The Secret of the Machines

Notes on the text

by Peter Keating, Daniel Hadas, and Alastair Wi;son


[Line 1] the ore-bed and the mine: the sources of unworked metal and coal, two crucial industrial materials.

[Line 4] gauged: measured.

[Line 6] a thousandth of an inch: a fine measurement used in engineering.

[Lines 9-12] We can pull …and read and write: This long list consists entirely of common human activities, all of which have been mastered by machines.

[Line 13-17] Would you call a friend …at his side?:  The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866. Effective telephone calls were achieved a few years later. Transatlantic phone calls became a reality in 1878 when Alexander Graham Bell made a pioneering courtesy call to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

[Line 19] Western Ocean: the Atlantic.

[Line 20] seventy thousand horses: Horse-power is the term used to measure the force of an engine. The apparently massive figure used by Kipling is not fanciful, though it seems that at first he thought it might be. Originally he estimated the ‘rough average’ horse-power required for a trans-Atlantic crossing to be 30,000, a figure that was given in the first editions of both A History of England and A School History of England. An American reader, taking this figure to refer to the Mauretania, which is mentioned two lines further on in the poem and which had a much higher horse-power, wrote to Kipling pointing out what could be seen as a mistake. Kipling acknowledged that the figure was misleading and upgraded his general average to seventy thousand, which was large enough to cover the Mauretania. The correction was quickly made and appeared in subsequent editions of the books. See Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Ed. Thomas Pinney IV, 63-4.

[Line 20]  screws:  ship engines.  [D.H.]  John Walker suggests that the term ‘screws’ was also used for the ship’s propellers.

[Line 21] The boat-express:

Alastair Wilson writes:

 in those days, you went by railway to the port of embarkation: unless you lived in Liverpool or Southampton, there was no other way to reach your boat – whether it was a luxury liner like the Mauretania or the Don or the Magdalena to roll down to Rio. So the railway companies, in conjunction with the shipping company, would lay on a special train (virtually all from London, though there were some from the north-east to Liverpool) for specific sailings. These were known as ‘boat-expresses’, and took you right to the quay (cf, line 22) where your ship lay, so that there was the minimum hassle in transferring yourself and your mountain of baggage. Boat-expresses lasted right to the end of the era of passenger liner travel in the early 1970s – indeed, I’m not sure that occasionally they may not run even now for the major cruise liners, though a standard ‘Virgin Voyager’ for the QM2 in 2006 is not in the same league as an all-Pullman boat express for the Queen Mary in 1936! [A.W.]

[Line 22] Mauretania: The Mauretania was an outstanding recent example of the new type of high-speed luxury passenger liner. Built at Newcastle upon Tyne and launched in 1906, it was at the time the biggest liner in the world, a monstrous nine-decked city sent to sea. The correspondence referred to above in the note on line 20 seems to have slightly unnerved Kipling, who was immensely proud of his accuracy on technical matters. After accepting the correction on the Mauretania’s horse-power, he writes: ‘I began the next verse with an allusion to the M. and her nine decks. Aren’t there eleven as a matter of fact?’

[Line 30] cistern: usually a metal tank storing water for distribution as and when it is required. Here the ‘cistern’ is a natural source, with the water coming from mountain snow and being distributed by man-made machines.

[Lines 25-26] Daniel Hafas writes:  Distant, but surely relevant, echoes of Isaiah 40.3-4

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

Kipling is pointing to the machines’ godlike power and the risk of hubris that accompanies it. See also ll.34-6, with their echoes of Nahum 1.4-5-.

The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.

and of Isaiah 35.1-2 –

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.

And there are further such passages in the Old Testament.

All of this is followed through in the penultimate stanza, where the machines make themselves sound more and more godlike: there is a long way from “we will serve you” in l.8 to “be humble as you crawl beneath our rods” in l.42 (for God holding a rod, see for instance Psalm 89.32; Job 21.9; Lamentations 3.1; Revelations 2.27). And these are terrible gods, the reverse of the God of mercy and compassion: “We can neither love nor pity nor forgive”. This is the Law (l. 37) that governs the machines, and it is internal to them, not imposed upon them. And yet the machines finally state that they are not “the gods”, a hint at the dangers of worshipping them. The final stanza then seems to me to contain an optimism about man’s ultimate control of the machines that somewhat clashes with the rest of the poem, although it fits the overall sententiousness of these poems for the Child’s History of England  [D.H.]

[Line 29]   pipe aloft:  some wordplay here. Perhaps: “pipe aloft” could first be taken to mean playing some sort of musical pipe to call down rain (much as the pied piper performed magic with his pipe), but of course, the next line makes it clear that the pipes in question are of a different sort.  [D.H.]

[Line 37] the Law by which we live: Always an important concept in Kipling, the Law by which we live is an unshakeable moral imperative. In this case, it is that the machines represent a form of absolute truth that is particularly difficult for human beings to understand.

[Line 42] rod: a slender bar of metal acting as a shaft or connector.

[Lines 43-48] Our touch … The Gods … children of your brain: another example of Kipling’s constant, though often oblique, rejection of religion. The machines have the ability to change the nature of all created things except The Gods. That sounds like a conventional enough religious attitude, but it is overthrown in the next few lines. The machines insist that they have produced a kind of smoke-screen, which is temporarily concealing the fact that it is the human beings, who are the true gods, with the machines nothing more than children of your brain! If the machines are to function to their full capacity they must be responsibly controlled by the Gods who have invented them. That is why it is so important for Man to understand the Law (line 37) that machines ‘are not built to comprehend a lie.’

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved