"The Betrothed"


(1888)


(notes by
John McGivering)



the poem
[November 6th 2010]

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Pioneer and Pioneer Mail on 21 November 1888, and the Civil and Military Gazette on 23 November, under the title of “The Meditation of William Kirkland”. See David Alan Richards (p. 39), and for musical settings, p. 694; also Brian Mattinson's research summarised on this site. See also ORG, Volume 8, page 5231 (Verse No. 339B.).

It is collected as “The Betrothed” in:
  • Deparmental Ditties and Other Verses (1890)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Scribner's Edition (vol. 17)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 100
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
The theme

The poem offers a light-hearted comparison between the respective merits of smoking and women, in twenty-six rhyming couplets The girl comes a poor second when the poet decides not to marry her. This, like “Loot”, has been reviled by those, lacking a sense of humour, who—in the view of this Editor—have taken both too seriously.

"The Betrothed" has been parodied by later less indignant readers, most recently by Patri Friedman.

See also our Notes on "Certain Maxims of Hafiz", which, like "The Betrothed", might well have been written by an elderly man-about-town rather than a young fellow of twenty-three.

Background

The quotation at the top of the poem “You must choose between me and your cigar”, from a Breach of Promise case in around 1885, (presumably involving a William Kirkland, to judge by the original title) may well have been the starting point for the poem, but we have not been able to trace a case involving a man of that name. [Information from readers will be much appreciated; Ed.]

One wonders if this piece is to a degree autobiographical like so much of Kipling's other work. He had been a dedicated smoker since his schooldays, though in later years he was obliged to give it up on medical grounds. See his description of a tobacconist's shop in "In the Interests of the Brethren" in Debits and Credits:
It had been established by his grandfather in 1827, but the fittings and appointments must have been at least half a century older. The brown and red tobacco- and snuff-jars, with Crowns, Garters, and names of forgotten mixtures in gold leaf; the polished ‘Oronoque’ tobacco-barrels on which favoured customers sat ; the cherry-black mahogany counter, the delicately moulded shelves, the reeded cigar-cabinets, the German-silver-mounted scales, and the Dutch brass roll- and cake-cutter, were things to covet.
At that time smoking, of pipes and cigars, was very much a male activity, often in "smoking rooms" where women were not expected to trespass. For a woman to smoke either would have been eccentric and rather improper.

Some Critical Opinions

This poem is discussed by Andrew Lycett (p. 158) in an interesting comment on the young Kipling's attitude towards women:
Rudyard could not make up his mind whether women were a positive or negative influence in India. In the Plain Tale "His Chance in life", Rudyard admits that a woman's presence can be useful: `When a man does good work out of all proportion to his pay, in seven cases out of nine there is a woman at the back of his virtue.' But by the time of The Story of the Gadsbys, his views had altered abruptly: women are now an encumbrance to men trying to fulfil their duty. `A young man married is a young man marred,' as Gadsby's friend, Captain Mafflin, put it, or, `He travels the fastest who travels alone' - from the much quoted explanatory `L'Envoi' at the end of the book. This was odd because Rudyard had just been in Allahabad, where the Hills' marriage, which he had witnessed at close quarters, was enduring and mutually supportive.

Notes on the text


[Heading]

breach of promise case this refers to a lawsuit following the failure to keep a promise to marry. Such cases were usually brought by the disappointed woman who had incurred expenses in anticipation of the proposed union, and whose life expectations were lost. At that time in Britain, on marriage, a woman's property passed to her husband. For the wealthier classes matrimony was a serious contract in which money and property were at stake.

A 'Breach of Promise' case was the basis of the first novel of Charles Dickens, his humorous masterpiece The Pickwick Papers (1836), and of the celebrated light opera "Trial by Jury" (1875) by Gilbert and Sullivan.

[Verse 1]

Cuba an island in the West Indies where the finest cigars are made.

Maggie a diminutive of the beautiful name of "Margaret", which seems uncouth to this Editor, whose mother's name it was.

[Verse 2]


Havana a cigar made in the capital of Cuba.

cheroot a thin untapered cigar open at both ends.

[Verse 5]

Larrañaga registered in 1834 by Ignacio Larrañag, this become a well-known brand of cigar.

Henry Clay a brand of cigars named after the notable American statesman and orator Henry Clay (1777-1852).

[Verse 8]

The light of Days that have Been an echo of “A Lament” by George, Baron Lytton (1803-1873):

Ah, never can fall from the days that have been
A gleam on the years that shall be !
[Verse 10]

Manila in this context a mild cigar from the capital of the Philippines. See "A Smoke of Manila" in Abaft the Funnel. They also grow a very fine hemp there for making excellent ropes.

[Verse 11]

harem the part of an Eastern household where the women were accommodated.

[Verse 14]

Suttee suicide by a Hindu widow on the funeral-pyre of her deceased husband. See our notes on Kipling’s verse “The Last Suttee”.

[Verse 16]

Java in this context a cigar flavoured with coffee, among other things, from the island of Java, in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies.

Borneo The great island north of Australia, now divided between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Spanish Main the mainland of South America, at one time part of the Spanish Empire, and the ocean surrounding it.

[Verse 17]

I will take no heed to their raiment an echo of various Biblical references, including Matthew 5,34: 'Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.'

[Verse 18]

Moor Strictly a Muslim from Morocco, but here probably simply meaning someone who practises polygamy—marriage with several wives.

Mormon a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in the American State of Utah, which sanctioned polygamy until 1890. It is still practised by some Mormons today. (2010)

[Verse 19]

Nick o’ Teen Nicotine, the powerful alkaloid which is the active constituent of tobacco.

[Verse 20]

Cabanas medium-strength cigars from Cuba.

[Verse 22]

Will-of-the-Wisp ignis fatuus (Latin for "foolish fire") also known as corpse candle, jack-o'-lantern, friar's lantern etc., is a ghostly light sometimes seen at night over marshland, resembling a flickering lamp. It is the subject of much folklore of ghosts and the supernatural, but is in fact caused by methane gas ignited by lightning. Here it means something illusory, now seen, now disappearing.

[Verse 25]

Yoke in this context the large timber collar used to harness a pair of oxen – thus a badge of servitude. It may also have an echo of the ancient Roman custom of humiliating the soldiers of a defeated enemy by making them pass under a low arch of spears, bowing their heads. (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)

[Verse 26]

Spouse A partner in a marriage, in this case the wife.


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved