The Sea and the Hills

Notes by Mary Hamer, drawing in particular on A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling by Ralph Durand (1914)

Publication history

Two verses of the poem as it stands in The Five Nations had been published in Kim, 1901, the first verse as a heading to ch. xii, the second verse heading ch. xiii. It was collected complete in Inclusive Verse, 1919, and in Definitive Verse, 1940, Sussex Edition vol. 21 also vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vols 16 and 26.
It was also reprinted in Songs for Youth (1924) and A Choice of Songs from the Verse of Rudyard Kipling (1925).


The first two stanzas of this poem had already been encountered by many readers in Kim, a context where they had readily given Kipling their trust as a guide in the intensely imagined world of the East. Here he expands the verses with their coursing rhythm, intensifying and prolonging the evocation of desire. In offering this extended version and placing it at the opening of this collection, Kipling seems to have meant to scoop up such readers and to carry them along with him, this time in his narrower role as prophet of England and its destiny.

An extraordinary poem of desire is presented here and a no less extraordinary technical achievement, where the pounding energy of the sea is created through language and rhythm, only to be interrupted – by a repeated question mark- and masterfully turned against itself at the close of every verse. This structure means that readers are flung repeatedly against a contradiction: in speaking of the sea, the poem asks them to take pleasure in violent sound and movement, but it immediately compares this pleasure with the longing for composure, for silence and stillness, as they are found in the hills.

This technique attempts to present as a single experience the longing for utter wildness and a desire for home. Yet for a reader who does not insist that naming the sea as ‘she’ is purely conventional, the image of a woman, perhaps a mother, hovers behind the surface of this poem. This woman, like the sea and also like the mother who abandoned him in Southsea is both the site of dangerous turbulence of feeling and the object of inveterate longing. The hills, on the other hand, present an image of the maternal body that promises peace.

The method of the poem however is based in the most concrete and accurate observation of nautical affairs as the following notes indicate; others will find further examples.

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 1] Comber: a long curling wave that breaks out at sea.

Sleek-barrelled swell before storm: Long before a distant storm arrives, the water begins to heave in smooth oily waves.

Stark calm on the lap of the line: a belt of almost constant calm extends from the equator to 3 degrees north.

[Stanza 2] The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, as the star-stabbing bowsprit emerges: The bowsprit is a spar that projects from the ship’s bows. The line traces with great accuracy the movement of the ship as it is struck by a wave.

The orderly clouds of the Trades: The trade winds reliably blow east to west towards the sunset, just north and south of the equator. The winds help ships travel west. They collect and drive cloud masses, and they can also steer storms such as hurricanes.

Unheralded cliff-haunting flaws: the light gusts that arrive at unpredictable angles off the high land at the edge of the sea.

[Stanza 3] The unstable mined berg going South and the calvings and groans that declare it: Icebergs drifting south become unstable as they melt, rolling over and sometimes throwing off large masses. This process, known as ‘calving’, makes a loud growling noise; in foggy weather, this can be the only warning of their presence.

White water half-guessed overside and the moon breaking timely to bear (sic) it: a misprint, for ‘bare’, corrected in later editions. Only when the moon shines through can the sailor properly see what he had previously only suspected; foam marking the site of a reef on which waves are breaking.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved