The Secret of the Machines

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in A History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was placed in Chapter XII ‘George III to George V, 1815-1911.’ This was the final chapter of the book and “The Secret of the Machines” was placed towards the close of the chapter with only “The Glory of the Garden” to follow. It was accompanied by one of Henry Ford’s coloured illustrations called ‘A Glimpse of the Future’ which portrays, in a slightly science-fiction vein, a British battleship accompanied by an air balloon and an aeroplane.

The title of the poem did appear in the School History, though the subtitle was inserted in the Inclusive Edition of the verse in 1919. It was then reprinted in DV., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol 34, and the Burwash Edition, vol 27. In the collected editions of the verse the order of the School History poems is slightly altered at this point to allow “The Bells and Queen Victoria” to become the penultimate poem in the sequence [see the notes to that poem for an explanation of the changes made]. For the Sussex three small changes were made to the text: four and twenty (line 8) was hyphenated; the comma at the end of line 37 was changed to a colon, and the comma at the close of the following line changed to a full stop. In ORG the poem is numbered 991 (u), and Harbord records “The Song of the Machines” as an alternative title.

The illustration described above is here (contrary to the description, there are not one but two aeroplanes).  [D.H.]


‘One point I have left till the last,’ Fletcher writes as he draws near the end of the School History. That point is the transformation made in the quality of people’s lives over the previous two centuries by science, medicine and technology. Kipling’s poem is there to support Fletcher’s words in his final paragraph and to reinforce his warning for the future:

In the common sense of the word ‘happy’, these
and a thousand other inventions have no doubt made us
happier than our great-grandfathers were. Have they made us
better, braver, more self-denying, more manly men and boys,
more tender, more affectionate, more home-loving women and
girls? It is for you boys and girls, who are growing up, to resolve
that you will be all these things, and to be true to your resolutions.

(School History, p. 248)

This philosophical point is then taken up directly, and given the necessary gloss, by the next and the last of the poems, “The Glory of the Garden.”

“The Secret of the Machines” looks back to the poems celebrating modern technology which had pre-occupied Kipling during the mid-1990s, some of the best of which he had collected in The Seven Seas (1896). In many of those poems, it is the machines themselves who speak, taking on human characteristics and feelings. In “The Secret of the Machines” the anthropomorphism is choral, with the machines – of many different varieties – conveying their message in a collective chant, informing the reader, posing rhetorical questions, and offering a stern warning about their potential strength, before finally submitting to their masters – the human Gods.


©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved