This poem appeared in the first issue of Literature, on October 23, 1897, and in the New York Tribune, on October 31, 1897. There was a separate publication in 1897 but whether it was pirated or one authorised by Kipling for copyright purposes is disputed. In 1899 it was reprinted in a small edition of 25 copies, entitled Recessional and Other Poems. A small pirated paperback, which included this poem and also ‘Pharaoh and the Sergeant’ was produced in 1900 in Santiago de Chile.
The poem was collected in The Five Nations in 1903, and later in I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33, and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.
Literature was the forerunner of the Times Literary Supplement. Kipling deliberately sent “White Horses”, an unpublished poem he had by him, to the new journal, as a gesture of support; with the Athenaeum ‘a museum of dead fossils’ and the fine editor of the Spectator, R. H. Hutton dead, such a periodical was badly needed, in his view.
Using a romantic yet highly detailed evocation of the sea’s violence and destructiveness, figured through wild white horses, the poem presents the sea as the natural defence of the British people. They are the fearless riders of the white horses, a defence allotted to them apparently by God or ‘The Lord’.
Kipling’s decision to include this poem in The Five Nations and his placing of it illumines his overall strategy for the volume: it repeats the motif of attack and danger at sea though in a different key. It is a question of whether his appeals to divine authority are made from personal belief or for the sake of greater rhetorical effect.
Notes on the Text
The language of this poem was fine-tuned in a dozen cases for its publication in The Five Nations. The row of dots which appears before the final stanza was present in the original publication. The device indicates a pause rather than an omission and is employed in several other poems in the volume.
[Title] White Horses: the name given to the patches of white foam that are made by waves breaking out at sea.
[Stanza 1] Sargasso weed: large patches of floating weed cover the surface of the Sargasso Sea, situated at a point in the West Central Atlantic.
[Stanza 4] Ere yet the deep is stirred: long before the arrival of a storm, its influence is felt in the changed motion of the waves, which begin to heave into ‘groaning rollers’, without breaking into foam.
[Stanza 5] That rope us where we run: like cowboys, catching wild horses with the lasso.
[Stanza 6] We race their babes ashore: referring to the way that, at the seaside, little children play at racing the waves into shore.
[Stanza 7] And come they for your calling?: Philip Hoberton suggests that this is a possible echo of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 Act III Scene 1:
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?
[Stanza 10] bray: crush, as in a mortar.
©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved