Week 361: The River’s Tale, by Rudyard Kipling

Another example of Kipling’s power to evoke the quasi-mythical past of Britain, in much the same vein as he manages in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, conjuring up ‘Merlin’s isle of gramarye’, (see week 270), and its successor volume ‘Rewards and Fairies’. As history it’s a romantic gallimaufry, but it’s still good fun.

The River’s Tale

Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew
Wanted to know what the River knew,
For they were young, and the Thames was old
And this is the tale that River told:

‘I walk my beat before London Town,
Five hours up and seven down.
Up I go till I end my run
At Tide-end-Town, which is Teddington.
Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.

‘I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,
The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,
And the giant tigers that stalked them down
Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.
And I remember like yesterday
The earliest Cockney who came my way,
When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,
With paint on his face and a club in his hand.
He was death to feather and fin and fur.
He trapped my beavers at Westminster.
He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,
He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.
He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,
Flint or bronze, at my upper fords.
While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin
The tall Phoenician ships stole in,
And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,
Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith Way;
And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,
And life was gay, and the world was new,
And I was a mile across at Kew!
But the Roman came with a heavy hand,
And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,
And the Roman left and the Danes blew in –
And that’s where your history-books begin!’

Rudyard Kipling

Week 270: Puck’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling is such a many-sided writer: some sides I don’t much like, some I like very much, and the side I like best of all is the English mythopoet you find in the poems and stories that make up ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ and ‘Rewards and Fairies’, and in certain other of his poems, where he taps into some deep vein of our national psyche. Tolkien may have set out deliberately to create ‘a myth for England’; Kipling found one already there, a worn and patchwork thing maybe, but still potent in his times. And is it still potent in our times – is there gramarye still to be found in Merlin’s isle? Surprisingly, more than you might think would be my answer, for those prepared to leave the beaten track and wander, preferably on foot. I have heard the bubbling of nightjars at twilight under ancient beeches in the New Forest; I have come over Dragon Hill at sunset and seen Middle England before me in a haze of gold; I have listened to nightingales in Suffolk woods; I have sailed the puffin-crowded waters off Skomer on a May morning that might have been the morning of the world; I have walked unpeopled hills and valleys in the beautiful Cheviots, quiet now after centuries of border strife…. Yes, there is still gramarye enough to be found in this isle of ours.

Puck’s Song

See you the ferny ride that steals
Into the oak-woods far?
O that was whence they hewed the keels
That rolled to Trafalgar.

And mark you where the ivy clings
To Bayham’s mouldering walls?
O there we cast the stout railings
That stand around St. Paul’s.

See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip’s fleet.

(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!)

See you our little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her
Ever since Domesday Book.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died.

See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred’s ships came by.

See you our pastures wide and lone,
Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known,
Ere London boasted a house.

And see you  after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul.

And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born.

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare! 

Rudyard Kipling

Week 220: Danny Deever, by Rudyard Kipling

I think my father only ever read one poem in his life, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, which he carried about with him as a cutting in his wallet. All credit to it for seeing him through some difficult times of war and ill-health, though I had my own reservations about the poem. ‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone….’ – what did that even mean? There are strict physiological limits, and the toughest athletes in the world, though their limits may be very different from ours, will still come up against them. No, I felt that if you wanted to represent Kipling as a poet there were better things to be had, prime among them being the powerful and disturbing ‘Danny Deever’. I don’t read it that Kipling is necessarily opposed to the ultimate penalty being enforced in capital cases, but there is no relish about it, such as Kipling’s detractors might have looked for, just a grim recognition that the administration of such justice exacts its toll on the humanity of all concerned.

Danny Deever

‘What are the bugles blowin’ for?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘To turn you out, to turn you out,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes you look so white, so white?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square–they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What makes the rear-rank breathe so ‘ard?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s bitter cold, it’s bitter cold,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes that front-rank man fall down?’ says Files-on-Parade.
‘A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ‘im round,
They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;
An’ e’ll swing in ‘arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound–
O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

‘Is cot was right-‘and cot to mine,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far tonight,’ the Colour Sergeant said.
‘I’ve drunk ‘is beer a score o’ times,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘E’s drinkin bitter beer alone,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’–you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What’s that so black agin the sun?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny fightin’ ‘ard for life,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What’s that that whimpers over’ead?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play,
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer today,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

Rudyard Kipling

Week 28: The Coiner, by Rudyard Kipling

The Coiner

(Circa 1611)

Against the Bermudas we foundered, whereby
This Master, that Swabber, yon Bo’sun and I
(Our pinnace and crew being drowned in the main)
Must beg for our bread through old England again.

For a bite and a sup, and a bed of clean straw,
We’ll tell you such marvels as man never saw,
On a Magical Island which no one did spy
Save this Master, that Swabber, yon Bo’sun and I.

Seven months among Mermaids and Devils and Sprites,
And Voices that howl in the cedars o’ nights,
With further enchantments we underwent there.
Good Sirs, ’tis a tale to draw guts from a bear!

’Twixt Dover and Southwark it paid us our way,
Where we found some poor players were labouring a play;
And, willing to search what such business might be,
We entered the yard, both to hear and to see.

One hailed us for seamen and courteous-ly
Did guide us apart to a tavern near by
Where we told him our tale (as to many of late)
And he gave us good cheer, so we gave him good weight.

Mulled sack and strong waters on bellies well-lined
With beef and black pudding do strengthen the mind;
And seeing him greedy for marvels, at last
From plain salted truth to flat leasing we passed.

But he, when on midnight our reckoning he paid,
Says, ‘Never match coins with a Coiner by trade,
Or he’ll turn your lead pieces to metal so rare
As shall fill him this globe, and leave something to spare…’

We slept where they laid us, and when we awoke
’Was a crown or five shilling in every man’s poke.
We bit them and rang them, and, finding them good,
We drank to that Coiner as honest men should!

Rudyard Kipling

I don’t go much for the more strident side of Kipling, but I do like his ventures down the byways of English history, such as this idiosyncratic take on the possible genesis of ‘The Tempest’.