The Nurses

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This poem first appeared in Land and Sea Tales with “The Bold ‘Prentice” in 1923, and was collected in the Sussex Edition on page 161 of Volume 16 and page 354 of Volume 34; the Burwash Edition volumes 14 and 27; and, with variations, in Collected Verse, Definitive Verse and The Works of Rudyard Kipling, (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.)

The poem

As explained in the last verse:

They have so utterly mastered their work that they work without thinking;
Holding three-fifths of their brain in reserve…

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1] When with a pain: the baby has colic; see below.

The six-month Mother: she is, of course, not six months old – that is the age of the baby! This is a literary device also used by T.S.Eliot in A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (p. 32) who calls Connie Sperrit in “My Son’s Wife” ‘the speechless solicitor’s daughter’ even though he should, like Kipling, have known better.

pins   I first thought this may be a colloquial name for some infant malady, but I can find nothing to that effect in OED. So perhaps what’s meant is that the baby may be howling because she has pins sticking in her, from her nappy or some other part of her clothing. [D.H.]

[Verse 2] The Nurse successfully diagnoses the problem. Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes: this is Colic – a severe spasmodic griping pain in the stomach; she gives him a few drops of warm water in a spoon and, putting him over her shoulder, pats him gently on the back which releases the wind. [G.S.]

[Verse 3 ] The grade: in this context, used on American railways to indicate what we would call a gradient – the slope of the line.

[Verse 4]  handles: for handles read nurses in other editions.

[Verse 5]  Barque: a sailing vessel having three masts, square-rigged on the fore and main, fore-and-aft on the mizzen (for barque read ship in other editions – at that time ship usually signified a sea-going sailing-vessel with a bowsprit and square-rigged on all three masts, but this usage has changed over the years to mean a large vessel of any type.)

[Verse 6] thrice-reefed but still buckling the yard!: carrying the smallest amount of sail a sail as possible, but it is still too much.

[Verse 7] gunnel: the pronunciation of gunwale, the upper edge of the ship’s side that prevents water flooding the deck when she heels over.

  fleet The sense seems to be ‘To move swiftly; to flit, fly.’  [D.H.]



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