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Rudyard Kipling’s collection The Seven Seas (1896) contains the poem ‘The Three-Decker’, whose third verse is as follows:

By ways no gaze could follow, a course unspoiled of cook,
Per Fancy, fleetest in man, our titled berths we took
With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed,
And a Church of England parson for the Islands of the Blest.

The first couplet of this verse is made up of puns on the names of late 19th-century tourist agencies and operators, as described in my answer to Peter Shor’s question. But while researching this answer I noticed that editions of The Seven Seas have different text for this couplet. The original British edition (Methuen and Co., London, 1896) gives the version quoted above (page 135). But the U.S. edition (D. Appleton & Company, New York, 1897) gives this verse as follows (page 119):

Carambas and serapés we waved to every wind,
We smoked good Corpo Bacco when our sweethearts proved unkind;
With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed
We also took our manners to the Islands of the Blest.

Several features of the replacement couplet are unsatisfactory or puzzling:

  1. Waving serapés (Spanish–American shawls) makes sense, but waving carambas does not. Caramba! is a Spanish minced oath, so waving it requires a very loose sense of the word “wave” (or else it is surprisingly rude: caramba is a euphemism for carajo meaning penis).

  2. Kipling’s poem constructs an extended conceit between the Victorian three-volume novel (known as a three-decker) and a ship with three decks. Thus the ship is populated with tropes from these novels: “stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs” and so on. But considered as literary tropes, carambas and serapés seem to belong to Western fiction rather than Victorian melodramas.

  3. “Corpo Bacco” looks like Italian for “body [of] Bacchus”, presumably an oath (compare perbacco), but in the context of the replacement couplet it seems to be a kind or brand of tobacco. Is this some kind of joke?

If you search on Google Books for the phrase “Corpo Bacco”, there are (discounting duplicates) only two hits: Kipling’s poem in its U.S. edition, and the poem ‘Camp Song’ from The New Monthly Magazine for May 1853, signed ‘G.W.T.’ (perhaps George Walter Thornbury?):

Corpo Bacco! how we battled,
  Camped and marched the wide world over.
Caramba! I’m like the Calmuc,
  In my own land but a rover.

Can it be a coincidence that here we have caramba too?

A footnote explains that the italicized phrases in the poem are “oaths of all languages, picked up by the mercenary in different countries.” So in this poem “Corpo Bacco” and “Caramba!” make perfect sense: they are oaths picked up in Italy and Spain respectively. It looks to me very much as though the writer of the replacement couplet was pulling a prank by taking oaths from ‘Camp Song’ and sneaking them past the publisher by deploying them in misleading contexts.

My questions:

  1. Who decided to change this couplet, Kipling or his U.S. publisher, and why? (Did they doubt that their U.S. readers would understand the puns?)

  2. Did Kipling even write the replacement couplet, or is it editorial meddling? Was it common for editors to rewrite parts of poems like this?

  3. Is there a connection to ‘Camp Song’ by ‘G.W.T.’?

  • There's a few hits a year for "Corpo [di] Baccho" or "Caramba" in the late-19th century material in the British Newspaper Archive - sometimes journalism, sometimes fiction, but in either case stereotyped as Italian or Spanish exclamations. It suggests it was a stock phrase at the time and so I wouldn't put too much stress on the link to "Camp Song". Can't speak to the rest, though... – Andrew Feb 21 '18 at 14:00
  • After realizing that, in the 1950s, American editors took every single mention of Jews and Judaism out of Josephine Tey's mystery A Shilling for Candles, I'm not surprised at anything that editors did (or do) anymore. – Peter Shor Feb 21 '18 at 15:36
  • I wouldn't be too surprised about the “rudeness” — sailors were known to be, if not promiscuous, somewhat eager to sow their wild oats on every occasion they pulled into port. It's less likely but possible that the scarves were to be thrown aside after removing them from the ladies, but I've no evidence to support that.. – Will Crawford Feb 22 '18 at 18:05
  • @WillCrawford: Sailors may well have waved their dicks to every wind, but was it common to publish poems on the subject in 1897? I'm no expert on the period, so maybe it was! Why not write an answer and convince me? – Gareth Rees Feb 22 '18 at 18:14
  • Because I can't be certain that was the intended meaning, though it might well have been a deliberate play on words. After all, sailors are also renowned for profanity ;o) – Will Crawford Feb 22 '18 at 18:24

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