Poor Honest Men

(Notes by Philip Holberton)


First published following ‘A Priest in Spite of Himself‘ in Rewards and Fairies (1910). (‘A Priest in Spite of Himself’ was first published in the magazine Delineator, August 1910, but without the poem).  Collected in Songs from Books (1912) and in the later verse collections.

Peter Bellamy’s sung version of the poem is here.

The poem

Anna Weygandt (p. 179) suggests that this poem may owe something to the early eighteenth-century “Admiral Benbow”:

Come, all you sailors bold,
Lend an ear, lend an ear,
Come all you sailors bold, lend an ear;
It’s of our Admiral’s fame,
Brave Benbow call’d by name,
How he fought on the main
You shaII hear…

See also “A Smuggler’s Song”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Virginny: tobacco from Virginia

guinea: old coin worth one pound one shilling.

You reckon too much:  “You” are miserly to complain of the price: “ you” are only smoking smuggled tobacco because it is cheaper than the legitimate article, which costs more because customs duty has been paid on it.

[line 4] churchwarden: a clay pipe with a long stem.

[Verse 2]

And they press half a score: take the seamen by force to serve on the naval ships, which is why, in Verse 4, ‘we tumble short-handed’.

[Verse 4]

New canvas to bend: another example of Kipling’s exact use of nautical terms, meaning new sails to tie to the yards. The old ones have been torn by the frigate’s shot.

broadsides the Atlantic:  out on the deep ocean; the next stage of the journey is the Azores. ‘broadsides’  as a preposition, poetic licence by Kipling, may suggest that after being fired on the smugglers’ vessel is drifting broadside on, to the seas.

[Verse 5]

Roll, twist and leaf: forms of tobacco

[Verse 6]

off the wind:  the chasing ship, which can no longer be manoeuvred because of its detached foresail, is driven headlong by the wind. [D.H.]

stern-chasers: guns mounted in the stern to fire at a pursuing ship

fore-braces: ropes that hold the yard of the foresail at the correct angle to the wind. If these are “cut up”, the pursuer cannot be kept on course.

[Verse 7]

Forties and Fifties: parallels of latitude.  Kipling is, as usual, accurate. Land’s End is at latitude 50°04′07″N, and Ushant at 48°27′29″N.

 Land’s End: the western point of Cornwall at the mouth of the English Channel

Alas it is Ushant: (now Oussant) Island off the west of Brittany, guarding the passage to the main French naval base of Brest. The English “King’s Navy” maintained a constant patrol there to prevent the French fleet from leaving port. It is still known as ‘Ushant’ in English.

[Verse 8]  the Scillies:  a group of islands off the southwestern tip of Cornwall.  Now a popular holiday destination, then a place of peril for smugglers.

[Verse 9]

The Lizard and Dover: the two ends of the English Channel, a run of some 300 miles.  The Lizard is a peninsula in south Cornwall some twenty-five miles up Channel from Land’s End. The speaker may not tell us how or when they hand their barrels over, and he is not going to give any hint of where, either; but see “Brother Square-toes“, Rewards and Fairies p.150.

‘Just about. It’s seven fathom under her—clean sand. That was where Uncle Aurette used to sink his brandy kegs from Boulogne, and we fished ’em up and rowed ’em into The Gap here for the ponies to run inland.

on each quarter:  on either side of the vessel.

[Verse 10]

meddlesome strangers: the Customs or Revenue men whose job it was to combat smuggling.

handspike: an iron bar used as a lever to aim the guns. It also made a handy weapon.

[Verse 11]

to dangle in chains: after execution, the bodies of smugglers, like pirates, were often hung on gibbets to deter others.


©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved