The Seven Seas by Rudyard Kipling (1896)

To enjoy Kipling’s poetry you have to accept the convention of the ballad. You have to accept that not all poetry has to be sensitive and spiritual. Not all poetry is about the poet’s soul, or superior perceptions or feelings.

Some poetry, and the ballad in particular, is designed to be objective, to tell stories about fictional characters, to have an immediate impact, to be closer in some ways to the short story; to tell a tale and impress moral messages, and is designed to the widest possible audience.

Kipling comes squarely out of this tradition, a tradition that goes back to the Border Ballads, to Percy’s Reliques, via the long, moralising narrative poems of the 18th century, which continued to be written in the Victorian period, but are little read today.

The Seven Seas was Kipling’s first poetry collection since the smash-hit Barrack Room Ballads of 1892. It’s divided into two sections:

  • numbers 26 to 43 are new Barrack Room Ballads, a continuation of the jaunty cockney style he had copied from the immensely popular music halls of his day, all dropped aitches and ave-a-banana rhythms
  • numbers 1 to 25 are freestanding poems, all linked by the ideas of the Sea and – more or less explicitly – the British Empire

‘A Song of the English’ is the longest poem, at around 20 pages – in fact a sequence of often quite short poems powerfully evoking the experience of Empire through a series of poems on English seafarers, the casualties of imperialist expansion, and the exotic and far-flung capitals of the British Empire. The overall effect is awe-inspiring. It is quite dazzling to realise just how large the Empire was, just how far its extent reached.

There are two long dramatic monologues in the style of Robert Browning:

  • McAndrews’ Hymn, where McAndrew is chief engineer on a merchant ship, in love with his gleaming engines and his Presbyterian work ethic
  • The Mary Gloster, a variation on the theme of the novel Captains Courageous where a successful businessman tells his story to his wayward and effete son – with a dramatic twist in the tail!

The final piece in the whole book, the Envoi, epitomises the ballad format, the brisk confidence, the lack of innerness, combined with lines and phrases of real poetic power, which comprise the Kipling effect.

L’Envoi

When Earth’s last picture is painted, and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an æon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall set us to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair;
They shall find real saints to draw from — Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame;
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

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