Kipling wrote a good deal of poems in which the narrating “I” or “we” belongs to inanimate objects. Ships, places, pieces of equipment, mechanical parts… They come to life to describe the joys and strains of their “jobs”, history as seen through their “eyes”.
Whenever I read one of these poems, I can’t help thinking of those Japanese legends where an object takes on some sort of life by long association with and use by human beings… A concept I’ve always found highly poetic.
I wonder if Kipling knew of this legends… Or perhaps he didn’t, but had the kind of semi-Animistic imagination that will play what-if with objects. “Don’t be sad, umbrella, I’m here, see? I came back for you…” Kipling plays it in earnest, and he certainly does give his “things” some powerful voices – often musing on progress or what didn’t change through the centuries.
Listen to The Deep-Sea Cables
The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar —
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.
Here in the womb of the world — here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat —
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth —
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.
They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, “Let us be one!”
And The Coastwise Lights
Our brows are bound with spindrift and the weed is on our knees;
Our loins are battered ‘neath us by the swinging, smoking seas.
From reef and rock and skerry — over headland, ness, and voe —
The Coastwise Lights of England watch the ships of England go!
Through the endless summer evenings, on the lineless, level floors;
Through the yelling Channel tempest when the siren hoots and roars —
By day the dipping house-flag and by night the rocket’s trail —
As the sheep that graze behind us so we know them where they hail.
We bridge across the dark and bid the helmsman have a care,
The flash that wheeling inland wakes his sleeping wife to prayer;
From our vexed eyries, head to gale, we bind in burning chains
The lover from the sea-rim drawn — his love in English lanes.
We greet the clippers wing-and-wing that race the Southern wool;
We warn the crawling cargo-tanks of Bremen, Leith, and Hull;
To each and all our equal lamp at peril of the sea —
The white wall-sided war-ships or the whalers of Dundee!
Come up, come in from Eastward, from the guardports of the Morn!
Beat up, beat in from Southerly, O gipsies of the Horn!
Swift shuttles of an Empire’s loom that weave us, main to main,
The Coastwise Lights of England give you welcome back again!
Go, get you gone up-Channel with the sea-crust on your plates;
Go, get you into London with the burden of your freights!
Haste, for they talk of Empire there, and say, if any seek,
The Lights of England sent you and by silence shall ye speak!
No lost umbrellas, for Kipling. His Things are huge giants, conscious of their power, and yet bound in service to their makers. They don’t seem to resent it terribly. They know they are more durable. They know they will be there when the men who built them are long dead and gone. And they proudly assume not only a function, but the intention that stands behind it, its symbolic power as well as the literal one. Go ahead, they say. You put us here – and we will hold. I love this sense of wonder and companionship at the same time between Man and Thing.