Another Kipling poem for the contest!

They christened my brother of old—

   And a saintly name he bears—

They gave him his place to hold

   At the head of the belfry-stairs,

   Where the minster-towers stand

And the breeding kestrels cry.

   Would I change with my brother a league inland?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I !


In the flush of the hot June prime,

   O’er sleek flood-tides afire,

I hear him hurry the chime

   To the bidding of checked Desire;

   Till the sweated ringers tire

And the wild bob-majors die.

   Could I wait for my turn in the godly choir?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!


When the smoking scud is blown—

   When the greasy wind-rack lowers—

Apart and at peace and alone,

   He counts the changeless hours.

   He wars with darkling Powers

(I war with, a darkling sea);

   Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not he!


There was never a priest to pray,

   There was never a hand to toll,

When they made me guard of the bay,

   And moored me over the shoal.

   I rock, I reel, and I roll—

My four great hammers ply—

   Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!


The landward marks have failed,

   The fog-bank glides unguessed,

The seaward lights are veiled,

   The spent deep feigns her rest:

   But my ear is laid to her breast,

I lift to the swell—I cry!

   Could I wait in sloth on the Church’s oath?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!


At the careless end of night

   I thrill to the nearing screw;

I turn in the clearing light

   And I call to the drowsy crew;

   And the mud boils foul and blue

As the blind bow backs away.

   Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not they!


The beach-pools cake and skim,

   The bursting spray-heads freeze,

I gather on crown and rim

   The grey, grained ice of the seas,

   Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,

The plunging colliers lie.

   Would I barter my place for the Church’s grace?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!


Through the blur of the whirling snow,

   Or the black of the inky sleet,

The lanterns gather and grow,

   And I look for the homeward fleet.

   Rattle of block and sheet—

‘Ready about—stand by!’

   Shall I ask them a fee ere they fetch the quay?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!


I dip and I surge and I swing

   In the rip of the racing tide,

By the gates of doom I sing,

   On the horns of death I ride.

   A ship-length overside,

Between the course and the sand,

   Fretted and bound I bide

   Peril whereof I cry.

Would I change with my brother a league inland?

(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!





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Thanks for posting this! I ended up liking it, although it took me a while to figure out what the poem was trying to say. In case others have the same confusion, here's the Kipling society's summary:

From its place out over the shoals, the Bell Buoy’s voice is lifted to issue warning and protect human life while the church bell safe in its tower, knows nothing of these dangers and stands aloof. Its voice is one controlled by the authority of the church and limited by the church’s interests. In contrast the bell buoy glories in its independence and in the vital work it performs.


I personally read it as part of Kipling's attempts to deliberately glorify those people who did socially necessary but low-status work, in exactly the same way as he did for soldiers and engineers. In this particular poem, he's anthropomorphizing the bell that does the needed, low-status work of warning ships away from the coast, contrasting it with the one in the church tower, that is considered high-status but isn't doing anything important.

It therefore felt appropriate for the EA contest. :)

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