"The Explanation"


(notes by John McGivering)

the poem
[September 24th 2010]

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Scots Observer on 10 February 1890, with the alternative titles of “The Legend of Love and Death” and “The Tragedy of Love and Death” See David Alan Richards (p. 54).
See also ORG Volume 8, page 5281 (Verse No. 403).

It is collected in:

This piece should not be confused with “An Explanation” (see ORG Volume 8, page 5289 for the text; it is listed as Verse No. 422) an uncollected item of verse with a prose heading and five stanzas of twenty-two and twenty-four-syllable lines rhyming internally. It first appeared unsigned in the St. James’s Gazette of 17 March 1890. See Richards p. .376.

The Theme

The poem is a reflection on the contradictions of Life. Love and Death forget their age-long quarrel for a while and get drunk together, mixing up their arrows when they drop their quivers. Thus afterwards Love sometimes wounds or kills, while death may bring contentment. The last line asks if this is the reason why:

Old men love while young men die ?

Some critical comments

Charles Carrington (page 154) sees it as:

a slight piece ... a meditation in the style of Lyly
John Lyly (Lilly or Lylie) (c. 1553-1606) was an English poet and playwright, author of Euphues,The Anatomy of Wit, Euphues and His England. He wrote in the mannered style of the time.

Andrew Lycett (p. 204) agrees, calling the poem: 'A wry, Jacobean style meditation'. .

Ann Weygandt (p. 29) confirms the debt the poem owes to Lyly's poem:

Could he impart at will a decidedly Elizabethan flavor to his poetry if he had not read widely in the lyrists of the period? "The Explanation" seems to owe a definite debt to Lyly's "Cupid and my Campaspe"; both are whimsical parables in which Eros plays one of the chief parts:

Cupid and my Campaspe played
At cards for kisses, Cupid paid;
He stakes his quiver, bow, and arrows
His mother's doves, and team of sparrows...
Usually, however, no one author can be relied on as having supplied Kipling with a model.

Notes on the text

[Line 1] Love was traditionally depicted as a Cupid – a cherub or little boy with wings, armed with a bow and a quiver containing arrows.

Death is an old man with a beard, a scythe and an hour-glass like a giant egg-timer; but this time he has a bow and arrows.

[Line 4] quiver in this context a container for arrows worn over the shoulder like a bag of golf-clubs

[Line 5] bout a word of many meanings, here signifyimng a drunken session - a ‘drinking-bout’.

[Line 14] Vemon-headed poison-tipped

[Line 18] loosing blindly firing at random, without taking aim.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved