“The River’s Tale” was written by Kipling to serve as the introduction to a history of England for schoolchildren written by C.R.L.Fletcher. In all, Kipling contributed twenty- two original poems, or twenty-three if the two “American Rebellion” poems are counted separately, as they sometimes are. The book was published in July 1911 in two different formats. One, was large, lavishly laid out, and at 7/6d (37 1/2p in today's currency) expensive. It was called A History of England. The other was small, relatively cheap at 1/8d (8 pence in today's currency), functional in appearance, and given the significantly different title of A School History of England. The relative importance attached by Fletcher and Kipling to the two books can be seen from the initial print runs. Only 5000 copies of A History of England were printed. This compared with 25,000 copies of the School History. See David A Richards, Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography (New Castle, Delaware, 2006), pp. 415-417.
The nature of Kipling’s collaboration with Fletcher has received surprisingly little critical or biographical attention. Some further details can be found in J.J.Ross, ‘An English History,’ KJ 240, December 1986, pp. 31-42; and Peter Keating, Kipling the Poet (1994), pp. 169-184.
The intention behind the writing and publication of A School History of England is, and always was, perfectly clear. It was to be used as a school text book in order to persuade young children of Fletcher’s very particular view of England’s historical development. Kipling’s poems were written, quite consciously, to help support and inculcate that view.
The reason for publishing the book in its larger format is, however, not so clear. Presumably it was intended as a gift and/or library book, and, perhaps, as a means of introducing adults, as well as their children, to Fletcher and Kipling’s social and political ideas. Because of its handsome presentation it has often tended to be given precedence over the humbler school edition.
This attitude is unfortunate because although A History of England certainly does have a distinct bibliographical identity, it has no textual authority in any way separate from that of the School History. The text is exactly the same in each book. The pagination is also the same, and although published at a price that would prohibit its general use in schools, the larger book was still written for the same children as A School History. The only difference between the books is that A History of England contained four more coloured plates than A School History.
For these various reasons, and for the general convenience of any reader who wishes to follow up references, in all of the commentaries in this Guide on poems which Kipling wrote for Fletcher’s text, the title A School History of England is used throughout in preference to the misleading A History of England. As the two books have the same text and pagination, all quotations and page references do, of course, apply equally to both.
That said, “A River’s Tale” was not published originally in either book, but first appeared in a ‘copyright’ pamphlet called Three Poems by Rudyard Kipling in April 1911. The two accompanying poems were “The Roman Centurion Speaks” and “The Pirates in England” (though called at this point “The Pirates of England.”) All three poems were included three months later in A School History of England by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling.
“The River’s Tale” was placed at the start of Chapter 1 ‘From the
Earliest Times to the Departure of the Romans’ together with a highly romanticised coloured illustration by Henry Ford called ‘The Cave People.’ It was reprinted in Inclusive Verse (1919) when the subtitle was added; in the Definitive Verse (1940); the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27.
There were a few small changes made to the text of Three Poems before it was included in the School History. There was also one significant textual change between School History and Definitive Verse which is discussed below in the Notes to lines 1-2. For the Sussex single quotation marks replaced double quotation marks throughout. This was general practice in the Sussex, but is particularly noticeable in this case because the poem is a dramatic monologue, the speaker being the Thames. Another change for the Sussex was in line 34 where the second ‘and’ was deleted and replaced by a comma. The entry for the poem in ORG is numbered 971(a).
The main purpose of the School History was to trace the development of England from the withdrawal of the Roman legions to the present day. There was clearly an imperialist point in taking this period of time. In their preface Fletcher and Kipling announced that they had written the book: "for all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire", a motive that gained force if their story began with the decline of one great empire and ended with another at the height of its powers.
They were following much the same pattern as the first volume of Fletcher’s An Introductory History of England (1904) which Kipling greatly admired and usually looked to for historical details. Fletcher’s sub-title describes the scope of his book as being "from the earliest times to the close of the middle ages", though he gave only one chapter out of a total of twenty to pre-Roman times. In the School History this ratio is reduced even further. The opening chapter which covers the period from the ‘earliest times’ to ‘the departure of the Romans’ allows only a few pages for the whole of time before the Romans arrive.
Even this was a bit too much space for Kipling. When he first read Fletcher’s draft of A School History his main interest was in working out how he could fit his poems into the text and with making sure that Fletcher was giving enough attention to "the spirit of the land." At this stage of their collaboration, he had just one point to make about the book’s content: "The only thing I suggest is shortening up that fascinating animal Neolithic man and giving the kids more about the Romans". (Kipling to Fletcher 18 May 1910, Letters III, page 430).
We don’t know whether Fletcher did reduce the amount of attention given to ‘that fascinating animal’ or whether he and Kipling decided to go ahead with what was already there. It is very clear, however, that Kipling’s thoughts on this matter greatly influenced the introductory poem he went on to write.
Within the space of the original forty lines of "The River’s Tale" he covered the whole of Fletcher’s first chapter, moving swiftly and memorably from ‘the earliest times’ to the arrival of the Romans, very briefly their achievements, and even more briefly departure – for which a separate poem, "The Roman Centurion's Song", was written – and finally their replacement by the Danes.
The twenty fairly regular octosyllabic couplets of the poem show Kipling at his fluent popularising best, the argument flowing unstoppably forward in spite of all the outrageous rhymes and puns. The humorous fun-loving mood is never allowed to let up. The Danes "blow in", England is safely on the way to being formed, and Kipling can bring the poem to a triumphant close.