(notes on the text by Alastair Wilson and Mary Hamer)


Alterations in the text

Heavily reworked for publication in The Five Nations; original stanza 2 changed places with original stanza 3; originally eleven stanzas in length, stanza 9 was added (see note below) and stanzas 5 and 6 altered. There were also verbal tweaks, see below.

Original stanzas 5 and 6 read as follows:

‘And when we have wakened the lust of the foe,
To draw him by flight to our bullies we go—
Yet never so halting that he is outrun
And never so halting that we are outdone.


Then lurching and lunging, he followeth far,
With hail of long pieces our beauty to mar
Till, ware of fresh smoke stealing nearer, he flies—
And our bullies close in for to make him good prize.’

The jaunty hornpipe rhythm takes the edge off a rather risqué comparison. Cruisers, whose traditional task is to seek out enemy ships and lure them into ambush, are throughout compared with seaport prostitutes. Georgian sailors, 100 years earlier, used the same analogy: they would refer to a girl, whether virtuous or not, as a ‘saucy frigate’.

[Stanza 1] our mother the Frigate: In the days of sail, frigates were three-masted ships built for speed, whose duty was not to fight but to scout and decoy. After the passing of the era of sail, the cruiser inherited this task.

her bully the Ship of the Line: her darling, her desired companion, in this case her pimp. A Ship of the Line is one equipped with the firing power to take its place in the Line of Battle as a warship.

[Stanza 2] night-walking: the phrase allows Kipling to keep the comparison with prostitutes going, for they were sometimes known as ‘night-walkers’.

[Stanza 3] office: originally ‘virtue’.

[line 2] originally ‘Abiding as hiding yet guiding to doom’

tempt them: originally ‘drive all’.

[Stanza 4] pot-bellied merchant: (originally ‘poor silly merchant’) refers to the design of a merchant ship built for carrying cargo.

foreboding: originally ‘attending’. The merchant ship is not expecting trouble and carries full navigation lights but the cruiser comes up showing no lights at all. It suddenly illuminates the merchant ship with a searchlight (first appearing in the new steam navy in the late 1870s):

What ship, where bound? ; or
Heave to, I am sending a boat!.

[Stanza 5] describes exactly what happened at Jutland, 17 years later, see

Naval Background

in the Headnote.

[Stanza 6] In the days before wireless, telling your Commander-in-Chief was a problem; in the days of sail, when once you had found the enemy, then his future movements might be reasonably predicted from the direction of the wind; but with steam there was a requirement, having found the enemy, to follow him because his movements were less predictable.

[Stanza 8] spindrift: spray from waves

[Stanza 9] widdershins: anticlockwise, always considered a term and movement of ill-omen.

bride-bed of death: this phrase anticipates ‘the Brides of Death’ in the opening of “The Destroyers”. Kipling appears to have created this stanza for the purpose of linking the two poems, which he juxtaposed when he collected them in The Five Nations.

fleereth: jeers at, chaffs. Kipling is suggesting that one cruiser is saying to another:

‘Are you sure that the enemy is still there?’
‘Are those their signal lamps flashing, or a lightning flash (‘levin’)?’
‘Is that thunder or gunfire?’
‘Is that funnel-smoke, or a cloud on the horizon?’
‘Is that a ship’s navigation light, or the morning star?’
(actually, the planet Venus, rather than a star).

Bearing in mind the tactical need to update the returning ship with a situation report, a ship would not make her signals (‘signeth’) ‘fleeringly’ (in a mocking or sneering fashion). But see the note on The Victorian Navy below.

[Stanza 10] levin: a flash of lightning.

[Stanza 12] Now peace is at end: a contradictory message in 1903, when this poem was collected in The Five Nations for the Anglo-Boer War was over. Instead, in reissuing this warning unchanged, in spite of having altered the poem in a number of other respects, Kipling warns that for the foreseeable future, there will be no secure peace.

The Victorian Navy

In stanza 9, Kipling refers to a returning cruiser making signals ‘fleeringly’ (sneeringly, mockingly). As between two captains of near equal seniority, such an exchange would have been unlikely, but there were many examples of senior officers making distinctly fleering signals to their juniors. In Kipling’s “Their Lawful Occasions” (Traffics and Discoveries, 1904), the ‘Right Honourable Lord Gawd Almighty Admiral Master Frankie Frobisher, K.C.B., commandin’ Blue Fleet’ addresses Sub Lieutenant Moorshed, commanding Torpedo Boat no. 267, distinctly fleeringly!:

‘Get out of this and conduct your own damned manoeuvres in your own damned tinker fashion! You’re a disgrace to the Service, and your boat’s offal’.

In reality, in the 1897 manoeuvres on which “Their Lawful Occasions” may be presumed to be based, the Admiral commanding Blue Fleet was Admiral Sir Henry Stephenson, a gallant and bold admiral who had been a very intrepid polar explorer in his youth, but who was, perhaps, less fitted for high command in an increasingly technological navy. Pyecroft suggests, using gunnery idiom, his groovin’ to be badly eroded by age and lack of attention, and it is known that Sir Henry was not in the best of health at this time. So perhaps Kipling had heard of some distinctly fleering remarks during his time on board Pelorus.

[A. W./M.H.]
©Alastair Wilson and Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved