Monday, October 12, 2015

From the kentledge on the kelson - Kipling sings the Song of Steam

No, one more note on Kipling, a tentative one on his poems, his verse as he always called it.  I made an attempt on the 1940 Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition, 704 poems in 836 pages.  I got to page 191 in this round, so I have pretty much covered read the sea poems, dozens of sea poems.

It is “definitive” in a sense understood only by Kipling, who organized the book according to some secret design of his own, with, for example, the sea poems of Seven Seas (1896) kept together but reordered and mixed with his many other sea poems from earlier and later, stretching through the world war.  I see that Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) is coming up in a (reordered) section.  I can tell this by flipping around in the book, because it has the only table of contents puts the poems in alphabetical order by title.  Of course, there is also an index of first lines.  But if I do not know either the title or the first line, and let’s face it I do not, I am sunk.

It is a book designed for a reader who has had a long familiarity with Kipling’s poems over the course of decades, who had memorized some and made an attempt at others.  So, millions of English-language readers, at one point, but no longer, and not me.

I note that my Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, published in 1986, a point where Kipling’s reputation may have been even lower than it is now, had room for just five short poems; I now see that the author of the potted biography practically begs undergraduates not to stop here.

Well, I set aside any neurosis about chronology or original publication and just read, a few poems a day until satiation.  The sea poems fit perfectly with The Day’s Work, so that is all right.

By sport of bitter weather
  We’re walty, strained, and scarred
From the kentledge on the kelson
  To the slings upon the yard.
Six oceans had their will with us
  To carry all away –
Our galley’s in the Baltic,
  And our boom’s in Mossel Bay.  (“The Merchantmen”)

Just sailors at work.  A pair of narrative poems that are clear attempts at Robert Browning-like monologues stand out, “McAndrew’s Hymn” and “The ‘Mary Gloster’”:

Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An’, taught by time, I tak’ it so – exceptin’ always Steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God –
Predestination in the stride o’ yon connectin’ rod.  (“McAndrew’s Hymn”)

See, another connecting-rod.  The engineer, like all engineers in Kipling, and at that time, everywhere, was Scottish, and my favorite moment in the poem is when he attacks poets for inattentiveness to his favorite subject:

Romance!  Those first-class passengers they like it very well,
Printed an’ bound in little books, but why don’t poets tell?
I’m sick of all their quirks an’ turns – the loves an’ doves they dream –
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!

The song McAndrews has just sung, in other words.

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