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The Three-Decker

Full thirty foot she towered from waterline to rail.

It cost a watch to steer her, and a week to shorten sail;

But, spite all modern notions,

I found her first and best —The only certain packet for the Islands of the Blest.

Fair held the breeze behind us — 'twas warm with lovers' prayers.

We'd stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs.

They shipped as Able Bastards till the Wicked Nurse confessed,

And they worked the old three-decker to the Islands of the Blest.

By ways no gaze could follow, a course unspoiled of Cook,

Per Fancy, fleetest in man, our titled berths we

With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed,

And a Church of England parson for the Islands of the Blest.

We asked no social questions — we pumped no hidden shame —We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came:

We left the Lord in Heaven, we left the fiends in Hell.

We weren't exactly Yussufs, but — Zuleika didn't tell.

No moral doubt assailed us, so when the port we neared,

The villain had his flogging at the gangway, and we cheered.'Twas fiddle in the forc's'le — 'twas garlands on the mast,

For every one got married, and I went ashore at last.

I left 'em all in couples a-kissing on the decks.

I left the lovers loving and the parents signing cheques.

In endless English comfort by county-folk caressed,

I left the old three-decker at the Islands of the Blest!

That route is barred to steamers:  you'll never lift

Our purple-painted headlands or the lordly keeps of Spain.

They're just beyond your skyline, howe'er so far you

In a ram-you-damn-you liner with a brace of bucking screws.

Swing round your aching search-light — 'twill show no haven's peace.

Ay, blow your shrieking sirens to the deaf, gray-bearded seas!

Boom out the dripping oil-bags to skin the deep's unrest —And you aren't one knot the nearer to the Islands of the Blest!

But when you're threshing, crippled, with broken bridge and rail,

At a drogue of dead convictions to hold you head to gale,

Calm as the Flying Dutchman, from truck to taffrail dressed,

You'll see the old three-decker for the Islands of the Blest.

You'll see her tiering canvas in sheeted silver spread;

You'll hear the long-drawn thunder 'neath her leaping figure-head;

While far, so far above you, her tall poop-lanterns

Unvexed by wind or weather like the candles round a shrine!

Hull down — hull down and under — she dwindles to a speck,

With noise of pleasant music and dancing on her deck.

All's well — all's well aboard her — she's left you far behind,

With a scent of old-world roses through the fog that ties you blind.

Her crew are babes or madmen?  Her port is all to make?

You're manned by Truth and Science, and you steam for steaming's sake?

Well, tinker up your engines — you know your business best —She's taking tired people to the Islands of the Blest!

A “Three Decker” is a phrase with a double meaning.

Kipling is using it in its nautical context of a ship with three decks but it was also used as a description of a novel in three volumes which was popular in the Victorian era.

Not strictly speaking a trilogy these novels were more like serials and were popular because if the first was successful the income from that would pay for the publishing of the second and third parts.

An important factor when the printing of long volumes was expensive.

Kipling is saying that this type of novel is extinct.

In this poem the “Islands of the Blest” also has a double meaning.

Used by the Greeks to refer to Elysium the home of the soul after death the phrase is also used by them to refer to Samos which was thought to be the place that the muses would visit in search of inspiration.

Throughout the poem Kipling uses these double entendres to create two quite distinct stories One of a long final voyage such as the Viking’s voyage to Valhalla and one of the death of these long stories in which “It cost a watch to steer her, and a week to shorten sail;” that is it would take many hours (a watch on board ship) to set the course of the novel or the ship and even longer (a week) to slow it down to some sort of conclusion (shorten sail).

There are obviously many more of these that the reader can, with a little effort, appreciate more fully.

Kipling also uses many terms which would have been well known in the age of sail but are less well known today so the following glossary may prove useful.

Packet – A type of ship most commonly used to carry mail on transatlantic voyages.

Watch – A work period of 4 hours on board ship.

Ballast – Low value or worthless cargo to make the ship sail lower in the water and so be easier to handle.

Cook – In this context would be Captain Cook.

The famous British navigator, cartographer and Explorer.

Pumped – Wooden sailing vessels often leaked and had to be regularly pumped dry.

Yussufs – A reference to Joseph who was tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Zuleika in Arab legends).

Zuleika -- name given to Potiphar’s wife, who vainly tempted Joseph according to Arab 's'le – forecastle, a part of the ship’s deck at the prow where the crew would gather when off-duty.fiddle in the forc's'le – music.

Literally a fiddler playing in the forecastle on board ship.

Knot – A speed of one nautical mile per hour, also sometimes use as a distance of one mile.

Drogue – A type of sea-anchor, usually canvas on a wooden frame, used to stop a ship drifting or to maintain a course.tiering canvas – The ship’s canvas sails rising in tiers upon the -lanterns – Lanterns at the stern of a ship used both for light fro the helmsman and as a signal lamp.

Hull Down – Indicates a ship far away whose hull was below the horizon but whose masts and sails were visible.


Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (/ˈrʌdjərd/ RUD-yərd; 30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936)[1] was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and nov…

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