The First Chantey

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

The poem was first published in The Seven Seas, published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: in London by Methuen & Co., in
New York by 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).

Musical Setting.

As might be expected for a poem with the title “The First Chantey”, there have been musical settings. since a chantey, or sea-shanty, is a seaman’s working song. See David Alan Richards , Vol II, p. 699, and Brian Mattinson’s summary of his research. There are two known settings, one by the celebrated collector of folk-music, Percy Grainger (1899), and another from America, nearly a century later, by Leslie Fish (1993). Kipling quotes from a chantey in the refrain to ‘The Merchantmen’  (“Paddie Doyle’s boots”)  

There is an informative article on Wikipedia on ‘Sea Shanties’.

The Verse Form

The form of the verse is interesting, in that it is rhymed aabb, but it is clearly meant to imitate a far older Anglo-Saxon or Old English verse form, which employs stress and alliteration to create poetry. There is an excellent explanation of this form of verse to be found at this website.

Kipling managed to keep to the rules of Anglo-Saxon poetry by employing internal alliteration – e.g. (verse 2, line 3) ‘Him we call Son of the Sea, sullen and swollen’, and the use of the caesura, a break or pause in the middle of a line – in this case, between ‘Sea’ and ‘sullen’. At the same time, he is using the more modern convention of rhyme.

The tale he tells, of course, is much older than Anglo-Saxon verse, indeed older than Greek or Latin verse: who can now say what form the bards of pre-history used to sing their tales of ancient heroes? This Editor suggested to himself that, to give a sense of antiquity, Kipling might have chosen to go back another thousand years and employ Latin verse forms (with which, of course, he was very familiar, as was a substantial portion of his readership), but then answered himself by saying that Kipling couldn’t have reasonably used that, because Latin verse would not readily lend itself to the rhythm needed for a Chantey.

As an example of this lack of suitability, this Editor would like to share a school-boy memory, which will probably have been experienced by many readers who struggled with ‘barbarous hexameters’. To remind one of the form in which the poet Ovid wrote much of his verse, we would chant:

Down in a | deep dark | vale sat an | old cow | munching a | bean stalk
Out of her | mouth came | forth: | yesterday’s | dinner and | tea.

As will be readily seen, this does not lend itself to a ‘hauling chantey’. But try chanting “The First Chantey” to yourself, using the accent given by the Anglo-Saxon verse form, with its mid-line break, and you will see that it makes a convincing work song from the days of sail when the heavy tasks of a ship were done by the muscle-power of the seamen, singing as they hauled together, or following the song or fiddle of a ‘shanty-man’ : (again, verse 2):

Swift through the forest we ran; none stood to guard us,
Few were my people and far; then the flood barred us –
Him we call Son of the Sea, sullen and swollen.
Panting we waited for death, stealer and stolen.

A good strong haul on the underlined words.

The Theme

The theme, of the first (accidental) sea voyage to the end of the world and back again, is one that Kipling used elsewhere, eg, in “The First Sailor” (A Book of Words), and (partially) in the first verse of “The Junk and the Dhow”. Here the “First Sailor” has been stealing a woman from another tribe, in the tradition of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, an episode in the legendary history of Rome in which the first generation of Roman men took wives for themselves from the neighboring Sabines. This “First Sailor” makes a voyage to escape from the people of his victim, who is by no means unwilling. On returning, he is greeted as a hero.

One is also reminded of “In Floodtime” in Soldiers Three and Other Stories, in which an old Muslim tells of his love-affair with a Hindu woman in the days of his youth, risking death from her people.

Daniel Hadas notes:  ‘Kipling would of course have known the Greek mythological tradition that the Argo was the first ship. The voyage of the Argonauts involved, inter alia, Jason’s abduction of Medea. There are also some surely deliberate echoes of the Creation story in Genesis’. [D.H.]


Notes on the Text

[Title] Ralph Durand writes (p. 80):

A Chantey is a song sung by sailors while at heavy work (weighing – raising – the anchor, or swaying up – hoisting – the heavy yards up the masts). Most chanteys have been handed down by several generations of seamen, but few have been put into print, partly perhaps because they are generally crudely constructed, but principally because most of them are grossly indecent. They must not be confused with sea-songs sung mostly for amusement, such as those recorded in Captains Courageous. In The Light that Failed, the Nilghai sings a sea-song that dates from Nelson’s time, ‘Farewell and Adieu to you, Spanish Ladies’. Most of the Chanteys have a boisterous and sometimes meaningless chorus. The song “Frankie’s Trade”, in Rewards and Fairies is in the true Chantey style.

Durand was writing nigh on a century ago, when working sail was nearing the end of its life, and true chanteys are now no longer heard at sea. But new generations of sea-songs continue to appear. For anyone interested this Editor would strongly recommend the chanteys sung by Cyril Tawney.

[Verse 1] The first sailor has made a night raid on the camp of another tribe to find a woman for himself. His victim seems to be ready to go with him, laughing, even as he binds her. Her tribe give chase.

[Verse 2] They escape through the forest, but his own people are far away, and they come to the edge of the sea, with no way to escape. Durand writes:

So far as it is possible to judge, the history of the evolution of the boat has been as follows. First the floating log giving support to the swimmer, then the canoe hollowed out of a single log, then the dug-out canoe with its sides raised by the addition of a long plank to break the force of the waves and partially prevent their coming aboard, until the boat built of planks, strake above strake was perfected.

The first three of those four stages, very much elaborated in a light-hearted way, were used by Kipling in his address to Junior Naval Officers of an East Coast Patrol in 1918, to describe how “The First Sailor” came to make his first voyages of discovery.

[Verse 3] As he prepares to sell his life dearly, the woman finds a large floating log, leaps onto it, and holding out the skins in which she is dressed, calls the god of the winds to her aid.

[Verse 4] The man swims out to the log, otter-like, just avoiding the axes of her vengeful family: she is quite unperturbed, singing in the face of danger, as the log moves under the influence of a light breeze (and, unknown to them, of the tide).

Life had the tree: Genesis 2.9: “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden”  [D.H.]

[Verse 5] The sea is calm, and they drift eastwards out to sea, the land sinking behind them, till, slowly, light appears ahead.

the light stirred on the deep:  Genesis 1.2: “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”  [D.H]

[Verse 6] And then, right in front of them, the Sun rises from the sea, huge and blinding. Durand writes:

In Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship, Professor Sir J G Fraser has authoritatively shown how among primitive peoples men credited with supernatural powers tend not only to become kingly priests but are often regarded as divine.

[Verse 7] But, although they must have been on the edge of the burning pit, they live and are not consumed, and the sun (who else could it be?) slowly returns their log to where they started. The still-waiting lynch-party will not, cannot, touch them – they are holy – they have been to the end of the world and returned, unscathed.

[Verse 8] Their vengeful enemies, men women, and children, fawn over them – their new Prophet and priestess. See also “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” in Rewards and Fairies in which the Flint Man who has given his eye for his people is treated as a god.


©Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved