Hymn of breaking strain

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This poem first appeared in The Engineer in March 1935, and later that year in many American and British newspapers. It is listed in ORG as No 1223

It is collected in:

  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1453

The poem

This is a parable about structures—and man—under strain. Man-made constructions have to bear stresses, sometimes more than they can stand. The textbooks lay down what loads can be born, so if there is a failure, the man responsible is blamed, though it may be chance or fate that does for him. There are no textbooks to lay down what men themselves can endure. When we fail, and know we have failed, we need the resolution to rise up and try again.

Forty years before, in “The Bridge-Builders” (1893), he had written of an engineer whose new bridge over the Ganges is threatened by a great flood:

His bridge would stand what was upon her now, but not very much more, and if by any of a thousand chances there happened to be a weakness in the embankments Mother Gunga would carry his honour to the sea … he listened, numb and hungry, to the straining of the stone-boats, the hollow thunder under the piers, and the hundred noises that make the full note of a flood …
The bridge’s failure would hurt his assistant not a little, hut Hitchcock was a young man with his big work yet to do. For himself the crash meant everything—everything that made a hard life worth the living. They would say, the men of his own profession—— he remembered the half-pitying things that he himself had said when Lockhart’s new waterworks burst and broke down in brick-heaps and sludge, and Lockhart’s spirit broke in him and he died. He remembered what he himself had said when the Sumao Bridge went out in the big cyclone by the sea; and most he remembered poor Hartopp’s face three weeks later, when the shame had marked it …

There were no excuses in his service. Government might listen, perhaps, but his own kind would judge him by his bridge, as that stood or fell. He went over it in his head, plate by plate, span by span, brick by brick, pier by pier, remembering, comparing, estimating, and recalculating, lest there should be any mistake; and through the long hours and through the flights of formulae that danced and wheeled before him, a cold fear would come to pinch his heart.,,,

[The Day’s Work p.19]


Kipling was fascinated both by the conquest of land and water through the work of engineers, and by the effect of stress on men and women, and how it could be overcome. He was under stress himself when the poem was written, from weary days and nights of abdominal pain.

For the engineers see also:

For human stress see:

Notes on the Text

[Title] breaking strain: the amount of force – compression or torsion – which will cause the fracture or collapse of some component in a structure, engine, etc. The idea is also applied in much of Kipling’s work to people under stress, Here he observes that while the textbooks may explain the breaking-point of metal or concrete, man is left to get himself out of his own tight corners.

[Verse 2]

gauge: the distance apart of railway lines. or an appliance for ensuring a manufactured article is the correct size.

course: in this context brick or stone laid in regular layers.

[Verse 3]

rivet: metal devices to secure the plating of a ship or girders in other constructions, see “The Ship that Found Herself” and “The Bridge-Builders” (both collected in The Day’s Work (1898).

tie-bar: a part adding stability to a construction by holding its components together.


©John Radcliffe and John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved