Saturday Snippet: The Merchantmen


We’ve met Rudyard Kipling several times in the pages of our Saturday Snippet excerpts.  I thought it was time for another of his poems.  This one’s titled “The Merchantmen”, from his collection “The Seven Seas”, published in 1896.

King Solomon drew merchantmen,
Because of his desire
For peacocks, apes, and ivory,
From Tarshish unto Tyre:
With cedars out of Lebanon
Which Hiram rafted down,
But we be only sailormen
That use in London town.

Coastwise—cross-seas—round the world and back again—
Where the flaw shall head us or the full Trade suits—
Plain-sail—storm-sail—lay your board and tack again—
And that’s the way we’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!

We bring no store of ingots,
Of spice or precious stones,
But that we have we gathered
With sweat and aching bones:
In flame beneath the tropics,
In frost upon the floe,
And jeopardy of every wind
That does between them go.

And some we got by purchase,
And some we had by trade,
And some we found by courtesy
Of pike and carronade,
At midnight, ’mid-sea meetings,
For charity to keep,
And light the rolling homeward-bound
That rode a foot too deep.

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 of us
To carry all away—
Our galley’s in the Baltic,
And our boom’s in Mossel Bay!

We’ve floundered off the Texel,
Awash with sodden deals,
We’ve slipped from Valparaiso
With the Norther at our heels:
We’ve ratched beyond the Crossets
That tusk the Southern Pole,
And dipped our gunnels under
To the dread Agulhas roll.

Beyond all outer charting
We sailed where none have sailed,
And saw the land-lights burning
On islands none have hailed;
Our hair stood up for wonder,
But, when the night was done,
There danced the deep to windward
Blue-empty ’neath the sun!

Strange consorts rode beside us
And brought us evil luck;
The witch-fire climbed our channels,
And danced on vane and truck:
Till, through the red tornado,
That lashed us nigh to blind,
We saw The Dutchman plunging,
Full canvas, head to wind!

We’ve heard the Midnight Leadsman
That calls the black deep down—
Ay, thrice we’ve heard The Swimmer,
The Thing that may not drown.
On frozen bunt and gasket
The sleet-cloud drave her hosts,
When, manned by more than signed with us,
We passed the Isle o’ Ghosts!

And north, amid the hummocks,
A biscuit-toss below,
We met the silent shallop
That frighted whalers know;
For, down a cruel ice-lane,
That opened as he sped,
We saw dead Henry Hudson Steer,
North by West, his dead.

So dealt God’s waters with us
Beneath the roaring skies,
So walked His signs and marvels
All naked to our eyes:
But we were heading homeward
With trade to lose or make—
Good Lord, they slipped behind us
In the tailing of our wake!

Let go, let go the anchors;
Now shamed at heart are we
To bring so poor a cargo home
That had for gift the sea!
Let go the great bow-anchors—
Ah, fools were we and blind—
The worst we baled with utter toil,
The best we left behind!

Coastwise—cross-seas—round the world and back again,
Whither the flaw shall fail us or the Trades drive down:
Plain-sail—storm-sail—lay your board and tack again—
And all to bring a cargo up to London Town!

What a magnificent gift he had, to make mere words conjure up a whole world before the eyes of our mind!



  1. I'm young, large, in reasonable shape, and happen to think I'm fairly tough.

    However, I'm not stupid enough to think that I'm a match for Joe Son or Lee Murray though, and there's no way arrange things ahead of time to ensure that I only get attacked by 100lb weaklings, and not professional MMA fighters who've decided, for whatever reason, to engage in crime. Nor am I stupid enough to want to take on a pack of 100lb weaklings, because quantity has a quality all of its own.

    And that's if the opposing side hasn't decided to bring its own force multipliers, such as crowbars, baseball bats, or knives.

  2. Kipling is a great read. I'm reading his prose right now. I just finished Kim, and started on Puck of Pook's Hill last night.

    If you haven't read them, you should. Puck is one of my favorites. That, and maybe Stalky & Co.

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