'Et dona ferentes'

(1896)

Notes by Mary Hamer


the poem
[January 24 2008]


Publication history

St James’s Gazette, March 24 1896; published separately in New York 1896. Collected in The Five Nations, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.

Background

Kipling was still living in America at the time this was written but was preparing to return to England. Public anxieties as well as the well-documented difficulties with his brother in law lay behind this decision. The long-running border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana had come to crisis towards the end of 1895 (see note to “Our Lady of the Snows” stanza 4). The US appeared poised to intervene in order to resist what was seen as British aggression. Kipling had felt there was a real possibility of war, though admiring the steady calm of the British position.

Two years later there was still tension between Britain and the United States. See Kipling’s letter to Charles Eliot Norton of 16 August 1897 [Letters Vol 2, Ed. Pinney], which quotes an editorial from the Spectator of 14 August 1897 which argued that American political leaders, not the American public, were distinctly hostile towards England and were exploiting the ignorant patriotism of the country. The editorial repeated the line which with which Kipling closed “Et Dona Ferentes”:

‘But oh, beware my country when my country grows polite’.


Notes on the text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling" 1914.)


[Title] Et dona ferentes literally, 'even bearing gifts' (Latin). From Virgil's Aeneid ii. 49, spoken as a warning against taking the wooden horse left behind by the Greeks into the city of Troy: 'I still fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts'.

[Stanza 1] Four-mile Radius the area of London within four miles of Charing Cross; when Kipling returned from India to London in 1889 he took rooms by Charing Cross station. His previous life in Lahore had been led among ‘the plains of Hindustan’.

[Stanza 2] pentecostal speaking many tongues, as the apostles were said to do following the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, see Acts 2, 4.

[Stanza 3] Saint Laurence according to legend while this martyr was being burned alive on a gridiron he invited his executioners to ‘turn him over, he was done on that side’.

[Stanza 4] psychologic moment translated from the French ‘moment psychologique’ and taken to mean the moment in which the mind is in actual expectation of something which is about to happen. OED points out however that the French itself is a mistranslation of an original German text.

[Stanza 6] Nous sommes allong . . . schoolboy French for ‘We’re going to our boat and we don’t want (a row)’

[Stanza 10] aas-vogels vultures, in Afrikaans.


[M.H.]

©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved