Return to Kipling – ‘The Trade ‘

Submarine Great War Poetry

“Smfirstholland”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Tin Ships -Kipling
(1916)

The ships destroy us above

And ensnare us beneath.
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of Death.
The ships have a thousand eyes
To mark where we come . . .
But the mirth of a seaport dies

When our blow gets home…….

On the 1st May 2015 I visited the Royal Naval Submarine Museum at Gosport with my pal Chris Percival. The Museum’s publicity mentioned the submarine poem ‘The Trade by Rudyard Kipling from ‘Sea Warfare’ (1916) : A combination of prose commentary and poetry. Worth being reminded of Kipling’s role in ‘Great War at Sea Poetry, whose work of this genre included ‘The Verdicts’, ‘My Boy Jack’, ‘Minesweepers’ and also ‘The Lowestoft Boat’ which reads more like the lyrics of a folk ballad.

At the outset of the Great War, see poetry had been initially quite triumphalist. The poetry of Ronald Hopwood and ‘Klaxon’ can be cited immediately. The Sea was portrayed as being part of the Royal

Navy’s dominion. In the words of Edward Hilton Young , writing on board HMS Iron Duke in 1914.

The Iron Duke to the Victory
As once with you, so now with me
The Prayers and hopes of England are,
That bear her fortunes on the sea
To some furious Trafalgar…..

At odds with this is the Romantic view evident in such poets as Byron and Swinburne’s work in which the Sea is more likely to be portrayed as a chaotic unmanageable element. Taking Byron.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ( Canto IV stanza 179)
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Then thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain

The more triumphalist view was obviously needed to contribute to the war effort. The public seemed hungry for a definitive ‘Trafalgar’ type victory. The Royal Navy were enforcing a slow impact and less glamorous blockade of Germany.

But ruling the waves was not the same as being able to control what was happening beneath the surface : U Boats lurking beneath the waves were a particular menace to older battle cruisers and to merchant shipping .
‘ Tin Ships’ shows poetry coming to terms with the brutality of modern sea warfare.

‘Tin Fish’, reminds one of Imagist poetry which was starting to appear just before the Great War; ┬ádirect, with no word wasted. The phrase ‘In the belly of Death’ seems to parody the 23rd Psalm ‘In the Valley of Death’. A commentator from the Kipling Society suggests that this could be an allusion to Jonah in the Whale.

‘The Trade’ depicts the new class of submariners needed for the war under sea. Taking verse 2 : The reference to ‘prize-courts’ refers to the rules re prize money, where at times of war sailors could claim enemy ships and their cargo as bounty. In other words there was no chance of reward for their work.

Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.
They seldom tow their targets in.
They follow certain secret aims
Down under, Far from strife or din……..

Or from the last verse….the public don’t know what to expect from the submariners. They can’t enrol them in dreams of a new ‘Trafalgar’ . But neither do they fear resentful if ┬átheir expectations aren’t realised. It’s not the submariners who are expected to deliver the new ‘Trafalgar’

Their feats, their fortunes and their fames
Are hidden from their nearest kin;
No eager public backs or blames,
No journal prints the yarn they spin

The Submariner wouldn’t even have a uniform as such . Men wore old sweaters. They were outside tradition and the public imagination.

Kipling’s poetry related to the Great War at Sea is fascinating because he moves beyond triumphalism or viewing the sea as a chaotic element and takes a different approach. There is a quite a brutal new realism emerging. Kipling’s view of the war at sea involves submarines,mines, mine sweepers, small boats pressed to join the war effort -‘The Fringes of the Fleet’.

‘Sea-Warfare’ text

Kipling Society paper on ‘Tin Fish’

Royal Naval Submarine Museum

The writer of this blog – Photo by Chris Percival

The Trade

THEY bear, in place of classic names,
Letters and numbers on their skin.
They play their grisly blindfold games
In little boxes made of tin.
Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,
Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,
Or where the Baltic ice is thin.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.
They seldom tow their targets in.
They follow certain secret aims
Down under, Far from strife or din.
When they are ready to begin
No flag is flown, no fuss is made
More than the shearing of a pin.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames
A mark from Sweden to the Swin,
The Cruiser’s thund’rous screw proclaims
Her comings out and goings in:
But only whiffs of paraffin
Or creamy rings that fizz and fade
Show where the one-eyed Death has been
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

Their feats, their fortunes and their fames
Are hidden from their nearest kin;
No eager public backs or blames,
No journal prints the yarn they spin
(The Censor would not let it in! )
When they return from run or raid.
Unheard they work, unseen they win.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

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