A Song of Travel


(Notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

ORG (Volume 8, p. 5419) records this poem as Verse No. 911, with first publication in the Morning Post on 12 March 1908, and in Collier’s Weekly and Vancouver World two days later on 14th March, without title, accompanying the first of Kipling’s Letters to the Family, “The Road to Quebec”, from his visit to Canada in 1907.

It is collected in:

  • Songs from Books 1913
  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • The Sussex Edition, vol. 24 p. 133, and vol. 34 p. 106
  • The Burwash Edition, vols. 19 and 27
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994


The lamps lit by past journeys are out, the fires on ancient altars have died down. But, sings the poet, this need not deter us from our own love of distant travels. We can now head westwards in machines that conquer time and space to discover new lands.

As so often, Kipling finds echoes from the distant past in his travels across the splendid land of Canada on his way to a distinguished seat of learning.


As Alastair Wilson explains in his notes on Letters to the Family, Kipling visited Canada in 1907 to receive an Honorary Doctorate from McGill University in Montreal.

His “Road to Quebec” was a long one, since before the degree ceremony at McGill he travelled from coast to coast and back again by special train. As the poem suggests he greatly relished the chance to see a new land being opened up, with new settlements across Canada’s magnificent mountain landscapes and rolling prairies, by courtesy of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Throughout his life Kipling resolutely refused the many honours which were offered to him as his fame as a writer grew, apart from honorary degrees at universities. This was his first, originally offered in 1899, though he did not go to receive it until 1907. Charles Carrington (p. 395.) writes :

His later decision to revisit Canada and to accept a doctorate may perhaps be connected with the visit to Batemans’ in May. 1907, by the distinguished McGill professor, Stephen Leacock. In June Rudyard accepted the offer of a doctorate from the University of Durham, and immediately afterwards a similar offer from Oxford.

He later accepted honorary degrees from several other universities, including Edinburgh, Dundee, and—in France—the Sorbonne and Strasbourg.

His Address, entitled “Values in Life” is collected in A Book of Words.

See also “The Long Trail”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Hero and Leander: Greek legend has it that Hero, a beautiful priestess, fell in love with Leander and put a lamp in her window to guide him when he swam the Hellespont every night to visit her. One night, however, he drowned, and – heart-broken – she drowned herself.

The Hellespont is the old name for the Dardanelles, the strait between Europe and Asia, connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

wrack:  here, an archaic term for ‘wreck’.

Argo: The galley, rowed by his warlike crew, and sailing when the wind was fair, that—in ancient legend—carried Jason and his ‘Argonauts’ in search of the Golden Fleece.

[Verse 2]

dust of ashes: an echo of the Service for the Burial of the Dead in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer:

dust to dust, ashes to ashes

Vestal Virgins: the six virgins who tended the sacred fire in Rome, said to have been originally brought back from Troy by the Greek hero Æneas, as recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid.  It was supposed never to go out.

Oblivion: forgetfulness

Tenteth: take into one’s care  [D.H.]

[Verse 3]

Some envious Pharaoh:  Danial Hadas suggests that  Kipling is perhaps thinking of Shelley’s Ozymandias, who declared Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!’ Kipling’s whole poem can be seen as an argument against Shelley’s call to despair at the view of the ruin of great accomplishments.

Kipling’s machines devour time itself (verse 4), rather than submitting to time’s ravages like Ozymandias’ works. Kipling of course begins by acknowledging time’s ravages (stanzas 1-2), but then argues that they’re no argument against the journey forward. [D.H.]

But see also “Cities and Thrones and Powers”  [J.R.]

Sepulchre: a tomb

[Verse 4]

Such machines as well may run: Kipling travelled great distances across the continent in considerable luxury, in a special train provided by William van Horne, Chairman of the Board of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Horses of the Sun: In ancient times, some believed that the sun is a chariot drawn by up to seven horses


[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and Jphn Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved