Shoal! ‘Ware Shoal!

Shoal! ‘Ware Shoal!

This week’s choice is “The Bell Buoy” by Rudyard Kipling which I have chosen because I like his poetry and felt like indulging myself.

There was never a priest to pray
       There was never a hand to toll,
When they made me guard of the bay,
       And moored me over the shoal.    
       I rock, I reel, and I roll—
My four great hammers ply—
        Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

Poem 257. The Bell Buoy

They christened my brother of old—
       And a saintly name he bears—
They gave him his place to hold
       At the head of the belfry-stairs,
       Where the minister-towers stand
And the breeding kestrels cry.
       Would I change with my brother a league inland?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

In the flush of the hot June prime,
       O’er sleek flood-tides afire,
I hear him hurry the chime
       To the bidding of checked Desire;
       Till the sweated ringers tire
And the wild bob-majors die.
       Could I wait for my turn in the godly choir?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

When the smoking scud is blown—
       When the greasy wind-rack lowers—
Apart and at peace and alone,
        He counts the changeless hours.
       He wars with darkling Powers
(I war with a darkling sea);
       Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not he!

There was never a priest to pray
       There was never a hand to toll,
When they made me guard of the bay,
       And moored me over the shoal.
       I rock, I reel, and I roll—
My four great hammers ply—        
Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

The landward marks have failed,
       The fog-bank glides unguessed,
The seaward lights are veiled,
       The spent deep feigns her rest:
       But my ear is laid to her breast,
I lift to the swell—I cry!
       Could I wait in sloth on the Church’s oath?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

At the careless end of night
       I thrill to the nearing screw;
I turn in the clearing light
       And I call to the drowsy crew;
       And the mud boils foul and blue
As the blind bow backs away.
       Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not they!

The beach-pools cake and skim,
       The bursting spray-heads freeze,
I gather on crown and rim
       The grey, grained ice of the seas,
       Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
The plunging colliers lie.
       Would I barter my place for the Church’s grace?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I! 

Through the blur of the whirling snow,
       Or the black of the inky sleet,      
The lanterns gather and grow,
       And I look for the homeward fleet.
       Rattle of block and sheet—
“Ready about-stand by!”
       Shall I ask them a fee ere they fetch the quay?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

I dip and I surge and I swing
       In the rip of the racing tide,
By the gates of doom I sing,
       On the horns of death I ride.
       A ship-length overside,
Between the course and the sand,
       Fretted and bound I bide
               Peril whereof I cry.
       Would I change with my brother a league inland?
(Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!)   Not I!

Like many Kipling poems, this tells two stories at once—the overt story of the two twin bells, one installed in a minster (perhaps York) and the other in a great sea-buoy, and the underlying tale of the two characters: one wedded to the church and its rituals and the other, chained in place but free in its own way. Each verse ends in a rhetorical question punctuated by the loud tolling of the bell in the buoy (“Shoal! ‘Ware shoal!”: the hammers on the buoy clanging a warning to beware of the underwater hazard to shipping) and the bell buoy’s rejection of the question.

We start with a vision of the buoy bell’s ‘brother’: christened and hanging in the belfry of a great minster with the kestrels roosting in the tower: we get a suggestion of a sanctified atmosphere that is too rarefied for the bell in the buoy.

“In the flush of the hot June prime”—Prime is a prayer said at the first hour of daylight in some Christian liturgies. In June, this would be early in the morning, and we see the colours of the sunrise across the running seawater: the “sleek flood-tides afire” as the minster bell issues the summons to prayer “I hear him hurry the chime/To the bidding of checked Desire” before falling silent as the ringers cease to pull the bell-ropes. The buoy bell has no concept of waiting its turn in a peal: it must ring perforce, since the moving water causes the hammers to sound the bell’s warning without regard to order or strict sequence.

When the weather turns and the wind blows hard, the minster bell hangs alone and at peace, marking out the hours and reminding the faithful of their obligations to God and to resist the temptations of the Devil—“He wars with darkling powers”, while the bell in the buoy contends with the treacherous tides—“I war with a darkling sea”—and maintains that his brother would never descend to doing his work, vital though it is.

The bell buoy was fixed in its place without a prayer from the priest or a ringer to toll it; it protects seafarers by its pitching and yawing in the motion of the tide “I rock, I reel and I roll”, and all the time the four hammers toll the bell in place of a human hand, and the buoy bell could never regulate its clanging according to the strictures of religion—“Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?/(Shoal! ‘Ware Shoal!) Not I!” —for it serves a more primal need of protecting against physical rather than moral danger.

When a sea-fog arises, the bell on the buoy is at its zenith: although it is impossible to make out the warning of the light-houses, the buoy is still on guard and conscious of the slightest motion of the sea, treacherously calm though she may appear (“The spent sea feigns her rest/But my ear is laid to her breast/I lift to the swell—I cry!”). It is inconceivable to the buoy bell that it should be idle or wait for the Church’s permission to ring.

Approaching boats are warned of their danger in the misty dawn (“At the careless end of night/I thrill to the nearing screw/I turn in the clearing light/And I call to the drowsy crew”) but no thanks is given to or expected by the buoy bell as the unseen vessel retreats from the sandbank (“the blind bow backs away”).

In icy weather the buoy bell continues despite thick ice coating the masts of the ships it protects (“sheathed from bitt to trees”); it warns the collier ships carrying coal just as it warns the fleet returning in flurries of snow and sleet and there is no suggestion of charging a fee for safe passage to the harbour (parallel to the idea of indulgences sold by the Church to buy time off in Purgatory)

At the end of the poem, we see the buoy almost revelling in the grip of a running tide (“I dip and I surge and I swing/In the rip of the racing tide”) and rejoicing in its role of protector against wreck and ruin and even though “By the gates of doom I sing/On the horns of death I ride” that it wouldn’t exchange its position with that of its clerical sibling.

In tandem with the outward appearance of the poem is the underlying message: perhaps it is better not to be trammelled by the regimen and restrictions of organised religion: even if one suffers spiritual danger, it is perhaps a more enjoyable life.

I like the poem because it seems to have this double meaning, it has Kipling’s characteristic command of the language—he is so good at conjuring images: “I gather on crown and rim/The grey grained ice of the seas”, “the blur of the whirling snow”, and because it has a great rhythm.