(notes by Philip Holberton
and Alastair Wilson.
edited by John Radcliffe)
Taking Revelations 21:1 as his text ("and the sea is no more"), Kipling launches into "The Last Chantey" with an imaginative verve that places it high among the many rollicking celebratory ballads of life at sea. The first response of the "jolly mariners" when God seeks their advice on whether He should "gather up the sea" is to remember the hardships they have endured and say, yes "God may sink the sea!" But one by one the shades of the people through the centuries who have depended on the sea, call for it to be preserved: Judas, cooling on the ice floe granted to him once a year, St Paul undertaking his perilous journeys in order to spread the Gospel, slaves who were flung overboard, gentle- men-adventurers and whale-fishers - all urge the mariners to hold to the traditions of the sea. This the mariners do, rejecting the heavenly alternative offered by God:Alastair Wilson comments: It must be said that, in this poem, Kipling is treating this biblical text in a manner verging on the flippant.
Must we sing for evermore
On the windless, glassy floor?
Take back your golden fiddles and we'll beat to open sea!
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.[Verse 1]
St. Brendan espied a shape in the sea which looked like a man perched on a rock. The saintly abbot asked him who he was and what crime he could have committed to have deserved such a fate.[Verse 4] The Angel of the Off-shore Wind (he’s the one who puts a check on the thunder and the raging of the sea), complains that he will lose his honour (and his job) if the sea goes. [A.W.]
‘I am Judas Iscariot who foully bargained away the life of his Master. Jesus Christ’s unspeakable mercy has put me here. To me this is no place of punishment. It is the spot where my loving Saviour grants me respite in honour of His Resurrection.’
The Companies of Gentlemen Adventurers of the Tudor period were the forerunners of the great chartered companies, such as the Honourable East India Company, the Hudson Bay Company and others, which made the British Empire. Their original quarrel with Spain arose from the vigorous refusal to recognise Spain’s right to a monopoly of trade in the New World. Thus when Hawkins, representing a syndicate of London merchants, first took a cargo of slaves to the West Indies, he was debarred from trading by a prohibitive customs duty, until, by landing a hundred armed men, he persuaded the authorities to reduce the tariff.[Verse 10]
The Spanish government revenged itself by confiscating two of his ships that fell into his power. Thereafter English trading ventures to America became practically piratical expeditions, and consequently the few English seamen that fell into the hands f the Spaniards were sent to the Inquisition or the galleys. The dealings of the English with the Spaniards were red enough, but the former would have hotly denied iniquity.
O eternal lord God, who alone spreadest out the Heavens and rulest the raging of the seas”- an unequivocal expression of God’s power over the sea. Later on, Kipling must have known the words, because he uses snippets in other stories, including "Their Lawful Occasions" (1903).