The Song of Diego Valdez

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The third verse, as printed in The Five Nations, had appeared earlier as the heading to chapter vi of Kim, 1901. This verse also appeared in Cassell’s Magazine, in April 1901. The poem was apparently completed during the second half of 1902 during the surge of renewed inspiration which began at that time and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations.

The complete poem was collected in The Five Nations 1903, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. It was reprinted in Songs of the Sea, 1927 and A Choice of Songs from the Verse of Rudyard Kipling, 1925.


In his anthology, Other Men’s Flowers, Lord Wavell speculated that Kipling might have fused or confused two brothers who were both named Diego Valdez. One of these was taken prisoner by Drake and afterward ransomed. The other, Diego Flores de Valdez sailed in his ship the San Cristobal with the Spanish Armada, as leader of the squadron of Castile.

It is not clear whether the poem was complete before 1901 or was expanded for publication in 1902. There is general agreement that it is autobiographical in tone. T. E. Elwell in KJ July 1941 noted the resonance between stanza 10 and the opening lines of Something of Myself.

‘… it seems to me that every card in my working life has been dealt me in such a manner that I had but to play it as it came.’

Speaking of his own exceptional success as a writer on another occasion, Kipling declared that he had been generously rewarded for doing what he could not help doing. Yet there was a downside. The voice of Diego Valdez is that of a man trapped by his own success, scarcely able to recognise himself in the public figure he has become and longing for the freedoms of his youth. This sense of bewilderment links with the final line of “The Dykes”, where ‘our own houses show as strange when we come back in the dawn’.

Notes on the Text

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

[Stanza 2] Who knows not noble Valdez … Spain: an echo of Kipling’s own lines ‘What do they know of England/ Who only England know?’.

[Stanza 3] orpiment: a bright yellow mineral resembling gold, used as a pigment; the original arsenic of the ancients.

[Stanza 4] walty: nautical term, signifying dangerously unseaworthy.

careen: move the guns, ballast, etc to one side of the ship, tipping it up in order to expose sides and bottom so that barnacles and weeds could be removed.

[Stanza 5] breaming-fagots: when fire was used to assist in cleaning the ship’s bottom, this was known as ‘breaming’.

[Stanza 6] Cf WH Auden’s poem on the death of W B Yeats in 1939. ‘In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start’: had Auden this stanza of Kipling’s in mind?

bread we ate in secret: cf. Proverbs 9,17 ‘Bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’

[Stanza 10] embayed: forced or detained (vessels) within a bay.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved