‘My Boy Jack’ by Rudyard Kipling

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

 rudyard-kipling

This poem encapsulates, perfectly for me, the desperate desire of a parent to know what has happened to his child in time of war. It is a dialogue between that parent and the voice of, what? – God? an omniscient human narrator? For me it is a debate which takes place in the father’s own mind; a linguistic battle between his rational understanding (that his son has in all likelihood been killed) and the hope that cannot be crushed out of him (the thought that, if his son is simply missing, then surely he can be found). The father asks for information about his son, and asks again and again, and is, in return, offered little which can comfort him. Each of the three first stanzas of this four stanza piece begins with that father’s questions. He will not be put off by the silence of the world in the face of his desire for information. However, by stanza two, the writing is on the wall. No one has had word of the missing boy and the water imagery (which floods the poem as it flooded the First World War trenches in which that fight was fought at its bloodiest) begins to drown out hope.

The turning point comes at the start of stanza three. The father laments aloud, in broken tones now: ‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’ and the power balance shifts, for the (by now expected) refrain of ‘none this tide’ gives way to a new kind of strength, offered by the rational voice to the grieving one. The only comfort that can be grasped is that ‘he did not shame his kind’. His son’s bravery in the face of ‘that wind blowing and that tide’, i.e. in the face of the terror of war, is his legacy. It is a legacy handed down to father from son – for war has reversed the usual pattern of things, of life, and what should be (the older generation passing away and the younger one taking up the challenges of life in their stead) has been irrevocably altered, reversed, warped, and twisted. The young men of a whole generation are being wiped out (as Kipling’s own son, John – or Jack, was when many of his regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards lost their lives at the Battle of Loos) but those that are left have to live bravely as they died bravely.

I don’t think it’s helpful to read this poem as straight autobiography, although the name ‘Jack’ makes it tempting. It’s apparently written about a sailor, not a soldier (his son had failed though to enter the navy because of problems with his eyesight). The poem does imply however that Kipling knew what loss meant – and his poetry and public speaking were responsible in large part for inspiring his own son and other young men, nationwide, to hurl themselves to their own deaths. He believed in England and in English justice and believed in the need to defend England against foreign tyranny. His own family did not escape the terrible consequences of that faith in nationhood and this poem implies that if that faith is all that is left, if you’ve lost your family’s future (rooted in the male blood line) then you are far from lost, as a country or as a father.

Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards (Edge Hill)

Kipling wrote this as a prelude to a story in a book about the sea Battle of Jutland in 1916 and it uses the imagery of the sea and nature to explore the acute effects of loss and grief caused by the death of a child. I found it difficult to write about as so much of the emotional impact of the loss of a child is understated and the devastating effects of war are only evident in the simple questions asked by the bereaved, and clearly shocked, parent in the poem. It is what Kipling deliberately omits from the poem that reveals the depth of emotion felt by the speaker, revealing the lack of comprehension and confusion that pervades the words of the father desperately trying to discover whether the ‘child’ he proudly sent to war has survived or not. Although written about a sea battle and the loss of sailors, the ‘Jacks’ of the title, referring to the common title of ‘Jack Tar’ applied to sailors in general; this poem seems to reflect the powerful sense of loss that Kipling felt over the loss of his own son, also called Jack, a year earlier at the Battle of Loos. In writing this poem he highlights the loss of young life across all the armed forces, not just the soldiers in the trenches which are the primary focus of the majority of War Poetry anthologies.

Sue Brighten (Ipswich School)