This story was first printed in the Idler Magazine (Great Britain) for December 1895, and (U.S.A.) for January 1896; also in McClure’s Magazine in March 1896. It was collected in The Day’s Work in 1898, and in numerous later editions of that collection. It is to be found in Volume XIII of Scribner’s Edition, Volume VI of both the Sussex Edition, and Burwash Edition.
In some editions (including the standard Macmillan) it has an eight-line verse heading beginning “We now, held in captivity,” ascribed to "Song of the Engines", see The Birthday Book, December 24th 1896. It is collected in Poems 1929 and DV (1940) under ‘Chapter Headings’. It appears twice in the Sussex and Burwash editions.
The story is of a new merchant steamer, a cargo tramp, the ocean-going equivalent of John Masefield’s later “Dirty British Coaster”, and how she “limbered up” and became inured to her calling. Some have regarded it as an allegory, but we may leave that aspect to readers, for no such construction is needed to give point to the story. A distinguished sailor has added:
“Such commentators are perhaps unaware of what all seamen believe to be the fact, and justly so believe, that every new ship must and does go through such a process as that described in this story before things work smoothly and she becomes thoroughly efficient, which process all seamen term ‘finding herself’."Some seamen have gone so far as to write: “It is all absolutely correct technically.” We shall see.
It is suggested that a generation more used to handling complex mechanical devices on a daily basis, namely, the family car, will understand that newly-built machinery has to be run-in before it achieves its full efficiency, and whether or not you appreciate Kipling’s anthropomorphising the subject, it is nonetheless a reality.
Ships and shipping lines
Several famous passenger liners of that time (the 1890s) are mentioned in the text, including the City of Paris, an Inman liner later taken over by the American line and renamed the Paris. Others are :
In this story (see notes on the text) the different sounds made by different kinds of marine engines are compared most felicitously to a number of popular tunes of the day:
“Said the young Obadiah to the old Obadiah”