The Three-Decker

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Over on the Literature Stack Exchange, Peter Shor1 asked:

In the poem ‘The Three-Decker’ by Rudyard Kipling, there is one line where the meter is slightly different from all the other lines. I Googled that line, not expecting to find anything, and Google Books came up with this quote from the magazine The Academy (1896):

The very last literary device (or vice) which we should expect to find Mr. Kipling using is the pun. Yet he is ever a dealer in surprises, and here in that delightful piece of fancy ‘The Three-Decker’ (one of the four literary ballads in The Seven Seas), we came upon this distressing stanza:

By ways no Gaze could follow, a course unspoiled of Cook,
Per Fancy, fleetest in man, our titled berths we took
With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed,
And a Church of England parson, for the Islands of the Blest.

The italics, we admit, are our own. We employ them in the hope that Mr. Kipling may see his error emphasised, and repent.

But what is the pun?

There are three puns, on the names of tourist agencies and operators. “Ways no gaze could follow” has the double meaning:

  1. routes that go beyond the horizon, or otherwise out of sight;
  2. routes that are not available as package tours from Henry Gaze & Sons, nor found in their publication Gaze's Tourists Gazette.

“Unspoiled of Cook” has the double meaning:

  1. never visited by the navigator and explorer Captain James Cook;
  2. not spoiled by crowds of tourists taking package holidays with Thomas Cook & Son.

“Fleetest in man” has the double meaning:

  1. the fastest of human faculties;
  2. the ships of the Inman Line, which included winners of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic. In support of this reading, note that the scansion is regular if you put the stress on ‘in’, as required by this reading, and irregular if you put the stress on ‘man’, as required by reading 1.

But that’s not the end of the puzzle. While researching my answer I noticed that different editions of The Seven Seas have different text for this verse of ‘The Three-Decker’. The original British edition (Methuen and Co., London, 1896) gives the verse as quoted above (page 135). But the U.S. edition (D. Appleton & Company, New York, 1897) gives this verse as follows (page 119):

Carambas and serapés we waved to every wind,
We smoked good Corpo Bacco when our sweethearts proved unkind;
With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed
We also took our manners to the Islands of the Blest.

Three features of this version are unsatisfactory or puzzling. First, waving serapés (Spanish–American shawls) makes sense, but waving carambas does not. Caramba! is a Spanish minced oath, so waving it either requires a very loose sense of the word “wave”, or else seems surprisingly rude for a popular 1896 book of verse, as caramba is a euphemism for carajo meaning penis.

Second, Kipling’s poem constructs an extended conceit between the Victorian three-volume novel (known as a three-decker) and a ship with three decks. Thus the ship is populated with tropes from these novels: “stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs” and so on. But considered as literary tropes, carambas and serapés seem to belong to Western fiction rather than Victorian melodramas.

Third, “Corpo Bacco” looks like Italian for “body [of] Bacchus”, an oath (compare perbacco), but that would normally be spelled “Corpo di Baccho”, and in context it doesn’t make sense—the verse seems to require it to be some kind of tobacco.

If you search on Google Books for the phrase “Corpo Bacco”, there are, discounting duplicates and Italian, only two hits: Kipling’s poem in its U.S. edition, and the poem ‘Camp Song’ from The New Monthly Magazine for May 1853, signed ‘G.W.T.’ (perhaps George Walter Thornbury), which includes the lines:

Corpo Bacco! how we battled,
  Camped and marched the wide world over.
Caramba! I’m like the Calmuc,
  In my own land but a rover.

Can it be a coincidence that here we have caramba too? A footnote to ‘Camp Song’ explains that the italicized phrases are “oaths of all languages, picked up by the mercenary in different countries.” So in this poem “Corpo Bacco” and “Caramba!” make perfect sense: they are oaths picked up in Italy and Spain respectively, and the mercenary, being Polish, might plausibly not know how to spell “Corpo di Baccho”. But this consideration doesn’t apply in ‘The Three-Decker’, where the use of the phrase remains mysterious.

So I have no idea what is going on with the U.S. version of ‘The Three-Decker’. Why was this verse changed? Did Kipling even write the replacement? How come it contains oaths that are used out of context and misspelled? Is there in fact a connection with ‘Camp Song’, as suggested by the common elements? I don’t have any answers to these questions!2


  1.  The inventor of Shor’s algorithm for efficient factorization on a quantum computer.

  2.  I have a theory, for which I have no evidence whatsoever, that it went down something like this:

    Appleton: We can’t print these puns.
    Kipling: That’s ridiculous! Though it pains me to be so immodest, the puns are extremely well-crafted, and even if the fine people of New York are unfamiliar with the low-cost package tours offered to the public by the firm of Henry Gaze & Sons, they can still appreciate the straightforward reading.
    Appleton: No, the puns have got to go. Our readers will not understand them.
    Kipling (aside): Let’s see if you understand this!
    (Kipling writes verse full of swear words and dirty jokes. Appleton fails to spot them.)