Kipling's "The Ballad of the 'Bolivar' " is a poem for which I have a great "fellow feeling". He had done his homework as always. He knows his navigation too, going down-Channel past 'Start' [Srart Point in Devon – Ed.] and 'The Wolf [Wolf Rock,off Cornwall – Ed.], then south across the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao in Spain.
His reference to 'pully-haul' in emergency steering, the hogging and sagging as she pitches, and the 'plummer-block' (which takes the thrust) are all real technical terms. The'greybeard' sea is also a term used in particular by "Cape Horners". 'Bluffed the Eternal Sea' also has meaning for me, and many other seamen. And there is the lovely bit of irony in the last two lines;
'Ain't the owners gay,
Cause we took the Bolivar safe across the Bay?'.
Kipling thought the ballad over for months and was able to sit down in the office of the St. James’s Gazette with Sidney Low and strike off the fair copy. For payment on the nail, the sum of fifteen guineas. [£15-75 - worth £1,270 in 2010]. Charles Carrington continues his observations on Barrack-Room Ballads on page 196:
a collection of such richness, variety, and gusto, if we claim no other merit for it, as to inflate the Kipling boom seven times larger. The authorized English edition … was reprinted three times in 1892, and fifty times in the next thirty years,Harry Ricketts (pagec 188) also reports Sidney Low recalling this incident:
We had been writing strongly in support of a bill, then before Parliament, intended to prevent unscrupulous ship-owners from risking the lives of sailors by sending ships to sea in a dangerous condition. One morning Kipling strode into my office and began at once with breezy vehemenence ‘I say, you know, I like those screeds of yours on the coffin-ships. Do you want a poem about them ?’Meryl Macdonald notes (p. 89) that Kipling recited this poem at a concert aboard Empress of India during the trip to America after his wedding the same year.
I assured him I did.
‘All right,’ he replied, ‘give me some paper, something to smoke and something to drink and you shall have it’.
I supplied his simple needs, put him in a room by himself, and left him ... .In about half-an hour, or a little longer, I went in to see how he was getting on. ‘Here’s your poem,’ he said.
….the majority are (sic) descriptive of whatever is basest and most brutal in the character of the British mercenary ... The best of these, "The Ballad of the Bolivar" is put into the mouth of seven drunken sailors “rolling down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain”, and loudly proclaiming, with the true brag and bluster so characteristic of modern British heroism, how “they took the (waterlogged) Bolivar across the Bay” It seems, by the way, a favourite condition with Mr. Kipling, when he celebrates acts of manly daring, that his subjects should be mad drunk, and, in any rate, as drunken as possible………..A more appreciative contemporary view is expressed by F. W. Powell, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, writing in The English Illustrated Magazine for December, 1903 (collected in R.L. Green’s Kipling, The Critical Heritage, p. 285):
Neither Tennyson nor (I think) Browning could write a good ballad, but Mr. Kipling can. “Fisher’s Boarding-House” ,”The Bolivar”, “The Last Suttee” and Danny Deever” for instance, are real ‘little epics’.See "Themes in Kipling’s Works" – 'The Sea' on this site. See KJ 227/25 for a report of a parody sung by schoolboys on the Dart Valley Railway in Devon. See also The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestacksmokestack' scans more elegantly in both poems, though Kipling also uses 'funnel' in Verse 5
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days