Poseidon’s Law

(notes edited by Commander Alastair Wilson, R.N.)


First published with “The Bonds of Discipline” in Traffics and Discoveries (1904) and collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol 7 and vol 34
  • Burwash Edition vol 7 and vol 27
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney


Poseidon the Roman Neptunus, our “Neptune”, was the God of the sea (which to the ancients was the Mediterranean) and of other waters. In the Homeric poems, he is described as being equal in dignity to Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, but less powerful.


His palace was in the sea near Aegae in Euboea (the largest island in the Greek archipelago, close to the mainland, some 40 miles north of Athens: Aegae gave its name to the Aegean Sea). There he kept his horses with brazen hooves and golden manes. These carried him in a chariot over the waves, which became smooth as he approached, while the monsters of the deep played about him.




The symbol of Poseidon’s power was the trident, a spear with three points which was a traditional implement of a Mediterranean fisherman, with which he (Poseidon) used to shatter rocks, to call forth or subdue storms, or shake the Earth. The trident is still recognized as the symbol of sea power. Nor is Neptune himself forgotten. The horseplay associated with ‘crossing the Line’ (Equator) ceremonies is still presided over by an Ancient Mariner representing “King Neptune”.

In the absence of any earlier recorded version, we may assume that “Poseidon’s Law” as enunciated here was first recognized by Kipling.

Critical responses

This poem seems not to have attracted much attention, except from Angus Wilson who wrote:

Their law – Poseidon’s Law, as Kipling calls it, is a very special one. On board, they must abide absolutely by a logic of navigation, by the logic of the machine–gods who serve them. Machines, as Kipling has told us, “cannot tell a lie”. But sailors too (especially those serving the cause of civilisation’s law in the Navy) must not tell a lie – as Poseidon says to all sailors in the poem.

Wilson then quotes some lines from the verse and continues:

The language is as obscure as it is pretentious, and hardly fitted to bring home their duties to more than a handful of sailors, but the situation he describes is a special and glorious case for the Law as put forward in Stalky & Co. Absolute vigilance and duty when at sea, total ‘laissez-faire’ for larks and lies and anything else when Jack’s ashore. A kind of ‘in school’ and ‘out of school’ ethic for adults.

This editor would contend that Wilson has only considered the verse superficially, and very much from the point of view of a landsman, with little experience of the sea. The verse is not about “the logic of navigation”, nor the “logic of the machine-gods”. It is far deeper, and relates to “the dangers of the sea”, in the sense the phrase is used in the Naval prayer, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the Heavens, and rulest the raging of the seas, who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us Thy servants, and the fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy …

It is the Law of that God, personified by the ancients as Poseidon, which says “Never, ever, lie to Me”. And lying includes self-deceit. You must never take the Sea and the forces of Nature for granted. That is the message that Kipling is re-iterating, albeit light-heartedly.

And the language may be obscure to the uneducated – but Kipling wasn’t writing for them. This editor would suggest that he deliberately used classical metaphors to indicate that the message was ageless: it has been handed down from the Greeks and Persians who fought at Salamis.

Finally, the ‘in school’ and ‘out of school’ simile is not unarguable, but it may be suggested that he would have been closer if he had said ‘at work’ and ‘at leisure’. School is only a preparation for real life: life at sea is real life.

Notes on the Text

[Verse1, line 1] ….. brass-bound man: a reference to a sailor’s uniform. Until the 19th century, the only British seafarers wearing a regulation uniform were commissioned officers of the Royal Navy (uniform introduced in 1748), whose dress uniform was bedecked with much gold lace and brass buttons (gilt if you were rich). Other seafarers dressed as suited them best, in a recognizable style, which often included bright buttons, of brass or silver. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy introduced uniforms for its ratings in 1857, and Chief Petty Officers (and later, Petty Officers) wore uniforms with a brass-buttoned reefer jacket. These were copied by the more solid and prestigious commercial shipping lines, like the Cunard and P& O, and gradually the brass-buttoned reefer jacket came to be accepted as the mark of the seafaring person, even if he were no more than one of W.W. Jacob’s bargees, dressed up to the nines. More specifically, in the British Merchant Service, a ‘brassbounder’ was a premium apprentice (the Merchant equivalent of the Royal Navy’s midshipman), whose uniform jacket was new and whose brass buttons had not dimmed their lustre.

See also the very appoosite reference to Horace in the Wordsworth Edition.  [D.H.]

[Verse 1, line 1] commissioned first for sea: H.M. ships have been put into commission since the times of the Tudors in the 16th century. A captain derived his authority from a Commission signed by the Lord High Admiral, and in the Royal Navy, a sailor will speak of “doing a commission in the old Dainty in the Med in `56-`57”, meaning that he served in that ship during that particular period, with the same ship’s company throughout.

[Verse 2, line 1] votive: offered in fulfilment of a vow: here possibly sacrificial.

salt  See the Roman use of mola salsa in sacrifices. [D.H.]

[Verse 3, line 1] Greekly: cunning; a subsidiary meaning from the verb “to Greek”, meaning “to cheat” or “to take unfair advantage”.

[Verse 3, line 1 cozen: also “to cheat” or “defraud”

[Verse3, lines 1-2] clear….. the twinkling shoal: in this context, to “clear” has a specific nautical (navigational) meaning. One clears (steers clear of) a shoal (which is itself invisible, though it may give clues as to its presence – see below) with the use of “clearing bearings”. And “twinkling” may seem a strange adjective to use, but it is the case that the sea over a shoal (shallow water) does change colour, and the size of the waves will alter as the space between the surface and the sea bed narrows. Hence, the sea may indeed seem to twinkle, when caught by the sunlight, and the change in colour and pattern of waves is often a visible indication of shallow water (cf. such places as Portland Race, off Portland Bill, on the coast of Dorset).

[Verse 3, line 2] the leeward beach: the shore downwind from you (as opposed to ‘windward’). In the days of sail, this was, and if you are a yachtsman today still can be, an uncomfortable place to find yourself. In round terms, no sailing ship can sail ‘closer to the wind’ than 30 degrees from the line of the wind, and a square-rigged ship, such as the Victory or the Cutty Sark couldn’t get much closer than 70 degrees off the wind. If you were close to the shore, with the wind blowing from the sea directly towards the shore, and if you were not desirous to be cast ashore on the beach, then you tried to ‘claw off’ the shoreline, by sailing as close to the wind (upwind) as you could go; but there was always a component of the wind’s force acting on the sails which was pushing you towards the coast, and it was a balance between the component which was pushing you through the water to get away from the land, and that which was pushing you back. A prudent mariner kept (and still keeps) well clear of a leeward beach.

Chapter 23 of Moby-Dick, ‘The Lee Shore’, is a meditation on this theme. [D.H.]

[Verse 3, line 2] Hadria’s white-lipped wrath: Hadria, or Adria is a town in northern Italy, between the mouths of the Rivers Po and Adige, from which the Adriatic Sea takes its name. The reference is clearly to breaking seas, the waves of which are often referred to as “white horses”. Sudden storms are not uncommon in this region.

[Verse 3, line 3] Nor tempt with painted cloth for wood: a reference to such easy expedients as raising the height of the ship’s bulwarks by canvas “dodgers” for protection from sea and wind (and possibly for disguise – cf. the disguise of Torpedo Boat 267 in “Their Lawful Occasions”), but which do not improve the watertight integrity of the ship.

[Verse 4, line 1] serve unshod: Seamen traditionally worked (especially when aloft) with bare feet.
shifts: watches. The sailor’s life, then and now, is divided into the traditional four-hour watches.

[Verse 4, line 3 & Verse 5, line 1] windward-opened eye and windward-eyed: A sailor always (even today) keeps an eye open to windward, for that is the direction from which the weather comes, and a violent squall can be dangerous even to a modern powered vessel.

[Verse 5, line 1] In dromond and in catafract :A dromond or dromon was a form of ancient Greek merchantman, which might be propelled by oars or sail. The term is too loosely applied for us to be more precise, but it suggested speed, the Greek dromos meaning a race. Catafract suggests a vessel belonging to the run-`em-down-and-smash-`em-up squadron, but it should probably be cataphract. which means (1) an ancient coat of mail, (2) a soldier in full armour, and in early Greek ship construction meant ‘fenced’, applying to the bulwarks protecting the upper tier of rowers from attack – this in distinction from aphract or ‘unfenced’ construction, which left the rowers unprotected. Kipling is saying, “whether a merchant seaman or fighting sailor, they all tell the same kind of tall story when they’re ashore.”

[Verse 5, line 3] bireme: an ancient Greek fighting warship with two banks of oars.

[Verse 6, line 1] The thranite and the thalamite are pressures high and low: a comparison between ancient and modern methods of propulsion. The thranite was the uppermost, and the thalamite the lower or lowest, tier of oarsmen in a bireme or trireme. “Pressures high and low” refers to the cylinders of a compound or triple-expansion steam reciprocating engine (see note in >“The Ship that Found Herself page 84). The likeness between the banks of oars and the cylinders of a steam engine is not exact, but stimulating.

[Verse 6, line 3] the God that hailed: must be Poseidon, or man’s conception of him. Traditionally, the crossing-the-line ceremonies commence with Poseidon hailing the ship, asking her name and that of her captain, whither she is bound, and why she presumes to come into Poseidon’s domain.

[Verse 6, line 4]  the robust ande Brass-bound man he is not chamged at al:l   See line 45-6 of “A Truthful Song“: [D.H.]

Your wheel is new and your pumps are strange,
But otherwise I perceive no change;

[Verse 7, line 1] Punt: identified with Puoni, the ancient land of incense on the Somali coast. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt’s great expedition by water to Puoni in search of incense is commemorated in the decoration of her temple at Dar el Bahri.

[Verse 7, line 1] Phormio probably Phormion, a celebrated Athenian general, son of Asopius. In B.C. 430 he was sent with thirty ships to blockade the Gulf of Corinth. He particularly distinguished himself and with inferior forces defeated the Peloponnesian fleet in 429.

[Verse 7, line 1] Javan: the ancient Hebrew name for Greece.

[Verse 7, line 1] Gadire: or Gades became our Cadiz, in south-west Spain.

[Verse 7, line 3] Falernian: Falernian wine was a strong wine from the region of Naples, not usually to be found in common taverns, because it was expensive – as if one would expect to find a premier cru burgundy in a back street pub.

Frequently mentioned by Horace. [D.H.]

[Verse 7, line 3] smoked Massilian juice: Massilia was Marseilles. The third stanza of Horace’s 8th Ode (Book 3) refers to the process of corking, sealing and storing the wine in a place where smoke could get into the jar. (Extract from a letter by “Bibulus”, Trinity College, Dublin, in the Sunday Times of 16 April 1961.) Kipling’s knowledge of Horace was extensive, and undoubtedly he knew of the reference.


©Alastair Wilson 2006 All rights reserved