Poem of the Week: Rejection by Rudyard Kipling

<span>Stir not my rest O sea / With dead things in these silent deeps.</span><span>Photograph: Flavio Coelho/Getty Images</span>
Stir not my rest O sea / With dead things in these silent deeps.Photograph: Flavio Coelho/Getty Images


‘We will lay this thing here’
Thus spake the voice of the sea,
Murmuring wearily –
In the rock’s ear –

Then the green laver rose,
Shook out her folds and cried,
Before the rising tide
‘Let me repose –

Stir not my rest O sea,
With dead things in these silent deeps,
Surely wave tossed he sleeps
As heavily’ –

The weedhung chambers then
Made answer – ‘O thou sea,
The beasts that feed in me
What need they men’ –

Rock limpets cowering,
Murmured gloom-shaded – ‘There is meat
Enough for all to eat
Bear hence this thing –

In thy strong arms O sea,
Out, even to the quicksands’ brink.
It shall be that he sink –
There, utterly.’

‘We will lay this thing here’
Thus spake the voice of the sea,
Ever persistently
In the rock’s ear.

There’s much to be said for the view that Kipling the poet is an extension of Kipling the gifted journalist. In Daniel Hadas’s words, he “sought to give poetic form to the spirit and practices that animated the journalism of his day”. A few poems, though, seem to belong to a register less public and certain of itself, leaving more interpretative room, and perhaps connecting more closely with the way poetry is read today. Rejection is one of them.

The first line is surprisingly colloquial and arresting. “We will lay this thing here.” The phrase “this thing” stands out: it doesn’t belong to the poem’s more portentous register, where the narrator and speakers use Biblical-sounding vocabulary, and intone with the resonance of ancient gods. Yet the contrast is part of the poem’s interest and appeal.

The sea is the main player in Kipling’s animated cast, and takes an imperious tone. “Murmuring wearily” s/he first addresses the rock, who remains silent. It’s the “green laver” – the seaweed in the deep pools around the rock – that protests. Her five lines, beginning “Let me repose –” are wound over the following stanza, and reveal, without quite spelling it out, the nature of “this thing”. “Stir not my rest O sea / With dead things in these silent deeps / Surely wave tossed he sleeps / As heavily.” In other words, the repugnant object is the body of a drowned man. The sea should take him back; he will “sleep” just as well, if “wave tossed”.

A different reason for rejecting the corpse is given by “[t]he weedhung chambers”. These submerged caverns are home to marine creatures, “beasts” who have food enough already. The rock limpets are described as “cowering”, but perhaps this refers only to their smallness and closeness to the surface of the rock. They voice the strongest objection yet, repeating the argument of the weedhung chambers, but more forcefully and shockingly, thanks to the hard flatness of the rhyme and the reiteration of the ugly phrase that was used by the sea in the first line: “There is meat / Enough for all to eat / Bear hence this thing …”

Kipling’s ballad-like metre is capable of subtle variation. It reflects speech rhythms where appropriate, and sometimes innovates with end-of-line dashes to indicate unexpected or dramatic pauses. The first line of the stanza is often triple-stressed, but it seems to have only two main stresses when the sea makes the pronouncement, “We will lay this thing here”. The second line of a stanza may be expanded to carry some essential descriptive addition, as when the rock limpets advise the sea to carry the body “Out, even to the quicksands’ brink…” Space is made for the slow, ruthless dismissal of the man to be enacted. Once delivered to the quicksands, he will sink “utterly”. The rhyme-word paired with “sea” is most often an adverb, yet always carries an air of significance: “wearily”, “heavily”, “utterly”, “persistently”.

Weary “persistence” seems to win: the first two lines of stanza 1 are repeated in the seventh and last, telling us that the sea will always try to deposit the body on the rock, and perhaps will succeed in relinquishing it. I detached the poem’s style earlier from the journalistic, but perhaps there is a “story” or report behind Rejection, about a dead man left unidentified on some shore. Fact, if that’s the case, acquires symbolic status in the handling. The power structure of “man” and “nature” has been tilted: the human being has become merely a “thing”, and an unwelcome one, displaced in the marine ecosystem it has entered. A 21st-century reader might find here a parable about environmental damage. Otherwise, there is the Darwinian story of evolution, or even that Judaeo-Christian story of Eden and its destruction to add depth, but not over-explain the poem. It is delivered to readers as mysteriously and pitilessly as the dead man is driven to and from the shore.

This poem was apparently never collected by Kipling. The text used is the one on the Kipling Society website.

The Poetry Foundation includes an essay of biographical and literary interest, and a small accompanying group of poems.