The Last Chantey

(notes by Philip Holberton and Alastair Wilson, edited by John Radcliffe)

Publication history

First published in the second issue of the new and ambitious Pall Mall Magazine of June 15th 1893. J P Collins notes in KJ 70 for July 1944 that Kipling’s original title was “The Dipsea Chantey”, Dipsea meanng ‘Deep Sea’, but that he was persuaded to change it by the Pall Mall editors. ORG (p. 5345) which lists the poem as Verse no. 587, notes that “The Dipsey Chantey”, and “The Judgement of the Sea” were used in unauthorised editions.

In the Pall Mall, the poem was illustrated by Laurence Housman, the younger brother of the poet A E Housman. Housman’s title illustration can be found in Peter Keating between pp. 110 and 111.

The poem is collected in:

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 33, p. 19
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The theme

This is a celebration of the sea, though as Ann Weygandt has pointed out (p. 173), hardly a ‘chantey’, which was a worksong of the days of sail. Peter Keating (pp. 107-8) sees it as one of Kipling’s most memorable sea poems:

Taking Revelations 21:1 as his text (“and the sea is no more”), Kipling launches into
“The Last Chantey” with an imaginative verve that places it high among the many rollicking celebratory ballads of life at sea. The first response of the “jolly mariners” when God seeks
their advice on whether He should “gather up the sea” is to remember the hardships they have endured and say, yes “God may sink the sea!” But one by one the shades of the people through the centuries who have depended on the sea, call for it
to be preserved: Judas, cooling on the ice floe granted to him
once a year, St Paul undertaking his perilous journeys in order
to spread the Gospel, slaves who were flung overboard, gentle-
men-adventurers and whale-fishers – all urge the mariners to
hold to the traditions of the sea. This the mariners do, rejecting
the heavenly alternative offered by God:

Must we sing for evermore
On the windless, glassy floor?
Take back your golden fiddles and we’ll beat to open sea!

Alastair Wilson comments: It must be said that, in this poem, Kipling is treating this biblical text in a manner verging on the flippant.

Musical settings

Brian Mattinson lists four musical settings for this verse, and also links the format to the celebrated Australian ballad “Waltzing Matilda”, although, as the reader will find out if he tries for himself, it does not fit exactly. Alastair Wilson notes that it is not particularly susceptible to use as a hauling chantey. The rhyming pattern in each stanza is abccb, and in each stanza, the rhyme in lines 2 and 5 is ‘-ea’, since the last word of each stanza is ‘sea’.


Kipling had made many sea journeys by his twenty-eighth year, when this poem was written, and he was enduringly fascinated by the world of sailors and the sea. He wrote some forty tales about ships and the sea, the twenty poems in The Seven Seas and many others. He believed that without the sea the world of men, and indeed his own work, would have been very much the poorer.

He also wrote “The First Chantey”, also collected in The Seven Seas, one of his excursions into pre-history, and another celebration of the greatness and mystery of the sea.

Notes on the Text

[epigraph] ‘And there was no more sea.’: From Revelations 21,1:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

[Verse 1]

the Vault above the Cherubim: Ezekiel 10, 1: ‘the firmament which was above the heads of the cherubims’.

Earth has passed away: Revelations 21, 1: ‘the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.’

Alastair Wilson writes:: Chapter 21 of Revelations is the last chapter but one in the whole Bible, and is the culmination of the Revelations of St. John. At the second coming, God had created a new world (much of the rest of the chapter concerns the new Jerusalem, being, it may be assumed, a microcosm of the whole world.) In that new world, according to St. John, there was to be “no more sea”. This is not the place for a theological discussion, but it is interesting to wonder why God should have sought to do away with the sea, observing that He created it in the first place (pace the Darwinians). Nor does St. John suggest any reason why. Kipling, though, in this stanza, suggests that for God’s Word to be established the sea should be “gathered up” – the implication being, perhaps, that God’s writ did not run on the sea (though there are a number of instances in the rest of the Bible where the waters were stilled at His command). [A.W.]

[Verse 2]

The initial reaction of the “jolly, jolly mariners” is “We don’t mind if God “sinks the sea” – we’ve had enough of hurricanes and the like.” [A.W.]

barracout:  an abbreviation for barracouta (more usually barracuda), a predatory fish (family Sphyraena) of tropical seas with sharp fang-like teeth for tearing flesh from bones.

[Verse 3]

Judas, the betrayer of Christ, speaks up – according to him, God had made a covenant with him to allow him one day in every year when he can have remission from the fires of hell, and go to sit on an ice-floe. [A.W.]

The soul of Judas: In “The Voyage of St. Brendan”, from Lives of the Saints (p. 62) (Penguin Books 1965) it is told:

St. Brendan espied a shape in the sea which looked like a man perched on a rock. The saintly abbot asked him who he was and what crime he could have committed to have deserved such a fate.

‘I am Judas Iscariot who foully bargained away the life of his Master. Jesus Christ’s unspeakable mercy has put me here. To me this is no place of punishment. It is the spot where my loving Saviour grants me respite in honour of His Resurrection.’

[Verse 4]

The Angel of the Off-shore Wind (he’s the one who puts a check on the thunder and the raging of the sea), complains that he will lose his honour (and his job) if the sea goes. [A.W.]

He that bits the thunder: to ‘bit’ is to apply the controlling bit, as in a horse’s harness, to temper the wildness of a storm.

[Verse 5]

The “jolly, jolly mariners” say they didn’t really mean it. Even if their ship should founder, they’re big enough to take the rough with the smooth, and not complain petulantly to God, asking for the sea to be taken away. As today’s Navy would say “That’s life in a blue suit.”

[Verse 6]

Even the slaves, thrown overboard to drown from slave ships on the notorious ‘middle passage’, speak up for the sea: instead of being condemned to a miserable life of servitude ashore, they rest in peace on the sea bed till the last trump.[A.W.]

picaroon: a small pirate ship.

[Verse 7]

This is St. Paul speaking, referring to his voyage to Rome when they were cast ashore on Malta – see “The Manner of Men”. He tells God that the perils of the sea have taught men of God’s Grace and Glory. [A.W.]

frapped to ‘frap’ is to save a damaged ship from breaking in half by binding strong cable round and round the hull, as in the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (well known to Kipling) and in the terrible storm described in Acts 27,17: ‘…they used helps, undergirding the ship…’ ‘undergirding the ship’ was the same as ‘frapping’.

Alastair Wilson points out that today’s Navy still uses the expression, meaning to secure anything with rope – eg, “the wind’s getting up – go and frap down the boats’ covers before they take off.”

labour woundily: A ship is said to labour if she will not easily respond to her helm, or wallows in the sea, only coming upright sluggishly after being rolled over by wind or waves. And ‘woundily’ is an archaic word for ‘excessively’ (the OED says it is “obsolete, excessively archaic”).

fourteen score: A ‘score’ is twenty, thus fourteen score is 280. See Acts 27,37: ‘We were in all in the ship two hundred, three score and sixteen souls’, (which makes 276!).

under Malta: Acts 28,1: “when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.’

See also “The Manner of Men” in Limits and Renewals, where two of the seamen from Paul’s ship tell the tale of that voyage.

[Verse 8]

The “jolly, jolly mariners” again – complaining about having to harp in Heaven, and asking if they can’t sing sea shanties (chanteys) instead. [A.W.]

gentlemen-adventurers: the Elizabethan captains who raided the Spanish Main and singed the King of Spain’s beard. See “Gloriana” and “Sumple Simon” in Rewards and Fairies

[Verse 9]

Ralph Durand (pp. 82/3) writes:

The Companies of Gentlemen Adventurers of the Tudor period were the forerunners of the great chartered companies, such as the Honourable East India Company, the Hudson Bay Company and others, which made the British Empire. Their original quarrel with Spain arose from the vigorous refusal to recognise Spain’s right to a monopoly of trade in the New World. Thus when Hawkins, representing a syndicate of London merchants, first took a cargo of slaves to the West Indies, he was debarred from trading by a prohibitive customs duty, until, by landing a hundred armed men, he persuaded the authorities to reduce the tariff.

The Spanish government revenged itself by confiscating two of his ships that fell into his power. Thereafter English trading ventures to America became practically piratical expeditions, and consequently the few English seamen that fell into the hands f the Spaniards were sent to the Inquisition or the galleys. The dealings of the English with the Spaniards were red enough, but the former would have hotly denied iniquity.

[Verse 10]

The “gray Gothavn `speckshioner” says, “What happens to all the fish in the sea, Lord, if you do away with the sea? Have they all been so wicked as to deserve being destroyed?” [A.W.]

Gothavn ‘speckshioner:  Gothavn was the administrative centre of North Greenland, although it is known as Qeqertasuaq today. Durand writes that: “the highest official there is an Inspector, who, besides magisterial duties, regulates the whaling industry”.

Today, the government of Greenland (which is today an independent country within the Danish commonwealth) is more akin to Denmark, with its own prime minister in the capital, formerly Godthåb, now Nuuk) The whaling industry is effectively dead in these waters today.

Kipling employs alliteration substantially in this verse and the last of the poem.

 he that led the flenching: more commonly ‘flensing’, stripping the blubber off a whale. In younger days the ‘spectioner had led the flensing gang on a Dundee whaler.

fleets of fair Dundee: In the late 19th century, Dundee in western Scotland supported a fleet of sixteen whaling ships.

ice-blink: the reflection from pack-ice, a peculiar shimmer in the air. See “Quiquern” in The Second Jungle Book.

bowhead breaching: the bowhead was the Greenland whale. A whale was said to breach when it leapt clear of the water. See Kipling’s poem “Sussex”, verse 3: ‘our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed downs’.

whelm: overwhelm, engulf, destroy

[Verse 11]

The “jolly, jolly mariners” are fed up with unexciting Heaven, where nothing ever happens – all there is, is a windless glassy floor (Revelations 4,6: ‘And before the throne, there was a sea of glass like unto crystal’..

See also Hymn 146 (English Hymnal) or 160 (Hymns Ancient and Modern) v. 2: ‘Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea’.). So the jolly mariners are quite content to return their harps to store (‘golden fiddles’), and return to sea.

there is neither lead nor lea:   they were in deep waters in the open sea, too deep to find the bottom with the sounding-line, the lead, away from any lee shore. See “questing lead” in ‘The Long Trail’, verse 6.

[Verse 12]

OK, said the Lord, who called up the sea, and sorted out who ruled what. Those who don’t like singing God’s praises in a land-heaven can go back to sea, and serve Me there. One wonders if Kipling was then aware of the opening words of the Naval Prayer:

O eternal lord God, who alone spreadest out the Heavens and rulest the raging of the seas”

– an unequivocal expression of God’s power over the sea. Later on, Kipling must have known the words, because he uses snippets in other stories, including “Their Lawful Occasions” (1903).

[Verse 13]

Sun, wind, and cloud shall fail not:  The mariners are getting the sun back along with the sea. The sea shall be as it was, sun, wind, cloud and spindrift (the spume driven off the top of the waves by the wind), and the fulmar following in the ship’s wake. See “McAndrew’s Hymn”, written later that same year:: ‘Hail, snow and ice that praise the Lord.’  [A.W.]

Daniel Hadas adds: this can be contrasted with Revelation 21.23: “And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” [D.H.]

fulmar: a seabird of northern waters, Fulmarus glacialis, the North Atlantic petrel. The ‘molly-hawk’, as sailors called it, followed whalers and sealers for the sake of the refuse thrown away at skinning or flensing time.



©Philip Holberton and Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved