(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



This poem is linked to the tale “The White Seal” in The Jungle Book (May 1894). ORG (Volume 8, p. 5355) lists it as Verse No. 621. It is collected in:

  • Songs from Books 1912
  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • The Sussex Edition, vol xii
  • The Burwash Edition, vol xxvii
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994

See David Alan Richards p. 80 for further details of publication, and Brian Mattinson’s table for musical settings

There is a ecording of Percy Grainger’s setting here.

The poem

In the 1930 Pocket Edition of The Jungle Book the prose heading is:

This is the great deep-sea song that all the St. Paul seals sing when they are heading back to their beaches in the summer. It is a sort of sad seal National Anthem.

In Songs from Books there is a prose heading:

Song of the Breeding Seal. Aleutian Islands.


Kotick, the White Seal, hero of “The White Seal” in The Jungle Book, sings of the beautiful beaches of Lukannon before the sealers came, with their dreadful annual cull of his people. He tells how he met his surviving friends afterwards, and vowed they would abandon their old home and move to new grounds where men could not find them.


For more information on the background and sources of the story see the fuller notes by Alan Underwood and John Radcliffe on “The White Seal”. KJ 124/14 carries an article by W.G.B. Maitland, the then Kipling Librarian, on Kipling’s sources for the story.

See also “The Rhyme of the Three Sealers”, for more verses on sealing.

Notes on the Text


The name of a seal-fur trader who gave his name, Lukanin, to those lonely Aleutian beaches in 1788. [Maitland in KJ 124/14.]

[Verse 1]

ground-swell a condition of the sea resulting from storms or high winds – a vertical movement of surface water in the form of waves or undulations . [The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 851.]

[Verse 2]

lagoon a stretch of water enclosed by coral or other reefs (ib, p. 462.)

churned the sea to flame phosphorescence, a glowing condition of the sea when the surface is broken by a wave, the dipping of an oar etc, in this context by the bodies of frolicking seals. The cause is not known but is believed by some to be the result of secretions by jellyfish etc. [The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 646.]
(The Editor of these notes first saw it in the North Sea when he flushed a w.c. that used sea-water).

[Verse 3]

Legions In ancient Rome a legion was a military force of three to six thousand soldiers. In this context, however, it simply signifies ‘many thousands.’

offing strictly the distance a ship off the coast needs to clear dangers, but here indicating the general neighbourhood of the beach.

Daniel Hadas adds: I take the ‘offing’ here to be the distant but still visible part of the sea, where the arriving seals first come into view from the beach.[D.H.]

[Verse 4]

lichens organisms of the group Lichenes which grow on rocks, trees etc.

[Verse 5]

Salt House On the North-East Point of St. Paul’s Island where the seals were killed. See the note on “The White Seal” p. 129 line 5.

[Verse 6]

Gooverooska a footnote defines this as ‘sea-gull.’

Shark’s egg sharks (order Selachimorpha) are mostly ovoviviparous. The eggs hatch in the oviduct in the mother’s body while the yolk and fluids secreted in the walls of the oviduct nourish the embryo. The young are born alive.
It may be that ‘a shark’s egg’ is another name for ‘a mermaid’s purse’, the egg-case of various species.

Philip Holberton writes: I am sure Kipling was referring to a “ mermaid’s purse.” I have seen these washed up on Devon beaches. We called them “skates’ purses.” Skates are closely related to sharks. The egg cases that wash up on beaches are usually empty, the young fish having already hatched out.

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved