The Merchantmen

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in Pall Mall Budget, May 15 1893, Pall Mall Gazette June 15 1893, McClure’s Magazine July 1893. ORG No. 586.

Collected in

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 23
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 335

The poem

The poem reflects Kipling’s lifelong fascination with sailors and the sea. A homeward-bound seaman considers his voyage, where he has been, what he has done, what cargo there is on board and how it was obtained.

There are echoes here of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1797) where he and his shipmates sight islands with lighted houses at night that are not there in daylight and other traditional nautical ghost stories. Some of the same mood is to be found in John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”, written some ten years later. See also “The Manner of Men” (Limits and Renewals) and “How Shakespeare
came to write The Tempest

Daniel Hadas suggests that John Masefield may have had this poem in mind when he wrote Cargoes (1902).

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

King Solomon: a fabulously wealthy and wise King of Israel who appears as Suleiman bin Daoud in “The Butterfly that Stamped” and some of Kipling’s Masonic verse.

Peacocks, apes, and ivory: See 1 Kings 10.22; 2 Chronicles 9.21 [D.H.]

cedars out of Lebanon:   See 1 Kings 5.6-10; 2 Chronicles 2.1-16 [D.H.]

Tarshish: a place referred to in the Hebrew Bible, far across the sea from Israel and Phoenicia, of which the location has been disputed by scholars. Possibilities suggested include Spain, Carthage, and Sardinia.

Tyre: ancient city, the fourth largest in Lebanon

Hiram: the King of Tyre, who provided timber for Solomon’s Temple as related in the First Book of Kings.

[Refrain] We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots:  Wikipedia reports that this was a Bunt shanty, used for “bousing up” (i.e. hauling) a bunt—the tightly bunched bundle of a sail that would need to be gathered up and fastened to the yard when furling, and that “Paddy Doyle’s Boots” is universally attested as one of the few, exclusive bunt shanties. There are a number of versions on Youtube, including a spirited rendering by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Some authorities say Paddy Doyle was master of a boarding-house in Liverpool for sailors between ships that supplied crews to outward-bound vessels, others maintain he was a boot-maker.

[Verse 2]

flaw: in this context, a sudden gust of wind, sometimes from a different direction from that prevailing at the time.

Trade: in this context, one of the Trade Winds that blow regularly from the North-East in the Northern Hemisphere and the South-East in the Southern.

lay your board and tack again: Philip Holberton writes: the Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives a nautical meaning for board – the distance covered in one tack. I suggest that in this context the ship is beating to windward. She “lays her board” in the sense of setting her course and then has to tack in one of the senses given below (verse 10): go about (change direction) from (say) a port tack to a starboard tack.

[Verse 3]

ingots: small bars of gold or silver.

floe: in this context; an iceberg

[Verse 4]

pike and carronade: a spear-like weapon and a gun, the goods were obviously obtained by piracy!

rode a foot too deep: overloaded, so deeper in the water than consistent with safety.

[Verse 5] Philip Holberton writes: The second half of this verse is tongue-in-cheek – they took the goods by piracy but it was actually a work of charity, to “light” (i.e. lighten) the homeward-bound ship which was dangerously overloaded!

walty:  an obsolete nautical word for ‘insecure’, hence probably ‘unseaworthy’. In Rewards and Fairies p.290 line 22, Simple Simon describes Francis Drake’s vessel as ‘A coaster boat – a liddle box o’ walty planking … held together by him sole.’

kentledge: scrap iron used as ballast.

kelson: usually ‘keelson’, part of the fore and aft structure of a wooden ship or boat that secures the timbers to the keel.

slings ropes: within the rigging

yard: in this context, a spar secured to a mast on which sails are set.

galley: in this context, a kitchen in a vessel.

Baltic: The Baltic Sea is in Northern Europe and bordered by Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, northeastern Germany, and eastern Denmark.

Mossel Bay: an important tourism and farming region of South Africa.

[Verse 6]

Texel: an island and municipality of the Netherlands.

sodden deals: wet timber as deck-cargo.

Valparaiso: a major city and seaport in Chile.

Crossets :the Crozet islands. [D.H.]

gunnels: so pronounced but spelt ‘gunwales’. The top strakes of a vessel.

Agulhas: the southernmost tip of Africa, a region of terrible storms where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean.

[Verse 8]

Strange consorts:  accompanying vessels.

channels:  broad thick planks projecting from the side of a ship to support the shrouds. [OED]

witch-fire: better known as St. Elmo’ s Fire, an electrical phenomenon that appears as blue flames on masts and yards etc.

vane: in this context a small flag or device (a weathercock) at a masthead to indicate wind – direction.

truck: the top of a mast.

The Dutchman: usually known as ‘The Flying Dutchman’, doomed to sail the sea forever as punishment for undisclosed crimes. To see his ship is a sign of approaching disaster.

[Verse 9]

Midnight Leadsman: a legend we have not traced, information will be appreciated. See “The Dog Hervey” A Diversity of Creatures page 151, line 9, 151/16 and 151/31; “Their Lawful Occasions” Traffics and Discoveries, page 135/31, page 150, line 10, page 151, line 9 and page 151 line 16; and ‘Captains Courageous’, page 82, line 3.

The Swimmer: another legend we have not traced

bunt and gasket: the body of the sail, secured by the gasket when furled

more than signed: the crew of a merchant-ship usually signs on at the Shipping Office, here they are joined by ghosts.

Isle of Ghosts: some believe the Isle of Wight in the South of England is haunted but it could be anywhere.

[Verse 10]

Hummock: a ridge or hump in an ice-field.

biscuit-toss: a short distance but the origin has not been traced. (Perhaps the distance you could throw a scrap of ship’s biscuit, a few yards?)

shallop: a sailing-vessel, now obsolete.

Hendrick Hudson: (born c.1565-1570, died 1611) English explorer and navigator who twice tried to find the North-West passage to China, north of Canada. His crew mutinied and set him adrift in a boat with his son and other men. They were never seen again.

Plain-sail:  the amount of sail set in pleasant sailing weather

storm-sail: reduced sail to suit conditions.

tack: a word of several meanings at sea, the lower corner of a sail, going about (changing direction) from (say) a port tack to a starboard tack, and sometimes food!

[J McG]

©John McGivering 2016 All rights reserved