A sestina is a 39 line poem in which each of the stanzas ends in the same six words, in a prescribed order, in which the word that ends the last line of the first stanza starts the first line of the second and so on… It consists of six such stanzas and an ‘envoi’ at the end which encapsulates the message of the poem.
It is one of the most prosaic of poetic forms, with repetition standing in for rhyme, and particularly suited to a monologue – especially a monologue that obsesses on or circles around a particular theme.
Kipling uses a sestina for this monologue of a ‘tramp royal’, a man who has wandered from job to job and place to place, never settling into one place or routine before quitting his job, upping sticks and moving somewhere else. The form helps to capture the pattern of his life: ever looking for something new yet, like the lines of the poem, ending in the same way. Despite his wide experience, his thoughts revolve around the same few ideas; his thoughts are numerous, and some quite interesting, if hardly original; but they are shallow, as he careers from one thought to the next without stopping to ponder each.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.
What do it matter where or ’ow we die,
So long as we’ve our ’ealth to watch it all—
The different ways that different things are done,
An’ men an’ women lovin’ in this world;
Takin’ our chances as they come along,
An’ when they ain’t, pretendin’ they are good?
In cash or credit—no, it aren’t no good;
You ’ave to ’ave the ’abit or you’d die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn’t prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some’ow from the world,
An’ never bothered what you might ha’ done.
But, Gawd, what things are they I ’aven’t done?
I’ve turned my ’and to most, an’ turned it good,
In various situations round the world—
For ’im that doth not work must surely die;
But that’s no reason man should labour all
’Is life on one same shift—life’s none so long.
Therefore, from job to job I’ve moved along.
Pay couldn’t ’old me when my time was done,
For something in my ’ead upset it all,
Till I ’ad dropped whatever ’twas for good,
An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die,
An’ met my mate—the wind that tramps the world!
It’s like a book, I think, this bloomin’ world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you’re readin’ done,
An’ turn another—likely not so good;
But what you’re after is to turn ’em all.
Gawd bless this world! Whatever she ’ath done—
Excep’ when awful long I’ve found it good.
So write, before I die, ‘’E liked it all!’
The tramp echoes a line from another of Kipling’s poems ‘The Gods of the Copy Book Headings’ which warns its readers that they must always pay heed to eternal truths, Biblical or common sense: “If you don’t work, you die”; but the tramp qualifies this with his protestation that you needn’t stay in the same place doing the same job. There is, then, some wisdom in his ramblings, alongside self-justification; and there are glimpses of an appreciation of beauty in them too, those dying dock lights and his fellow ‘tramp’ the wind, alongside the more prosaic concerns of money and ‘tucker’. You get to thinking that the tramp’s life, for all its instability, has been a good one after all, and maybe it has. The last full stanza reveals a hidden glumness beneath the bravado of the tramp about his own life, seeming to suggest that he would quite like to be done with it, but his spirit rallies in the last stanza to emphasise that, in the end, ‘E liked it all’.