The Long Trail

L’Envoi to Barrack Room Ballads


(notes edited by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)



Publication history

First published in The Cape Illustrated Magazine for November 1891 with five verses, and collected as “L’ Envoi” in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses with nine. See David Alan Richards (pp. 74-76). It is entitled “The Long Trail” in the Definitive and later editions.

See also ORG Volume 8, page 5323 (Verse No. 502) and p. 5042
where a list of further verses named “L’Envoi” can be found.

It is also collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, page 330
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
  • A Choice of Kipling’s Verse Edited by T S Elior
  • A Kipling Pageant

There are three different musical settings of the poem; Meryl Macdonald has used the title for her The Long Trail – Kipling Round the World – Tideway House, 1999. (The poem is quoted on page 78); and T. S. Eliot borrowed the meter for his poem “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble, has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start…

The theme

Kipling was a great traveller, relishing new lands and scenes and people—and their stories. He had travelled back and forth to India in his youth, roved over northern India as a young journalist, sailed in 1890 through the China Seas to Japan and on to San Francisco, and after rail journeys across America, back to England across the Atlantic, as he recounts in his travel letters in From Sea to Sea. Sometimes he had been alone, but on much of the journey back from India, he was with Professor Hill, and greatly enjoyed his company and the chance to share his impressions with a trusted friend. Professor Hill died prematurely in India in October 1890.

Kipling and the Balestiers

This poem, possibly written on shipboard on the way to South Africa in August 1891, sings the joys of sea travel, but is also a plea for companionship. In the full collected version, which served as the Envoi to Barrack Room Ballads, it is addressed to his ‘dear lass’, Caroline Balestier, the young American woman to whom he was almost certainly engaged, and whom he married in January 1892 immediately on his return. Until his death forty-four years later, they were inseparable.

He had made a close friendship both with Caroline, and with her brother Wolcott Balestier, with whom he had written The Naulahka – A story of West and East, indeed he clearly felt a strong sense of literary comradeship with Wolcott. In the original five-verse version of the poem, published in The Cape Illustrated Magazine, it is clearly addressed to Wolcott, envisaging his young American collaborator as a companion across the seas of working life, by writing ‘my lad’ rather than ‘dear lass’ in the first four verses, and ‘dear lad’ rather than ‘dear lass’ in the fifth.

Wolcott died of typhoid in December 1891 while Kipling was still on his travels, and he at once broke off his journey to come home and marry Caroline. When Barrack Room Ballads was published in April/May 1892, the poem was clearly addressed to Caroline. It also carried a whole-hearted dedication in verse to Wolcott.

Kipling and the sea

Landsmen usually mix their metaphors when writing on sea-going matters but apart from minor slips, Kipling gets his many nautical references in these rollicking verses right, so it would be small-minded to quibble over the slips.

This is another poem in praise of travel in the same vein as “The English Flag”, “The Explorer” and others where the poet sings of his joy in wandering, here arranged as four four-line, and four eight-line verses.
Andrew Lycett (page 235) records Kipling’s passage to Capetown in1891 on which he wrote “The Long Trail” and also met Captain E H Bayly, R. N. who was on his way to join a ship at Simonstown. They became friends; he is thinly disguised as “Captain Bagly” in Something of Myself and later took Kipling for a cruise in HMS Pelorus. See Alastair Wilson’s notes on “Kipling and the Royal Navy”. (One wonders if Bayly is the original “Brassbound Man” of “Poseidon’s Law of 1904.)

Barrack Room Ballads

Charles Carrington refers (p. 196) to Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, to which this poem provides the Envoi, as:

…a collection of such richness, variety and gusto, if we claim no other merit for it as to inflate the Kipling boom seven times larger … it was reprinted three times in 1892, and fifty times in the next thirty years, much the most popular book of verse in the world for more than a generation.

Some critical comments

Marghanita Laski heads her Chapter 7—“From Australasia to South America”— with a couple of lines from this poem, and very perceptively points out (p. 101) that

a well-known fact about Kipling’s work, and such small workaday steamers as the ‘bucking Bilbao tramp’ of his poem “The Long Trail” appears so often in his verse and prose and usually, it seems with such intimate knowledge of their workings and behaviour especially in bad weather, that it is hard to believe that all this is sheer invention, helped out perhaps, by visits in ports.

In “The Feet of the Young Men” Kipling asks:

Do you know the joy of threshing leagues to leeward of your port
On a coast you’ve lost the chart of overside?

Taken literally, this would be a pastime we would prefer not to try, though it may express metaphorically Kipling’s delight in wandering through the world in uncharted territories. But in fairness to Kipling, we should point out that the splendid accounts of weather at sea in “Their Lawful Occasions” (Traffics and Discoveries, p. 124 onwards) and “A Matter of Fact” (Many Inventions), and elsewhere, ring remarkably true, personal experience or not.

John Gross (Rudyard Kipling, The Man, his Work, and his World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1972) in an unattributed photograph (plate 62) shows Kipling in a somewhat awkward stance at the wheel of the yacht Bantam in about 1909/10 with his son John alongside him.

The deck is horizontal so it may have been taken in harbour.


The SS Mexican of the Union Steamship Company, in which Kipling sailed to Capetown in August 1891, was sunk in a fog off the African coast in a collision with a troopship, in April 1900. All the crew and passengers were saved.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

ricks: stacks of corn or hay, often thatched, and standing in the open, usually in a yard.

[Verse 2]

the Tents of Shem: See Genesis, 9:27: God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. So Japheth was living in the tents of his elder brother. It is not clear what Kipling means by this reference; perhaps the tiresome world of publishing and commerce, as opposed to the free life of the wandering writer.

[Verse 3]

Horn: Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America where there is usually dreadful weather. Until the Panama Canal was opened in 1914 the only route by sea between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Mississippi Bay: As Kipling wrote in a letter to Herbert Stephen on 22 June 1893:

Mississippi Bay is at the back of Yokohama Bay, which is in Japan. [Letters (Ed. Pinney) Vol 2, p. 101.]

Golden Gate: a channel in California between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, since 1933 it has been spanned by a famous bridge.. See “Kipling and America’s defenceless coast”. and Letter XXIII in From Sea to Sea, Volume 1.

the blindest bluffs: in this context, the most outrageous deceits imaginable – probably referring to the game of poker.

[Verse 4]

bucking beam-sea roll: a most uncomfortable motion when the vessel is at right-angles to the swell and rolls in the troughs – probably pitching as well.

Bilbao: an important industrial city and seaport in northern Spain.

tramp: a merchant vessel that does not keep to a timetable but collects and delivers cargo as it is available.

loadline over her hatch: The hatch is on the upper deck. This is a sarcastic remark indicating that the vessel concerned has no regard for her loadline, which is the mark on her side which indicates the depth to which she can be loaded in various seas and times of year – the ‘Plimsoll Mark’. See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 653.

Dago: a disrespectful expression for people of Hispanic, Italian or Portuguese descent, not used today.

Cadiz: one of the chief commercial Atlantic ports in Spain.

[Verse 5]

the way of a man with a maid: an echo of Proverbs 30,18:

There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four in which I know not. The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid.

North-East Trade: one of the regular winds which blow between 30° north and south of the Equator. See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea p. 882.

racing screw: the propellor. When the vessel pitches so as to lift her stern out of the water, the propeller (s) meet less resistance and revolve at high speed, which is liable to damage the machinery.

ships it green: rough weather – the vessel is taking large amounts of sea over the bow and elsewhere. See From Sea to Sea vol. 1, p. 460. ‘Shipping it solid’ is an expression of similar meaning.

scends: Or sends; the carrying or driving impulse of a sea or wave; more fully ‘send of sea’ or ‘send of the sea’. Perhaps more clearly illustrated by Kipling in the verse accompanying “How the Whale got his Throat” in the Just So Stories:

WHEN the cabin port-holes are dark and green
Because of the seas outside;
When the ship goes wop (with a wiggle between)
And the steward falls into the soup-tureen,
And the trunks begin to slide;
When Nursey lies on the floor in a heap,
And Mummy tells you to let her sleep,
And you aren’t waked or washed or dressed,
Why, then you will know (if you haven’t guessed)
You’re “Fifty North and Forty West!”

[Verse 6]

Peter at the fore: The Blue Peter is a blue rectangular flag with a white rectangle in the centre (Letter P in the International Code). It is flown at the foremast-head as a signal that the ship is about to sail so all concerned should report on board immediately.

fenders: in this context, large bundles of varied construction (canvas bags stuffed with granulated cork, rope mats, bundles of laths etc.) lowered over the side between vessels or wharf, etc. to prevent damage.

derricks: A derrick is an apparatus attached to a mast, used like a crane for hoisting cargo, etc. in and out of the vessel. See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 242.

fall-rope … sheave: A fall in this context is the rope in a derrick that hoists or lowers the load. A sheave is the revolving wheel in a block through which the fall passes.

Gang-plank: a portable ramp used for passengers and crew entering or leaving a vessel when alongside a pier or wharf.

Hawsers warp her through: A hawser is a rope over five inches in circumference (127 mm.) used for mooring a vessel to a wharf etc. or, in this instance, secured to a bollard ashore and hauling her into or out of a lock with a capstan.

All clear aft: an announcement from the officer on the quarterdeck to the captain that the vessel is no longer secured to the shore and that all hawsers and lines are inboard.

[Verse 7]

sirens hoot: steam-whistles used for sound signals, usually known as fog-horns in the Merchant fleet,

the sob of the questing lead: a lead weight of about seven pounds (3·2 kg.) on a twenty- five fathom line (45·7 metres) is dropped over the side to ascertain the depth of water. The lead is swung to and fro and then in a circle to drop as far ahead as possible so that it will be up-and-down by the time it reaches the bottom. See “Their Lawful Occasions” Part 2 page 135, line 31 (in Traffics and Discoveries) and Captains Courageous (pp. 81-2). The lead and its line may “whistle” slightly when whirled round through the air.

Lower Hope: a promontory on the Kent coast in the Thames Estuary.

Gunfleet Sands: sandbanks in the Thames Estuary off the Essex coast

the Mouse: in this context a channel in the Thames Estuary

Gull Light: a lighthouse off Lockerport on the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.

[Verse 8]

the wake: the disturbed water astern of the vessel when she is underway.

a welt of light: A welt in this context is a strip of cloth – the light may be due to the sun shining on the disturbed water or perhaps phosphorescence, the cause of which is not fully understood but may be due to secretions from jellyfish and other such creatures
(The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p.646.)

flukes in flame: a whale lifting his flukes (tail) high in the air and descending (Oxford Entlish Dictionary) The flame may well be sunshine or the phosphorescence described above.

the steady forefoot snores:  The forefoot is a timber that terminates the keel at the forward extremity, and forms a rest for the stem’s lower end. For a vessel to snore is to cut through the water with a roaring sound.  [OED]

her plates are flaked:  Vessels of the time were constructed of iron or steel plates held together with rivets. The sun was liable to destroy the paint and allow rust to take hold.

[Verse 9]

Southern Cross: a constellation of the southern hemisphere, the five principal stars of which form a rather irregular cross.

[Verse 10]

The Foreland: North Foreland and South Foreland are two chalk headlands on the Kent coast of southeast England.

The Start: a promontory in the South Hams district, one of the most southerly points in Devon

trumpet-orchids: orchidacae, a large order of plants of 450 genera and thousands of species

[Verse 11]

the Deuce: a word of many meanings but here probably meaning the Devil; ‘the Devil knows what we may do – but we certainly don’t’.

hull-down: A vessel is hull-down when only her masts, funnels, etc. are visible to an observer.

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved