"The Dawn Wind"

Notes on the text


(by Peter Keating)




[October 12 2004]


[Title] The Dawn Wind. Kipling is writing within the very substantial literary tradition of the aubade (from French aube, dawn), a type of poem celebrating the arrival of a new day or (in the case of many love poems) complaining at the passing of the night. The symbolism of wind is usually linked with freedom or liberation of one kind or another: in the Bible it has especially strong spiritual connotations, being associated with the all-encompassing power of God and the Holy Spirit: ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ John. 3,8.

[lines 8-10] Softly, the darkness breaks … a blow like an angel’s wing … gentle but waking the world. Throughout the poem the gathering forces are described in terms of calm, quiet, and gentleness, though their effects will be nothing of the kind. Kipling is probably using this as a conscious device to emphasise that he is hailing an intellectual and spiritual revolution, not the physical variety. The image of the angel’s wing is effective enough in combining this mixture of great power and gentleness, but a little disconcerting when it is considered that one of the repressive forces to be blown away by the dawn wind is organised religion.

[line 14] Out of some long, bad dream. The fifteenth century. In A School History, p. 106, Fletcher has little good to say of the fifteenth century, claiming that its chief importance was to be found in the silent preparations at work during it for the great achievements to come. In making this point Fletcher also neatly introduces a main theme of Kipling’s poem: ‘Apart from the politics and wars of this dreary period there are one or two things to be noticed of much greater interest for us. Every age is only preparation for the next, and the seeds of many of the great “awakenings” of the sixteenth century were sowed in the fifteenth.’

[line 15] The noise of fetters breaking. There are two celebrated revolutionary exhortations echoed here, either or both or neither of which Kipling may have had in mind. First: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in fetters,’ from The Social Contract (1762) by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). And secondly, ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Rousseau is the likelier model, his revolutionary gesture being far closer to the kind of individual freedom that Kipling is advocating, quite apart from it being pretty well inconceivable that Kipling (let alone Fletcher) would ever have spoken on behalf of a proletarian revolution. But, nevertheless, it would be surprising if both men had not been aware of the Marxist connotations of the phrase, and it is worth noting that Fletcher and Kipling’s revolution, though very different from anything being called for by Marx and Engels, was similarly comprehensive in its scope.

[line 16] His soul is his own. There is no difficulty with the word ‘soul’ as long as it is accepted as being used here with its common individualistic or humanistic meaning. But if it is intended to carry religious nuances then very serious problems arise, not least because of the very different religious views held by Kipling and Fletcher.

One of the major forces making for change in the fifteenth century which did not fall directly within the orbit of Francis Bacon’s revolutionary inventions but is strongly represented in "The Dawn Wind" was the Reformation, the movement throughout Europe which challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Fletcher was a practising Anglican and notoriously anti-Catholic. In A School History, in the paragraph leading up to Kipling’s poem, the first result he mentions of the coming transformation is that men were now able to ‘question whether all the tales which the Church had been telling the world for a thousand years were true or false. Could Beckett’s bones really restore a dead man to life? Could a priest turn bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ?’ This equation of Catholicism with idiotic superstition is made even more forcefully in the equivalent passage in the first volume of Fletcher’s Introductory History, p. 379: ‘Then the windows of Heaven shall be opened …the Gospel of Christ, stripped of Romish accretions, shall be open to all men to hear and read.’

The exact nature of Kipling’s religious beliefs are always problematic, but it is reasonably safe to assume that he would have been entirely uninterested in the distinctions between Catholic and Protestant being made by Fletcher. The noise of ‘fetters breaking’ in "The Dawn Wind" most certainly includes the fetters of religion, but surely, in Kipling’s case, of all religions which are narrow and repressive. This is in keeping with the poem’s overall celebration of the individual’s freedom from tyranny of all kinds in favour of a new liberating humanism. Fletcher’s phrase about the Gospel being made ‘open to all men to hear and read’ may sound like a similar individualistic position, but it actually has a more specific, and less liberal, meaning. He is referring to the first English translations of the Bible, and the Protestant belief in salvation through the individual conscience rather than through the mediation of Rome.

Not the least strange of the many puzzles raised by this extraordinary poem is how Kipling managed to convey his own lack of religious beliefs without arousing Fletcher’s passionate Anglicanism or his rabid anti-Catholicism. But then it is just as strange that Kipling seems to have made no objections to Fletcher’s bluntly expressed prejudices being allowed to introduce the poem. It is certainly possible, and once again more familiar to readers from the short stories than the poems, that in the final stanza of "The Dawn Wind" Kipling is being consciously and teasingly ambiguous in order to acknowledge the continuing existence of various religious positions, not all of which he himself would necessarily approve.


[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2003All rights reserved