The Floods


(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This poem, listed in ORG as No 1041, was first published with the story “My Son’s Wife” in A Diversity of Creatures,  on April 1st, 1917. Kipling dated the story to 1913.

Collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols ix and xxxiv (1940)
  • The Burwash Edition vols ix and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 969.

The poem

The poet reflects on how after rain, which falls ‘without a stay’, the waters stream down from the hills to the lowlands below, through the woods and hedgerows, sweeping away anything growing or man-made that is too weak to stand the power of the flood, filling the brooks, cleansing, fertilising, making the crops grow and the meadows green. A life-giving force, challenging anything weak or corrupt. Stronger than the works of man.


Kipling is writing of floods in Sussex, his adopted county, a country of high downland standing above valleys and woods, a wet county. The little river at Bateman’s. the Dudwell, flows into the Rother, which often bursts its banks in the winter, and Kipling once lost his beehives in a flood. (“The Song of Seven Cities”).

In “My Son’s Wife”, the story linked to this poem, a town-dweller inherits a little estate in Sussex, embraces country life, and experiences a rising flood in the night. which surrounds his house and invades his cellars:

There was not so much a roar as the purposeful drive of a tide across a jagged reef, which put down every other sound for twenty minutes. A wide sheet of water hurried up to the little terrace on which the house stood, pushed round either corner, rose again and stretched, as it were, yawning beneath the moonlight, joined other sheets waiting for them in unsuspected hollows, and lay out all in one. A puff of wind followed…

And in “Friendly Brook” in the same collection he wrote:

‘The brook she’d crep’ up an’ up on us, an’ she kep’ creepin’ upon us till we was workin’ knee-deep in the shallers, cuttin’ an’ pookin’ an’ pullin’ what we could get to o’ the rubbish. There was a middlin’ lot comin’ down-stream, too—cattle-bars an’ hop-poles and odds-ends bats, all poltin’ down together; but they rooshed round the elber good shape by the time we’d backed out they drowned trees. Come four o’clock we reckoned we’d done a proper day’s work, an’ she’d take no harm if we left her. We couldn’t puddle about there in the dark an’ wet to no more advantage. Jim he was pourin’ the water out of his boots—no, I was doin’ that. Jim was kneelin’ to unlace his’n. “Damn it all, Jesse,” he ses, standin’ up; “the flood must be over my doorsteps at home, for here comes my old white-top bee-skep!”’

Kipling had a mill at Bateman’s, and he was very conscious of how it was the waters coming down from the hills that drove it. as he wrote in “Below the Mill Dam” (1902):

There was a solid crash of released waters leaping upon the Wheel more furiously than ever, a grinding of cogs, a hum like the hum of a hornet, and then the unvisited darkness of the old mill was scattered by intolerable white light. It threw up every cobweb, every burl and knot in the beams and the floor; till the shadows behind the flakes of rough plaster on the wall lay clearcut as shadows of mountains on the photographed moon.

‘See! See! See!’ hissed the Waters in full flood. ‘Yes, see for yourselves.’

Kipling’s sense that the quiet ancient valleys of Sussex were always subject to the rushing waters from the Downs above, that one can never be secure and complacent about comfort and safety, and civilised order, was strong.

It was a conviction that he had brought back from India, where the rivers are mightier, the floods greater, the hills higher, and the damage more spectacular. In “In Flood Time” (1888) he wrote of a strong man battling his way across a river in flood to reach his love, fighting the waters and surviving. In “The Bold ‘Prentice” (1895), he wrote of a railway train breaking down on flooded tracks, and being rescued through the courage of a young engineer. In “The Miracle of Purun Baghat” (1894) of a village in the hills, where the people narrowly escape a huge landslip after days of rain. And in “The Bridge-Builders” (1895) of a more massive new bridge across the Ganges threatened by a flood:

A shrill wail ran along the line, growing to a yell, half fear and half wonder: the face of the river whitened from bank to hank between the stone facings, and the far-away spurs went out in spouts of foam. Mother Gunga had come bank-high in haste, and a wall of chocolate-coloured water was her messenger. There was a shriek above the roar of the water, the complaint of the spans coming down on their blocks as the cribs were whirled out from under their bellies. The stone-boats groaned and ground each other in the eddy that swung round the abutment, and their clumsy masts rose higher and higher against the dim sky-line.

The bridge survives. But one is left with the thought that it might have been swept away, that one cannot assume that the works of man will stand against the forces of nature, and that in the broad sweep of time what men do may not prevail. Says Ganesh the Elephant ‘Let the dirt dig in the dirt ere it return to the dirt.’

See also “Giffen’s Debt”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

the rain it rains without a stay: an echo of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

sere: dry.

brishings: a Sussex dialect word for hedge-trimmings. Wiktionary quotes this poem as an example of the use of the word. The poet Edmund Blunden also used it in Harbingers, 59. [D.H.]

bats: Sticks from the hedgerows. for walking., or sometimes as a weapon. In “A Doctor of Medicine” (Rewards and Fairies p. 269) Nicholas Culpeter, seeking to save a village from the plague, cries:

“Take a bat” (which we call a stick in Sussex) “and kill a rat if you die before sunrise. ‘Twill save your people”.

[Verse 2]

Cleave: in this context, to cut or split with an axe or bill-hook.

Polting: thrashing – separating the grains from the stalks.

[Verse 3]

hark:  Hear, listen.

This verse tells of the activity of the flood water coming down after picking up the silt and various sheds and other man-made things.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved