"The American Rebellion"

(1776)

(notes by
Peter Keating)




notes on the text
the poem
[October 31st 2006]


Publication history

First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was used to open Chapter XI, ‘The American Rebellion and the Great French War, 1760-1815; Reign of George III,’ with the two poems framing the section of the chapter in which Fletcher outlines the events of the American war of independence. The opening poem was untitled, while the second poem was accompanied by the words ‘After the War’ in the right-hand margin. When reprinted in collected editions of Kipling’s verse, the poem carried the overall title of “The American Rebellion (1776)” while its two separate parts were given the titles “Before” and “After.”

The poem has caused some bibliographical confusion. It first appeared in its present familiar form in Inclusive VerseDefinitive Verse (1940), the Sussex Edition, vol 34, and the Burwash Edition, vol 37. For the Sussex one change was made to the text: at the end of line 10 of “After” the colon was replaced by three dots. In ORG, Verse 1, 1969, Harbord discusses the division of “The American Rebellion” into two parts in what seems to be a rather over complicated manner. He numbers “Before” 987(q) and calls it “The American Rebellion I (1776),” and lists as an alternative title, the first line of the poem ‘’Twas not while England’s sword unsheathed.’ He numbers “After” 988 (r) and calls it “The American Rebellion II (After). He gives two alternative titles for this: “After the War” and “The Song of Valley Forge.”

Background

The two poems “Before” and “After” are strikingly different from each other in tone and attitude. “Before” is sharply critical of America, sarcastically mocking the rebels for their hypocrisy and deviousness in waiting until England had done the preparatory work for them before they decided to make their much-vaunted bid for ‘freedom.’ This angry tone is conveyed rhetorically by the repetition of the negative ‘Not’ and by always referring to England with the affectionate personal pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her,’ and the Americans with the more distanced and impersonal ‘they,’ ‘their’ and ‘these.’

It reveals the ambivalence towards America that is apparent in much of Kipling’s work, after, at least, his move back to England from Vermont in 1896. That he was conscious of taking a hostile approach to the subject is apparent from a letter he sent to Josephine Dunham in September 1910 about the poems he was planning to write for the School History:

‘I think I should write some severe and drastic verses about the U.S. and the Revolution – verses lightly describing the French wars that saved America from France and then I shall mourn over America refusing to pay her share.’
Letters, III, 451.
It is particularly worth comparing “Before” with another poem “The Neutral” (later changed to “The Question”) which Kipling wrote in 1916 as a rebuke to America for waiting for so long before joining the Allies in the First World War. For some further details of this, see Peter Keating, Kipling the Poet (1994), pp. 200-201.

“After” represents a remarkable change of attitude. The bitterness and partisanship are completely discarded, military and political issues make way for the indifference of seasonal change to human conflict, turning the poem into a calm, if fairly conventional, elegiac tribute to the soldiers of both sides who died in the war.


©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved