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Song of the Red War-Boat

[words Rudyard Kipling, music Peter Bellamy; notes on Song of the Red War-Boat at the Kipling Society]

Song of the Red War-Boat is a poem from Rudyard Kipling’s book Rewards and Fairies. Peter Bellamy sang it on his second album of songs set to Kipling’s poems, Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye, and on his 1982 cassette The Maritime England Suite. He noted:

The Song of the Red War-Boat is another guess, this time at the possible rhymes and sounds of music of the Saxon era. It is the song of the crew of a boat fighting a storm to rescue their overlord who has been shipwrecked. The pagan oarsmen are troubled less by the weather than by the fact that their lord is contemplating Christianity.


Song of the Red War-Boat

Shove off from the wharf-edge! Steady!
Watch for a smooth! Give way!
If she feels the lop already
She’ll stand on her head in the bay.
It’s ebb—it’s dusk—it’s blowing,
And the shoals are a mile of white,
But (snatch her along!) we’re going
To find our master tonight.

For we hold that in all disaster
Of shipwreck, storm, or sword,
A man must stand by his master
When once he had pledged his word!

Raging seas we have rowed in,
But seldom we saw them thus;
Our master is angry with Odin—
So Odin is angry with us!
Heavy odds have we taken,
But never before such odds.
The Gods they know they’re forsaken,
We must risk the wrath of the Gods!

Over the crest she flies from,
Into its hollow she drops,
Crouches and clears her eyes from
The wind-torn breaker-tops,
Ere out on the shrieking shoulder
Of a hill-high surge she drives.
Meet her! Meet her and hold her!
Pull for your scoundrel lives!

The thunder bellow and clamour
The harm that they mean to do;
There goes Thor’s Own Hammer
Cracking the dark in two!
Close! But the blow has missed her,
Here comes the wind of the blow!
Row or the squall’ll twist her
Broadside on to it!—Row!

Hearken, Thor of the Thunder!
We are not here for a jest—
For wager, warfare, or plunder,
Or to put your power to test.
This work is none of our wishing—
We would house at home if we might—
But our master is wrecked out fishing,
We go to find him tonight.

For we hold that in all disaster—
As the Gods Themselves have said—
A man must stand by his master
Till one of the two is dead.

That is the way of our thinking,
Now you can do as you will,
While we try to save her from sinking,
And hold her head to it still.
Bale her and keep her moving,
Or she’ll break her back in the trough…
Who said the weather’s improving,
Or the swells are taking off?

Sodden, and chafed and aching,
Gone in the loins and the knees—
No matter—for the day is breaking,
And there’s far less weight to the seas!
Up mast, and finish baling—
In oars, and out with the mead—
The rest will be two-reef sailing…
That was a night indeed!

But we hold that in all disaster
(And faith, we have found it true!)
If only you stand by your master,
The Gods will stand by you!