Someone asks if anyone has heard of their boy Jack. Another replies, “Not this tide.” The first speaker asks if the second person knows when Jack is returning, and the second speaker says he will not return with this wind blowing, with this tide.
The first speaker asks if anyone has had word of him, and the second repeats the refrain “Not this tide” and adds that something that is sunk cannot swim. They also repeat that Jack will not return with this wind blowing.
The first speaker asks imploringly what comfort they might find, and the second speaker replies that they can have no comfort with this or any tide. The only thing that might be of some help is that Jack did not “shame his kind”, even with the wind and the tide.
The second speaker continues, telling the first to hold up their head this and every tide because this was the son they bore and “gave to that wind blowing and that tide!”
This poem was written by Kipling to commemorate his son John, who died during WWI. He was killed in action in France at the Battle of Loos after being there for only three weeks. Unfortunately, he was on the "missing believed wounded" list for two years. This was a devastating blow to Kipling and his wife, who had lost their daughter Josephine in 1899 to pneumonia.
Kipling felt particularly terrible about his son's death because he had encouraged him so assiduously to enter the military; he firmly believed that men who shirked military duty did wrong by their country. John wanted to join the Royal Navy but was refused due to poor eyesight. This also prevented him from serving as an officer. Kipling used his own connection to Lord Robert, the commander-in-chief of the British Army and colonel of the Irish Guards, to get John into the latter. It is said that the last he was seen, a shell had exploded in his face and he was stumbling blindly in the mud. His body was not identified until 1992. Kipling's guilt can be glimpsed in his words published after his son's death: "If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied".
Although the connection of John's death to the poem "My Boy Jack" is questionable, many believe that it is a reference to Kipling's son. Some scholars say that the poem was originally published at the head of a story about the Battle of Jutland (a 1916 WWI battle between British and German battleships) and referred to death at sea, with Jack being a generic "Jack Tar" (a term used to denote a seaman of the Royal or Merchant Navy). This would indicate that the poem had nothing to do with John and was merely an expression of the poet's keen understanding of the sacrifices necessary in war.
However, the fact that the poem was published after John's death would seem to encourage readers to hunt for evidence of a more personal mourning at work. Indeed, the poem is bleak and melancholy. It is very short, and structured like a dialogue. One voice continues to ask for news of their son while another voice, presented in detached and otherworldly italics, offers scant hope. The second voice uses the image of the receding tide and the blowing wind to create a sense of absence, as in the absence of the son who went away to war. This poem evokes the loss felt by parents who lose their children to war. WWI was a particularly brutal war, and this sad, simple poem encapsulates the profound loss in a very effective fashion.
The end of the poem offers up an admonition meant to assuage the sadness felt by mothers and fathers who lost their child: "Then hold your head up all the more, / This tide / And every tide; / Because he was the son you bore, / And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!" Kipling may have felt guilty about pushing his son to fight, but he still felt intense patriotism and civic duty. He knew that young men did have to die for their country, and still believed the British military to be the glory of the age.