Hymn of the Triumphant Airman

(notes by Philip Holberton)



The poem (ORG No. 1164) was published in the Evening Star of Washington DC, on September 6th 1929, and in various other newspapers in the USA and Britain in September and October.

It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1933)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 35 p. 276
  • Burwash Edition vol. 28


The circumference of the Earth at the Equator is almost exactly 24,000 miles. Any point on the Equator is carried through this distance by the rotation of the Earth in one day of 24 hours, so its speed is 1000 miles an hour. The airman exactly matches this speed.

Some twenty-five years before, in “With the Night Mail”, Kipling had predicted that in a few years ‘we shall hold the Sun level in his full stride.’ But that was in gas-filled airships: the story refers dismissively to ‘the years when men still flew tin kites over oil engines!’

This poem is dated 1929. This was a time when the science of aerodynamics and the technology of aircraft construction were advancing rapidly, enabling aeroplanes to fly at greater and greater speeds. But Kipling was still ahead of his time: on 12 September that year Augustus Orlebar raised the air speed record to 358 mph (575 km/h) in a Supermarine S.6 seaplane.

It was not until 10 March 1956 that the Fairey FD-2, flown by Peter Twiss, became the first aircraft to exceed 1,000 mph in level flight, at the same time raising the air speed record to 1,132 mph (1811 km/h). This was an astonishing increase of some 300 mph (480 km/h) over the record set the year before.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

paltered: trifled with

bridle and girth: Harness for horses. For thousands of years, horses were mankind’s fastest means of transport

those horses: machines, whose power is still measured in ‘horse-power’. (1 hp = 550 ft/lb/ a second)

[Verse 2]

the Flame and the Fountain,/The Spark and the Wheel: machinery.

Sank Ocean and Mountain/ Alike ‘neath our keel: enabled us to fly

[Verse 3]

…the Wind in her blowing,/The bird on the wind: the wind and the birds still flew faster than us.

[Verse 4]

Tthe gale was outdriven, / The gull overflown,  We can fly faster than gales and gulls: only the Sun still goes round the world faster.

[Verse 6]

Light steals to uncurtain/ The dim-shaping skies: dawn is coming

[Verse 7]

We lift to the onset…: our plane takes off.

Apollo: the God of the Sun for the Greeks and Romans.

[Verse 8]

O Golden: the Sun God.

Thy Chariot: Apollo is pictured travelling through the sky in his chariot

[Verse 9}

Hesper hath paled not: Venus, the Morning Star, ought to fade and become invisible in the light of the rising sun. (In Greek mythology Hesperus was actually the Evening Star).

[Verse 10]

The Coursers of Day: the horses which pull Apollo’s chariot.

[Verse 11]

fleet:  run quickly

[Verse 13]

mid-moon While I don’t really understand this phrase I take this stanza to indicate that the plane has now sped up so that, rather than keeping pace with the sun, so that it is always dawn on the plane’s course, it is now going faster than the sun, and so flying into night-time. [D.H.]

[Vesrse  14]

Storm on at that portal  / We have thee in prison  I find this reminiscent of the cave where Aeolus holds the winds in Aeneid 1. 50-63. But the ancients did not conceive that the sun could be locked up like the winds, so the allusion emphasises how technology has made possible what was once unthinkable.  [D.H.]



© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved