The Dykes

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Already written by 28 October 1898, “The Dykes” didn’t reach its final form till 23 May 1902. Then Kipling returned to it in the course of preparing his ‘book of verses’, eventually titled The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26. Reprinted in Selected Poems from Kipling, 1931.


Usually read as a direct warning of the Empire’s vulnerability, though couched in metaphorical terms. The sea, which in “White Horses”, is conceived as the proper defence of Britain, represents the dreaded enemy here; in Stanza 3, with its astonishing virtuosity of description, it appears as a sort of monster. Yet Kipling chose to set these two poems in close proximity when he collected them in The Five Nations.

Notes on the Text

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


The Dykes: embankments thrown up as defences against the encroachments of the sea, and in order to prevent low-lying land from flooding.

As in “White Horses” a row of dots appears after the penultimate stanza, possibly to indicate a pause.

[Stanza 1]

no proof in the bread we eat: ‘No proof’ means no leaven; ‘proof’’ appears to be a bakers’ term. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes this very line in definition of such meaning.

[Stanza 2]

Sea-gate: dykes have gates that open at low tide to drain off the water from inland; they close when the tide rises, to protect the land below high-water mark.

groin:  more commonly ‘groyne’,  a framework of timber, or a wall, stretching into the sea to hold back washed-up sand and shingle. [D.H.]

fairway: navigable channel.

[Stanza 6]

saltings: low pastures just inland, where brackish water sometimes stands.

deliver:  discharge water [D.H.]

[Stanza 7]

Nine-fold deep: in sets of nine, referring to the belief that every ninth wave is a higher one.

bents … furze … sand … wattles: refers to the construction of a dyke, using bundles of wiry grass and furze laid on wattle hurdles to make a foundation, against which wind-blown sand will eventually bank up.

[Stanza 8]

riddled: perforated, rendered like a sieve.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved