First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was placed in the middle of chapter IV, ‘Henry II to Henry III, 1154-1272; The Beginnings of Parliament.’ An entry in the right hand margin beside the poem reads: ‘Runnymede, June 15, 1215.’ Inserted in the same chapter is a drawing by Henry Ford entitled ‘King John signs the Great Charter.’ Harbord (ORG Verse 1, 1969, No. 977g) gives “Runnymede” as an alternative title. The poem was reprinted in I.V., 1919, when the present subtitle was inserted; in D.V.,1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27. For the Sussex, the double quotation marks were replaced by single quotation marks throughout the poem; exclamation marks were inserted at the end of lines 1,7, and 26; and the full stop at the end of line 11 was replaced by a dash.
In the ORG entry for this poem Harbord inserts the following note:
Kipling is said to have written an additional quotation in a Letter of September 3rd, 1905:The extract from the letter referred to by Kipling is taken from the Catalogue of the Works of Rudyard Kipling Exhibited at the Grolier Club from February 21 to March 30, 1929 (New York, 1930), p.183. The full letter, to the Dean of Grahamstown Cathedral, is now included in Letters, III, 182. The verse mentioned by Harbord (ORG Verse No. 879) is a four-line dedication, written for a memorial in Grahamstown, South Africa, to the memory of the men of the district who lost their lives in various African wars of the late nineteenth century. The memorial was unveiled on 9 March 1905. The verse, which is not included in the Definitive Edition, is entitled “No 5 Grahamstown Memorial to the Fallen (1880-1902). It reads:
They came of that same stubborn stock that stoodIt should be noted that in these various quotations and allusions, the second word of the first line of this verse changes between the past and present tenses, and the spelling of Runnymede varies.
The historical setting of the poem is the revolt by English barons against King John and their successful attempt to force him to define and codify certain fundamental rights and liberties in the Magna Charta. (The Great Charter) As Fletcher points out, the importance of the Charta lay in its comprehensive nature. Whether or not the barons fully realised the full implications of their actions, the rights which they demanded, and received, were gradually extended to cover all members of English society:
No doubt to many of the barons of this year, 1215, it was their own grievances of which they were thinking most – the grinding taxes, the loss of their Norman lands, their cruelly murdered kinsfolk. But in order to get these grievances redressed they were obliged to ask also for the redress of the grievances from which other classes were suffering; even ‘villeins’ are carefully protected by one of the articles of the Charter.There were to be frequent attempts to by-pass the Magna Charta – the first, almost immediately, by King John himself – but the basic principles it established of justice and freedom for all under the law were to be profoundly influential. For a very different, and far less idealistic, view of how Magna Charta came about, see Kipling’s short story “The Treasure and the Law”, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906).
In “The Reeds of Runnymede” Kipling uses two different verse forms, though the rhythm is much the the same for both. The first two stanzas are of six lines, the remaining three stanzas of eight. The poem is opened by an unidentified narrator whose task is to set the scene and introduce a dramatic monologue or chorus spoken by the reeds who take over at line 8. It is a good example of the anthropomorphism that always attracted Kipling, and in this instance is supported by the narrative device, common in fairy and folk tales, of reeds speaking and having their words spread by the wind throughout the world. In the final stanza, the narrator returns to point the moral.
Kipling’s approach to the subject is an attractive blend of lyricism and didacticism. By evoking the movement of the ‘lissom’ reeds and the sound of the wind moving through them, Kipling constantly reiterates the main message or history lesson of the poem. The hitherto inflexible King John is forced to grant what will eventually become an extraordinary flexibility to all of his people. The lyricism is appropriate for such a far-reaching bloodless victory, and so is the underlying note of threat that the newfound freedoms need constant protection if they are not to be lost.
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved