"The Dead King"


(1910)


Notes by John Radcliffe
and John McGivering



the poem
[June 17th 2011]

Publication history

ORG Volume 8, page 5427 lists this poem as Verse No. 939 and records first publication in The Times, the Morning Post, and other English newapapers on 18 May 1910. It was also published in many special editions, See David Alan Richards, p. 199 for further details of publication. It is collected in: This poem should not be confused with “Dead Kings”, an article about the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in Egypt of the Magicians (1914).

Theme

King Edward VII had died on May 6th 1910, and this was Kipling's eulogy to him as a wise devoted monarch who had served his people well. The Times of 6 May 1910 reported that the King had bronchitis, and the issue of the next day announced his death, so Kipling had managed to have the poem written and published in eleven days.

It reads more like an elegy for a mediaeval or Tudor king, with real powers, than a twentieth century constituional monarch, but one is conscious that Kipling had a deeply traditional respect for the role of Kingship. As a schoolboy in 1882, when Queen Victoria had escaped an assassination attempt, he had penned a fulsome tribute to her, "Ave Imperatrix", which was very much at odds with the usual wordly cynicism of Stalky & Co:

From every quarter of your land
They give God thanks, whu turned away
Death, and the needy madman's hand ...
Background

Albert Edward (1841-1910) had been King as Edward VII for nine years, succeeding his mother Queen Victoria in 1901 at the age of fifty-nine. As Prince of Wales he had led a lively social life, and had rebuilt his Norfolk home in Sandringham so as to include a ballroon for his many guests. He was in a hotel in Biarritz in France when the Queen died, and summoned the Prime Minister there to formally assume his role as King. His powers, under the British constitutional monarchy, were formal rather than real, largely limited to advising the Prime Minister. But he took his responsibilities very seriously and did his best to extert a calming influence over various turbulent issues, including the constitutional clash between the Goverment and the House of Lords in 1908-9.

His 'Edwardian' era saw big changes in technology and society, including powered flight, the rise of the Labour movement, the beginnings of the welfare state, and agitation for votes for women. The King had had a hand in the modernisation of the British Home Fleet, reform of the Army Medical Services, and the reorganisation of the British army after the Second South African War. He encouraged good relations between the United Kingdom and other European countries, especially France, for which he was popularly called "Edward the Peacemaker".

Harry Ricketts (p. 309) notes:

When Edward VII died in May 1910, Kipling pushed his friend R D Blumenfeld, editor of the Daily Express, to do a piece blaming the Liberals for the King’s death ... Blumenfeld wisely declined this extraordinary suggestion, and Kipling’s own fulsome tribute – “The Dead King” ... barely hinted at his more hysterical feelings.
See KJ 101/15 for a letter from Col. A. E. Bagwell Purefoy on this theme.

It is possible that the King’s sudden death may have been recalled when Kipling wrote in “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” (A Diversity of Creatures) (p. 192, line 5) '...the mere catarrh of a king would have wiped out the significance of our message ...'

See also "In the Presence" from the same collection.

Some critical comments

T S Eliot does not include this poem in his A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (Faber, 1951) but writes in his introductory essay (p.15):
I pass from the earlier ballads to mention a second category of Kipling’s verse; those poems which arise out of, or comment upon topical events. Some of these, such as “The Truce of the Bear” in the form of an apologue, do not aim very high. But to be able to write good verse to occasion is a very rare gift indeed: Kipling had the gift, and he took the obligation to employ it very seriously...

The poems on Canada and Australia, and the exequy on King Edward VII, are excellent in their kind, though not very memorable individually.


[an 'exequy' is a funeral procession or ceremony, an 'apologue' (from the Greek for 'statement' or 'account') is a fable or allegorical story with exaggerated detail to convey a lesson without stating it explicitly. The moral is more important than the narrative details. Ed.]

Notes on the Text


[Verse 1]

Realm Kingdom

the last grudged sands the sand in an hour-glass runs from the top container into the lower one – so when the last grains have trickled down, the time is up.

[Verse 2]

The pecular treasure of kings an echo of Ecclesiastes 2,8: 'I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat (got) me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, [as] musical instruments, and that of all sorts.

war-castles in this context war-ships, from the galleon-like ships of earlier times

Kingdoms, the Powers, and the Glories an echo of The Lord’s Prayer – 'For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory ...'

[Verse 3]

Hot from the press usually important news just printed, but here a play on words where the 'press' also indicates the hand-to-hand fighting in a battle.


[J.R./J McG.]

©John Radcliffe and John McGivering 2011 All rights reserved