Sunday, 15 January 2012

Kipling's Whitehead

Prompted (belatedly) by a comment to this old post, I checked out this Kipling poem:
The wind took off with the sunset--
The fog came up with the tide,
When the Witch of the North took an Egg-shell
With a little Blue Devil inside.
"Sink," she said, "or swim," she said,
"It's all you will get from me.
And that is the finish of him!" she said
And the Egg-shell went to sea.

The wind fell dead with the midnight--
The fog shut down like a sheet,
When the Witch of the North heard the Egg-shell
Feeling by hand for a fleet.
"Get!" she said, "or you're gone," she said.
But the little Blue Devil said "No!
"The sights are just coming on," he said,
And he let the Whitehead go.

The wind got up with the morning--
The fog blew off with the rain,
When the Witch of the North saw the Egg-shell
And the little Blue Devil again.
"Did you swim?" she said. "Did you sink?" she said,
And the little Blue Devil replied:
"For myself I swam, but I think," he said,
"There's somebody sinking outside."
A 'whitehead' is a naval torpedo (named after its inventor, the actual grandfather of The Sound of Music); and this is a poem that tropes the WWI war at sea as a sort of dark fairy tale. The eggshell submarine is a nice notion; not just its fragility but the sense of it as hatching something out (death, in this case).  And I like the way the submarine's captain's name suggests not only his diabolic purpose, but a sense of his depression -- his mood as well as his physical low-ness. It can't be a jolly business, lurking through the waters and killing civilians.

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