The River’s Tale

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] The River’s Tale: the early pre-recorded history of England as experienced by its most famous river, ‘The Thames,’ through various invasions and settlements that lead eventually to the founding of England. The river was certainly known to the first Romans to land in Britain because Julius Caesar refers to it as Tamesis, but it was the second wave of Roman invaders in 43 A.D. who began spanning the river and built Londinium.

[Sub-title] Prehistoric: here, presumably, ‘prehistoric’ has the very general meaning of ‘from earliest times’ to the arrival of the Romans and the Danes.

[Lines 1-2] Twenty Bridges from Tower to Kew: it is difficult to see how exactly Kipling reached a total of twenty bridges on his selected stretch of the Thames, even if we omit railway bridges, as he obviously did. But at some time – and it is not at all clear when exactly – he must have realised that the figure wouldn’t do, or perhaps it was pointed out to him as an error, because he added a qualifying second line (‘Twenty Bridges or twenty-two’) in order to make the computation deliberately vague. This new second line, which changed the overall symmetry of the verse, was accommodated into the poem by making the first three lines a triplet. The additional line was not in the main editions up to and including the Inclusive Verse(1919), though it does appear in Definitive Verse (1940).

Kipling’s boundary markers are carefully chosen. Although Tower Bridge looks very old, it is, actually, fairly new, having been opened in 1894. It was the first bridge to be built lower on the Thames than the ancient London Bridge, so it would still have been regarded as something of a novelty when Kipling was writing “The River’s Tale”. Even so, from its connections with nearby Tower Hill and the Tower of London, it could be made to carry massive historical significance. Kew is situated on the upper Thames in Surrey, though now a district of Greater London. It had had its own bridge since the middle of the eighteenth century, but the current Kew Bridge was only built as a replacement in 1903. So, as with Tower Bridge, and at many other points in the poem, Kipling is blending very recent events with the ‘prehistoric.’ See especially the Notes below to Line 9.

[Line 6] I walk my beat before London Town: a ‘beat’ was the area for which an individual policeman was responsible and which he patrolled regularly on foot. By making the river-spokesman a policeman, Kipling not only heightens the anthropomorphic nature of the poem but also gives the Thames a protective role: the guardian, as it were, of London’s long traditions. There is no special meaning attached to London Town. It is a phrase commonly used for romantic or evocative reasons.

[Line 7] Five hours up and seven down: presumably the times it would have taken the tidal part of the Thames to rise and fall. Here equated with a policeman’s beat which was famous for being carefully regulated and always ‘on time.’ There are many other possible historical and temporal allusions encompassed by this comparison between the patrolling policeman and the meandering river.

[Line 9] At Tide-end-town, which is Teddington: the Thames is divided into two distinct parts, both of great practical and historical significance. From the sea up to Teddington, in Middlesex, now a district of Greater London, the river is tidal, hence London’s age-old importance as a shipping port. From Teddington, the river is non-tidal and has long been the focal point for royal and, more generally, wealthy and fashionable residences. The control of the river Thames – both tidal and non-tidal areas – has a long and controversial history.

In 1909 a determined attempt was made to settle the old disputes by establishing a new organisation, The Port of London Authority, and making it responsible for the tidal Thames. At the same time, a reconstituted Thames Conservancy Board was put in charge of the whole of the non-tidal area. Teddington became the official dividing- point of these responsibilities because it is here that the tidal Thames becomes non-tidal. Hence Kipling’s very topical pun Teddington/Tide-end-town. Although this is sometimes credited to Kipling as his own coinage, it seems likely that he took over a much older joke that was current within Teddington itself and no doubt more widely as well.

[Line 11] Maplin Sands: a sand bank to the north of the Thames estuary.

[Lines 13] River Rhine …Continent:‘ When first there were men in Britain it was not a group of islands, but one stretch of land joining the great continent of Europe, which then reached out into the Atlantic Ocean more than fifty miles west of Ireland’  (A School History, p. 10). Presumably Kipling specifies the river Rhine because it runs through the centre of Western Europe, from Switzerland to the North Sea.

[Lines 16-18] bat-winged lizard-bird … Age of Ice … mammoth herds …giant tigers: these details are used to create an immediate atmosphere of a distant age in which England was covered with ice and inhabited by exotic animals. They are not all intended to be historically precise or even accurate. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Kipling with coining the hybrid lizard-bird: the mammoth, a large hairy-coated elephant, was an actual animal; while the tiger is merely a giant.

[Lines 19-27] Regent’s Park …Camden Town …the earliest Cockney …the Strand …Westminster …Lambeth Pier: as with the animals in the previous note, these London names have no specific meanings within the poem. They function as a kind of joke between Kipling and his young readers, being familiar everyday names of London districts which, of course, weren’t even thought of in the period covered by the poem. Cockney works in a similar way, with this archetypal urban figure being placed back into the swamps and forests of prehistoric London.

[Line 24] feather and fin and fur: birds, fish and animals.

[Line 29] fords: a ford is a shallow area of a river which men and animals can walk or wade across. Identifying such points on a river has aways been of enormous importance for a whole variety of reasons; the establishment of local communities, for example, or the movement of armies and of cattle. With characteristic precision, Kipling makes the ford here the setting for a battle between ‘neighbours.’

[Lines 30-35] While down at Greenwich … Barking Creek: a striking change of poetic mood to indicate the movement of large historical forces. The regularity and repetition of the preceding lines give way to a romantic lyricism as the simple activities of the ‘earliest Cockney’ are confronted with the sophisticated commercialism of southern Europe. Moving out towards the sea, Greenwich is on the south bank of the Thames and Barking Creek on the north. The idea that early Britain was attractive to pioneering trading nations was one much approved by both Fletcher and Kipling. They are tuning in to a long historical debate on the matter. Kipling seems to be taking his lead here directly from Fletcher, who says of Britain’s first contact ‘with a really civilised and trading race’:

Tradition is powerfully in favour of the ships of the great
merchant cities of Tyre, and of Carthage the colony of Tyre.
These are said to have come to Britain to get tin, and the “tin
islands” have sometimes been identified with the Scilly
Islands and with Cornwall.
(An Introductory History of England, 1904, pp. 12-13).

A little later in the same passage, Fletcher also links together the Gauls (i.e. French) and Greeks, and identifies them both as trading with Britain.

[Line 31] The Phoenicians: were members of an ancient East Mediterranean nation, originally from Syria, and famed for their maritime, trade, and colonising activities.

[Lines 32-3] North Sea war-boats … dragon-flies: the ornately and brightly decorated war-ships from Scandinavia, bringing ‘the pirates’ to Britain.

[Line 33] Erith: is on the south bank of the Thames, just below Greenwich.

[Line 37] And I was a mile across at Kew: it seems a rather unlikely historical fact, and therefore along with much else in the poem not to be taken literally. Kipling is probably adopting the general idea from Fletcher, who notes that before Britain separated from the rest of the continent of Europe, rivers ‘were much wider and their banks were much more marshy than at the present day’ (An Introductory History, pp. 3-4).

[Line 38] But the Roman came… ‘The greatest of Roman soldiers, Caius Julius Caesar …landed somewhere in Kent, about fifty years before Christ’s birth…..For ninety years after his raid no Romans came to the island…..The Roman conquest began in earnest in the year 43, and within half a centry was fairly complete’ (A School History, pp. 16-18 ). These comments are accompanied by one of Henry Ford’s line-drawings called ‘The Landing of the Romans’, in which a remarkable contrast is made between the Roman soldier (clean, uniformed, smart, dignified) marching resolutely through the sea, and the English warriors (swarthy, dirty, undisciplined, savage) waiting to join battle.

[Line 39] bridged and roaded: an acknowledgement of the engineering skills of the Romans, one of the great advantages to come from their invasion. Of particular relevance to this poem, they are credited with building Londinium, the original ‘London’, and also London Bridge, the first time the river was spanned in this way. The Romans’ road-building skills, which allowed their troops to move swiftly around the kind of marshy, heavily-wooded country evoked in this poem, are given a great deal of attention by Kipling in the Roman stories he wrote for Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906).

[Line 40] And the Romans left and the Danes blew in: Fletcher says, very specifically, that the ‘last Roman legions’ were withdrawn from Britain in 407 (A School History, p. 24), leaving the country open to the marauding ‘pirates’ who feature in the third and fourth poems in the sequence.

[Line 41] And that’s where your history-books begin!: the note of triumph in this splendid final line is made unashamedly and jokily apparent. The river Thames, on behalf of Kipling, has managed, in forty/forty-one lines, to span the prehistory of England from the year dot to 407 A.D. Proud of their achievement, he ( the river and Kipling ) can now hand the story over to the piratical Danes, and the book to their (the river’s and Kipling’s) young readers. It is, of course, not only the children’s ‘history-books’ that begin at this point, but, even more importantly, their own history as well.

[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2004 All rights reserved