(notes by Jan Montefiore
and John Radcliffe)
I take the poem to be musing on the way that an unattractive or boring-looking appearance can belie extraordinary feelings and actions – as with this couple who don't look like much, yet seem to have committed some kind of a crime passionel . That discrepancy between banal exterior and passionate inner life is a theme which the mature Kipling would dramatize brilliantly in his short stories – think of "The Dog Hervey"; the passion between the gawky plain ‘witch' Moira Sichliffe and the drunkard Shend, both of them middle-aged. Or "Mary Postgate", the spinster who looks like a camel, manifesting her terrifying depths of hatred and passion. Or "The Craftsman" about Shakespeare getting the inspiration for Lady Macbeth in the sight of a girl drowning kittens, ‘sombrely scornful’ of the brother who shrank from it.Background
Kipling doesn’t of course do it anything like so well in this early poem. It’s full - too full - of Browning influence - in the interjection ‘’bah ! Are they ever linked with beauty?" - and "God knows how it happened !" - plus the style of allusion, which is partly what makes it so obscure. Also Browningesque is the fairly direct description of a woman’s physical appearance , though he makes her ‘weak-mouthed and chalky’ rather than sexy as Browning mostly did in lines like ’that female with the smallish breasts’. I think he’s being consciously world–weary here , in a very teenagerish way. An early instance of the ‘knowing’ Kipling.
That said, I am completely foxed by the last line – ‘we cut them’ ought to mean, we ignored them – but if the couple were convicted criminals they’d be beyond the pale anyway. Unless he means that even when we saw how we’d underestimated them, that despite their mean appearance they were actually tragic figures, we still dismissed them ? ‘We’ being Ordinary Folk Like You And Me - In other words, Conventional.
I do like "the white-mouse eye can sparkle as well as the eagle’s with rage". (Was he thinking of Browning;s ‘Lost Mistress’ - "For each glance of the eye so bright and black/ Though I keep with heart’s endeavour’?") The eagle is a touch corny, but the white-mouse eye is great.
The poem leaves so much out (another technique which Kipling would perfect later)—we don’t have a clue what it was the couple did that got them put on trial. However, there was the crime of criminal contempt in those days, for breaching a court's ruling ? If they are an adulterous couple in a divorce case, the poem makes more sense. So does the obscurity—that would be a very risqué subject in late Victorian poetry. [J.M.]
Tennyson and Aurora Leigh came in the way of nature to me in the holidays, and C—— in form once literally threw Men and Women at my head. Here I found ‘The Bishop orders his Tomb,’ ‘Love among the Ruins’ and ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ a not too remote—I dare to think—ancestor of mine.