31 January 2010

When the Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder.

On the Road to Mandalay adapted from Kipling's poem.
Johnny Comes Marching Home. A recent letter from Phil complained about robo calls and Sarah Palin's announcement that she will campaign for John McCain. Phil's advice to Sarah (Think she'll listen?): "Stay out of Arizona til after the primary. If McCain wins, fine. Then you can indulge your sense of obligation. He's a RINO fer sure (immigration, cap and trade, etc.), but better a RINO than a Dem. And if he loses, we're all on the same side, which is where we belonged in the first place!" This columnist agrees, but worries that McCain's millions, the local press, who will abandon him in the general, and lingering affection for an old war hero will carry the day. More to the point, he fears that Republican voters may succumb to the "Better than a Dem" argument before the general, i.e., that they will fall hook, line and sinker for the claim that only McCain can win — which brings us, in a round about way, to the subject of today's post.

Puzzle in a Poem. Long puzzling to this author are the geographical and ichthyological references in Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, Mandalay, later set to music (video). On the face of it, Kipling's allusions, to "China", "the bay" and "flyin'-fishes" make great verse, but not a whole lot of sense. Some have suggested geographic ignorance / poetic license and let it go at that. But, as we shall see, poetry and reality can be reconciled, remarkably, if you will indulge me, in a way that bears on the aforementioned election. First, the relevant lines of the poem:
"By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!"


Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
..." [Emphasis added]

Figure 1. The spectacular pagoda at Moulmein.
Geography. Mandalay is the old royal capital of Burma. The city is inland and upriver (north) on the Irrawaddy of Rangoon, the present-day capital. Moulmein, home of the spectacular "old Mulmein Pagoda" (Figure 1), is south and east, on the other side of the Gulf of Martaman (Figure 2), and China is far to the north and the east. Importantly, the Irrawaddy was the "road to Mandalay," or so the British called it — hence the references to "the old Flotilla" (river boats based at Mandalay) and "their paddles clunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay."

  1. If one is going up the Irrawaddy by paddle steamer from Rangoon, how does the sun rise over China, which is in the wrong direction and hundreds of miles distant?

  2. The only "bay" in the vicinity, the Bay of Bengal, is to the south and west. How can China be "'crost the bay"?

  3. Where frolic the flying fishes? Not in the Irrawaddy. The family Exocoetidae is entirely marine.

Previously. This correspondent is not the first to ponder the problem. Over at Old Poetry, several readers weigh in on the subject:
  1. Charley Noble suggests, and I agree, that "China" refers to Indochina, in which case the sun can rise due east. Charley notes that the Irrawaddy was "the road to Mandalay" — hat tip — and further suggests that the setting is Moulmein harbor. With the last I disagree because it would make India, not China (Indochina), the land across the bay.

  2. David Beierl suggests that the first line above "should read '... lookin' lazy at the sea'. The change ['lazy' to 'eastward']," he writes, was made "by the folks who set it [the poem] to music," and that, the sea being west of Moulmein, "the alteration doesn't make sense." Clearly, if one is looking seaward from the pagoda, one is facing west. However, while "lazy at the sea" shows up towards the end of the poem, Project Gutenberg gives the first reference to sea gazing as "lookin' eastward'." That having been said, a survey of other internet links yields multiple occurrences of both versions.

Figure 2. To the east of Rangoon, and on the other side of the Gulf of Martaman, is the town of Moulmein. Mandalay lies to the north.
My Solution. Kipling imagined (he was only in Burma for a couple of days) going upriver from Rangoon to Mandalay, and, as suggested by Noble, "China" is Indochina. The "bay" is the Gulf of Martaman, wherein cavort the Exocoetidae (flyin'-fishes). The first reference to "lookin'," has Kipling in Rangoon gazing towards Moulein and the girl who thinks of him, hence, the sun rises in the east — "outer China" and "'crost the bay." In the second reference, it is the temple that looks seaward. As Beierl correctly observes, "east" won't do. So Kipling substitutes "lazy at" for "eastward," and, while he's at it, changes "lookin'" to "looking."

Unresolved. If we take Kipling's words at face value, the flying fish are still in the Irrawaddy. Perhaps, having never himself made the journey, he imagined them incorrectly in the river. Perhaps, as others have suggested, meter and rhyme trumped accuracy, i.e., Kipling knew full well that the fish were in the bay, but couldn't get that to work. Or perhaps, from time to time, hapless individuals try their luck in freshwater — sort of like conservatives voting for RINOs.

Update (1 February, 2010): Additional discussion of these issues at Waepedia — probably elsewhere as well.

No comments: