The Song of the Dead

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

The poem was first published in the English Illustrated Magazine, in May 1893, as one of the six sub-sectional poems to “A Song of the English” It was collected in The Seven Seas, and published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co. New York, D. Appleton & Co.

The Seven Seas was itself collected in the successive editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Inclusive Verse (1918, 1926, 1932) and Definitive Verse (1940): also in the Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV) and the Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII).

The Theme

This is a hymn to the men who made the Empire: the pioneers who blazed the original trails to the ends of the earth. (Kipling repeated this theme in a later poem “The Explorer”, written in 1898.)

The Poem(s)

This is, in reality, four separate poems (or two poems, each consisting of an introduction and the main poem), built around the same theme.

The first introduction is of two stanzas, describing the four corners of the world where the pioneers have striven and, too often, died.

The second poem, just headed with the Roman figure I, is 16 lines long, describing what it was that drove those pioneers, knowing that death might be their reward, but in the hope that others would follow in their footsteps to develop what they had found. In essence, this is a hymn to the land pioneers.

The third poem (which, although not so laid out) is an introduction to the second half of the whole poem and relates to the pioneers of the sea, citing Drake, Sir Francis Drake, the second man to circumnavigate the globe, and the sense of adventure which drove the early navigators to explore the world, which they knew was round, rather than flat. (see Wikipedia on The Myth of the Flat Earth).  They knew that by going on – and on – and on, there was at least a chance of their coming back if they survived the perils of the sea: this, in contrast to the land explorer, for whom going on was more likely than not to result in death.

And finally, the fourth poem: despite what has been written above about the sea-explorer’s chances of returning, is a hymn to the English dead of, and in, the sea. It may be remarked that the date of the poem’s composition saw Imperial Britain, bolstered by its world-wide and unrivalled sea-power, at the very peak of its world dominance, and the phrase that starts line 7 of each of the three stanzas of this portion of the poem “If blood be the price of Admiralty . . .” became one of Kipling’s better-known quotations.

Notes on the Text

Introduction to Section I

[Line 2] asleep by their hide-stripped sledges: The period c.1850-1912 marked the apogee of polar exploration, mostly led by officers of the Royal Navy. (As a young boy in Southsea, Kipling had seen the Alert and Discovery, just returned from Nares’ Arctic Expedition of 1874-76.)

[Line 4] the warrigal: another name for the Australian wild dog, also known as the dingo.

[Line 6] kloof: a mountain pass or gorge (South African – the derivation is from the Dutch, or Afrikaans).

[Line 7] the Barrens: we are not entirely sure where it was that Kipling had in mind when he referred to ‘the Barrens’. Clearly, it was somewhere in the western hemisphere, most probably in North America, because Kipling had visited the possible areas himself.

This Editor wondered if it referred to some area traversed by the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, which made the first recorded transcontinental crossing of the United States, and which might have suffered the fate of Kipling’s explorers, had it not been for assistance from some of the native Americans whom they met.

Fred Lerner writes:

I’m not aware of any place in the foothills of the American Rockies called The Barrens, but there’s an extensive area in western North and South Dakota called The Badlands. It’s not wolverine country, though, so I wonder if Kipling is referring to The Barren Lands of the Canadian arctic (now in Nunavut but in Kipling’s time in Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories).

Ralph Durand makes a similar suggestion, and Professor Tom Pinney has pointed out that Durand was writing with the tacit approval, if not active assistance, of Kipling himself. And David Page has drawn our attention to an article in KJ 319 linking the Lewis and Clark expedition specifically to the allied poem, ‘The Explorer’

Section I

[line 3]    Came the Whisper:  This is the same whisper that is a recurring theme in ‘The Explorer’.


Introduction to Section II

[Line 1] When Drake went down to the Horn:  Francis Drake, the great Elizabethan sea-adventurer (1540-1596) was the second European, and first Englishman, to circumnavigate the globe (1577-1580) in his ship The Golden Hind. He was also the first sailor to round Cape Horn in making that voyage (Magellan had used the straits which bear his name). For England, this marked the change from the oceans being a barrier, to their becoming a bridge.

For Kipling’s interest in Drake see also “Simple Simon” in Rewards and Fairies.

[Line 4} Our Lodge: The reference is to the craft of Freemasonry. Kipling was quite active as a Freemason as a young man in India, but less so in later life. However, the phrase should not be taken literally. The meaning may be taken to be ‘our brotherhood’ (masons refer to each other as ‘Brother so-and-so’ when in lodge), and is the brotherhood of those who have lost their lives at sea. [Our thanks to Roger Ayers for this interpretation.]

[Line 9] or main: an obsolete word for the sea (see ‘the Spanish Main’, for the seas controlled by the Spanish in the Caribbean, at this time).

Section II

[Line 9] a flood: the flood tide: and similarly [Line 11] an ebb: the ebb tide

[Line 13] but slinks our dead: OED has a reading of ‘slink’ as bringing forth prematurely, aborting. These dead are coming to their end prematurely.  [D.H.]

[Line 14] from the Ducies to the Swin: Ducie Island is near Pitcairn Island, in the central Pacific: the Swin is one of the Channels running north-east to south-west in the Thames Estuary, off the Essex coast.

[Line 22] the spouting reef: a somewhat unexpected simile, but Kipling no doubt observed somewhere how some formations of rocky reefs have holes in them, and when the sea is so driven, it will spout up through those holes.

[Line 23] the ghastly blue-lights flare: a blue rocket, or blue flare, was a sign of distress at sea.


©Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved