Rudyard Kipling is likely best known today as the author of the Jungle Book, or perhaps for his short story “The Man Who Would Be King”, or for poems including “Mandalay”, “Gunga-Din”, “The White Man’s Burden”, and “If”. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 at the age of 42, the youngest recipient to date. Kipling was famous in his age and in ours.
Despite his fame, his reputation has soured a bit in literary circles in the past few decades. Kipling was an Englishman born in British-occupied India, and his early childhood and early adulthood there. His works are especially associated with imperialism, favoring the idea in general and Britain’s version in particular, with “The White Man’s Burden,” Kipling’s poem, becoming recognized as a particularly poor way of thinking about the way developed countries should interact with underdeveloped regions.
“Song of the Red War-Boat” is not about Britain’s relationship with India, the Middle East, or Africa. Its subtitle refers to the work of the bishop St. Wilfrid converting the Saxons of Seventh Century Sussex from the Old Way to Christianity – the men singing this song have not converted, but their king, “angry with Odin,” the song says, is already a Christian. The poem speaks of the bond between “masters” and their bondsmen, and explains that the common men of Sussex see themselves as “scoundrels”.
Perhaps this has more to do with India and the “white man’s burden” after all? The power relationships in this poem are unavoidable: Wilfrid, not mentioned in the poem proper, has power over the king, as his connection to God, as God has the true power in the final two lines “If only you stand by your master/The Gods will stand beside you,” implying a kind of transitive relationship, where the loyalty owed Odin and Thor becomes owed the Christian God when a master converts. Because the master has power over the sailors, and they owe him loyalty and service in return.
Of course, this isn’t the only interpretation of this poem, and Kipling’s interest in the outdoors and in British history is of paramount importance here. Imagining the conditions under which an actual saint went about converting pagans to Christianity was certainly an intellectual exercise worthy of such an accomplished man. You may find this poem meaningful in any of a number of other ways as well.
Song of the Red War-Boat
(A.D. 683 )
“The Conversion of St. Wilfrid”–Rewards and Fairies
Shove off from the wharf-edge! Steady!
Watch for a smooth! Give way!
If she feels the lop already
She’ll stand on her head in the bay.
It’s ebb–it’s dusk–it’s blowing–
The shoals are a mile of white,
But ( snatch her along! ) we’re going
To find our master to-night.
For we hold that in all disaster
Of shipwreck, storm, or sword,
A Man must stand by his Master
When once he has pledged his word.
Raging seas have we rowed in
But we seldom saw them thus,
Our master is angry with Odin–
Odin is angry with us!
Heavy odds have we taken,
But never before such odds.
The Gods know they are forsaken.
We must risk the wrath of the Gods!
Over the crest she flies from,
Into its hollow she drops,
Cringes and clears her eyes from
The wind-torn breaker-tops,
Ere out on the shrieking shoulder
Of a hill-high surge she drives.
Meet her! Meet her and hold her!
Pull for your scoundrel lives!
The thunder below and clamor
The harm that they mean to do!
There goes Thor’s own Hammer
Cracking the dark in two!
Close! But the blow has missed her,
Here comes the wind of the blow!
Row or the squall’Il twist her
Broadside on to it!–Row!
Heark’ee, Thor of the Thunder!
We are not here for a jest–
For wager, warfare, or plunder,
Or to put your power to test.
This work is none of our wishing–
We would house at home if we might–
But our master is wrecked out fishing.
We go to find him to-night.
For we hold that in all disaster–
As the Gods Themselves have said–
A Man must stand by his Master
Till one of the two is dead.
That is our way of thinking,
Now you can do as you will,
While we try to save her from sinking
And hold her head to it still.
Bale her and keep her moving,
Or she’ll break her back in the trough. . . .
Who said the weather’s improving,
Or the swells are taking off?
Sodden, and chafed and aching,
Gone in the loins and knees–
No matter–the day is breaking,
And there’s far less weight to the seas!
Up mast, and finish baling–
In oar, and out with mead–
The rest will be two-reef sailing. . . .
That was a night indeed!
But we hold it in all disaster
(And faith, we have found it true!)
If only you stand by your Master,
The Gods will stand by you!