One of the things Peter Bellamy did particularly well was write (and perform) settings of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. Kipling’s an extraordinarily rich writer – far more so than you might think at first glance; it’s hard for us to get past all those grandiose Capital Letters and exhortations! ending in exclamation marks! But stick with it and you find yourself dealing with someone who’s not shallow, one-sided or inhumane – in short, someone who’s already thought of most of the objections you were about to make.
That’s not to say that his poetry doesn’t present problems for us now. “Big steamers” is all about how Britain needs maritime superiority in order to keep the supply routes from the colonies open; “Our fathers of old” is a hymn in praise of ignorant determination; “Cold iron” is a sick and muddled fantasy conflating feudal submission with Christian humility. He was what he was, and he was a man of the British Empire in its pomp. But he wasn’t shallow, one-sided or inhumane.
This poem is a case in point. The Kipling Society has very effectively debunked the persistent myth that this poem had something to do with the death of Kipling’s son John, who had gone missing in a land battle a year earlier (and who, in any case, was never known as ‘Jack’). Setting that aside, we’re looking at a poem for the sailors lost in the battle of Jutland, and their parents, waiting for the good news which had not come and never would (for what is sunk will hardly swim). As that line suggests, there’s a brutality to this poem, a touch of gallows humour, as well as a mood of genuine grief. What’s harder to handle, now, is the turn to a patriotic resolution (hold your head up all the more), and the call to take comfort in the thought that your son, although dead, had at least died bravely (he did not shame his kind). This seems still more brutal, until you think of the alternative to dying bravely – to imagine your son dying in terror and despair would be much worse. The patriotism of the poem, on the other hand, is quite genuine, but it does come close to being undercut in those closing lines: your duty as a parent is to give children to that wind blowing and that tide? If courage is always the repression of terror, in this poem the achievement of the repression is on a knife-edge and the fear is still palpable.
And here’s me singing it, very much in the style of Peter Bellamy.