Such as in Ships


(notes by Philip Holberton)


This poem was first published in the Morning Post (London), on December 16th, 1927, and in Liberty (New York) on February 18th, 1928, with “Railways and a
Two-Thousand-Feet Climb”
. It is listed in ORG as no 1152.

Collected in:

  • Brazilian Sketches (1940)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1421

The poem

This poem tells how much England depends on imports. In this, it is like the earlier poem “Big Steamers” (1911). Where that poem looked at all the goods coming from all over the world, this is concerned in particular with the products of the Western Hemisphere, including tropical Brazil.

It is written in deliberately archaic language and uses some old-fashioned words and word forms and spellings, and many more capitalised words than we would today.

Kipling clearly saw it as complementing the article about railway transport to which it is linked.


Notes on the Text


Such as in Ships: The title is an echo of Psalm 107.23: ‘They that go down to the sea in ships.’

Daniel Hadas adds: the formulation, up to “descend” in Verse 1, is taken from the 16th/17th century sequence of metrical paraphrases of the psalms, used in hymnals. In this specific case, the translation is by William Kethe, and first appeard in The Forme of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments Approved by J Calvyn, 1561, Geneva. The relevant passage runs:

Such as in ships and brittle barks
unto the seas descend,
heir merchandise through fearful floods
to compass and to end

“Their merchandise … to end” expands the psalm’s “that do business in great waters”, and expands it in a way that is in line with Kipling’s theme of merchant shipping. However, unlike in the psalm, in the poem those who “into the sea descend” are not the actual merchants, but investigative travellers like Kipling, who “learn” about the shipping of produce. These psalms texts were still used to sing the psalms in the Church of England in Kipling’s day, and  still are, on occasion. [D.H.]

[Verse 1]

brittle: fragile

Barks: small sailing vessels

Arks: large ships

Victuals: food supplies

Gear: equipment

an Hemisphere: archaic. Now a Hemisphere.
Half the world.

call the Oceans up  Human activity assimilated to God’s, e.g. “He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouse” (ps. 33.7); “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength” (ps. 74.13); “Thou rulest the raging of the sea” (ps.89.9)  [D.H.]

[Verse 2]

Indian Weed: tobacco, which Columbus found in what he mistakenly thought were the Indies.

the Main: the ocean. The ‘Spanish Main’ referred to the southwestern Atlantic, off the Spanish territories of Central and South America.

Teas: Brazil does not grow tea, though her neighbour Argentina does. Brazil grows about 30% of the world’s coffee. Kipling describes a visit to a coffee estate in Article V of the Brazilian Sketches.

Cottons and Sugar of the Cane: major Brazilian exports.

How infinite the Toil!: In his articles, Kipling notes how easily everything grows in the climate of Brazil but how difficult transport is, with heavy rainfall and a 2000-foot escarpment between the coast and the productive agricultural areas on the plateau,

Wait  See OED, ‘waft, v.1’, 2a:  [D.H.]

[Verse 3]

tropique: old-fashioned spelling.

Engines of tumultuous breath: this poem accompanies the sixth article in which Kipling gets quite lyrical about a Corliss steam-engine that lowers his train down the precipitous mountain-side.

Hecatombs: literally a sacrifice of 100 oxen; here it stands for the vast quantities of goods loaded into ships’ holds (our Navies’ labouring Wombs). In the third article Kipling tells of coffee bags being loaded by conveyor in Santos docks.

Make Pennyworths: when they reach England, the huge volumes of goods from Brazil are broken down and repacked into quantities that ordinary people can buy.

©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved