The Exiles’ Line

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

ORG (Volume 8, p. 5330, Verse No. 886) records this poem as Verse No. 524 with first publication in the Civil and Military Gazette of 8 July, 1892 observing that it is dated 1890 in later collections – presumably the year in which Kipling began to write it. It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • The Sussex Edition, Volume 35, p. 177
  • The Burwash Edition, Volume 28
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994

See David Alan Richards p. 299 for further detals of publication.


The poet muses, in flowing decasyllables, on the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company which for many years carried administrators, soldiers, sailors, civilians and families to and from India in all stages of their careers.
Known as the ‘P&O’, the company dates from the early 19th century and operates still (2011), as a subsidiary of Dubai Ports World.

In metre and elegiac mood, the poem has strong echoes of FitzGerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, which Kipling had encountered as a schoolboy, and parodied joyfully a number of times, including “The Rupaiyat of Omar Kal’vin” , and “The Last Department”. There is also perhaps a trace, here and there, of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Grey (1716-1773).

This is one of a number of poems, like “Christmas in India”, which dwell on the thought that the Anglo-Indian administrators and soldiers, and their families, were exiles from home.


In the 1890s the voyage from London to Bombay took 12½ days. Ships left London every Saturday; fares were £55 first class; £35 – £37 10s for second class. The first-class fare was the equivalent of some £4490 in 2009 values. [Retail Price Index]. To Australia the first class fare was £60 – £70 and second class was £35-£40. First class to China or Japan was £73 10s. and second class was £42.

Kipling’s return to India in 1882 in the P & O liner Brindisi , launched two years previously, from Tilbury to Bombay took 27 days (Carrington. p. 45). See also Meryl Macdonald (p. 21), and “The last Long Voyage of the Exiles’ Line” an article by Philip Howard reprinted from The Times of 12 January, 1970 in KJ 175/14.

Some critical comments

David Gilmour (p. 79), looking at the families like the Chinns that served India for generations (“The Tomb of his Ancestors”) writes in his Chapter 7 “A Sense of Empire”:

… in his poignant poem “The Exiles’ Line”, Kipling recognised the degree of self-sacrifice required of such families. An official knew he would spend most of his career in India while his children were at school or in the care of governesses in England, and his parents had retired to Eastbourne or somewhere else on the south coast.

Meryl Macdonald (p. xiv) considers Kipling’s early voyages to and from India, observing that when he embarked after leaving school:

… he had already made the voyage three times: four if you count his parents’ honeymoon trip to Bombay when he first managed to make his presence felt aboard ship by putting the pregnant Alice Kipling off sea-travel for the rest of her life.

Meryl Macdonald notes (p. 89) that on his voyage home in 1889 via Japan and America with Professor and Mrs. Hill, it seems that Kipling:

… finishes a P & O ballad “The Exiles’ Line” and is ‘sociable’ in Tokyo and Yokohama, (From which we must assume that in Carrie’s opinion her new husband is not always so disposed.)

See also:


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Now the New Year reviving old desires: this is the first line of verse 4 of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, a collection of love poems, translated from the Persian by Edward FitzGerald. (1809-1883.)

Blue Peter: a white flag with a broad blue border – P for Papa in the International Code. When flown in harbour it signifies:

All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea.

fore: in this context, the foremast.

engine-fires: strictly speaking, the fires are in the boiler-furnaces and not the engine, but this is poetic licence

[Verse 2]

Coupons: in this context, probably cheques or other slips of paper cut from a document at specified intervals entitling the holder to payment of a dividend, interest etc.

[Verse 3]

Twelve knots an hour: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (p. 454) defines the knot in this context as: ‘The nautical measure of speed, one knot being a speed of one nautical mile (6080 feet, 1853•2 metres) per hour.’

The term comes from the knots on the line of a ship log which were spaced at a distance of 47 feet, 3 inches. The number of these knots which ran out while a 28-second sand-glass emptied itself gave the speed of the ship in nautical miler per hour.

The theory is that the log – really a lump of wood thrown over the stern – remained more-or-less where it was while the vessel went ahead and the line with knots ran out. A jerk on the line pulled out one of the slings and it could be hauled in. It must have taken some working out in the first place.

In modern parlance, as a number of commentators have pointed out, Kipling’s usage is strictly incorrect, since one refers simply to ‘knots’ rather than ‘knots an hour’. However, see Alastair Wilson’s note on “The Devil and the Deep Sea” .

sea-met loves: couples who enjoyed romance on the passage – see “The Lovers’ Litany” and other light romantic verse of the period.

Grindlay: Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877) established Leslie & Grindlay, in London in 1828, a bank operating chiefly in India and British colonies.

Gardafui: an important landfall at the entrance to the Red Sea in what was then British Somaliland – now the Democratic Republic of Somalia. It is the scene of “How the Rhinoceros got His Skin” (Just So Stories) lies off the Cape:

This uninhabited island
Is near Cape Gardafui:
But it’s hot – too hot – off Suez
For the likes of you and me.
Ever to go in a P. & O.
To call on the Cake Parsee.

[Verse 4]

awning: a canvas canopy spread over the upper deck to provide shade from the sun.

[Verse 5]

midnight madness: some poor soul is tempted to suicide.

forenoon: at sea, the watch from 0800 to 1200; the ‘morning watch’ is 0400 to 0800.

[Verse 6]

rigging: the shrouds and stays that support the masts.

spar-deck’s snow: in this context probably the upper deck of a flush-decked vessel – snow refers to its cleanliness.

screw-blades gasp: the characteristic “thumping” sound made as the propeller revolves.

[Verse 7]

league: a number of people on deck to watch the flying-fish.

flying-fish: Exocoetidae a family of marine fish, order Beloniformes, class Actinopterygii.

They use their large pectoral fins for lift, to skim above the water. There are some 64 species.

[Verse 8]

stem: in this context the foremost timber or steel member forming the bow of a vessel.

Smith of Asia: it was the custom to identify a man by the name of the place where he was stationed. (Kipling used to sign himself “WOP of Asia” when corresponding with a cousin, Margaret Burne-Jones, which Charles Carrington (p. 70) explains as: …an old nursery joke between them that each addressed the other by the name of ‘Wop.’)

Delhi: one of the great cities of Asia. Now the capital of the Republic of India.

Midnapore: (the spelling varies) a town in West Bengal, India.

[Verse 10]

This verse refers to the weaving of the web or cloth of life by the Three Fates in Greek mythology; Clotho who draws the Thread of Life from her distaff, Lachesis, who determines its length, and Atropos who severs it with her shears. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable]

keels: a keel is the lowest continuous line of plating in a vessel and may be described as its backbone. In this context, however, it is used here in the archaic poetic sense to refer to the ship herself. See “The Lovers’ Litany”.

[Verse 11]

score: in this context twenty. The remainder of this verse has an echo of stanza LXXI of FitzGerald’s translation of the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

[Verse 12]

Great one: the Master of the vessel with his gold-peaked cap.

[Verse 13]

the Quartered Flag: the house-flag of the P & O:
‘Blue to the mast, ‘Red to the fly, Yellow to the deck, White on high’.
[adapted by the Editor from an old naval verse describing Flag ZULU)

[Verse 14]

Green of Kensington: “Green” is not only a surname, but can also be slang for ‘young and inexperienced’ or ‘ignorant’. This also implies he has not been out of the United Kingdom before. Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” Act I Scene V has:

My salad days
When I was green in judgement…

Kensington: is a pleasant residential area of West London where Kipling had family connections.

[Verse 15]

Waifs: homeless people, especially orphaned children; also objects cast up by the sea.

wastrels: wasteful or spendthrift people; idlers.

[Verse 16]

Prince’s Dock: a dock in Liverpool, dating from 1810. It was closed and partly filled in in 1981 when P&O Ferries closed their Liverpool to Belfast service.

[Verse 17]

the wheel of Empire: this expression is used by Alan Sandison for the title of his book, published by Macmilan (St. Martin’s Press in America.) in 1967. The reference is to Ixion, who, in Greek mythology, was bound to a wheel of fire as punishment for seducing Hera, the wife of Zeus. See also Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, Act 4, scene 7:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like moulten lead.

chain-gangs groups of prisoners chained together to work – building roads, digging ditches or chipping stone etc. The system existed mainly in the United States, but had been phased out nationwide by 1955. There was a brief revival in the 1990s but it is believed that chain gangs now exist only in one county in Arizona.
[See the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” by the Cohn brothers, 2000, which opens with George Clooney’s escape from a chain gang.]

[Verse 18]

“Dear and slow”: unless Kipling invented this “old indictment” it may be a long-standing complaint by P & O passengers. Professor Thomas Pinnet writes:

‘… there is some reason to think that RK found the P.& O. slow. The evidence is the uncollected and untitled poem beginning “It was a ship of the P&O.” This was written on RK’s slow voyage from Adelaide to Colombo on the S.S. Valetta of the P.&O., 25 November-10 December 1891.

The poem tells how the ship progressed at 10.3 knots and never did reach its destination, after untold years had passed, and at the end they found themselves still outside Adelaide. The manuscript of the poem is in the Library of Congress.’

gird: in this context to gibe or jeer – probably in complaint.


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2011 All rights reserved