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The Song Of The Dead -- Rudyard Kipling

Many, many thanks to everyone who identified and sent in today's poem
(Poem #1163) The Song Of The Dead
 Hear now the Song of the Dead -- in the North by the torn berg-edges --
 They that look still to the Pole, asleep by their hide-stripped sledges.
 Song of the Dead in the South -- in the sun by their skeleton horses,
 Where the warrigal whimpers and bays through the dust of the sear

 Song of the Dead in the East -- in the heat-rotted jungle hollows,
 Where the dog-ape barks in the kloof --
 in the brake of the buffalo-wallows.
 Song of the Dead in the West --
 in the Barrens, the waste that betrayed them,
 Where the wolverene tumbles their packs
 from the camp and the grave-mound they made them;
 Hear now the Song of the Dead!


 We were dreamers, dreaming greatly, in the man-stifled town;
 We yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down.
 Came the Whisper, came the Vision, came the Power with the Need,
 Till the Soul that is not man's soul was lent us to lead.
 As the deer breaks -- as the steer breaks -- from the herd where they graze,
 In the faith of little children we went on our ways.
 Then the wood failed -- then the food failed -- then the last water dried --
 In the faith of little children we lay down and died.
 On the sand-drift -- on the veldt-side -- in the fern-scrub we lay,
 That our sons might follow after by the bones on the way.
 Follow after -- follow after! We have watered the root,
 And the bud has come to blossom that ripens for fruit!
 Follow after -- we are waiting, by the trails that we lost,
 For the sounds of many footsteps, for the tread of a host.
 Follow after -- follow after -- for the harvest is sown:
 By the bones about the wayside ye shall come to your own!

     When Drake went down to the Horn
     And England was crowned thereby,
     'Twixt seas unsailed and shores unhailed
     Our Lodge -- our Lodge was born
     (And England was crowned thereby!)

     Which never shall close again
     By day nor yet by night,
     While man shall take his life to stake
     At risk of shoal or main
     (By day nor yet by night).

     But standeth even so
     As now we witness here,
     While men depart, of joyful heart,
     Adventure for to know
     (As now bear witness here!)


 We have fed our sea for a thousand years
 And she calls us, still unfed,
 Though there's never a wave of all her waves
 But marks our English dead:
 We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest,
 To the shark and the sheering gull.
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 Lord God, we ha' paid in full!

 There's never a flood goes shoreward now
 But lifts a keel we manned;
 There's never an ebb goes seaward now
 But drops our dead on the sand --
 But slinks our dead on the sands forlore,
 From the Ducies to the Swin.
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 Lord God, we ha' paid it in!

 We must feed our sea for a thousand years,
 For that is our doom and pride,
 As it was when they sailed with the 'Golden Hind',
 Or the wreck that struck last tide --
 Or the wreck that lies on the spouting reef
 Where the ghastly blue-lights flare.
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 If blood be the price of admiralty,
 Lord God, we ha' bought it fair!
-- Rudyard Kipling
Note: I've not tried to indicate Kipling's italics - instead, see

[broken link]

  warrigal: 1: Australian wild horse [syn: warragal] 2: wolflike
    yellowish-brown wild dog of Australia [syn: dingo, warragal, Canis dingo]
  kloof: (South African) A deep ravine.

Kipling's "Song of the Dead" is, in some ways, diametrically opposed to the
Navy Hymn [Poem #1162]. Where the latter appeals to God as a shield and a
shelter from a hostile universe, "Song of the Dead" looks instead to an
abstract accounting principle that demands a price for every inch of terrain

This is a deeply entrenched sentiment, whether consciously or subconsciously
- the feeling that every gain has its corresponding price, and, conversely,
that every price paid shall reap its corresponding gain - a sort of
bargaining with the universe (often, though not always, personified through
a deity).

Today's poem is a powerful exploration of the idea, singing the song of the
dead in a thousand echoing voices, carving out a tale of loss and triumph,
and an overwhelming sense of the ceaseless struggle against the vast and
impersonally deadly forces of nature. And yet, in the end it is triumph that
wins through - the price that has been demanded has been paid in full, and
Man has proven himself equal to it. And it shall be paid again, and though
we must feed our seas, not a death shall be wasted. For that, as Kipling so
magnificently puts it, is our doom and our pride.


Afterthought: Note the archaisms - to cite just three, 'sear', 'wolverene'
and 'forlore' where we would, today, have 'sere', 'wolverine' and 'forlorn'.
This is not quite the same as the 'dialect' Kipling often uses in his poems,
but it serves much the same purpose - conveying meaning via the words, and
atmosphere by their forms.


  I was first introduced to this poem through Poul Anderson's novel of the
  same name. There's a review here:

  I am reminded of a fragment from Tolkien's "Lament for Boromir"
     ... so many bones there lie
     On the white shores and the dark shores under the stormy sky
        -- Poem #46

  And one from Jordin Kare's "Fire in the Sky":
    But the Gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made
    And with Challenger and seven, once again the price is paid
        -- [broken link]

  And thanks to Manu Anand for pointing out that the end
  of Tennyson's Ulysses goes very well alongside today's poem:
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
        -- Poem #121


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