"The Bells and
Queen Victoria"


(1911)

(notes by
Peter Keating)




notes on the text
the poem
[March 23rd 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 is placed in Chapter XII, ‘George III to George V, 1815-1911', with the title ‘The Bells and the Queen, 1911’ which Harbord [ORG, Verse 1, 1969, No 992 (v)] notes as an alternative title. The present title was first used in I.V., 1919, and then in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. For the Sussex, single quotation marks replaced double quotation marks.

One bibliographical oddity, small in itself but perhaps revealing of Kipling’s attitudes, is that in the School History this poem was followed in the same chapter by three further poems: "Big Steamers", "The Secret of the Machines", and "The Glory of the Garden." But in all collected editions of Kipling’s verse it was moved forward so that the only poem still to come is "The Glory of the Garden."

The reason for the change, presumably, was to allow the two major patriotic poems of the book to stand together so that they could make a powerful closing appeal to the reader, with the monarch giving precedence only to the nation, a point that is stressed in the poem itself. With this in mind, it is worth noting that while both poems are celebratory in tone, "The Glory of the Garden" has served its patriotic function well and become one of Kipling’s best-loved poems. In contrast, the patriotism of "The Bells and Queen Victoria" now seems over-done and the poem is virtually forgotten.

Background

Fletcher opens Chapter XII, the last of the book, by observing that England’s story must now be brought ‘down to our own days’, and that this imposes special difficulties for the historian. One of the difficulties in Fletcher’s mind was the death of King Edward VII in 1910, and the coronation in 1911, the year in which the School History was published, of his successor George V. These events were far too immediate to be discussed in the book itself, but for writers as conscious of their national responsibilities as Fletcher and Kipling they did have to be acknowledged in one way or another. Edward’s death could not be ignored, but it was impossible cover the events of his reign too closely, not least because Kipling loathed the Liberal government that had been in power since 1905.

It is not known how the problem was settled between the two men, but although they would have been of like mind on most of the issues involved, it seems at least possible that this was one of those moments in writing the book – and although we can’t be sure which moments they were, we do know they existed – that Kipling took the lead, in prose as well as poetry. In order for the book to end on a suitably high note, emphasis in the chapter was placed on Queen Victoria. Her reign and the comparatively short reign of her son Edward were blended together; and George V, Edward’s son, was also introduced. In this way, Kipling’s hymn of praise to Victoria was able to unite all three monarchs as the inspirational saviours of British society, and also to point forward to a glorious continuity about which he himself must have had serious doubts. Here is how the poem is introduced:

The result of the reigns of Victoria and Edward VI has been to lift the crown again to a position which it had not occupied in men’s minds since the death of Elizabeth. It is not with our lips only that we are loyal to King George V, it is with our hearts also. The crown is not only the ‘golden circle’ that binds the Empire together; it is the greatest thing in that Empire.
[A School History, p. 222.]


[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved