First published in W.E. Henley’s weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on 29 November 1890. First collected in: Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, United States Book Company, New York, 1890. It is Verse No. 549b in the ORG.
The poem has four four-line stanzas, each of two rhyming couplets, with a refrain of eight lines after the first stanza which is repeated after the last verse. There are also a number of lines throughout with internal rhymes, which contribute to the liveliness of the whole poem. It has been set to music a number of times, the first shortly after being published. See Brian Mattinson’s list of musical settings of Kipling's verse.
Written in the first-person, it gives the reflections of a soldier recovering from a drunken night out which has ended up with him in the regimental guardroom cells for having had a punch-up with the Corporal’s Guard, the contemporary equivalent of a regimental Town Patrol. Apart from the distress that this would cause to his wife and child, the speaker has no regrets for the punishment which will inevitably follow and appears to be rather proud of having blacked the Corporal’s eye. While there is a hint of Kipling’s usual soldier-cockney, this speaker appears to be unusually well-spoken.
Written in 1890, the background to the setting is the change in the system of punishments in the army following the abolishment of flogging in 1881 and the introduction of the annual Army Act in that year. For such an offence, a soldier could now be dealt with within the Regiment, being held in the Guardroom cells until being paraded in the Orderly Room to appear before the Commanding Officer.
Drunkenness alone could have been punished by a fine, but resisting the Guard as well meant a period to be spent Confined to Barracks (CB), generally with extra parades and/or fatigues. However, repeated offences, which seem probable in this case, could incur a period of months in a military prison.
The earliest significant comment was by Robert Buchanan in his article “The Voice of the Hooligan” in the Contemporary Review, Vol 76, of December, 1899. He included the first verse as an example of the Barrack-Room Ballads being:
... descriptive of whatever is basest and most brutal in the character of the British mercenary.There is very little specific comment on the poem until 1979 when Angus Wilson (p. 82) links the same first verse directly to Mulvaney in his assessment of the characters Kipling has given his ‘Soldiers Three’, although there is nothing of Mulvaney’s Irishness anywhere in the poem.
In Kipling Journal 322 of June, 2007, Dr Guiseppe Albano, in his article “Kipling’s Pastoral (A)Version” supports Kipling’s claims to pastoral status, that is ‘putting the complex into the simple’ . He writes:
This overlooked aspect of Kipling reaches its apogee in his drinking poems which naturally accommodate both his ebullient musicality and his inquisitive ear for realistic speech.and the first verse of “Cells” is quoted as the first of many examples.
In addition, I think that a comment by Margaret Stonyk in her book Nineteenth Century English Literature (Schocken Books, New York, 1983), although made about Kipling’s stories of the Great War of 1914-18, also applies because, like them, “Cells” is
...so focused on a central character that Kipling’s own attitudes remain a secret. It is this absolute psychological realism that permits the devotee of Kipling to take apparent prejudice and amorality in his stride; Kipling speaks as rarely as Browning with his own voice.and in “Cells” Kipling is speaking with the voice of a soldier that he knew.
button-stick Still in use, this is flat metal or wooden plate, about 6cm x 18cm with a parallel sided slot cut down the middle on the long axis from one end that could be slid under the brass buttons down the front of a uniform jacket so they could be cleaned and polished together without marking the cloth.
Corp’ral’s Guard The contemporary equivalent of a garrison Town Patrol, then consisting of three or more men under a Corporal. Their duties were to patrol areas round the barracks and deal with drunken or trouble-making soldiers, arresting them if necessary.
Clink A widely used slang word for any prison, in this case the cells of a regimental or garrison guardroom while waiting for disciplinary action to be decided upon. The original prison from which the name comes was in Southwark, on the south side of London, which operated from the 12th century until 1780.
pack-drill Punishment parade and drill exercises wearing full kit, pouches and back pack.
C.B. Punishment - Confined to Barracks for a set period, reporting periodically to the guardroom, attending parades and carrying out fatigues. No visits to the canteen allowed.
porter Dark brown bitter beer.
A dose o’ gin A dose of gin, a quantity of gin added to a beer in order to increase the alcoholic effect. Ralph Durand, in his Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling states that at the time this mixture was known as ‘Dog’s Nose’.
extry double Guard Two extra sessions of guard duty as a punishment, probably to run consecutively, which the speaker obviously resented enough to attack the Corporal when drunk.
stock A band of material worn round the neck inside the uniform collar.
stripes Stripes worn by a private soldier would have been ‘good conduct’ stripes and to have more than one, he would have had to have served for a minimum of five years without committing a serious offence – such as hitting a corporal! So the speaker really has fallen from grace. The good conduct stripe was an inverted chevron worn on the lower sleeve. It took two years to earn the first and another three years to earn the second. Each stripe entitled the wearer to an extra penny a day in the 1890s, when a private’s basic pay was about one shilling and four pence (16 pence).
Ord’ly room The Orderly-room, the office of the Regimental chief clerk and ante-room to the Adjutant’s office and the Commanding Officer’s office, where offences were dealt with and punishments awarded.
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