Poems for the Sons of Martha

This is the time of year for graduations. Unfortunately, there won’t be the usual ceremonies and other gatherings to mark the occasion this year. Instead, we offer some classic poems–and a modern adaptation. Congratulations to the class of 2020!

When graduating engineering students join the Order of the Engineer, a poem by Rudyard Kipling, whom George Orwell called “the prophet of British imperialism,” sets the theme: “The Sons of Martha” from the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is preoccupied with the practical needs of her guests, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet taking in His teaching. Frustrated, Martha asks Jesus to get Mary to help her. But Jesus reproves her for being “careful and troubled about many things.” It’s not that Jesus doesn’t appreciate her hard work. But by making the good the enemy of the best, she’s taken the joy out of it for everyone. On the other hand, Kipling’s poem lauds the practical service of engineers, the “sons of Martha” without whom the world would not survive.

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!

Other poems for the sons of Martha

Surprisingly, Kipling wrote other poems about engineers, too. “Sappers” honors the hard and dangerous work of the Royal Engineers. They’re the ones who lay the tracks for the trains that transport the troops, build the roads, remove landmines, and lay the telegraph lines. Even so, according to Kipling, they don’t get the pay or the respect they deserve.

Of all Kipling’s poems about engineering, “McAndrew’s Hymn” is the one I most easily relate to. My father, a retired naval officer, was a mechanical engineer. Throughout my childhood and well beyond, whenever we boarded a vessel of any size we’d always end up in the engine room–its beating heart as far as he was concerned. “McAndrews’ Hymn” gives voice to the late-night meditations of a Scots marine engineer on life, Calvinism, and engines.

Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin’ dynamoes.
Interdependence absolute, foreseen, ordained, decreed,
To work, Ye’ll note, at any tilt an’ every rate o’ speed.
Fra skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an’ stayed,
An’ singin’ like the Mornin’ Stars for joy that they are made;

Although he works in obscurity, he takes both pride and pleasure in his work. The first-class passengers care only about the romance of steamship travel. They don’t know–and don’t care–about the sweaty practicalities below decks.

But no one cares except mysel’ that serve an’ understand
My seven thousand horse-power here. Eh, Lord! They’re grand – they’re grand!

McAndrews’ engines, and his faithful service, get them safely to port. In his dour way, he’s deeply concerned about the health, safety, and welfare of the passengers and crew.

To honor another fictional Scots engineer, Leslie Fish has revised the words and set the poem to music. Here’s the video version.

Strength of materials as metaphor

Kipling’s “Hymn of Breaking Strain” contrasts the predictable failure of rivets and girders with what happens when human beings break. No one blames a rivet for breaking, but it’s different with us. Even though there’s nothing to tell us what will break us, we’re responsible for our failure.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
‘The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend—
‘What traffic wrecks macadam—
What concrete should endure—
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!