Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kipling's Love of Lighthouses

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) saw many lighthouses in his time. They found their way into his works, along with buoys, ships, sea captains, and other nautical emblems.

He was born in Bombay during British rule and then sailed to England at the age of five to live with friends and of his parents in the naval port of Portsmouth and be properly schooled. At the age of seventeen, unable to get a scholarship to Oxford, Kipling returned to India and began work as an editor for a newspaper in Lahore and, later, Allahabad.

At the end of his newspaper job, he returned to England via the Pacific route, landing in San Francisco. From there he traveled north to British Columbia and then through the Midwest to Boston where he sailed for England, arriving in 1889. He was a celebrity by this time, at the young age of 24.
Kipling saw many lighthouses on this trip. Farallon Light probably greeted him as he approached San Francisco, and then Point Bonita Lighthouse and the famous sentinel on Alcatraz Island. Up the West Coast he may glimpsed St. George Reef Lighthouse, then still under construction, and Cape Disappointment Lighthouse as his ship entered the Columbia River, bound for Portland. In British Columbia he surely saw Race Rocks Lighthouse.
At Boston, his ship passed the historic Boston Lighthouse and then sobering Minots Ledge, where a masonry lighthouse stood on a submarine shelf of rock. American lighthouse builders had learned to construct wave-washed lighthouses from the British and Scots. Minots Ledge, Kipling no doubt knew, mimicked Robert Stevenson's great Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by the father of one of Kipling's favorite writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. (NOAA image of Minots Ledge Lighthouse)

He took another sea voyage, this time for his health, and then married. He and his wife settled in Brattleboro, Vermont where he started a family and wrote many of his most famous pieces, including The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous.  The Kiplings returned to live in England in 1896 in a home in Devon overlooking the English Channel. Undoubtedly, the twinkling lighthouses of the channel influenced his writing.

In 1897 he moved to Sussex. A decade later he won the Nobel Prize for literature—the first English language author to do so. Even so, he is remembered as a controversial figure for his political views and his acceptance of British Imperialism. He died at Sussex on January 18, 1836.

Kipling’s many travels at sea influenced his work, as did the British reputation as a sea-going nation and its work in the Crown Colonies where Trinity House, the British Lighthouse Authority, erected many handsome and enduring lighthouses.

Kipling’s 1896 volume, The Seven Seas, included many nautical poems. Below is “The Coastwise Lights,” extoling the lighthouses of England, which Kipling considered the best in the world.


Our brows are bound with spindrift and the weed is on our knees;

Our loins are battered ‘neath us by the swinging smoking seas.

From reef and rock and skerry—over headland, ness, and voe—

The Coastwise Lights of England watch the ships of England go!


Through the endless summer evenings, on the lineless, level floors;

Through the yelling channel tempest when the siren hoots and roars—

By day the dipping house-flag and by night the rocket’s trail—

As the sheep that graze behind us so we know them where they hail.


We bridge across the dark, and bid the helmsman have a care,

The flash that, wheeling inland, wakes his sleeping wife to prayer.

From our vexed eyries, head to gale, we bind in burning chains

The lover from the sea-rim drawn—his love in English lanes.


We greet the clippers wing-in-wing that race the Southern wool;

We warn the crawling cargo tanks of Bremen, Leith, and Hull;

To each and all our equal lamp at peril of the sea—

The white wall-sided warships or the whalers of Dundee!


Come up, come in from Eastward, of the guardports of the Morn!

Beat up, beat in from Southerly, O gypsies of the Horn!

Swift shuttles of an Empire’s loom that weave us main to main,

The Coastwise Lights of England give you welcome back again!


Go, get you gone up-Channel with the sea-crust on your plates;

Go, get you into London with the burden of your freights!

Haste, for they talk of Empire there, and say, if any seek,

The Lights of England sent you and by silence shall ye speak.
Above is the W. Heath Robinson painting done in 1909 to illustrate Kipling's poem, "The Coastwise Lights."


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