The Bell Buoy


(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

First published with illustrations in Saturday Review, Christmas Supplement 1896,  and McClure’s Magazine February 1897, to be found on the Internet is here, with the original title “The Bell Buoy – a Ballad” and set into a frame of illustration, the work of Oliver Herford. It was published in The Five Nations in 1903, and was later collected in I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33, and the Burwash Edition, vol.26. It was also reprinted in Selected Poems from Kipling (1931).


It is unlikely that the work refers to any particular location on the map; it is a compound, drawing on features from US navigation and English bell-ringing. Written well before the outbreak of hostilities in South Africa it is probably included here mainly for the way it positions Kipling, like the buoy which speaks in it, as a voice of warning a jaunty, confident voice at that. For readers of today the excitement of the poem, felt in its rollicking movement, may lie in its bold critique of those who choose to remain safely within the fold of orthodox belief – compare T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hippopotamus”.

There is a significant change of wording between the magazine publication and this volume
‘godly choir’ has been altered from ‘pimping choir’ in McClure’s. Startling in its boldness, the term ‘ ‘pimping’ occurs in the same stanza which speaks of a ‘checked Desire’. The effect is to suggest that the church bells, as they peal perhaps for a wedding, represent an institution that acts to inhibit sexual desire while manipulating it for gain. Kipling prudently retreated from this.

From its place out over the shoals, the Bell Buoy’s voice is lifted to issue a warning and protect human life while the church bell safe in its tower, knows nothing of these dangers and stands aloof. Its voice is one controlled by the authority of the church and limited by the church’s interests. In contrast the bell buoy glories in its independence and in the vital work it performs. Herford’s highly romantic illustrations depict two opposed figures; on the left is a storm-tossed figure, open-mouthed, which is seated inside the hooped irons of the buoy, his arm raised, and on the right a monkish form, his hands clasped, his head cowled.

Kipling prided himself on maintaining the clear vision of the investigative journalist, one ‘moored over the shoal’ as it were — and on that based his claim to respect and reliability as a commentator on public life.

Notes on the Text

(Notes by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914)

[Stanza 1]

Shoal: a sandbank on which vessels might run aground.

prime:  perhaps the meaning given in OED of the early morning between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., between the monastic offices of prime and tierce. Church bells, after all, ring the ecclesiastical hours. [D.H.]

[Stanza 2]

bob-majors: peals rung upon eight church bells.

[Stanza 4]

My four great hammers: The first bell buoy designed for use in the United States in the 1850s, known as ‘The Brown’s Bell Buoy’ consisted of a simple superstructure containing four clappers. (Stanza 9 may refer to this structure in the phrase ’fretted and bound I lie’) It appears to be this model, which was still in use as a design base as late as 1922, that Kipling had in mind.

[Stanza 6]

screw:  a ship’s engine, as in various other maritime poems. [D.H.] John Walker notes that the term is more commonly used for the ship’s propeller.

[Stanza 7]

bitt to trees: posts on the deck of a ship to which cables and ropes are made fast; trees or cross-trees are horizontal timbers at the head of the lower mast that support the top-mast.

[Stanza 9]

the course: the flow of water, the current.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved