The Derelict

(notes by John McGivering)


First published in The Seven Seas, 1896 ORG No. 584.

Collected in

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 58
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 363

The poem

A derelict vessel, drifting aimlessly about at the mercy of the seas, mourns
her plight.

The text is headed by what purports to be a report from a newspaper that a derelict ship abandoned by her crew presumably in the belief that she was sinking, is still adrift at sea. Such a report would probably give her last known position because as long as she remains afloat she is a menace to other shipping. She is likely to be almost submerged, very hard to see but still solid enough to sink any ship that collides with her.
See the note below on Verse 9.

See “Bread upon the Waters”, collected in The Day’s Work (1898).

Some critical comments

Andrew Lycett p. 251, notes that on his railway journey across Canada in 1892, on his way from Japan to New England, Kipling had:

…discovered the romance not just of the railway but also of the machine. He was still in honeymoon mood as he observed how this train ambled across the countryside ‘with its hands in its pockets and a straw in its mouth’- a different experience from England where ‘the railway came late into a settled country fenced round with the terrors of the law..’ ..He began to play with the idea (developed in “The Derelict”, for example) of machines as quasi-animate beings enjoying a special relationship with humans.

This was an interest that was not welcomed by his friend the distinguished American novelist Henry James. On Christmas Day 1897 James wrote rather patronisingly of Kipling’s work to Charles Eliot Norton:

… he has come steadily from the less simple in subject to the more simple, – from the Anglo-Indians to the natives, from the natives to the Tommies, from the Tommies to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the fish, and from the fish to the engines and screws. But he is a prodigious little success …’

Daniel Hadas comments: “This is strongly reminiscent to me of Rimbaud’s ‘Le bateau ivre‘ (1871). written when Rimbaud was a schoolboy, also a monologue by a ship lost at sea. But I’ve no idea whether Kipling might have known that poem: [D.H.]

For other machines personified see “The Ship that Found Herself”, and “.007”, both collected in The Day’s Work (1898).

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

…blinded….. eyeless: an echo of Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament where Samson is imprisoned, blinded, and put to work.

[Verse 2]

con: to direct the course of a ship. Here the elements have taken control

rollers: in this context, the waves steer the ship.

keel: poetic and archaic for ‘ship’.

[Verse 4]

hawse-pipes: the holes in the ship’s side at the bow through which the anchor cables run and where the anchors are stowed when not in use. It is possible strong wind blowing through or past them might make a musical note, and seas running through them might “gurgle” when she takes it over the bow, but it is not within the experience of this Editor. There is usually so much noise during a gale that this would, if happening, not be noticed. Furthermore, nobody would be on the fo’c’s’le during a gale if they could help it. (any comments from readers will be appreciated: J McG)

[Verse 5]

points: in this context perhaps the points of the compass –

Swing and return to shift the sun:  Sailors are always conscious of the position of the sun in relation to their course. As the uncontrolled vessel swings among the waves, the sun seems to shift in the sky.

[Verse 6]

comber: a big wave that will overwhelm the derelict and sink her.

[Verse 7]

careen: normally to haul a ship over by ropes from the mastheads to clean or repair the bottom, but here meaning that the icebergs roll over as they melt, and their centres of gravity change.

strake: a plank or run of plating, here signifying that the weed is growing on the ship’s side.

[Verse 8]

bawd: normally a brothel keeper or a prostitute; the reference is unclear. Here it may mean ‘open’ or ‘inviting’.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives a figurative meaning: ‘that which panders to any evil design’. So here the derelict is assisting the evil designs of the sea: she could at any time cause the disaster of another shipwreck. [P.H.]

with a kiss betray her: a biblical reference: Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss Matt.26, 48-9. [P.H.]

[Verse 9]

My will/ Is to my maker still: Although derelict, she still feels concern for mankind who made her. So she is (line 6) afraid lest any keel come near! She knows that she could cause another shipwreck.[P.H.]

[J McG]

©John McGivering 2016 All rights reserved