"An American"


(notes by
John McGivering

the poem

[January 27th 2017]


First published in the The Pall Mall Gazette, July 27th 1894, under the title "As it strikes a contemporary". ORG No. 608.

Collected in:
  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Deinitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 106
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 407
Critical comments

This poem has been largely ignored by the critics. Andrew Lycett (p. 267) comments on Kipling's inability to settle happily in America and how he was beginning to feel comfortable in England:
...to show what he was rejecting he wrote the execrable poem "An American" for the Pall Mall Gazette (ironically owned by a rich American, William Waldorf Astor) . In this he contrasted the indomitable Yankee spirit with the new unthinking breed of American, with an energy
...that bids him flout the Law he makes
That bids him make the Law he flouts...
See also "An Error in the Fourth Dimension", published in December 1894.

Philip Holberton points out that the metre and the first two verses carry echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Brahma”:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Avatar the manifestation of a Hindu deity in bodily form. See The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney

[Verse 3]

Celt a person of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Cornish descent, from the Celtic peoples who pre-dominated in the British Isles before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th century AD, and the later Danish and Norman invasions.

Gaul an ancient region of Europe roughly comprising modern-day France, and the Low Countries.

Redskin a slang and offensive term for Native Americans not now used

[Verse 4]

Labrador a coastal region of Canada. Perhaps signifying the whole continent of North America

Guadeloupe A group of French-governed islands in the Caribbean.

stoop a verandah (Afrikaans)

[Verse 9]

slough of his despond an echo of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The marsh of despair is an obstacle in Christian's journey. See the "The Holy War."

[J McG]

©John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved