Intermediate Form

The Sons of Martha

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I'm by no means a literature critic, but surprisingly I do have two poems that I consider my favorites. One of them is Tennyson's "Ulysses", and the other is "The Sons of Martha" by Rudyard Kipling. So it was with much dismay that I read Chris's blog post bashing the latter poem. While Chris did a damn good job formatting the poem, I'm afraid he's missed several important points when understanding it.

To understand it, we need to first understand who the "Sons of Martha" are. They are the people who make the things that we take for granted, and the people who ensure the services that we expect to always be available are.

I once heard someone, when asked "Where does electricity come from?" answer in all seriousness "An outlet in the wall." And the thing is, to a first approximation, that's correct. We don't when plugging things in, think about the thousands and thousands of people that work every day to ensure that there will be voltage and current available at that outlet. While we might think about the electric company when their bill comes, the only time we think about the people who work for it is when the power fails, and then we start caring a great deal.

Likewise, when we turn on the water faucet, we don't think about where that water comes from. But it's the job of many people to ensure that that water makes it to your lips. Most of the water drunk by the population of New York City comes from one of three "water tunnels". The construction of the newest of these was started in the 1970s, and isn't scheduled to be completed until 2020. 23 men died to ensure that people who live and work in New York City can continue to drink.

"The Sons of Martha" are these uncelebrated people who do the things that improve everyone's lives, and Kipling is both celebrating them and pointing out that they should be celebrated.

The bible quote Chris mentioned has Jesus declaring that Mary (who seems to worry about one thing, religion) is superior to Martha, who worries about many things related to the comfort of Jesus. I disagree with Chris that Kipling is interpreting this to mean that Jesus died to ensure "physical comfort of those who listened to him".

Rather, I think that the right (and only) interpretation is that Jesus is declaring that those who focus on religion are superior to those who focus on more worldly matters. And I don't think that it's irrational to extend the Sons of Mary to include people like artists, academics, lawyers, and politicians, who argue amongst themselves without caring how they are provided form. The Sons of Martha, then, are the people who provide for them. In the poem, Kipling focuses on people like engineers and construction workers, but I'd also put people like farmers and truck drivers and the like in there.

For those familiar with the Hitchiker's guide series, I'd claim that the Sons of Mary are the residents of the A and B arks, while the Sons of Martha claimed the C ark.

Chris asks:

the sons of Mary have it so much better than the sons of Martha, then be a son of Mary, not a son of Martha.

The answer to this is twofold.

The first is that if there were no Sons of Martha, we would all be much the worse for it. Without the people that supply electricity and water, we would be in the dark, hoping for rain to refill our cisterns. Without the bridges and ferries that cross waterways, we'd be trapped in our small towns. Without the farmers and truck drivers that bring food to markets, the Sons of Mary would be ekeing out livings as subsistence farmers, rather than thinking their deep thoughts.

The second is that doing these tasks is quite rewarding, personally. The joy of making something new and useful with ones own hands and mind is one that few will experience.

Chris says:

For the practical side, the complaint is essentially that there's a group of people who do thankless and dangerous jobs for no identifiable reason. Or, more eloquently, "simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need."

Except if it were simple service simply given for a common need, they wouldn't complain or feel slighted. That just isn't the meaning of "simple".

The thing is, by and large, these people aren't complaining. Kipling wasn't an engineer. He's one of the Sons of Mary, an enlightened one who's pointing out and celebrating all that the Sons of Martha do without complaining.

Finally, he writes:

Kipling does address this idea in his line "To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar." Of course, if you're going to invoke predestination, it's rather unfair to complain of those predestined to a better life.

I don't interpret the Belief in this to mean religious belief... it would be foolish to imply that an engineer cannot be as religious as the next man. Instead, the Belief that's denied here is the faith in technology. By choosing (if it is really a choice) to work on technology, people pull up the veil on something, and so are forced to care about how it works. They then become responsible for using that knowledge to benefit others, rather than just expecting things to work. This goes back to "They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose."

I don't think the reference to birth was intended to imply predestination. Instead, I think it was pointing out that it takes a special kind of person to be a "Son of Martha". Some people can handle technical things, and some can't, and I don't think it's something that can be tought at a late date. I know I knew from a young age I was destined to work with computers, and I suspect many people of my generation knew the same thing, in the same way our fathers knew they would work with electronics, or engines, or motors, or the like.

I think Chris's problem is twofold: He's interpreting the poem as religious commentary, which knowing the original audience, it wasn't. And he's considering the poem to be being given from the perspective of one of the Sons of Martha, while I think it's more appropriate to interpret it as the words of an outsider (as Kipling was), looking in and celebrating them.

- Tom | permalink | changelog | Last updated: 2004-06-11 12:41

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