The Sons of Martha

(notes by Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem (ORG no. 906) was first published in the London Standard on April 29th, 1907. A little later it appeared in the New York Tribune and Colliers Magazine. It is collected in:

  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition Volume 33, page 401
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 26
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The theme

This poem is Kipling’s comment on the story of the sisters Martha and Mary, from Luke 10,38-42:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word.
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

In other words Martha’s duty—as Kipling saw his own duty—was work.

Jan Montefiore (Rudyard Kipling, Northcote, London 2007) stresses that Kipling saw work as supremely important:

This harsh discipline of mechanical laws is praised in ‘The Sons of Martha’ about the unthanked men who ‘take the buffet and cushion the shock’. The fact that:

‘they do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they dam’ well choose’

earns Kipling’s most admiring praise.

For an account of Kipling’s belief in the supreme importance  of work, see Professor Montefiore’s  masterly chapter on The  Day’s Work. pp. 48-64.

See also McAndrew’s HymnThe Secret of the Machines,   The Bridge-Buuilders, With the Night MailBread upon the Waters, . and the motto from St John’s gospel which Lockwood Kipling laid on the the fire-place in Rudyard’s study in Naulakha:

The night cometh when no man can work.


Kipling and the Bible

Ann Weygandt points out (p.139):

Since both his grandfathers had been Wesleyan ministers, he must have heard plenty of biblical talk at home, and even if he had not, the favorite form of punishment meted out to him during his stay at Southsea would have supplied the lack. Afternoons upstairs with the Collects or portions of the Bible to learns provided him with an endless fund of texts upon which to draw. The ones he does draw upon are scattered through very nearly the whole length of the Bible.

See also “Mary’s Son“.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

That good part:: See Luke 42 above

world without end:  a Biblical and liturgical formula. [D.H.]

[Verse 2]

It is their care that the wheels run truly: In the days of steam trains, men were employed as “wheel-tappers”. Their job was to go along a train, tapping each wheel with a special hammer. If a wheel was cracked, it rang with a different note. See “Captains Courageous” p. 223 line 6: ‘the clink-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp-steel wheels’.

[Verse 3]

They say to mountains, “Be ye removed.”: Matthew 17,20: ‘Ye shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove.’

They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”: Nicholas Weininger points out that this echoes Isaiah 44,27: ‘That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers’.

They are not afraid of that which is high: Ecclesiastes 12.6: ‘They shall be afraid of that which is high.’

The hill-tops shake to the summit: possibly a reminiscence of Psalms 114,4: ‘The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.’

[Verse 4]

They piece and repiece the living wires: one of the three wires in a standard household electric flex is still called the live wire.

[Verse 5]

concerned with matters hidden:  Biblical echoes – Psalm 131.1: “neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me”; Matthew 13.35: ” I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world”; Romans 16.25: “the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began”

gather the floods:  See Psalm 33.7: “He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses.” [D.H.]

[Verse 6]

days may be long in the land:  See Exodus 20.12: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee“; Deuteronomy 5.16: “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”

[Verse 7]

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood: The apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas”, v.30: “Jesus says: ‘lift the stone and there you will find me: cleave the wood and I am there.’ Fragments of the “Gospel of Thomas” were found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri between 1897 and 1903; an English translation was published in 1904. “The Sons of Martha” is dated 1907. There is plenty of evidence in the poem of Kipling’s extensive knowledge of the Bible. I think this shows that he was also familiar with apocryphal sources.

A ladder from Earth to Heaven: Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28,12: ‘And behold, a ladder set up upon the earth, and the top reached to heaven.’

[Verse 8]

They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word: See Luke 39 above.

They have cast their burden upon the Lord: Psalms 55,22: ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.’ (Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations only refers to this poem, not to the psalm!)


©Philip Holberton 2and John Radcliffe 010 All rights reserved