The Three-Decker

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

The poem was first published, under the title “The Old Three-Decker”, in the Saturday Review, 14 July 1894. (The Saturday Review was a well-established London periodical, of which Frank Harris had just, or was just about to, become Editor). It is later collected in:

  • The Seven Seae London and New York 1896
  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • Sussex Edition Volume 35
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 28
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library)

Theme and Background

The title refers to the Victorian three-volume novel. This was a format popular throughout most of the nineteenth century. The omniscient ‘Wikipedia’ (we are not too proud to admit to using Wikipedia as a source, suitably cross-checked) explains that books were relatively expensive, and most readers made use of public circulating libraries, of which Mudies’ was one of the most popular.

Circulating libraries, which lent out books for a modest fee, are themselves virtually extinct now, their place having been taken by the most excellent free public libraries, one of the most valuable examples of public service the United Kingdom possesses. This Editor’s first introduction to a library, in the late 1940s, was to the circulating library run by Boots the Chemist, of all people.

The three-volume format enabled the publisher to spread the printing costs: Volume 1 whetted the appetite of the readers, so that the publisher could judge the size of succeeding print runs, and also the income from Volume 1 would pay for the printing, binding and distribution of Volumes 2 and 3. Most novels ran to 200,000 words or thereabouts – the readers got their moneys worth. Wikipedia says “The particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages, was well adapted to the form.” Kipling described the content and format in verse 2 of his poem.

As an incurable visitor to second-hand bookshops and online websites, this Editor has not found (though he has not been particularly looking) any obvious examples, either as a set of three, or as individual volumes from a set. But he would suggest that many perished in the great book-pulping which took place at the start of World War II, when there was a nationwide collection of unwanted books to be pulped to supply paper instead of having to import paper or wood-pulp from overseas.

Literary References

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (Chapter LXXXIX)

‘The length of her novel had been her first question. It must be in three volumes, and each volume must have three hundred pages’.

This refers to Lady Carbury, one of the principal characters, who is an author. In fact, The Way We Live Now itself, after being serialised in monthly parts, was published in two volumes (though it might well have been three – it had over 300,000 words and 100 chapters).

Oscar Wilde: The Importance of being Earnest (Act II):

Cecily “I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three volume novels that Mudie sends us”.

Miss Prism “Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel , Cecily”:

And again, in Act III:

Miss Prism “It contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality”.

Since the play was not performed until about a year after Kipling’s poem was first published, Wilde may have read Kipling’s verse. However that may be, taking in conjunction Kipling’s heading, his verse, and the Wilde quotes, it is clear that the three-volume novel had become something of a source of literary derision, in a similar way to the treatment of Mills and Boon romances today.

Nonetheless, Kipling clearly had, if not a hankering after the old format, fond memories of its merits when created by a craftsman or woman. In Chapter VIII of Something of Myself, “Working Tools” (p. 228) he wrote, à propos of Kim, which he described as ‘nakedly picaresque and plotless—a thing imposed from without’:

‘Yet I dreamed for many years of building a veritable three-decker out of chosen and long-stored timber—teak, green-heart, and ten-year-old oak knees—each curve melting deliciously into the next that the sea might nowhere meet resistance or weakness; the whole suggesting motion even when, her great sails for the moment furled, she lay in some needed haven—a vessel ballasted on ingots of pure research and knowledge, roomy, fitted with delicate cabinet-work below-decks, painted, carved, gilt and wreathed the length of her, from her blazing stern-galleries outlined by bronzy palm-trunks, to her rampant figure-head—an East Indiaman worthy to lie alongside The Cloister and the Hearth.’

Notes on the Text

[Title] The Three-decker: the analogy is to the three-deck line-of-battleship: the phrase, ‘a three-decker’ would have been familiar to most Victorians.

[Sub-heading] ‘The three-volume novel is extinct: evidently a quotation, probably from some literary journal.

[Verse 1] A literal (after a fashion) description of a three-deck warship, a first-rate: it implies that she was unwieldy, and it took a lot of effort to sail her effectively. The same might be said of the three-volume novel: it took a lot of words and (usually) a complicated plot to tell the story. (The Wikipedia entry for The Way We Live Now takes over 1200 words to summarise the plot.)

[Line 4] certain packet: a packet, in this context, refers to a small fast vessel that carried mail.

[Line 4] the Islands of the Blest: mythological islands where the virtuous went after death, in Greek and Celtic mythology. The idea is that the novel will carry you away, in your mind’s eye, to a paradise on Earth.

[Verse 2] Most three-volume novels had plots containing all the elements Kipling mentions here. When translated to the stage they made a splendid melodrama, with a villain to be hissed, and a sweet and innocent heroine who falls into the manly hero’s arms in the last Scene..

[Verse 3] This continues the list of elements of the novel and its plot.

[Line 1] a course unspoiled of cook: (thus in the first English edition, but corrected to read ‘Cook’ in later editions) the reference is to Thomas Cook, the Victorian travel agent.

[Line 2] Per fancy: fancy, in this case, imagination. In English literature of the day ‘fancy’ was always ‘fleeting’, short-lived, or ephemeral.

[Line 2] our titled berths: A good English novel usually had a nobleman as the hero (or sometimes the villain) – at all events, the British obsession with the peerage was usually given full rein.

[Verse 4]

[Line 1] we pumped no hidden shame: a play on words – in a ship one ‘pumped ship’ to get rid of water in the bilges: an enquirer may also seek to ‘pump’ a listener, to extract the maximum amount of information.

[Line 2] we never talked obstetrics when the little stranger came: Obstetrics is the branch of medicine concerned with childbirth, and the ‘little stranger’ is the newborn child. Here, presumably, the ‘little stranger’ is one of the ‘Able Bastards’.

This has interesting implications. It is received wisdom in the 21st century that the Victorians were prudish in the extreme, and the reference in verse 2 to ‘Bastards’ might have been taken as extremely near the knuckle. And since, it has been said, that in literature, up till 1960 relations ended at the bedroom door, to talk of obstetrics in a three-decker novel would have been unusual, other than an affecting scene in which the ‘little stranger’s’ mother dies in childbed of unmentioned complications.

[Line 4] We weren’t exactly Yussufs – but Zuleika didn’t tell the reference is to the Koranic tale of Yussuf (Joseph) and Zuleika, which has been told in many languages, the best-known version being by the Persian poet Jami (1414-1492). The tale is a romance, so Kipling, with tongue in cheek, is comparing the Victorian novel to one of the great romances of earlier days.

Daniel Hadas notes: ‘The ultimate source of this story is that of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39’  [D.H.].

[Verse 5]

[Line 2] The Villain had his flogging at the gangway: official punishments on board ship were carried out at the entry-port – the gangway.

[Line 3] ‘Twas fiddle in the forc’s’le: (thus in the first edition, later editions have ‘foc’s’le’) music for singing and dancing is being played in the crew’s quarters in the forward part of the vessel, the foc’s’le, short for ‘forecastle’.

[Line 3] ‘twas garlands at the main: It is a Naval custom, when a sailor is married from his ship, to hoist a garland of evergreens at the mainmast-head.

[Line 4[ I went ashore: metaphorically speaking of course – the tale is finished and ‘I’ – the reader – can put the book down at last.

[Verse 6]

[Line 3] by county-folk caressed: The characters in the three-decker were nearly all upper-class characters, so ‘the County’, the cream of local Society, would take the characters to their hearts.

[See “The Brushwood Boy” (The Day’s Work p. 392): ‘these pushing people who had only been seven years in the county.]

[Verse 7]

The comparison is being made between the stately three-decker (novel) and a modern steamer – the modern novel (of 1890) is being compared to the “ram-you-damn-you liner with a brace of bucking screws”. (The first twin-screw liner had appeared on the North Atlantic run ten years earlier, and was still something of a novelty. In McAndrew’s Hymn, his ship had only a single screw.)

[Lines 1 and 2] You’ll never lift again / Our purple-painted headlands: Kipling has made a minor error in using the word ‘lift’ instead of ‘raise’: on first sighting a point of land, the expression is, e.g., ‘we raised Start Point next morning.’ The expression derives from the fact that the land, or another object, appears to rise from the horizon as it is approached.

As regards its colour, that will, of course, depend on the light and the nature of the land: under some circumstances, the colour may appear purple. But Kipling is again making a play on words: the expression ‘purple prose’ refers to overblown language, such as might be found in the three-decker novel. We do not think that this interpretation is too fanciful – the earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation for this use of ‘purple’ is 1901, which is sufficiently close to 1894 for Kipling to have met it already.

[Line 2] the lordly keeps of Spain: castles in Spain, a metaphor for daydreams or idle fancies.

[Verse 8] Your modern technology will not get you to the ‘Islands of the Blest’ any more surely than will the old three-decker.

[Line 3] dripping oil-bags to skin the deep’s unrest: It was an old-fashioned piece of seamanship to spread oil on stormy seas to flatten breaking waves: if one was attempting to lower or recover a boat, then one would hang a bag of thick oil from a boom up for’ard: the oil would percolate through the fabric to drip into the water to keep a steady film of oil further aft, where the boat was being hoisted or lowered.

In “The Knights of the Joyous Venture (p. 83) in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), Witta, the Danish sea captain, uses oil to quell stormy seas:

We were driven South by a storm, and for three days and three nights he took the stern-oar, and threddled the longship through the sea. When it rose beyond measure he brake a pot of whale’s oil upon the water, which wonderfully smoothed it, and in that anointed patch he turned her head to the wind and threw out oars at the end of a rope…

[Line 4] one knot:  one nautical mile, as measured on the log-line. Modern usage has ‘knot’ as meaning a speed: one nautical mile per hour. In earlier usage, it was used purely as a distance.

[Verse 9] The modern novel is in a storm, possibly of emotions, and crippled and unable to move.

[line 1] threshing:   Kiplling uses this word for a ship struggling through the water in various other maritime poems, including “The Battle of the Bolivar” and “The Rowers“.  [D.H]

[Line 2] a drogue of dead  convictions: In a really bad storm, one would put out a sea anchor, which consisted of a drogue, a tube of canvas, open at both ends but narrower at the tail, veered on a line, and this would hold you head to wind, so that you did not “roll the sticks out of her”, as with Witta’s ‘oars at the end of a rope’. (Verse 8 line 3 above).

[Line 3] the Flying Dutchman: a mythical ship that can never make port – seeing her was a portent of doom.

[Line 3] from truck to taffrail dressed: the ‘truck’ is the topmost point of the mast: the ‘taffrail’ a rail at the very stern of the ship. A ship is ‘dressed’ overall when she has a line of flags from the bow, over the tops of her masts, to the stern.

[Verse 10]

[Line 1] her tiering canvas: not a usual simile, but perfectly correct usage – a square-rigged ship, as a three-decker would have been, had her sails arranged one above another in tiers: courses (at the bottom); topsails; topgallant sails, royals.

[Line 2] the long-drawn thunder ‘neath her leaping figure-head: This verse is a distinctly ‘purple’ one – very much overblown: the first line, “sheeted silver spread”, a splendid piece of alliteration, but not to be taken too literally – while the phrase referred to here does not match the first line.

If there is thunder at her forefoot, as she crashes into each wave (though this nautically-trained Editor would never describe the noise as thunderous), and if the figure-head above it is leaping – a reasonable description – it presupposes that she is in rough weather: and that is at variance with the fact that in the line above she is carrying a full spread of canvas. It reminds this Editor of the line ascribed to Ouida (herself a prolific three-volume novelist): ‘All rowed fast, but none so fast as stroke.’

[Line 3] tall poop-lanterns: Old warships used to have three large lanterns at the stern, partially for decoration, partially to be used for signalling at night (combinations of lanterns had different meanings).

Samuel Pepys recorded going on board one of Charles II’s fleet with a party of ladies, and having much sport because the ladies could get inside the lanterns, they were so large.

[Verse 12]

[Line 1] Her port is all to make?: She hasn’t reached anywhere – there’s no purpose, no moral, to be read from her tale. So your modern novel reflects modern science, and a new Truth. Well, maybe, but the old three-decker provided relaxing reading – you didn’t have to think too much – to take people to the land of make-believe.



©Alastair Wilson 2011. All rights reserved