The Sons of Martha

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

Rudyard Kipling
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!

La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad

This is one of the few poems I love that I first ran across in High School english. The title means “The beautiful lady without mercy.”

It’s worth noting that the depiction of faerie folk in older literature often depicts them as human-sized, and ethereally beautiful. Things rarely end well for those who are convinced or enthralled to join them. 

La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad
BY John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

MacDonough’s Song

Many who were exposed to Kipling almost exclusively through his more popular poems (such as “If”) or the Jungle Book, would be surprised to know he had also written what would be considered science fiction and horror

Two of his stories, “As easy as A.B.C” and “With the Night Mail” were set in a future where air travel, was managed by a governing body called the Aerial Board of Control,  In these stories, MacDonough’s Song was the banned poem (that nevertheless everyone knew) which was the rallying cry of those who rebelled or opposed the de-facto centralized, one-world government.

MacDonough’s Song

Rudyard Kipling

WHETHER the State can loose and bind
In Heaven as well as on Earth:
If it be wiser to kill mankind
Before or after the birth—
These are matters of high concern
Where State-kept schoolmen are;
But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
Endeth in Holy War.

Whether The People be led by The Lord,
Or lured by the loudest throat:
If it be quicker to die by the sword
Or cheaper to die by vote—
These are things we have dealt with once,
(And they will not rise from their grave)
For Holy People, however it runs,
Endeth in wholly Slave.

Whatsoever, for any cause,
Seeketh to take or give,
Power above or beyond the Laws,
Suffer it not to live!
Holy State or Holy King—
Or Holy People’s Will—
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
Order the guns and kill!

Once there was The People—Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth.
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, O ye slain!
Once there was The People—it shall never be again!


Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician and logician who delighted in wordplay. Jabberwocky – another of my lifetime favorites that I’ve long ago committed to memory – is made up largely of nonsense words that, looked at with a metaphorical squint, almost make sense. 

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


This poem has long been a favorite of mine, and is one of the handful of poems I’ve always been able to recite from memory for my entire adult life. 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Shelley