The Sons of Martha is one of many poems by Kipling that celebrates engineers, and what they do to keep things running. It’s loosely based on an interpretation of the following gospel story:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
— (Luke 10:38-42, New International Version)
While the standard interpretation is that Martha was preoccupied with the wrong priorities, that never sat well with me. Custom at that time imposed obligations on the hosts to honor their guests, and somebody had to take care of that, or it would have been a dishonor. Martha was honoring her guest by making sure everything he needed was available. While I get what was said – the story is supposed to be a metaphor for the priority of the spiritual over the mundane – in the real world, someone has to make sure food ends up on the table.
And those who worry about such realities tend to be engineers. People who do the nasty, scutty work of keeping things running while generally unappreciated and forgotten, making our lives easier. “They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires. He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires. “
The poem also brings up that those of an engineering bent have to deal with the world as it is, and not as they wish it would be. “They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.” Even more so these days, many of these professions are among the few in a cocooned civilization where life and death choices, and attention to details are part of everyday living.
And you can’t quit just because it’s no fun anymore.
I think the following entry at headpoet adds some valuable insight:
I like the way Kipling plays with faith in this poem. Mary’s sons are blessed, and Martha’s sons are trusted. If God himself is making you do the work of cleaving the paths and tallying the soldiers, then you are important and necessary, even if you are not noted. Some of the other commentaries I have read on this poem talk about how the engineers, the Sons of Martha, are apostate, or unreligious, or doubting. I don’t read it that way. I think the Sons of Martha are born unbelieving, ungullible, untrusting, in short, exactly what you want from the person who watches your nuclear dials and your airplane routes, who mixes the chlorine with your drinking water and butchers your meat safely. They cannot, will not believe that everything will turn out well because they are lucky. They are only averting disaster because they do not trust good things to stay good.
The Sons of Martha
1907 and 1922
The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.
They say to mountains “Be ye removèd.” They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd—-they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit—-then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.
They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.
To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden—-under the earthline their altars are—-
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.
They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s ways may be long in the land.
Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.
And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd—-they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet—-they hear the Word—-they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and—-the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!