As I have been trying to come to terms with the horrors of the Grenfell fire and its aftermath, and think of its implications, I have half-remembered a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I have looked it up and I reproduce it in full below. It is over a hundred years old and is about a flood disaster, not a fire, but I think it is no less applicable today.
Kipling uses a the failure to prevent a flood as a metaphor for a deeper failure in Society. He wanted the poem to be a wake-up call. Is the fire a metaphor for some greater failing today? We still need to wake up!
|WE HAVE no heart for the fishing, we have no hand for the oar —
All that our fathers taught us of old pleases us now no more;
All that our own hearts bid us believe we doubt where we do not deny —
There is no proof in the bread we eat or rest in the toil we ply.Look you, our foreshore stretches far through sea-gate, dyke, and groin —
Made land all, that our fathers made, where the flats and the fairway join.
They forced the sea a sea-league back. They died, and their work stood fast.
We were born to peace in the lee of the dykes, but the time of our peace is past.Far off, the full tide clambers and slips, mouthing and testing all,
Nipping the flanks of the water-gates, baying along the wall;
Turning the shingle, returning the shingle, changing the set of the sand…
We are too far from the beach, men say, to know how the outworks stand.So we come down, uneasy, to look, uneasily pacing the beach.
These are the dykes our fathers made: we have never known a breach.
Time and again has the gale blown by and we were not afraid;
Now we come only to look at the dykes — at the dykes our fathers made.O’er the marsh where the homesteads cower apart the harried sunlight flies,
Shifts and considers, wanes and recovers, scatters and sickens and dies —
An evil ember bedded in ash — a spark blown west by the wind…
We are surrendered to night and the sea — the gale and the tide behind!At the bridge of the lower saltings the cattle gather and blare,
Roused by the feet of running men, dazed by the lantern glare.
Unbar and let them away for their lives—the levels drown as they stand,
Where the flood-wash forces the sluices aback and the ditches deliver inland.Ninefold deep to the top of the dykes the galloping breakers stride,
And their overcarried spray is a sea — a sea on the landward side.
Coming, like stallions they paw with their hooves, going they snatch with their teeth,
Till the bents and the furze and the sand are dragged out, and the old-time hurdles beneath.Bid men gather fuel for fire, the tar, the oil and the tow —
Flame we shall need, not smoke, in the dark if the riddled seabanks go.
Bid the ringers watch in the tower (who knows how the dawn shall prove?)
Each with his rope between his feet and the trembling bells above.Now we can only wait till the day, wait and apportion our shame.
These are the dykes our fathers left, but we would not look to the same.
Time and again were we warned of the dykes, time and again we delayed:
Now, it may fall, we have slain our sons, as our fathers we have betrayed.Walking along the wreck of the dykes, watching the work of the seas!
These were the dykes our fathers made to our great profit and ease.
But the peace is gone and the profit is gone, with the old sure days withdrawn…
That our own houses show as strange when we come back in the dawn!