Tin Fish

Two texts, two readings

Daniel Karlin (The University of Sheffield)

My subject is one of Kipling’s shortest complete poems. I want to look at this poem in two different, perhaps opposed ways. I begin with the poem as I first encountered it, in the so-called Definitive Edition of Kipling’s verse.

“Tin Fish”
(Sea Warfare)

The ships destroy us above
And ensnare us beneath.
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of Death.

The ships have a thousand eyes
To mark where we come . . .
But the mirth of a seaport dies
When our blow gets home.

As it stands in the Definitive Edition the poem is signposted in certain ways. The quotation marks around the title indicate that it is a bit of slang or jargon. The context makes it clear that it means ‘a submarine’; Kipling’s command of naval slang is questionable, by the way, but I don’t have time to go into that here. Then the date: ‘1914-18’, obviously referring to the Great War. Below the date comes a reference to the volume in which the poem was first printed, Sea Warfare. The impression I got from this information was that the poem offers a general, not a specific statement about submarine warfare, a kind of epitome of what the deployment of this new and terrifying weapon meant. After all the epitaph-like dates of the War, ‘1914-18’, tell us that the poem speaks from beyond its original moment. The voice it evokes speaks in the present tense, yet its ‘presentness’ is marked as contained in the past. That gives it a certain distance, and this impression of something considered and summative is powerfully confirmed by the poem itself, in its brevity, in its diction, and in its prosody.

The brevity of ‘“Tin Fish”’ recalls that of Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War, and like many of the Epitaphs it is presented as a dramatic utterance. But ‘“Tin Fish”’ is more epigram than epitaph. It is not retrospective; the voice which utters it survives the perils of the first stanza in order to inflict death in the second, but this survival is provisional and the present tense of the utterance enfolds both the submarine and its target in perpetual dread. ‘Death’, in this version of the poem capitalized and personified, is the pivotal word and figure, the hinge on which the poem turns, but it turns both ways. The voice, moreover, is collective, ‘we’, not ‘I’, and it fuses the submarine and her crew in a Kiplingesque compound of organic and inorganic elements, a compound already suggested in the title-phrase. Yet the title is also markedly different from the poem it heads, because it is the only visible trace of colloquial idiom in the poem, unless we except the very last words. For the most part the poem is steeped in the diction of the King James Bible. I take it that most readers of the poem would recognize, in ‘the belly of Death’, an allusion to Jonah’s ordeal in ‘the belly of the fish’, but this specific reference is enhanced by the biblical resonance of words such as ‘destroy’, ‘ensnare’, ‘arise’, ‘lie down’, and ‘mirth’, and by the rhythmic patterns in which they are set. The doublet of ‘arise’ and ‘lie down’, for example, serves a double purpose, as literally apt to what a submarine does, yet also recalling numerous biblical passages which ring the changes on rising up and lying down: I’ve put some of these on the handout, along with some other passages I don’t have time to comment on.

The use of biblical language supports the poem’s claim to a certain kind of authority. The King James Bible had always mattered to Kipling, but when he settled permanently in England in 1902, and began reflecting on the history and destiny of the country in which he was both a native and an immigrant, it took on a special importance as one of the sinews of national identity. The voice of ‘“Tin Fish”’ utters the highest kind of collective speech, the one endowed with the most impersonal authority, greater even than would be conferred by Shakespearean or Miltonic diction.

The poem’s prosody, though it works by alternating stress patterns, has neither the rocking motion of the traditional ballad nor the colloquial swing of iambic metre. Kipling achieves the most extraordinary feats of variation considering the constraints he was working with: think of the difference the single extra syllable makes between the last line of the first quatrain, ‘In the belly of Death’, and the last line of the second, ‘When our blow gets home’, a tightening which allows the strong stress on ‘gets’ and makes the final phrase fall like a hammer. And although the poem rhymes, it does so in the most guarded way, offering only one full rhyme (‘eyes’ and ‘dies’) and in every other case opting for eye-rhymes, a tacit refusal of euphony, but one which brings to prominence the tremendous assonance in the last line between blow and home.

I would draw attention to two other rhetorical effects. One is typographical, and relates to the three point ellipsis in line 6. I take this to be the graphic representation of the track of a torpedo. The other is the pun at the end of the poem, in which the phrase ‘gets home’ refers to the torpedo successfully striking its target, whose consequence is that the stricken vessel, and the men on board her, will not ‘get home’. This is only to emphasise that the gravity of the poem does not mean that Kipling’s verbal imagination is not at work. The craftsman in him —curious, playful, sometimes cruel —never slept.

My first reading of ‘“Tin Fish”’ lacked any knowledge of its original context. By ‘context’ I mean both the history of composition and publication, which is misleadingly represented by the title and date, and the historical events with which it deals. What caught me was the tone of dread, and the ferocity of the reversal by which the hunted in the first quatrain become the hunters in the second. It is a hard-featured poem, not asking for our sympathy, not caring for our disapproval, seeming only to advise us not to flinch.
I turn now to my second kind of reading, for which the context is not a Definitive Edition but that least definitive form of print, the newspaper. When the poem was originally published, it looked as it does in version B on your handout.

By Rudyard Kipling

The ships destroy us above
And ensnare us beneath.
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of death.

The ships have a thousand eyes
To mark where we come . . .
And the mirth of a seaport dies
When our blow gets home.

‘Submarines’ is not the title of the poem, but of the article which it prefaces. It was actually the second of two articles on submarines which Kipling wrote as part of a series of six, “The Fringes of the Fleet”, published in the Daily Telegraph in November and December 1915. The series had been commissioned by the Admiralty as part of a propaganda offensive, to show the public that the Navy was not inactive in home waters. So Kipling wrote about the undemonstrative heroics of mine-sweeping, and about the coastal patrols carried out both by civilian vessels (trawlers and private yachts) belonging to the Navy’s Auxiliary Reserve, and by the Navy’s own submarines. He based his reports on visits he made in late September to the headquarters of the east coast naval patrols at Dover and the submarine base at Harwich. He returned to Bateman’s on 25 September, a week before receiving the news that his only son, John, had been wounded at the battle of Loos and was missing. Although Kipling went through the motions of enquiring about John’s possible fate as a prisoner-of-war, he had few illusions that his son might be alive. To Colonel Lionel Dunsterville, the original of ‘Stalky’, he wrote on 12 November: ‘The wife is standing it wonderfully tho’ she of course clings to the bare hope of his being a prisoner. I’ve seen what shells can do and I don’t.’ (1) A little further on in the same letter he mentioned the articles he had written over the previous weeks: ‘I’ve been, as I think I told you, among the ships and my lucubrations are coming out in the D. T. It was a gay time. I went down in a submarine.’

“The Fringes of the Fleet” was therefore the first writing of any kind —journalism, fiction, poetry —that Kipling did in the immediate aftermath of his bereavement. He went on to write two further series of articles on the Royal Navy —”Tales of “The Trade”” and “Destroyers at Jutland” —and in 1916 all these articles were gathered into the volume called Sea Warfare. Each article in “The Fringes of the Fleet” was accompanied by a poem, and all these poems were untitled, both in the newspaper and the volume. ‘“Tin Fish”’ —I shall continue to use the title, for want of a better —differs radically from the other poem about submarines in “The Fringes of the Fleet”. This poem, which appeared at the head of the third article, is a jaunty parody of the old ballad “Farewell and adieu to you Spanish ladies”.

As for the articles that make up “The Fringes of the Fleet”, their tone is carefully judged. The main point Kipling wanted to make about the Navy’s campaign in home waters was that it was a mundane business, consisting in the wearisome maintenance of a blockade, the repetitive sweeping for mines, the shepherding of merchant vessels; its heroism was of the most unglamorous sort, the routine acceptance of discomfort and danger and the willingness to make sacrifices without fuss. There were relatively few exploits to celebrate, and indeed celebration would have struck the wrong, the demonstrative note. The Navy was simply picking up where it had left off a century ago in the blockade of Napoleonic France, and Kipling wants us to marvel not at something exceptional, but at something only to be expected. That something, Kipling tells us in the first article, ‘works in the unconscious blood of those who serve [the Navy]’, which has ‘simply returned to the practice and resurrected the spirit of old days’. (2)

The appeal to history, to ‘a thousand years of experience’, or what Kipling goes on to call ‘this Elizabethan world of eighteenth-century seamen’, (3) is doubly significant when it comes to writing about submarines, since the submarine was not only a new kind of vessel – the first was commissioned in 1901 —but had had to make its way against the hostility of the naval establishment itself. This hostility was based in part on a misunderstanding of what submarines could accomplish —as late as June 1914 Admiral Sir Percy Scott was ridiculed in the press for arguing that ‘submarines and aircraft had entirely revolutionised naval warfare’ —but it was also the result of a form of moral prejudice, embodied in the famous snort by Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson in 1901 that the submarine was a ‘damned un-English’ weapon and that crews of submarines captured in wartime should be ‘treated as pirates and hanged’. (4)A submarine, after all, embodies the principle of unfair play.

There are traces of this primitive attitude in a remark that Kipling cites by the skipper of one of the auxiliary craft who were responsible for minesweeping and coastal patrols:

The Trawlers seem to look on mines as more or less fairplay. But with the torpedo it is otherwise. A Yarmouth man lay on his hatch, his gear neatly stowed away below, and told me that another Yarmouth boat had “gone up,” with all hands except one. “’Twas a submarine. Not a mine,” said he. “They never gave our boys no chance. Na! She was a Yarmouth boat —we knew ’em all. They never gave the boys no chance.” (5)
Yet the third article, the first of the two devoted to submarines, begins by re-emphasising that the submarine belongs in the Navy, and by looking at the question of ‘chance’ from the opposite perspective:

Like the destroyer, the submarine has created its own type of officer and man —with language and traditions apart from the rest of the Service, and yet at heart unchangingly of the Service. Their business is to run monstrous risks from earth, air, and water, in what, to be of any use, must be the coldest of cold blood. (6)

The primary meaning of the phrase ‘in cold blood’ in this context is coolness, holding one’s nerve; it translates the French sang froid. This is the quality required to survive the pressure of the ‘monstrous risks’ associated with serving in a submarine. But shadowing this sense is the other meaning of callousness, the ability to inflict suffering with deliberate intent. This quality, too, is necessitated by the particular way in which a submarine operates. Kipling uses the phrase again, in the fourth article, the one headed by ‘“Tin Fish”’; and here the meaning seems to have shifted a little, a shift marked by the appearance of a phrase from the poem:

“But submarine work is cold-blooded business.”
(This was at a little session in a green-curtained “wardroom” cum owner’s cabin.)
“Then there’s no truth in the yarn that you can feel when the torpedo’s going to get home?” I asked.
“Not a word. You sometimes see it get home, or miss, as the case may be.[”] (7)

As readers, we tune in here to a conversation which has already started; the first word we hear, ‘But’, implies an objection to something which has just been said. What was it? My guess is that the narrator has remarked that ‘submarine work’ has something thrilling about it, and the ‘owner’, or commander of the submarine, responds by saying that, on the contrary, it is a ‘cold-blooded business’. The narrator presses the point: can’t you ‘feel when the torpedo’s going to get home’, and isn’t that a thrill? Behind the commander’s matter-of-fact rebuttal lies the fact that firing a torpedo is a matter of calculation of relative speed and distance, and in submarines of this period was an extremely inexact science. It may well involve the human eye, brain and hand, but the commander who gives the order does so coolly, detached from the consequence of his action. Note that the phrase ‘cold-blooded business’ refers here to what the submarine does, the destruction it inflicts, rather than the coolness required to endure the ‘monstrous risks’ it runs of being, itself, destroyed. This change from passive to active turns the phrase a little towards the meaning of callousness, of lack of emotional engagement. And this turn is reinforced, I think, by the twice-repeated phrase used to describe the torpedo’s successful blow, the phrase get home.
‘And the mirth of a seaport dies / When our blow gets home.’ In the Daily Telegraph text, and in Sea Warfare, it is ‘And’; only in the Definitive Edition does it become ‘But’, a poor revision, which substitutes grammatical logic for the powerful suggestive connection between the three dots and their fatal consequence. But the poem’s climax is unchanged: it is delivered by that tremendous pun on what it means to get home. Kipling uses the phrase in its other, benign sense several times in Sea Warfare. ‘And in due time that boat got home’: that is said, for example, of a British submarine, which was hunted in shallow water and yet escaped. (8) Destroyers are stoutly built: ‘they can crumple themselves up from stern to bridge,’ the narrator informs us,‘and still get home.’ (9) German cruisers in the battle of Jutland shirked the fight: ‘They wanted to get home.’ (10)

The image of submarine warfare that Kipling presents in his articles follows the pattern of ‘“Tin Fish”’: it is divided between the cold-blooded endurance of being hunted, and the equally cold-blooded business of destruction. But the connection between verse and prose is more complex than that suggests. Reading the poem in its original setting brings out its strangeness, its intense abstractedness, since the articles insist on something to which the poem is indifferent, the ‘Englishness’ of submarine warfare and its right to be valued alongside the other branches of the Navy. In the articles, Kipling makes a clear and determined attempt to differentiate between submarine warfare as practised by the British and by the Germans, alluding to the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, the targeting of unarmed merchant ships, the sinking of the Lusitania, and other German atrocities —some real, some the product of the heated propaganda of the time.

But for all his efforts, the spirit of ‘“Tin Fish”’ broods over his descriptions, so that the cold-bloodedness which he asks us to admire in our submarines comes close to the callousness he asks us to condemn in theirs. Towards the end of the fourth article in “The Fringes of the Fleet”, he reports a conversation between a group of officers on a recent encounter between a British submarine and a German Zeppelin. The fight between these two newfangled weapons is comically inconclusive, and one of the officers remarks: ‘Oh, if Fritz only fought clean, this wouldn’t be half a bad show. But Fritz can’t fight clean.’ The dialogue continues in this vein —a bit unconvincingly, I must say —and the narrator finally asks, ‘And do you suppose that Fritz understands any of it?’ To which the officer replies: ‘“No. Or he wouldn’t have lusitaniaed. This war was his first chance of making his name, and he chucked it all away for the sake of showin’ off as a foul Gottstrafer.”’ (11) The stereotypes that Kipling deploys here, with complete deliberateness I would emphasize, are intended both to entertain and reassure his readers that the men who wage war in ‘our’ submarines have not become alien to their race. The kind of behaviour countenanced by the Germans can only be represented in a foreign idiom: ‘lusitaniaed’, Kipling’s coinage, and the ugly-sounding compound ‘Gottstrafer’. But so straightforward a piece of propaganda is immediately followed by this, the concluding paragraph of the article, in which the submariners’ conversation takes a different turn:

And then they talked of that hour of the night when submarines come to the top like mermaids to get and give information; of boats whose business it is to fire as much and to splash about as aggressively as possible; and of other boats who avoid any sort of display —dumb boats watching and relieving watch, with their periscope just showing like a crocodile’s eye, at the back of islands and the mouths of channels where something may some day move out in procession to its doom.

Notice the shift here from direct quotation to reported speech, which allows Kipling’s own voice gradually to take over, to impose its diction and rhythm. Readers who know their Second Jungle Book will recall, in the image of the periscope as a crocodile’s eye, the great cunning crocodile, the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, in ‘The Undertakers’, that tremendous sardonic tale of revenge finally taken on a cold-blooded assassin. It is extraordinary to find the Mugger resurrected here as an assassin in British colours, waiting for his prey in the form of the German High Seas Fleet. But if a Royal Navy submarine can lurk like a crocodile, what price war as a good show and a clean fight? The truth is that Kipling’s imagination has left propaganda behind, and is attentive, as it is in ‘“Tin Fish”’, to an impartial vision of human death and fate.



Thomas Pinney (ed.), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4: 1911-19, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999, p. 345.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Auxiliaries I’, Sea Warfare (London: Macmillan, 1916), p. 5 [reprinting the Daily Telegraph article of 20 Nov. 1915].
‘The Auxiliaries II’, Sea Warfare, p. 19 [Daily Telegraph, 23 Nov.].
Richard Compton-Hall, Submarines at War 1914-1918, Penzance: Periscope Publishing, 2004, pp. 9, 18 (first published by Macmillan in 1991 as Submarines and the War at Sea 1914-18).
‘The Auxiliaries II’, Sea Warfare, p. 17.
‘Submarines I’, Sea Warfare, p. 31 [Daily Telegraph, 25 Nov.].
‘Submarines II’, Sea Warfare, p. 57 [Daily Telegraph, 27 Nov.].
‘Submarines I’, Sea Warfare, p. 41.
‘Patrols II’, Sea Warfare, p. 84 [DT, 2 Dec.]
‘The Night Hunt’, second article of ‘Destroyers at Jutland’, Sea Warfare, p. 170 [DT, 26 Oct. 1916]
‘Submarines II’, Sea Warfare, p. 59.