Published, without title, in Harper's Weekly in September 1899, and as the prelude to Stalky & Co. in the same month, and in subsequent editions of that collection, including The Complete Stalky & Co. (1929). Also, with the title "A School Song", collected in Songs from Books (1913) , Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.
This poem is Kipling’s hymn of praise to the masters of his old school, the United Services College (USC) at Westward Ho! in North Devon. See our notes on Stalky & Co. by Isabel Quigly and Roger Lancelyn Green.
The stirring verse-form and haunting language has great subtlety. Consider for instance the variation between lines 3 and 5 of the third verse:
And they beat on us with rodsChanging the order of two tiny words not only alters the rhythm, it changes the meaning too: beat on us makes “us” just the recipients of punishment, "beat us on" implies purpose in the beating, to drive “us” towards the goal of learning.
Some critical comments
Peter Keating writes:
Although the poem and the stories were written at roughly the same time, the retrospective mood of the poem and the immediacy of the stories creates a distance between them. It is a quite deliberate device on Kipling's part. The schoolboys, recreated imaginatively as they used to be twenty years earlier, are portrayed as rebellious, opposed to all forms of authority, subversive. "A School Song", chanted to a rhythm based on Longfellow's Hiawatha" by a chorus of those same schoolboys, who are now "old boys", is a celebration of imperial authority and service; "Save he serve no man may rule." The teachers, once a prime object of the boys' derision and practical jokes, have become revered for having instilled into the boys - by "beating" them "with rods", among other methods - the true values necessary for successful imperial rule.
“Let us now praise famous men” Ecclesiasticus 44.1. (Ecclesiasticus is one of the books in the Apocrypha, between the Old amd New Testements, in the King James' Bible) Here is the full passage, which clearly made a strong impression on Kipling:
1. Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.[Verse 2]
Twelve bleak houses by the shore USC was housed in a terrace of twelve interconnected houses, with the Headmaster’s house in the middle and a hall (which doubled as a gymnasium) at one end.
In 1948, the inscription “United Services College” was still very faintly legible on the left-hand house. A plaque honouring Kipling’s time there has recently been refurbished.
Seven summers by the shore Most boys would have spent seven years at USC. between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Kipling arrived in January 1878 (aged just twelve) and left for India in July 1882 at sixteen.
[Verse 3] they beat on us with rods corporal punishment was certainly a feature of the education at USC (and of education in English public schools generally until at least the 1950s) though probably less than is described in “Stalky & Co.” Kipling seems to have borne no malice. In “An English School” (Land and Sea Tales p. 268 line 6) he writes:
Canes, especially when they are brought down with a drawing stroke, sting like hornets; but they are a sound cure for certain offences; and a cut or two, given with no malice, but as a reminder, can correct and keep corrected a false quantity (an incorrect use of Latin) or a wandering mind, more completely than any amount of explanation.[Verse 4]
our bands the Old Boys of USC.
Hy-Brazil a mythical island in the Atlantic. With Troy and Babylon, it gives a sense of how widely “our bands” are scattered.
Islands of the Southern Run The East Indies ? Suggestions welcome!
Cathaia China – more usually 'Cathay'.
the Staff and chain surveyors’ instruments, used by Army Engineers. USC prepared boys for the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, as well as the Royal Military College Sandhurst for the Infantry and Cavalry.
mine in this context, a tunnel packed with explosives under an enemy fortification, to blow it up.
fuse the means of setting off the explosives in a mine.
grapnel a grappling-hook for climbing an enemy fortification.
Gifts of case and shrapnel two forms of artillery shell. Kipling is being ironic: the “gift” is war.
to serve the lands they rule See Kipling’s warning to the United States in "The White Man’s Burden”:
Go bind your sons to exile[Verse 12]
bays wreaths of honour
All the joys of their To-day 'Our masters, with one exception who lived outside, were unmarried.' (Something of Myself p. 31 line 5)
© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved