Portrait of Rudyard Kipling, John Collier, 1891
National Trust, England
"Big Steamers"is a poem by Rudyard Kipling,
England's first Nobel laureate in literature and its foremost poet of empire.
It was first published in 1911 as one of his twenty-three poems
written specially for C. R. L. Fletcher's "A School History of England".
Appearing in the last chapter of the book, it is intended for children,
with the verses responding with facts and humour to their curiosity about the 'big steamers' -
as the merchant ships are called.
Edward Elgar set the poem to music late in World War I, with the permission of Kipling.
This was published in "The Teacher's World", June 19, 1918,
in response to a request from the Ministry of Food Control.
The intent was that it would be sung in schools, emphasizing to children
the importance of these large merchant ships, and their role in British free trade.
At that time many ships had been lost to German U-boats, causing the rationing of food -
much of which had to be imported.
This poem was also set to music by two English composers Edward German
and English folk singer and Kipling Society Fellow Peter Bellamy.
2nd Lt John Kipling
Unknown - Rudyard Kipling Papers, University of Sussex Library
Kipling's son John went missing in action at the Battle of Loos, in northern France, September 27, 1915.
The 18-year-old lieutenant was likely the most widely searched-for soldier of the First World War.
Kipling mobilized every resource available.
Even the Prince of Wales, the Crown Princess of Sweden, and the American ambassador in London tried to help.
The Royal Flying Corps dropped mimeographed sheets behind enemy lines in case
"der Sohn des weltberühmten Schriftstellers Rudyard Kipling"
had been kidnapped or taken prisoner.
Sick with anxiety, Carrie and Rudyard visited war hospitals and
interviewed soldiers from John's regiment, the Irish Guards, hoping for a scrap of information.
Nothing conclusive emerged.
Kipling memorialized their harrowing 4-year search in his bleak 1916 poem, "My Boy Jack",
in which a father asks for news, any news, of his sailor son,
only to receive the unchanging answer,
"Not with this wind blowing, and this tide."
This was the second child whom the Kiplings had lost.
Their six-year-old daughter, Josephine, for whom the stories in "The Jungle Book" were written,
had died of pneumonia, in New York, in 1899.