The River’s Tale (Prehistoric)   Leave a comment

TWENTY bridges from Tower to Kew –

Wanted to know what the River knew,

Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,

For they were young, and the Thames was old

And this is the tale that River told:-

“I walk my beat before London Town,

Five hours up and seven down.

Up I go till I end my run

At Tide-end-town, which is Teddington.

Down I come with the mud in my hands

And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.

But I’d have you know that these waters of mine

Were once a branch of the River Rhine,

When hundreds of miles to the East I went

And England was joined to the Continent.

“I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,

The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,

And the giant tigers that stalked them down

Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.

And I remember like yesterday

The earliest Cockney who came my way,

When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,

With paint on his face and a club in his hand.

He was death to feather and fin and fur.

He trapped my beavers at Westminster.

He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,

He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.

He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,

Flint or bronze, at my upper fords,

While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin,

The tall Phoenician ships stole in,

And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,

Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith way;

And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek

Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,

And life was gay, and the world was new,

And I was a mile across at Kew!

But the Roman came with a heavy hand,

And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,

And the Roman left and the Danes blew in –

And that’s where your history-books begin!”

““The River’s Tale” was written by Kipling to serve as the introduction to a history of England for schoolchildren written by C.R.L.Fletcher. In all, Kipling contributed twenty- two original poems, or twenty-three if the two “American Rebellion” poems are counted separately, as they sometimes are. The book was published in July 1911 in two different formats. One, was large, lavishly laid out, and at 7/6d (37 1/2p in today’s currency) expensive. It was called A History of England. The other was small, relatively cheap at 1/8d (8 pence in today’s currency), functional in appearance, and given the significantly different title of A School History of England.” Here is the original text at the Kipling Society.

Perhaps Joyce came across this poem? Already in January 1907, Joyce contrasted himself with Kipling:

“…Plain Tales from the Hills stirred [Joyce’s] admiration for at least its factual accuracy: ‘If I knew Ireland as well as R.K. seems to know India,’ he wrote Stanislaus…’I fancy I could write something good. But it is becoming a mist in my brain rapidly.'” Quoted at The Modernism Lab.

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