Apparently written towards the close of the surge of renewed inspiration which began in the latter part of 1902 and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26.
The poem has been repeatedly interpreted as an allegory of married life, a reading that does not really stand up, for a number of reasons. In the first place Kipling’s wife, Caroline, would have been unlikely to countenance the publication of a vision of matrimony that was so unflattering to herself.
The overwhelming evidence, however, lies in Kipling’s early poem “A Voyage” (collected in Andrew Rutherford, Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling).This was written in July 1882, when the sixteen year old was looking to the future, on leaving the United Services College in order to take his place in the world as a man. “The Second Voyage” harks back to that poem of his adolescence, taking up its language and theme but with a difference, to create what might be termed a ‘Song of Experience’.
Recognising the poem’s close links with a famous speech from Shakespeare, quoted below, permits a different more coherent reading to be made.
Composed in the aftermath of the loss of his daughter, remembering too the mutilations he himself endured as a child, also perhaps the breakdowns that his sister had already begun to suffer, Kipling writes of the ruin that comes to all children, the compromises that cripple them psychologically. For all that, the poem can still rejoice in the sensuous abundance present at the beginning of life. This abundance, presented in a sensuous language that doubles as an image of Kipling’s own childhood experience in Bombay, is materialised through echoing the wondering language of Enobarbas. In Cleopatra he is confronted by a new world of experience:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
[Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (II.2.192-206)]
Notes on the Text
(by Mary Hamer)
[Stanza 1] Cupids in European mythology infant forms which were associated with the goddess of love: the reference evokes human infancy as well as erotic love. Cupid himself was said to be the child of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, see stanzas 2 and 3.
[Stanza 2] remede repair.
doves of Venus doves were traditional companions or representatives of the Roman goddess of love and were said to draw her chariot.
petrels a family of small seabirds, associated with the coming of storms, as in ‘stormy petrel’.
[Stanza 3] any Port o’ Paphos mutineer any rebel member of the crew, who attempted to hark back to the earlier time before the Cupids and love were left behind. A third reference to the goddess of love: in Greek mythology, at her birth Aphrodite the goddess of love stepped out of the sea-foam at Paphos, on the west coast of Cyprus.
[Stanza 4] skirt no more the indraught and the shoal no longer flirt with the dangers posed by landward currents or sandbanks. They have lost their nerve.
[Stanza 5] brace and trim prepare for storms ahead by bracing the mast and taking in sail.
[Stanza 6] warp usually, transport from one part of a harbour to another by means of hawsers. Instead garlands, ropes of flowers, are specified, returning the imagination to thoughts of pleasure.
the old Hesperides in Greek myth the garden of the Hesperides, mysteriously situated in the far west, contained a tree which bore golden apples. It was one of the twelve labours of Hercules to find the garden and bring back three apples: though he succeeded in this, the apples were finally returned to the garden.
saffroned bridesails a return to the silk and purple sails of the opening and a reminiscence of the ‘perfumed’ sails described by Enobarbas. Silks fragranced with saffron or rose are sold in sari shops in our own day: they speak of India. The term ’bridesails’ may be understood as referring to a new beginning, a new phase of life, rather than as a simple reference to marriage.
©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved