Thursday, May 28, 2009

There Shall Be One People

In THE ANVIL by the great Rudyard Kipling we hear an (I think) unprecedented rhythm. In each of the three stanzas the lines are arranged with six stresses in the first line, five in the second, six in the third and seven(!) in the last. 6-5-6-7! Who else but Kipling would have dared? The miracle of the poem is that the oddity of the line length does not (at least to my ear) intrude on our minds as we read it. It is hardly noticable.

But what it does for us is important. By starting with a long line he sets the standard. Then in the shorter (5 stress) line we feel a release and freedom in reading, thus our voice becomes naturally a couple of notes lower--perfect for a foreshadowing line. Then back to the standard, the six stress before we move in the opposite direction. The final line of each stanza, with its extra syllable that we feel pressed to squeeze into our mouths with an equal amount of breath as we used in what he had set up as the standard, is tense. The effect is that our voice naturally raises a few notes. We feel and hear tension, not only in the thoughts of the poem, but in our own voices! And that happens naturally, whether we are paying attention or not. His variation of line length is not accidental, but integral to the overall effect of the poem.


England's on the anvil--hear the hammers ring--
Clanging from the Severn to the Tyne!
Never was a blacksmith like our Norman King--
England's being hammered, hammered, hammered into line!

England's on the anvil! Heavy are the blows!
(But the work will be a marvel when it's done.)
Little bits of Kingdoms cannot stand against their foes.
England's being hammered, hammered, hammered into one!

There shall be one people-- it shall serve one Lord--
(Neither Priest nor Baron shall escape!)
It shall have one speech and law, soul and strength and sword.
England's being hammered, hammered, hammered into shape!


Rosa said...

Very haunting! I like it!

Doug P. Baker said...

It is, isn't it!

Congratulations, graduate!

Rosa said...

Thank you!

John W. May said...

After having read your intro to the poem, I was almost too nervous to read it. But your right, you can really feel the way the tempo 'stretches' you. Great poem, Mr. Doug P. Baker!

John W. May said...

I wonder. To which historical period does the poem refer?

Doug P. Baker said...

Kipling is refering to the Norman invasion of the Brittish Isles in 1066. It was a time that was terribly hard for the inhabitants, relegating them to the state of second class citizens in their own land. They got all of the menial jobs, working with their hands while the conquerers became the wealthy land owners who prospered.

Our language is dated to have 'begun' at that invasion, and we can still see the oppression under which the people lived in many of our words. "Pork" is from the Norman (French) while the shorter "pig" is from the British. Reason? The poor British had the job of caring for the animals while the wealthy invaders got the joy of eating the meat. "Deer," "venison." Same thing. "Beef," "cow." The short stubby words are still with us from the indiginous language, while the flowing, more sonorous words are from the Norman. Basically the British got to name the work words, while the Normans got to name the wealth and comfort words. "Manor," "hut."

It was a very hard time for Brittain, but it was also a time of testing and hammering it into shape. Not only did the Norman invasion invite those who oppressed the people, it also opened the door for Christian missionaries. There had been many missionaries before. Think of Patrick, the slave turned missionary to Ireland. Think of Augustine. But there had never been an invasion of missionaries that managed to convert the isles to the degree that the brutal Norman military invasion allowed.

It is, I think, this pair of seeming opposites that Kipling has in mind as hammmering Britain into shape.

I think in a way that he is also refering to the England of his own time, but that is only through us taking a knowledge of the Norman invasion and applying it to his (or our) time.

Kipling wrote a bunch of poems for a History of England. You can find them all at

By the way, for those who haven't gone yet, I highly recommend a visit to John's site; just click on his picture. In the very short time his blog has been up he has already taught me quite a lot.