1 January 2021 Susannah

A Smuggler’s Song

This is one of my favourites, a poem which captures the topic in the very rhythm of its words. One can hear the clip-clop of the ponies in its lines.

It was first published in 1906. It presents a rather romanticised view of smuggling, but that did reflect how many British people regarded the trade. Respectable parsons regularly purchased their spirits from the local smuggler (in the Diary of Parson Woodforde, written in the Georgian era, he often notes a delivery from the local smuggler).

Rudyard Kipling lived in Sussex and knew that the county’s coastline had a long history of smuggling – brandy, lace, tea, tobacco, were just some of the goods brought across the channel from France, without any duty being paid on them. The penalties for those caught by the excise officers were severe, so goods brought in illegally had to be quickly loaded onto horses and taken to a safe storage place.

The speaker in the poem is the smuggler, issuing a warning to children who might watch his activities. His grammar is not perfect, and he’s very matter-of-fact and unapologetic about his choice of career.

A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm – don’t you ask no more!

If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been !

Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark –
You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

‘If You do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along ‘o being good!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Listen to a reading of it by TP Burrow, or try a sung version.

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Featured image credit- Smugglers Unloading Contraband, George Morland (1763-1804), https://www.lyonandturnbull.com/auction/lot/131-george-morland-1763-1804/?lot=38917&sd=1#
Body image credit- Rudyard Kipling in 1915, by Unknown – Rudyard Kipling von John Palmer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44696911

Comments (8)

  1. Barbara McKay

    It is a great poem Susannah – equally as enjoyable as “The Highwayman” – we loved them far away at Primary school and still enjoy them. We have a wonderful poetic heritage to,explore. Happy New Year

    • Susannah Fullerton

      ‘The Highwayman’ remains one of my favourite poems of all time, but I agree that Kipling’s Smuggling Song is also fabulous and a great poem to learn by heart.
      Happy reading for 2021.

    • Deb Tait

      Such an evocative poem. I remember hearing this poem for the first time on a tv program shown to us at school back in the 60s in the UK. A child standing by a partially opened curtain looking out onto the street and the sound of the horse’s hooves. It has remained one of my favourites ever since.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        A picture accompanying a poem can remain in our minds so vividly. Glad this month’s poetry choice brought back good memories for you.

  2. Charlie (Charlotte) Cook

    I do like the ballad of the Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Smuggler Song’. Happy New Year to you all in Australia.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Happy New Year to you too, Charlie. I hope you can make one of your regular visits to Australia before too long.

  3. gail shore

    A great poem, evocative and graphic. BUT, I think it should be read in a smuggler’s voice. The voice of the reader here is too refined.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I agree, though I think impoverished younger sons of gentry sometimes got involved in smuggling too. Happy New Year Gail.

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