Poor Honest Men

(Notes by Philip Holberton)


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…

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.

[Verse 5]

Roll, twist and leaf Forms of tobacco

[Verse 6]

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

fore-braces Ropes which 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

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

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 leaving port.

[Verse 9]

The Lizard and Dover The two ends of the English Channel. The speaker may not inform how or when they hand their stuff over, and he’s not going to give any hint of where, either.

[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