The Sea-Wife

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

The poem was first published untitled as introductory verses to Steve Brown’s Bunyip and Other Stories, by John Arthur Barry (Remington & Co., London, and Sydney, November 1893). [See Martindell, and ORG p. 5350, listed as verse 600a]

As David Richards (p. 361) notes: ‘Kipling first broke his rule against writing prefaces to other writers’ books by allowing his poem ‘The Sea-Wife’ to stand at the head of Steve Brown’s Bunyip. We have not, however, been able to establish (see below) the circumstances in which he broke this rule, or whether the poem was written specially to accompany Barry’s volume, or had already been written independently.

It is collected in The Seven Seas, published in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co., New York, D. Appleton & Co.

It is also collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1918, 1926, 1932)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV)
  • The Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII)


The ‘Sea-Wife by the Northern Gate’ is the British monarch, specifically Queen Victoria, though it might have applied to any monarch from Queen Anne onwards. In its style the poem has an echo of the old Border Ballads of the 18th Century and before, which Kipling loved.

It can be suggested that ‘by the Northern Gate’ refers to the Queen’s isolation at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands after the death of her much-loved Consort Prince Albert in 1861, although by the time this poem was completed, she had to some degree returned to the world.

She sends out her sons to range the wide world: some do not come back and those that do rarely bring back great wealth for themselves. He is writing here about the British empire-builders: we’ve already met them in “The Song of the Banjo”, but there are many other verses in which they feature.


Steve Brown’s Bunyip is a set of twenty Australian short stories, by John Arthur Barry (1850-1911). (It is currently available, printed on demand, from Books2Anywhere, Fairford, GLO, UK.)

Barry had been born in England, and emigrated to Australia, after twelve years seafaring, in about 1875. There he led a varied life—he seems to have been the sort of colonial rough diamond, trying his hand at all sorts of jobs before moving on—who always interested Kipling.

In due time he became a journalist, publishing his work in Australia, but also in London in the Pall Mall Gazette. His biography on ‘Wikipedia’ says:

In 1893 he spent a holiday in England and published a collection of his stories, Steve Brown’s Bunyip and other Stories. He had become acquainted with Rudyard Kipling who wrote an introductory poem for the volume.

However, Kipling himself wrote (Letters vol. 2, Ed. Pinney pp. 110-114) to W.E Henley, dated December 2 1893 from ‘Naulakha’, his home in Vermont:

If you can ever find anything decent to say about a book called “Steve Brown’s Bunyip” please do. I don’t care about the author – don’t know him – but I know that a word in his praise fills with joy two or three dear old ladies who were very sweet to me when I was a little fellow.

If Kipling did not know Barry, then one wonders how he came to write these verses for Barry’s book. The clue must be in the reference to the “two or three dear old ladies”. These were undoubtedly the ladies of Warwick Gardens, in London, Mary and Georgiana Craik and Hannah Winnard, with whom Kipling became acquainted as a young teenager, and with whom he kept in contact, visiting them when he became a literary ‘lion’ in London in 1889-91. It seems surprising that in the letter to Henley Kipling did not mention that he had written introductory verses to Barry’s volume, but perhaps this would have breached another principle, of refraining from commenting on another writer’s work.

There is an obituary of Barry, taken from a facsimile of the original article in the Queenslander, 7 October 1911, page 20. This contains two quotes from Barry which may give a link to the “Warwick Gardens set”. Barry claimed that his Aunt was Mrs G.L. Craik whose sister was Mrs Hooper. He also claimed that he met Mrs Lockwood Kipling who was staying with his Aunt and also young ‘Ruddy’. He was also acquainted with Wynn Hooper. See KJ 343 for September 2011, (pp. 52-58) for a recent article by Heidi Pierce about ‘The Elusive Mrs Hooper’.

Thus, there is a tenuous link between Barry and Kipling, but the Carrington extracts of Carrie Kipling’s diaries make no mention of Kipling working on these verses in 1892-3, nor anything about the circumstances in which they came to be written. [We are indebted to Professor Tom Pinney for pointing us towards the letter to WE Henley, to David Page for devilling out the Barry obituary to establish the connection, and to Philip Holberton in Australia for establishing that there was a first edition of Barry’s book in 1893, with Kipling’s verses: Ed.]

Kipling’s text

The Carrington extracts of Carrie Kipling’s diaries make no mention of Kipling working on these verses in 1892-3, nor anything about the circumstances in which they came to be written.

Furthermore, the text of Kipling’s original verses, as published in the online text, has quite substantial differences from the text published in The Seven Seas. The online text is based on a 1905 edition of Barry’s work, and there are only eight stanzas, instead of the twelve in The Seven Seas.

There are a number of other alterations to individual words, which are of some interest, in that, if we assume that the 1905 version is the same as the original, Kipling used many more northern dialect words than he did in the ‘cleaned-up’ and extended version which he included in The Seven Seas. Richards notes that the manuscripts for The Seven Seas, now held by Magdalene College, Cambridge, do not include “The Sea Wife”, but that a fair copy, revised, is held by the British Library among the manuscripts for The Years Between (1919).

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 2] In line 1, Steve Brown’s Bunyip has: ‘And some they drown…'( A bunyip is a large mythical beast of the Australian aboriginal peoples, though the word came to have other meanings in wider Australian usage, including imposter, pretender, humbug.)

In line 3 Steve Brown’s Bunyip has ‘…to the carline Wife’. This seems to be a Kiplingism – the word ‘carline’ does not normally appear as an adjective, which would seem to be its use here. As a noun, it means ‘a woman, especially an old one.’ (OED).

The word appears in ‘the Concise Scots Dictionary (Aberdeen University Press) with a similar meaning, and also as ‘a witch’. It may be suggested that Kipling was using the word in an adjectival sense, but thought better of it when he revised the poem for collection in The Seven Seas. Also, throughout the Bunyip version the word Wife is spelt with a capital ‘W’ – in The Seven Seas revision, the word is ‘wife’.

[Stanza 3] had gate or gear: ‘Gate’ is the right to pasture horses on common land: ‘gear’ is property of any kind. Both are north country words (Durand).

or garth, or bield: ‘Garth’ is a small piece of enclosed ground, usually beside a house or other building, used as a yard, garden, or paddock.

The use of ‘bield’ would also seem to be something of a Kiplingism: the OED gives the meaning of the word, used as a noun, as ‘courage’ or ‘boldness’, which, we would suggest is not the meaning intended here. But the associated word ‘bielding’, meaning ‘shelter’ would seem to fit the sense (and, of course, the rhyme). In this case, bielding is derived from the north country verb ‘to bield’, meaning to protect, or shelter.

Daniel Hadas writes: ‘I agree that shelter is the right sense, and this is in fact given by the online OED. ‘bield’ is also used in this sense in ‘The Masque of Plenty’:(verse 10).

We have trodden the mart and the well-curb – we have stooped to the bield and the byre.

Furthermore, in ‘The Sea-Wife’, “wet ploughing” and “horse of tree” (see below) are kennings – poetic phrases used in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic verse to enhance a name –  although I’d guess ones that Kipling made up.  There’s a recording on Youtube of Percy Grainger’s setting of the poem.  [D.H.]

[Stanza 3] she willed her sons to the white harvest: she imposed her will (after all, she is a witch) on her sons to seek their fortune on or from the sea. The imagery is of breaking seas, known as ‘white horses’.

[Stanza 4] the wet ploughing :again, the imagery is of the sea.

In line 2 the Bunyip version has ‘horse o’ tree’: and whether it be ‘horse o’ tree’ or ‘horse of tree’, this phrase is something of a mystery. Taking it literally, a ploughman did not ride his horse(s): metaphorically, it might be a ship, a wooden ship. But this Editor has not heard the phrase before.

And syne her sons come back again: the meaning of ‘syne’ here is ‘at a later time’.

In line 4 the Bunyip version has ‘Far spent’ without the hyphen; though the meaning is the same – spent in the sense of ‘exhausted’.

[Stanza 5] In line 2 the Bunyip version has ‘Wi’ ‘ The Seven Seas has the full word ‘with’.

Similarly at the end of line 3: but line 3 also has ‘ha’ ‘ (short for “have”) in both texts. In line 3 the Bunyip version has ‘lear’, whereas The Seven Seas has anglicised the word to ‘lore’.

[Stanza 6] There are comparable differences between the Bunyip version and The Seven Seas: line 1 of Bunyip has ‘faith o’men’; The Seven Seas has ‘faith of men”. In Bunyip line 4 has ‘books o’ death’, and Seven Seas has ‘books of death’.
In both versions of line 3 (I nearly wrote ‘versions o’ line 3’), Kipling has ‘And the eyes o’ men, that ha’ read wi’ men’, while in line 1, he has changed ‘proven’ (Bunyip) to ‘brothered’ for The Seven Seas.

[Stanza 8] The first word in the Bunyip version is ‘Aye’ whereas in The Seven Seas, it is ‘For’. In Bunyip the end of line 3 has ‘carline wife’ again, while The Seven Seas has ‘weary wife.’

[Stanza 9] Her hearth is wide to every wind: ‘the Widow’s sons have gone to every corner of the world’. To cite “A School Song” in Land and Sea Tales:

Far and wide our bands have gone,
Hy-Brazil and Babylon
And cities of Cathaia.

that makes the white ash spin: the ash from the fire on the widow’s hearth.

and tide and tide and ‘tween the tides: once again the imagery of the sea: the Widow’s sons are always coming and going: every rise and fall of the tide sees them on the move.

[Stanza 10] Out with great mirth that do desire / Hazard . . . :They go out to their appointed tasks almost light-heartedly. See the song “The Fishermen of England” from the opera The Rebel Maid (1921, lyrics by Gerald Dodson):

With merry oath and laughter, and a smile upon their lips…

In with content to wait their watch / And warm before the blaze: once home, on leave, they are content to take what England offers before setting out once more to continue their work (see ‘The Brushwood Boy’ (The Day’s Work p. 389):

‘Perfect ! Perfect ! There’s no place like England—when you’ve done your work’
‘That’s the proper way to look at it, my son.’

[Stanza 11] The weary widow by the Northern Gate hears of those who do not return, but whose ghosts wander around her (metaphorical) house.

[Stanza 12] for her blessing on their head: Some will say that that was about all they did get.


©Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved