like the Mills o’ God, goes by the great South Drift.
(Hail, snow and ice that praise the Lord: I’ve met them at their work,
An’ wished we had anither route or they anither kirk. )
But there are no entrancing seascapes here to compare with those of the earlier ‘Long Trail’ or the later ‘Sea and the Hills’, or in Kipling’s near-contemporary novel Captains Courageous (1897), whose boy hero, picked up by the fishing schooner We’re Here, encounters the sea in many moods. (29) He meets
‘long sunk avenues which felt quite safe and homelike if they would only stay still; but they changed without rest or mercy, and flung up the schooner to crown one peak of a thousand gray hills, while the wind hooted through her rigging as she zigzagged down the slopes’.
Later, he discovers the fog-bound Grand Banks with their
‘shifting, smoking floors of water round the dory, the lines that strayed away into nothing, and the air above that melted into the sea below ten feet from his straining eyes’,
and during the ship’s return
‘the dry chorus of wave-tops turning over with a sound of incessant tearing; the hurry of the winds working across open spaces and herding the purple-blue cloud-shadows…the salty glare and blaze of noon; the kiss of rain falling over thousands of dead, flat square miles; the chilly blackening of everything at the day’s end.’
< There are no such lyrical descriptions in The Seven Seas, where romance lies in the lost histories of the English who crossed the oceans, the navies that transformed their separating expanses into a means of transport across the world, and the triumph of the modern technologies of communication celebrated in ‘The King’ with its famous line ‘Romance brought up the nine-fifteen’ (p. 56) and ‘The Miracles’:
‘I sent a message to my dear
A thousand leagues and more to her
The dumb sea-levels thrilled to hear’
(p. 47).
Romance lies also in its poesie de depart: ‘Anchor Song’, with its last glimpse of the waves off Ushant
‘Whirling like a windmill through the dirty scud to lee,
Till the last, last flicker goes
From the tumbling water-rows’
(p. 94),
and the relief of the ‘Tramp-Royal’ when he
‘dropped whatever ’twas for good,
An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die,
An’ met my mate – the wind that tramps the world!’
(p. 159).
Kipling and Browning

The Seven Seas is rich in human drama, and not only because of Further Barrack Room Ballads in the second half. As well as the action-packed ‘Rhyme of the Three Sealers’, there are splendid monologues like the undervalued ‘Mulholland’s Contract’ whose speaker, saved from being trampled to death by terrified, storm-tossed cattle, becomes a working missionary to the lower deck:
‘I have been smit and bruiséd, as warned would be the case,
An’ turned my cheek to the smiter exactly as Scripture says,
But following that, I knocked him down an’ led him up to Grace’
(p. 92).
Above all, there are the much admired monologues ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’ and ‘The Mary Gloster’, modelled much more successfully than ‘A Song of the English’ on the work of a Victorian master – Robert Browning, whom Kipling discovered as a schoolboy. Browning’s influence on Kipling has recently been explored by U.C. Knoepflmacher in his admirably comprehensive essay ‘Kipling as Browning: From Parody to Translation’, (30) which argues inter alia that these two monologues are respectively modelled on Browning’s ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ from Dramatis Personae (1864) and on the early masterpiece ‘The Bishop orders his Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’ (Dramatic Romances and Lyrics,1845). (31)

‘McAndrew’s Hymn’ and ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ are both about the speaker’s relation to God, but otherwise I cannot see much creative engagement with Browning’s poem on Kipling’s part. If his engineer indeed ‘tries to make an alienated Maker closer to maker-men’, (32) it must be said that the theology is pretty shaky, as McAndrew’s closing ‘Well, God be thanked, as I was sayin’, I’m no Pelagian yet’ (p. 46) half acknowledges. (33) (As the late Donald Davie tartly pointed out, theology was not Kipling’s own strong point either.) (34) But as well as the obvious formal difference between Browning’s meditation in six-line stanzas with lines of varying length, each stanza redefining the argument of the preceding one, and Kipling’s conversational retrospective in rhymed fourteen-syllable couplets, the speakers are very differently imagined. The crusty post-Calvinist Scotsman looking back on his chequered life (‘Judge not, O Lord, my steps aside at Gay Street in Hong Kong!’, p. 36) and hearing in his revolving steam-engines a hymn to the secular virtues of ‘Law, Orrder, Duty an’ Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!’ (p. 64) is a very different figure from the barely individualised speaker who thinks of himself as clay on the wheel of the divine Potter ‘God, who mouldest men’. (35) (Ben Ezra’s vision of himself ‘to the wheel of life/ With shapes and colours rife,/ Bound dizzily’ (36) may have contributed to the lama’s ‘Wheel’ in Kim, but that is another story.)

Yet Kipling’s rewriting of Browning in ‘The Mary Gloster’ is both subtle and highly detailed. Browning’s dying Renaissance prince-bishop is a sensual aesthete who orders his sons, whom as a Catholic priest he was forbidden to beget, to arrange a splendid tomb inside the church of St Praxed in Rome. Kipling’s Victorian shipping baron Sir Anthony, described by an English newspaper as ‘not least of our merchant- princes’ (p. 143), gives his son Dickie similarly minute instructions about arranging a clandestine sea-burial. Having mistakenly purchased a grandiose family vault in Woking Cemetery to accommodate the grandchildren which Dickie has failed to sire (‘So there isn’t even a grandchild, and the Gloster family’s done’, p. 149), the old man needs Dickie to arrange a sham funeral at Woking. Dickie must then secretly ship his father’s body in Sir Anthony’s freighter Mary Gloster, named after his long dead mother, which Sir Anthony’s old friend the engineer McAndrew will pilot. Once Dickie has dropped the coffin in Macassar Straits at the exact spot where Mary Gloster’s coffin sank many years ago, he will be paid handsomely. Shrewder than Browning’s Bishop who lacks any hold on his unreliable heirs, Sir Anthony offers Dickie, who will otherwise only inherit a life interest, as the family capital will revert to ‘the firm’ if he dies childless, a fee of ‘five thousand’, roughly equivalent to half a million pounds sterling today, to be paid ‘as soon as the bubbles break’ (p. 154).

Like Browning’s Bishop, Sir Anthony thinks of his life after death as an everlasting continuation of earthly pleasures. Imagining his body going on a second honeymoon, he invests the open sea and his beloved vessel pulsing across it with the erotic energy of his youthful days and the glory of his own success (p. 155):
And you’ll take Sir Anthony Gloster, that goes on ’is wedding trip,
Lashed in our old deck-cabin with all three portholes wide,
The kick o’ the screw beneath him and the round blue seas outside !
Sir Anthony Gloster’s carriage – our ’ouse-flag flyin’ free,
Ten thousand men on the pay-roll and forty freighters at sea !
It is a secular Victorian version of the Renaissance Bishop imagining his marble effigy enjoying a life in which he will perpetually
‘hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke’. (37)
Yet Kipling’s dialogue with Browning entails some witty divergence. Whereas the Bishop is a connoisseur who wants peach-blossom marble, a carved classical relief of dancing nymphs and an elegant Latin epitaph, the philistine Sir Anthony dislikes the arts (his ‘Woking vault’ is doubtless ugly) and in often-quoted lines reproaches Dickie for his aesthetic tastes:
Harrer and Trinity College! I ought to ha’ sent you to sea –
But I stood you an education, an’ what have you done for me?
The things I knew was proper you wouldn’t thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was the way to live.
For you muddled with books an’ pictures, an china an’ etchins’ an’ fans,
An’ your rooms at college was beastly – more like a whore’s than a man’s
(p. 149).
Peter Keating accepts this abuse at face value, equating Sir Anthony’s contempt for his son with Kipling’s well-attested dislike of
‘long-haired things
With velvet collar-rolls’.
But if you read the poem through the lens of its ironic original in which the Bishop unconsciously damns himself in every word, you get a more satirical portrait of a man who for all his attractive energy and devotion to his wife’s memory has not only scuttled ships to collect the insurance (p. 143) but has built his vast shipbuilding business by cheating the heir of a dead partner (‘I remember his widow was angry’: p. 147), and like the lustful Bishop is a shameless lecher. He has kept a string of mistresses, the last of whom Dickie will have to cope with:
‘Give pore Aggie a hundred and tell her your lawyers’ll fight’, (p. 150).
There is even a hint in his defensive
‘An’ a man ’e must go with a woman, which you could not understand’ (p. 156)
that he may have been unfaithful during Mary’s lifetime too. As with Browning’s amoral Bishop, Sir Anthony’s sexual energy is part of what makes him attractive, but he is a less than admirable father. From his simultaneously contemptuous and self-pitying attitude to ‘Dickie’ (permanently infantilised by the diminutive), it is clear how poorly he has handled the motherless son whom he alternately tries to bribe and bullies for being uselessly over-educated and not enough of a man to sire any offspring:
‘So there isn’t even a grandchild, and the Gloster family’s done’(pp. 149, 155).

It is illuminating to compare Sir Anthony’s paternal reproaches with the relationship between the wealthy American industrialist Harvey Cheyne and his son in the near-contemporary Captains Courageous. (39) Novel and poem are linked by the name ‘Gloster’, which sounds exactly the same as the fishing port Gloucester in Massachusetts. Gloucester, the home of the We’re Here’s skipper Disko Troop, is the place where Harvey is reunited with his parents, and where Cheyne Senior finds with joy that his ‘unsatisfied dough-faced’ son is now a ‘well-set-up-fisher youth … a boy after his own hungry heart’. (40) Sir Anthony’s repeated reproach that Dickie has been a disappointing investment directly parallels Harvey Cheyne telling his fifteen-year old son that the latter has cost him ‘in dollars and cents, nearer fifty than forty thousand, perhaps sixty’ (though it is the American son who observes wryly that he has made a poor return.) (41) As Daniel Karlin has pointed out, Harvey’s transformation is due entirely to his luck in having found in Disko Troop
‘an upright, generous, humane lawgiver – the father, in other words, whom Harvey Cheyne has conspicuously lacked in his life so far’. (42)
The workaholic magnate who belatedly realizes that in leaving Harvey in the sole care of a feebly indulgent mother ‘he might perhaps have been a neglectful father’, (43) has allowed his son to become a bored spendthrift in an effeminate ‘cherry-coloured blazer’. (44) Clearly, Harvey would have grown up a dissolute playboy as unmanly in his way as Dickie, but for his fortunate fall into the sea and redemption through work and male companionship on the We’re Here.

No such redemption has been available to the Englishman. Dickie, whose childhood trouble was not being brought up by a feeble mother but losing a strong one, has been spoilt by his wealthy industrialist father who resents having paid for his expensive and – from Sir Anthony’s point of view – wasted education at ‘Harrer an’ Trinity College’ (pp. 148, 155). Because the Glosters belong to a much more hierarchical and divided society than the American Cheynes for whom ‘dollars and cents’ and power are what count, (45) son and father are divided by the impassable barrier between a cultivated English gentleman and a self-made man who drops his aitches and despises ‘books and art’. For although the silent Dickie is almost as shadowy as the Bishop’s greedy sons, it is clear that he has disappointed his father mainly by being what Harrow and Trinity College have made him: a gentleman living on unearned income with nothing to say to the uneducated old man who jeers at him for being too much the unmanly aesthete to dream of ‘soiling your fingers’ in trade (p. 149). The contrast with Cheyne, an equally self-made millionaire, telling his son that he must get a solid college education because ‘nothing pays like that’, suggests, unusually for Kipling, that relationships in democratic America may be healthier than those in hierarchical England. (46)

Both these wealthy families lack a good mother. Mrs Cheyne is weakly indulgent and Mary Gloster, like the Bishop’s memory of ‘your tall pale mother with her talking eyes’, (47) is long dead. Towards the end of the poem, the father turns towards the lost wife who is still alive to him (‘Flesh o’ my own flesh, dearie; for ever an’ ever, amen’: p. 155), revealing his deepest desires. Once Dickie has taken his coffin out and sunk it as planned in Macassar Straits, Sir Anthony plans for McAndrew to sink the Mary Gloster too, as in a pagan Viking sea-burial (p. 155):
He knows what I want o’ the Mary ... I’ll do what I please with my own.
Your mother ’ud call it wasteful, but I’ve seven and thirty more,
I’ll come in my private carriage, and bid it wait at the door.
Sir Anthony would also like to dispose of the disappointing son who failed to provide him with a dynasty.
For my son ’e was never a credit; ’e muddled with books and art,
And ’e lived on Sir Anthony’s money and ’e broke Sir Anthony’s heart.
There isn’t even a grandchild, and the Gloster family’s done…
The heart it shall go with the treasure – go down to the sea in ships.
I’m sick of the hired women. I’ll kiss my girl on her lips !
I’ll be content with my fountain, I’ll drink from my own well,
And the wife of my youth shall charm me, an’ the rest shall go to Hell.
(Dickie, he will, that’s certain.) I’ll lie in our standin’ bed
An Mac’ll take her in ballast – an’ she trims best by the head…
Down by the head and sinkin’, her fires are drawn an’ cold,
And the water’s splashin’ hollow on the skin of the empty hold –
Churning an’ choking and chuckling, quiet and scummy and dark –
Full to her lower hatches and risin’ steady. Hark !
That was the after-bulkhead … She’s flooded from stem to stern…
Never seen death yet, Dickie ? Well, now is your time to learn!
Although Sir Anthony is no aesthete, he has his own poetry drawn from his life at sea and his Bible-reading, fusing the gospels and the psalms with the erotic ‘Song of Songs’. He echoes the image of the female beloved as ‘a spring shut up, a fountain sealed’ with characteristic possessiveness in ‘I’ll be content with my fountain, I’ll drink from my own well’, (48) but the Bible has clearly not done much for his morals or religion. He is quite as unregenerate as Browning’s worldly churchman. The dark side of his lifelong love for his dead Mary is his jealous resentment of the son who survived her, and whom he consigns to perdition along with the worn-out mistresses for whom he has no further use: ‘The wife of my youth shall charm me, an’ the rest can go to Hell./ (Dickie he will, that’s certain.)’

I am not arguing that Sir Anthony has arranged for Dickie to drown along with the Mary Gloster (this would be impractical since McAndrew, a man of rigid integrity, would never agree; besides, Dickie has already been told that ‘you’ll come back alone’, p. 155). The ending is less melodramatic than that scenario, and more psychologically astute. Like his master Browning, Kipling enters the dying man’s mind. As Sir Anthony’s life ebbs and his eyes darken, his yearning for a Liebestod with his dead wife becomes, as far as he is concerned, reality. He experiences death invading his body as the sea rising through the Mary Gloster. As the waters of death fill first the ‘after-hold’, then the hatches, and finally burst through the dividing bulkheads to flood the whole vessel, the sinking ship becomes at once his wife and his own body and soul. His taunting last words ‘Never seen death yet, Dickie? …Well, now is your time to learn!’ are ambiguous. Perhaps, returning to reality at the last moment, he means simply that the soft-living son must face witnessing his father’s death. But perhaps, just as the Bishop’s final thought is of besting his rival (‘As still he envied me, so fair she was!’), (49) Sir Anthony in his sinking ship thinks that he is taking his son down with him, that Dickie’s time as well as his own is running out. The subtlety of the poem’s ending can stand comparison with its great Victorian original.


©Jan Montefiore 2014 All rights reserved